In 1977, I traveled to France with two of my closest friends. One of them worked for his father’s liquor store in Tarzana, California. If you don’t already know, Tarzana is a well-to-do town in the Southwest San Fernando Valley section of Los Angeles. I’ll explain the importance of this in a moment.
While we were traveling by train throughout the country, we decided to visit Reims, which many consider to be the capital of the province of Champagne. As you can imagine there are many Champagne houses located here including Charles Heidsieck, Krug, G.H. Mumm, Piper-Heidsieck, Pommery, Louis Roederer and Taittinger. Having limited time, we decided to visit Mumm.
Upon arriving at the winery, my friend presented his business card to our tour guide, who upon seeing it, excused herself for a few moments and came back to the tour group with another person. This person turned out to be the Assistant Cellar Master for the winery and she requested that the three of us follow her. So we left the rest of the tour group behind and were then taken on a highly personalized tour of the winery. Every so often we would come across the rest of our old tour group and they would look at us like “Why are those three guys so special?” Indeed, why were we so special? All because of a business card from a liquor store in Tarzana? Apparently so.
At the end of the tour we were escorted back to the Cellar Masters office which was a very simple room with a couple of chairs and a desk. Our hostess brought in a chilled bottle of René Lalou which at the time was their “Tête de Cuvée” or Top of the Line. It was a beautiful fluted bottle that indicated it was something special, and indeed it was. I truly do not have the words to describe the sensations that I experienced with every drop of that perfection. It changed my life forever. Up to that time the best champagne I ever consumed was some decent inexpensive non-vintage stuff which I thought to be rather good. From that point on, it and all of its inexpensive ilk have been relegated to the trash heap of my mind. René Lalou ruined me and it ruined my wallet.
The three of us finished off the bottle by ourselves as our hostess was working and could therefore not join us. We found some of our old tour mates afterwords and found out that they each had a small sample of Cordon Rouge, another fine product of Mumms but it wasn’t Lalou, and it wasn’t two full glasses each. I remember that we stumbled out of Mumm with the empty bottle as a souvenir as well as a couple of ash trays that had the Cordon Rouge label affixed to them. I still have mine.
This became the beginning of my passion for champagne and other sparkling wines. When I moved to Northern California with my wife in 2002, we discovered that there are over 60 wineries near us that produce sparkling wine, some like Korbel, which can actually label it as California Champagne. Many of these wineries produce very good sparkling wines and some of them produce truly world class sparkling wines.