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by Jerry D. Mead

Buy your Champagne and sparkling wine now...for the year 2000! You heard me, if you're planning any kind of large celebration for Y2K, then you'd do well to buy your bubbles right now.

Some experts (usually those with Champagne or sparkling wine to sell) are actually predicting shortages of upscale, bottle-fermented, effervescent wines.

I'm not really buying into the shortage theory, but a couple of things are pretty obvious to anyone with an even remotely clear crystal ball.

Easy prediction No. 1: More sparkling wine will be sold and consumed in the year 1999, culminating with New Years Eve, than has before been consumed in history.

Easy prediction No. 2: Champagnes and sparkling wines of all kinds (except the really inexpensive bulk process stuff selling for $4 to $7) will never cost less than they cost right now, until January 2, 2001.

Let me explain. Traditionally, more bubbly wine is sold in December than is sold the entire rest of the year, so that's when all the deals are available. Producers and wholesalers give retailers special prices to ensure that their brands are featured. To be able to sell all the bottles possible, retailers and discounters pass those savings on to consumers.

An example of what's happening right now is the way Moet's high end product Dom Perignon is being footballed. The suggested retail price for this famous Champagne (takes a capital "C" because Champagne is a place like Roquefort or Bordeaux) is more than $120 per bottle and small retailers have trouble even getting any. And if they do, their wholesale price is more than $80 per unit. Meanwhile deep discounters like Costco have the product floor-stacked at prices below base wholesale and one large West Coast supermarket chain has DP in its ads for $69.95.

As a quirky little side note, the laws of most states require small retailers and restaurants to buy their wine from wholesalers, even though they could buy it cheaper from a large retailer. Not only does this mean higher prices for consumers, but no business should be forced by law to buy its goods at a higher than necessary cost.

This being a normal holiday season, the seasonal bargains and discounts continue to be available. But 1999 will not be normal and few if any discounts on the most famous brands will be available this time next year.

And while you'd think the prices would drop on Jan 2, 2000, they won't. Here's why:

Easy prediction No. 3: One minute after midnight on January 1, 2000, the hype will begin that the real millennium is the next year when we're really beginning the first of the next thousand years. So the trade will milk this thing for two years instead of one.

That's why if your planning large parties (including weddings and anniversaries in the coming two years) and plan to serve high quality bubblies, you can save a bundle if you buy right now. And yes, any good sparkling wine will be just fine for a year or two, with even reasonably good storage.


A few words about sparkling wine terminology, what it is and how it's made.

The most frequently asked question on the subject is, "What's the difference between Champagne and sparkling wine?"

The French will tell you that Champagne is a place, a growing region about an hour and a half northeast of Paris, with stringent rules on grape varieties permitted as well as on the technique employed to create the bubbles. If it's made in France and says Champagne it does indeed come from that place. Other French sparkling wines cannot call themselves Champagne.

But what I call "lower case" champagne is a perfectly legal semi-generic name in the United States, Canada and a few other places. To use the name here it must be preceded by a geographic qualifier as in "California Champagne" or "New York State Champagne."

Most of the really inexpensive bubblies from California call themselves champagne as an image enhancer, but then highly regarded and relatively expensive products such as Schramsberg and Korbel call their products champagne also. While it is true that many California producers have ceased using the champagne name and just call themselves sparkling wine, it's also true that many of them are owned by French companies.

In the end, there's both wonderful and mediocre Champagne, but the same can be said for champagne and sparkling wine. It's what's in the bottle that counts.

Brut...Sparkling wines with a dry or nearly dry perception. "Dry" is the absence of sweetness.

Extra Dry...Very confusing. "Extra Dry" is not really very dry at all, and is always less dry (more sweet) than the Brut wine of a given producer.

Methode Champenoise...Sparkling wines get their bubbles differently than other carbonated beverages. The CO2 is not pumped in, but is the result of a natural second fermentation that takes place inside the bottle.

Charmat Process...Also called "Bulk Process," is also a natural secondary fermentation, except it takes place in a large tank rather than the individual bottle.

Wine of the Week

"J" (by Jordan) 1994 "Sonoma County" ($28) I suppose it could be considered arrogant, but "J" doesn't call itself "Brut" or sparkling or anything else. It is simply "J," as identified by the simple large, brush-stroke look letter in gold on the stylish custom made bottle. It's a blend of nearly equal portions of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (the two premium grapes of the Champagne region) and for the past several years has been one of America's best bubblies, racking up gold medals, trophies and sweepstakes awards. It reminds of the French with its full bodied, creamy, toasty complexity, but it is at once lively and delicate with extremely fine carbonation. It is crisp without being acidic and while it is dry enough to accompany hors d'oeuvres, appetizers and even main courses, it is also round enough to indulge the second or third toast to the New Year or a new bride. Rating: 98/88

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