Sunday, August 22, 2010

Bubbles: Comme fanent les roses

Venez vite, je bois des étoiles !

Come quickly, I’m drinking stars!

-Dom Pérignon

Do you remember Miami Subs?

It’s 8 P.M. in Paris, which makes it 2 P.M. in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. If you changed the “P.M.” to an “A.M.” and rewound the clock ten years, we would all be twenty-one and in college at UNC. The bars would just be closing, and we might be hungry.

They do remember Miami Subs. Everyone who went to college in that town a decade ago does.

“They” are Addie and Burleigh, whom I have known since college, and Scott, whom I met a few months ago. Actually, Scott doesn’t remember it because he had his post-bar munchies in a college town in Michigan. We try to explain.

“The thing is," said Addie, “when you walked in, you actually felt like you were in Miami.”

Miami Subs was a pink and blue neon blaze of a fast-food joint that had more tacky charm than your typical late-night establishment. Rosy flamingoes and turquoise ocean waves beckoned you into a painted beach scene, a mural-mirage on the wall. Everything was fluorescent and flashing under a neon sun that didn’t set until 3 A.M.

Miami Subs served the usual five-dollar fast-food fare: bacon cheeseburgers, cokes, curly fries . . . but they also had pitas and key-lime pie, seafood platters, Philly cheese-steaks, a startling array of menu options for a clientele often too inebriated to sort through so many options.

There was one item on the menu that truly distinguished Miami Subs from every other franchise I’d frequented. Along with your cheese-steak or curly fries you could order, for the more sizable sum of 99 dollars, a bottle of Dom Pérignon.

I’d never seen anyone purchase any, but the temptation was there. The cool glass bottle beckoning through the glass refrigerator behind the cash register.

Last week, I took a day trip to Épernay, a quaint little town in the champagne region, famed for its caves. As you step out of the tourist office, you find yourself on the route de champagne, a yellow brick road of maisons de champagne which begin both literally and historically with Moët et Chandon, the first of the producers, founded in 1743. Moët et Chandon is where they make Dom Pérignon: there’s a statue of the legendary Benedictine monk out front.

I took the tour, which finished with a dégustation or tasting. I had decided to splurge and taste two vintage champagnes.

Sometime, our guide said at the end, you should try Dom Pérignon. Her face goes dreamy . . . C’est autre chose. It’s something else.

For a tasting, you have to make an appointment. They bring you into a private room for a lengthy lesson. Then, après l’effort, le réconfort. After the effort, the reward. All in all, it takes about an hour and a half and costs 70 euros.

À qui faut-il que je m’adresse ? Who do I need to talk to? . . . Maybe it was because it was before noon and I’d already had seven glasses of champagne that a 70-euro tasting seemed like a good idea. The man at the welcome desk rebuffed me.

Non. Aujourd’hui, c’est impossible.

“C’est impossible” is an expression that French people use fairly regularly. Most recently I’d heard it when I tried to move a chair around to the other side of the table at a café terrace. C’est impossible ! announced our waiter, swooping in and replacing the wicker chair to its original position. Il y a une loi.

A law? Really?

Oui. You couldn’t place chairs past a certain point on the sidewalk.

But the French also have another expression: Impossible n’est pas français. Impossible isn’t French. It isn’t American either. And as far as I was concerned, I was a little of both.

I ask the barman at the champagne café around the corner that also hosts tastings if he can hook me up. Non. He says they sell Dom Pérignon at a place down the street. He shakes his head and asks if I’ve ever tasted it. Of course not. He says it’s risky. Besides, there are very good champagnes for much less.

Je sais, je sais, c’est clair que c’est une histoire de marque, mais bon . . . il y a aussi une valeur symbolique. I shrug, gallically. Ça représente quelque chose pour moi.

Despite the fact that I’d make the statement so assertively, I wondered what I meant. What was the symbolic value? What exactly did it represent to me? The first answer that came to mind was “credit card debt.”

But the second answer was more like a line from a credit card commercial. Certain experiences, with certain people, at certain times, are priceless. You take opportunites when they’re presented, and you don’t ask a lot of questions or listen to the naysaying bartenders.

Fast-forward a few days from my visit to Épernay. My friends Addie, Burleigh, and Scott are sitting around a wooden table at my apartment before a spread of picnic pleasures.

Chorizo. Dark chocolate. Ripe cherries. Zucchini bread fait à la maison. A block of comté, the color of a daffodil. Fig-infused foie gras on pain d’épices. Cantelope wrapped in prosciutto. Smoked trout and baguette. Hazelnut brownies.

Do you remember Miami Subs? They do. We try to recreate Miami Subs for Scott.

Ten minutes later, Addie pauses . . . What made you bring this up?

I tell them the story of my day in Épernay, how I’d always wanted to taste Dom Pérignon, how I tried while I was there and they said no. And how it was a good thing that I’d been denied. Because if I had tasted it there, I wouldn’t have bought a bottle to share with them.

We abbreviate the lesson we would have received chez Moët et Chandon by reading the description in the booklet that came in the box.

Fresh, crystalline, and sharp, the first nose unveils an unusual dimension, an aquatic vegetal world with secret touches of white pepper and gardenia. The wine then reveals airy, gentle richness before exhaling peaty scents.

On the palette, the attack bursts forth, and matures into a sensual fullness that winds itself around, like a tendril of foliage. Notes of aniseed and dried ginger linger on the skin of the fruit (pear and mango), more textured than ripe. The finish gradually unfurls and then settles, smooth, mellow, all-encompassing.

We pour ourselves glasses, toast, and look pensive as we sip the first swallow.

Burleigh is the first to speak: “It tastes effervescent.”

We laugh, very hard. I imagine us sending the black and silver booklet back to Moët et Chandon with a suggested revision to Richard Geoffrey’s elaborate paragraph. I’d scratch through it with the silver Waterman pen Addie gave me earlier this summer and replace it with Burleigh’s single phrase: It tastes effervescent.

On me dit que nos vies ne valent pas grande chose

Elles passent en un instant, comme fanent les roses

They say our lives aren’t worth much

They pass in an instant, like roses wilt

It was a line from Carla Bruni’s song “Quelqu’un m’a dit,” that came out when she was just an heiress and supermodel, not yet first lady. A couple of years ago, when she passed up a glass of champagne at a state dinner, I had read that everyone immediately took it as a sign of pregnancy. Because, who, really, ever wanted to pass up champagne?

Life passes in an instant. So does champagne. What did it represent?

Dom Pérignon is aged ten years before it’s sold. You can save it for another ten, even longer in your home. But once you open it, you can sip and savor, but you can’t linger too long. You have to drink it before the fizz goes flat.

Venez vite, je bois des étoiles . . .

The first time I read his exclamation, I’d really only considered the second part . . . that image . . . champagne as a constellation, swirling and sparkling on the tongue.

But now I think of the beginning. Come quickly! I imagine the monk calling out to his 17th -century equivalents of Scott, Addie, and Burleigh.

He had wanted to share it, too.


  1. Hey Tara! Thanks so much for your post on our blog, we appreciate it! It sounds like you have had quite the amazing journey this past year! Your blog looks great, I will definitely be checking it out. I studied at LSU too, I have a bachelors in French. I absolutely love the language and can't wait to be immersed in that culture again. Hope you're enjoying the graduate program at LSU. Thanks for stopping by, come back anytime!

  2. I love, love, love, love, love this post. You have such an engaging writing style and bring so many things together in one post. My favorite part, of course, is the visit to and from Épernay and your quest for Dom Pérignon...and also, the "picnic pleasures" that followed. TALK ABOUT A SPREAD. Sounds so delicious and so priceless!