Lifestyle

Brut Strength

ImportsWinston Churchill

As I’m sitting in traffic on the 405, head- ing toward Orange County, I think to myself, Why am I doing this again? Oh, yeah, that’s right, I’m on my way to the Hi-Time Wine Cellars in Costa Mesa—where supposedly there is one of the greatest collections of champagne outside of Reims, France—to meet Jim Duane, the store’s champagne buyer, who, I hear, is more passionate about bubbly than Winston Churchill. Okay.

Not to disparage the O.C., but it’s not the most obvious location for the holy grail of champagne, which is one of the reasons I’m making the pilgrimage.

Jim Duane’s mission is to introduce the notion of champagne’s food friendliness. Instead of “bubbly that people only open twice a year” or for a special occasion, Duane wants to match champagne to food, just like a sommelier pairs the right wine with food. For example, instead of the classic flinty chablis, he suggests a champagne that would be perfect with oysters on the half shell. For your main-course holiday fare, such as turkey or goose, he suggests pinot noir–dominated champagnes like E. Barnaut’s Blanc de Noirs Grand Cru and the brut rosé from récoltant (more about récoltants in a minute) J. Lassalle. With the spicier cuisines of Southeast Asia and the Pacific Rim—fare that dominates so much of the SoCal food scene—a sweeter demi-sec or nectar to balance the heat, such as G.H. Mumm’s Joyesse.

Furthermore, Duane espouses champagne’s benefits, such as its low level of alcohol (most bottles containing less than 13 percent alcohol) and its effervescence, which serve the dual purposes of maintaining purity and cleanliness without the addition of sulfites.

He began his relationship with Hi-Time Wine Cellars and its owner, the Hanson family, in the late ’70s. After he left Hi-Time for the first time, he traveled the world, spent time in Japan, returned to the U.S., then worked at Hi-Time again and with other wine importers. One day in 1985, as he puts it, he “went to heaven” when he received a call from Schramsberg, California’s premier champagne maker.

It was at Schramsberg that Duane came to his understanding of champagne through the process, not the product. There he “cut his teeth” and “learned all that sparkling wine could be.” Schramsberg’s founders, Jack and Jamie Davies, were into “knocking the French off their pedestal” and setting the high-water mark for domestic bubbly by being the first Napa sparkler to use the same three grapes for champagne as the French: pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier. Over the next 10 years, the Davies would “inculcate” him in subtlety, Duane says with a laugh, subjecting him to mock blending trials, a laborious task that involves tasting as many as 50 tart and acidic-based wines in order to appreciate the intricacies of blending and to foresee the effects of the champagne method.

After his time at Schramsberg, Duane returned to Hi-Time for what he affectionately terms his “third tour of duty,” with the title of Sparkling and Fortified Wine Buyer. Duane was developing a passion for a still fairly new phenomenon in this country called grower champagnes—which the French call récoltants—made by the same people who own and nurture the grapes. By contrast, large champagne houses such as Veuve Clicquot or Moët & Chandon buy a large share of their grapes from many smaller growers. The earliest récoltant champagnes, which arrived on the West Coast in the ’70s, were made by Lassalle—like its ’73 vintage, courtesy of Berkeley importer Kermit Lynch. Duane says men like gutsy im-porters Lynch and Terry Theise “understood that champagne needed to go from a homogenous, industrialized entity to something more akin to burgundy.”

Duane has spent 13 years educating oenophiles that champagne, like any great still wine “can be a wine of terroir” with “intrigue and character.” In his mind, “knowing the topography of champagne and finding the guys that only use fruit from the best villages” is better than drinking the big labels that blend down grapes from good and bad regions alike.

Out of about 2,200 récoltant champagnes produced each year, only about 3 percent make it to the U.S. The good news, Duane says, is what does make it “tends to be the crème de la crème.” Récoltant bottlings comprise roughly 25 percent of Hi-Time’s total champagne sales, but from a quick stroll through the Champagne Room, it’s evident they hold pride of place in Duane’s heart. His trailblazing palate and earnest belief in consumer advocacy and education means his customers benefit with better, more compelling bubbly, more often than not at a lower price.

What continues to fuel Jim Duane’s passion is educating and enlightening others in what he calls champagne’s odd “juxtaposition of contrasts.” He is fascinated and intrigued that the most enjoyed and enjoyable wine in the world is also the least understood. How one person might savor every sip while another might shake the bottle and spray it everywhere delights him. And the possibility of a small grower’s underdog of a champagne outshining a well-marketed bubbly behemoth—and doing so at half the price—invigorates him. That it can offer “age and freshness...delicacy and richness...finesse and opulence, that’s what makes champagne great!” Cheers!

BARFLY

WILD HIBISCUS FLOWER CHAMPAGNE COCKTAIL

Holiday entertaining calls for special libations, and this festive cocktail is both delicious and easy. Start with a jar of Wild Hibiscus Flowers in Syrup (available at wildhibiscus.com). For each cocktail, place one of the hibiscus flowers into a champagne flute, drizzle in a teaspoon of the syrup and add in your bubbly.

As you pour in the champagne and fizz rises, the flower expands. But the thrill is not just visual—the flower and syrup infuse the drink with a wonderful rhubarb-berry essence. After your guests have finished their drinks, they can eat the flower or pour in more champagne.

—Lora Zarubin

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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