We had an appointment to visit Perrier-Jouët, a maison de Champagne founded in 1811 in Épernay that has passed through many hands since, including Seagram's.
We had another reason to choose Perrier-Jouët. The company owns an extraordinary jewel: the Maison Belle Epoque, a private house decorated in the Art Nouveau style. The house, a block from the winery on the Avenue de Champagne, boasts a unique collection of furniture, doors, curtains, tapestries, paintings and objets d'art by such masters as Louis Majorelle, Emile Gallé, Antonin Daum, Hector Guimard and René Lalique.
Perrier-Jouët reserves the house for guests and clients, but a visit with lunch can be arranged with a complete tour for $380 per person for groups of at least eight.
We were guided through this beautifully restored house and its masterpieces by Sandrine Cavazzini, who also gave us a comprehensive tour of the winery and cellars and introduced us to some of Champagne's secrets.
The appellation is zealously protected by the powerful Comité Interprofessionnel des Vins de Champagne through bilateral international agreements and hundreds of lawsuits. The committee pulls out all the stops to ensure that other regions or producers of sparkling wine do not call its drink Champagne, even if it has been made in the traditional method.
The committee is Champagne's high priest, keeping Champagne on its throne by establishing strict rules and enforcing rigorous control of the growing and production cycles and harvest schedules and fixing annual grape production quotas; this year it is limited to 28,650 pounds for every 2 1/2 acres.
It allows no irrigation of the fields and prohibits mechanized grape-picking to ensure tradition and natural selection. The committee also controls the appellations and the amount of time — a minimum of 15 months — that the bottles are stored in the cellars before they are sold.
Later that day, at the Prévoteau-Perrier winery, a small operation in Damery, I learned that although they grumble about such strict supervision, the producers appreciate the rules, because they help keep Champagne prices high.
"With such strict control, there is no overproduction," said Patrice Prévoteau, owner with his wife, Claude, of the Prévoteau-Perrier winery. "We cannot surpass the quotas, even if we have a very good harvest. They are established according to the demand."
Icalled the Prévoteaus that morning to make an appointment to visit their winery, and we were invited for a drink at 6 p.m., "après le bulot" — after work. (At the time, they did not know I was a journalist, though they learned that during our visit.) They showed us into their home office. Claude brought in appetizers, and we tasted the darling of their wines, the Adrienne Lecouvreur Champagne, named in honor of an 18th century dramatic actress, a star of the Comédie-Française, Voltaire's lover and a native of Damery. The Prévoteaus bought the house she had owned and the commercial rights to her name.
They were welcoming and charming. Flutes of Champagne in hand, we toured their operation and learned about their family history, business, harvest and process.
Like many midsize and smaller Champagne producers, the Prévoteaus run a family business, now in its fifth generation. Patrice, a barrel-chested man in his 50s with a booming voice and contagious laugh, and all the family members work in the cellars and vineyards. The production from their 37 acres is sold out year after year, mostly in France. "We have no prospects of growing because there is no more space," Claude said.
Because of the committee's restrictions on expansion, many big Champagne makers bought wineries in Napa Valley and produce sparkling wine made in accordance with the Champagne region's method, known as méthode champenoise.
"Legally they cannot produce Champagne there, but they make crémant and use the traditional method and labels similar to those of the Champagne they make in France," Patrice said.
"In the U.S. they can plant wherever they want. They can irrigate. There are no quotas or limits about when or how much to bottle," he added wistfully, as he recalled the couple's Napa Valley vacation 15 years ago. "When they learned that we were Champagne makers, they treated us like kings."
A fitting reception for a man who makes the king of wines.