Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in the Winter Issue of Life & Thyme.
It’s the last day of 2013, and I’m in a house in the Echo Park hills. The windows are opened to the night air and the sounds of the glimmering Los Angeles below drift in, whispering in the corner while we all mingle, laugh and drink copiously. The fireworks have been going off for days already, but now we see more and more below gathering momentum, illegal red and gold explosions that fade into the night.
We all gather into the living room a minute before midnight and grab a glass of champagne; I don’t know who hands it to me, but I take it. I look around the room: my friends are dressed in suits and shimmering dresses. Balloons congregate overhead and empty glasses and bottles litter every available inch of counter and shelf space. We all begin the countdown as someone turns down the music’s volume.
10, 9, 8, 7, 6…
We smile giddily, involuntary. We’re eager to ring out the old year and welcome in the new. And here we are on the cusp, both waving goodbye and saying hello. We gather close to those we love, whether friends, significant others or those we wish were something more. The electricity and anticipation in the air is tangible.
5, 4, 3, 2, 1…
And it’s the New Year. Glasses of champagne are raised and clinked. Kisses are liberally shared, friends are embraced, and everyone is smiling and ready for what’s to come. But first: more champagne.
It’s New Year’s Eve 2012. I just started a new job at a music venue, and my boss is hosting a party at his home in Hancock Park. I decide to go with a coworker, someone I’ve recently bonded with. This is the first time I visit her apartment, and the lobby is still decorated for the holidays with a tree adorning lights and ornaments. And as I knock on her door she opens wearing a floor-length mauve skirt with a glass of sparkling wine in her hand. “Champagne?” she asks as I gladly accept.
When we finally make our way the few blocks to the party, I’m filled with nervousness and excitement. This is the first time I’m seeing most of these people outside of work, and there are a lot of them. Musicians are there whose records I had played over and over just a few years prior. Regular staples in the music scene, and new faces float around. And there is, of course, the guy I hope will kiss me at midnight. A silly crush, but I’m hopeful nonetheless.
As the countdown looms, a waitress passes trays of golden champagne. We each grab a flute and at the stroke of midnight, we all raise our glasses, exclaim happy New Year and kiss those closest to us. My eyes search around the room. There he is. My crush walks over to me and in the midst of the bustle purposefully kisses me, the one and only time that happens.
I contently sip my champagne, blushing. And while I stand solidly—albeit with slightly blurred vision—in 2013, centuries prior Napoleon Bonaparte was paving the way for this moment.
“The real history of champagne as the drink of celebration begins with the Napoleonic Wars, when competing armies captured local supplies and used it to celebrate their victories,” Tilar K. Mazzeo, author of The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It, explains to me. “When the wars were over, they took home with them around Europe and as far as Russia a love of champagne and a tradition of celebrating with it.”
She continues, “Champagne was always the drink of royals, before the rest of us were able to enjoy it, and that lends it immediate glamor.”
When I spoke with Ariel Arce, the champagne sommelier and beverage director at Birds & Bubbles—a restaurant owned by Executive Chef Sarah Simmons—she chimed in about champagne’s celebratory connotations.
“It’s very uplifting, it’s very elevating, and it’s tantalizing,” Arce says. “At the same time, the thing people miss about champagne is it comes from a region of real devastation, a region of war, a region of suffering. And we associate it with bubbles and celebration and the allure of that because that was a marketing technique that was used for this wine when everybody said the wines out of Champagne were shit … There were a lot of great quotes from a lot of really powerful people saying how good it made them feel. Something that makes you feel good is something you want when you’re celebrating.”
Although not popularized until the 19th century, the drink paved the way for today’s societal association with it and the celebratory glamor of New Year’s Eve. “From the beginning, champagne was always the drink of celebration for the lucky few,” says Mazzeo in her book on the Widow Clicquot of the era of King Louis XIV, who wanted champagne at Versailles, a preference that was later carried on by King Louis XV. “The average person on the street never dreamed of tasting it. Only the richest of the rich knew its sensuous appeal.”
About champagne’s inception—whose controversial history is notoriously debated—Mazzeo explains, “The most recent research suggests the English were the ones who actually ‘discovered’ champagne as a commercial product, a decade or two before the French. French winemakers like Dom Pérignon knew, of course, that the local cool-climate wine had a tendency to re-ferment come spring, resulting in fizzy wine, but he was looking for ways to stop what he saw as a wine-making problem.”
