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I'm looking for a champagne...

During my time working as a sales rep in Mobile, Alabama, part of my job was to help customers in my accounts find the wine they were looking for. I worked for the off-premise chain division, which meant I was servicing chain grocery stores. Some of the accounts, such as Publix and Rouses carried more "fine wine," but many accounts rarely carried anything over $30. Naturally, the expertise and familiarity of the customer base with wine varied, but for the most part the customers were looking for something "cheap and cheerful" as the wine stewardess at my Publix would say.

It certainly isn't the customer's job to be an expert in wine; if it were, then wine professionals would be faced with an existential crisis. Yet, since the pandemic, people are drinking more, and they are drinking more informatively, which means they are eager to learn. One of my pet peeves (other than people saying Eragon when they mean Aragorn), is when people ask for champagne, port, or sherry but have in mind Cooks, Andre, and Taylor's. I imagine this to be a pet peeve for many a wine professional. At first, this may seem to be just another case of wine-snobbery, a chance for the wine guru to one-up and condescend the poor shopper who just wanted to buy a $6 bottle of André to have mimosas with his Sunday brunch without recourse to a lecture. But to one who has spent half his or her life dedicated to learning about the intricacies of terroir and why one grape variety does well in this site, but not at another, and why the same grape planted in two different sites can produce two very distinct wines, it is an issue very close to the heart. If terroir (location, location, location) is just a myth, then we wine professionals are better to just pack up our decanters and cork screws and find a different path in life.

It isn't just in the world of wine where this problem exists either. Just think of Waygu beef, jambon iberico, prosciutto di parma, parmigiano reggiano--these are all categories of food that are legally protected by law. Try BelGioiso Parmesan and parmigiano reggiano next to each other and you can taste the difference. Why? Well, for starters one is made in Wisconsin and the other in Italy. This isn't to say that Wisconsin doesn't know what's it's doing when it comes to cheese; I spent 6 years there and can vouch that they make some top-class cheese (and cheese curds, yum!). However, you won't find parmigiano reggiano made there. The entire PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) scheme in Europe is the legal foundation for this belief. Unfortunately, the US doesn't always abide by these laws. Hence, producers in the US can play off the popularity of these items and label their products accordingly. It's legal fraud, in short.

My mother-in-law is visiting Portugal soon. She is using Duolingo to learn Portuguese and enjoying some Port before she goes. When her interest in Port wine began, she went out to the store to grab a bottle and inevitably came back with a bottle of Taylor's Ruby Port. And why not? It says Port on the bottle, and it's a good price. Well, I had to break it to her that that isn't real Port--fortified wine from the Duoro Valley using native Portuguese grapes such as Tinta Roriz and Touriga Nacional...sigh...I don't want to bash Taylor's products as inferior. I just wish they used labels that didn't confuse budding wine enthusiasts. I buy their "Dry Sherry," both for cooking and sipping, which I refer to as having my glass of "sherry-like" wine. It does in a pinch when I can't get the real deal from Spain, which is difficult (but not impossible) to find in south Mississippi.

So, back to the champagne dilemma. When customers asked me for a champagne recommendation or simply "Where is the champagne?," my first question was "Do you mean champagne from Champagne, France or are you just looking for a sparkling wine?" Most often the response was, "What's the difference?" or "I'm just looking for something cheap..." "Okay," I thought, "So not champagne..." Unless they were looking for the cheapest sparkler available, I would usually lead them to the Prosecco and Cava section of the wine set and recommend solid choices such as La Marca, Ruffino, and Freixenet. A subtle lesson in PDO for wine and everyone leaves happy. (Whether they remember the lesson is another thing entirely...) Prosecco is great, Cava is wonderful. My wife and I served Freixenet Cordon Negro at our wedding and I always grabbed a bottle to ring in the New Year when I was younger and couldn't afford champagne. We also visited Barcelona two years ago and visited Cava region, so I have a very special place in my heart for Cava. It's delicious, undervalued, and probably the best alternative to champagne in terms of quality to price ratio. Just don't call it "champagne".

For some reason, precision of language comes off as snobbery with wine, but not so much for other products. If I go to the butcher and ask for filet mignon, I should be expecting to spend $30/lb on the product. When the butcher hands me the filet, my reaction isn't going to be, "Oh no, not that filet mignon, the cheap kind..." Okay, it's not a perfect metaphor, but my point is that we shouldn't be afraid to use precise language and expect precise language when purchasing wine. Granted, wine and the laws surrounding them are complicated. Thankfully, that is why we have wine professionals, stewards, sommeliers, and sales reps, to guide us through the maze. You don't have to understand the intricacies of terroir, clonal selection, AOC regulations, and all the steps of the champagne method of production to buy and enjoy champagne. (If you want to, more blog posts to come!) But is it that hard to ask for bubbly, sparkling wine, Cava, Prosecco, if that's what you want? Just say bubbly, and you've got all the options before you! It's up to the wine professional now to narrow down your search based on your palate preferences and budget. Champagne (and sparkling wine) sales are booming. People are drinking more and more sparkling wine, and it's high time we say what we mean and mean what we say! It's not just to protect champagne. By calling Cava, Prosecco, and California bubbly "champagne" we diminish the uniqueness and individuality of these products as well. Many California sparkling wineries are run by French Champagne Houses. Their goal isn't to reproduce champagne in California, but to use their expertise to create a new product--unique and expressive of its origins. So, go out and grab a bottle of your favorite bubbly--and enjoy the fact that its grapes and origins make it into something special.

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