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Take Care Not to Pop Your Cork While Opening Champagne Bottle

Times Wine Writer

At those familiar television commercials for Champagne that show a cork flying out of a bottle, complete with a resounding “pop!” and applause from the assembled, I flinch.

That’s because the pressure buildup inside a bottle of sparkling wine can send a Champagne cork flying with enough force to shatter a crystal chandelier--or an eye. So I never allow the cork to go flying.

Opening Champagne requires a degree of skill that features great caution, so here are a few tips that will make your partying a lot safer.

Before you touch the wire that holds down the cork, carefully remove the foil capsule from the bottle. The foil is not intended to hold in the cork, so loosening the wire before removing the capsule is dangerous.

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Make sure the bottle is pointed away from all people and objects that could be damaged in case the cork pops loose before you intend. Even before loosening the wire, place a finger or thumb over the top of the cork and press down.

While the cork is secure, carefully loosen the wire and remove it, if possible. Take a towel or other soft object (I use a glove potholder) and place it over the bottle, to get a firmer grip on the cork, and to cushion it should it slip out of your grasp.

Slowly twist either the bottle or the cork, making sure your hand never lets go of the cork. This is particularly true for the plastic corks that are used in cheaper Champagnes. They may not be secured into the neck of the bottle as well as real cork, and may fly away at the slightest touch.

If the cork is stubborn and refuses to budge, get a pair of pliers, and with the cork still covered by the towel or glove, clamp the pliers to the cork (don’t accidentally grab the bottle!) and twist slowly.

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A number of marvelous gadgets are made to help getting a cork out of a Champagne bottle, and my favorite, the Champagne key, is a heavy metal object with prongs that grab the cork firmly.

A final suggestion. When feasible, open Champagne bottles over the kitchen sink. Champagne can foam out of the neck of the bottle.

Monty’s Steakhouse, the Encino restaurant that featured an exceptional wine list, lost about 40% of it in a fire a month ago, including three bottles of the famed 1931 Quinta do Noval port, one of the greatest ports ever produced.

A bottle of 1931 Quinta do Noval port today has a suggested retail price of $1,050.

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Monty’s owner Larry Levine said an insurance company has already paid a claim of $93,000, the wholesale value of the wine, and placed the wines with a wholesale distributor in Southern California. Levine said some of the wines were spoiled by the heat and some merely had labels that were water-damaged.

Among the other wine lost was the majority of an older Bordeaux collection, including wines from the excellent 1970, 1975 and 1978 vintages; a range of white Bordeaux; a few bottles of 1971 Chateau d’Yquem, and a collection of Chateau Petrus from 1974 through ’78.

Levine said, however, that his entire collection of white Burgundies, California Chardonnays and Italian wines were behind a steel door and not affected by the fire. That wine will form the basis of the wine list when Monty’s San Fernando Valley restaurant reopens.

Levine said he wasn’t sure when Monty’s would reopen, or even to where the restaurant would be moved. He said he had been contemplating a move to a new location before the fire.

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Syar Industries of Napa has bought 650 acres of Sonoma County vineyard land from Klein Foods of Stockton, the company that bought Sonoma Vineyards in early November.

C. M. Syar, president and owner of Syar Industries, confirmed that as part of the sale of Sonoma Vineyards by Guinness America to Klein, out of the same escrow, Syar acquired 650 acres of vineyard land planted with premium grape varieties.

The vineyard straddles the Russian River in the Windsor area, said Syar, who also owns about 200 acres of vineyard land adjacent to his new acquisition. In the past, Syar has sold grapes to nearby Korbel, among other wineries.

Syar Industries also owns approximately 13 miles of riverfront land on the Russian River that is used for the company’s gravel business.

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Syar said he had no plans to produce a wine under the Syar Vineyards brand, but he intends to sell grapes to Klein’s new winery in Windsor and hopes the Syar Vineyards designation would be used on a wine from Sonoma Vineyards.

Zaca Mesa Winery, which went through financial problems over the last few years, has come out of it with a flourish.

Founded in 1978 by a limited partnership of investors, the winery hired Ken Brown as its wine maker and by 1982 was the shining star of Central Coast wineries. Brown made great Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs and Cabernet Sauvignons off the winery’s 240 acres of vineyards, and sales were booming.

But financial difficulties and marketing problems ensued. One cause was internal strife, about which few insiders comment. Things deteriorated further when Brown left to go into business for himself, forming Byron Vineyard and Winery in Santa Maria. (Today, Byron is one of the finest wineries in the state, making excellent wines from the same three varieties that Brown achieved success with at Zaca Mesa.)

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By 1986, it was clear, Zaca Mesa was in need of changes that money could buy, but the investors were not prepared to contribute further.

At that point, John Cushman III, Los Angeles-based real estate entrepreneur who had been one of the original minority partners in the project, leaped in. He began acquiring outstanding shares of company stock until he controlled it. He hired Gale Sysock as head wine maker, added a sophisticated marketing team, bought needed equipment, and told Sysock, “In five years, I want to be one of the finest wineries in the business.”

Considering the strides Sysock has made, it may not take that long.

A quick run through the winery’s products recently proved enlightening. Zaca Mesa has rapidly moved back onto the track Brown had it on before he left.

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Best wines in the line are a delightful 1986 Reserve Pinot Noir and 1986 Reserve Chardonnay, both $15.

The former wine has a load of cherryish fruit and a light leafy note that has only a trace of the vegetal character that often is found in Central Coast Pinot Noirs. There is plenty of richness in the background and a long finish. The Chardonnay has a slight onion-skin complexity woven around lemony and steely elements.

There have been some excellent Zaca Mesa wines from earlier vintages, but the winery gained little public recognition for them, the wines sold erratically, and some remain on store shelves at discounted prices far below their true value.

Unreleased wines are also exciting. They’re the subject for later evaluation.

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