In a Benedictine abbey in the village of Hautvillers, Dom Pérignon happened upon a happy accident in trying to stop wine from fizzing. It was ruining their trade in still wines, and there wasn’t yet a demand for sparkling wine. “The English, when they had the same problem, used the local history of cider making and turned sparkling French wine from the Champagne into a new fashion. And, of course, once the market opened up the French immediately perfected the technique,” says Mazzeo.
Rather than being left to ruin, champagne was given a second chance at life. It was given a chance to take ownership in its distinguishing mistake. It became the wine of excess, romance and salvation. It became the wine of seeing what’s possible in the midst of a storm.
But it was Madame Barbe-Nicole Clicquot—of the iconic yellow-labeled Veuve Clicquot brand—who invented the process of riddling. “It was that insight—still an essential feature of champagne production—that allowed an artisanal luxury product to be produced in larger quantities, enough for the middle-class market,” says Mazzeo. “It is Madame Clicquot we really have to thank when we lift a glass today.”
It’s New Year’s Eve 2011, and I’m at a friend’s house in the suburban hills. I’m surrounded by a small group of close friends. We’re nearing midnight and someone is in the kitchen popping the cork off—or trying to—a bottle of champagne. We experienced a year of collective creative productivity, but there was a sense of change looming in the air. I felt restless and had just left a job, thus changing career paths unexpectedly. I was in the throes of heartbreak and feeling confused; it was one of those years where the moment you stop moving, you have to face the truth, and I hadn’t been ready. And here I was, sitting for what felt like the first time in months, pausing and taking stock of who I was and how I felt.
I was happy to be there, but I wasn’t standing on stable ground. I was ready to start a new year, to turn my back on a story that was unfolding despite me trying my damnedest to write another chapter. The year 2012 started with a room filled with laughter and levity that I desperately needed. I meekly sipped my champagne scanning the room filled with friends who provided me with a new purpose, and I was itching for what was next.
I think about Madame Clicquot—a woman who was widowed at 27, the age I am now—who revived a dying industry her husband so passionately abandoned his trade in textiles to pursue. I think about what champagne means. Not just metaphysically, but technically. Firstly: we can only call champagne “champagne” if it comes from the region of, well, Champagne.
In The Widow Clicquot, Mazzeo explains, “The rigid rules for controlling how wines are labeled in France, a system known as the AOC, or appellation d’origine contrôlée, today ensures that prestigious winemaking areas like the Champagne have a geographic monopoly on certain words.” Similar to this, the Italian DOC (denominazione di origine controllata) stipulates which sparkling wines qualify as prosecco, for example. And although “champagne” is often used as an umbrella term, other sparkling wines such as prosecco, cava and crémant aren’t exactly the same.
Arce explains, “It’s not just about the region, it’s what is in the land in that region. During the Cretaceous Period, there was a huge sediment remain that was left in that area north of Paris and right above Burgundy. This is a range of pure chalk and limestone. And all of that remain from this period has elevated the land of Champagne, and that is what gives it such a specific quality.” Of course there are other places on the globe that have a similar terroir—a region in Virginia near Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in Charlottesville, for example, where people are making sparkling wine—but regionality is only one aspect of what qualifies a wine to be labeled champagne.
More than anything, the act of celebrating New Year’s Eve makes you evaluate time, and the passing of it. Much like the second rule of the AOC, the méthode traditionnelle (traditional method), takes time to develop how a wine will carbonate, all our collective experiences come together to create who we ultimately become.
“Champagne also goes through two fermentations. The first fermentation will happen in barrels or tanks or concrete—there are so many different methods. The second fermentation happens in a bottle. That’s when they add yeast into the bottle. The sugars eat away at that yeast and create carbonation or effervescence in the bottles of wine,” explains Arce. There is also an aging law that stipulates how long a wine has to rest after its yeast has been removed from a bottle, as well as restrictions for how long you can harvest for.
“There’s a lot of different ways to make sparkling wine, and they’re all very technical, and most of them have more to do with process than the actual land itself,” says Arce. “There are also a lot of wine regions that make wine in the style of champagne, and that’s called méthode champenoise. The only thing they’re doing differently is not having the grapes from Champagne.” Sure, they might be growing pinot noir and chardonnay—the two grapes used in champagne—but the wine is not from Champagne, so they can’t call it that.
As we’re closing out the year, I’m uncertain of what my plans for New Year’s Eve will be. I try to avoid making overarching resolutions, but I do take an analysis of what I’ve accomplished. So far this year? I’ve grown closer to friends and I’ve taken more risks than ever before. As midnight strikes, all I know is I’ll have a glass of champagne in my hand. And if champagne is the drink of second chances, toasting with it will help us with our own second chances as well.