Star-Bulletin Features

Champagne glasses and caviar were arranged for a vertical tasting of Perrier Jouët (pronounce it PEAR-ee-ay JHWETT) Fleur de Champagne on Sunday. Being poured was a rosé champagne from 1995. The tasting was part of the Kapalua Wine & Food Festival.

Wine, women & bubbles

The 100th birthday of the "Flower Bottle"
is a good time to sing the praises of champagne

Women wend their way in the world of wine

By Betty Shimabukuro

KAPALUA, Maui >> When next you are tempted to equate champagne with snootiness, consider this: In France, motherland of this wine, a glass of bubbles is almost always served with potato chips.

Simple, salty, ordinary potato chips.

"Potato chips and champagne are the best -- you can't beat it," said Fred Dame, a master sommelier, the international designation for the ultimate in a wine expert. Dame, in fact, is the president of the Court of Master Sommeliers worldwide, a man who can have champagne in combination with the most elegant of the world's foods, and probably does.

His choice, though, is the humble chip, which he considers "America's great contribution" to the delicacies of the world.

The simple and the sublime thus were discussed in tandem Sunday at the Kapalua Wine & Food Festival, in a tasting event marking the centennial of Champagne Perrier Jouët's famed "Flower Bottle."

Anna Hahn of New York took in the scent of a sample of Perrier Jouët Fleur de Champagne.

In 1902 the glassmaker Emile Gallé was commissioned to design a bottle commemorating the Belle Epoche, that turn-of-the-century age of gaiety and artistic freedom. Although Gallé's classic design of white anemones was not released for 60 years (due to financial and technological problems), Perrier Jouët considers this to be the bottle's 100th birthday.

In celebration, a bit of history was made at the wine fest. Perrier Jouët Champagnes from six different years dating back to 1983 were tasted side-by-side. In the wine world this is called a "vertical tasting," and it is a rare opportunity when it involves even the most everyday of wines. With this exalted French champagne the tasting was unprecedented, even in the winery, according to Olivier Brun, Perrier Jouët's vineyard and research director.

The idea is to taste the way a wine evolves with age and how the grape-growing conditions of a given year affect what ends up in the bottle.

Potato chip appeal aside, the munchie served at this tasting was caviar. OK, the overall impression was way more sublime than simple. Early Perrier Jouët vintages are rarely even available in these parts. It is the 1995 "PJ" that is most widely sold, and even that "baby" of a wine goes for $90 to $100.

So, what's the point of blathering on about wonderful wines few of us can afford?

Because, as a panel of wine experts from across the country explained, to examine champagne from the high end is to understand its potential, even at value levels, if you choose right.

Lesson 1: If you've never much respected champagne, considering it fizz without flavor and tomorrow's headache-in-the-making, you've been drinking the wrong stuff.

Lesson 2: If you only drink it to make toasts at celebrations, you're missing out on this wine's ability to enhance a great variety of foods.

Seeking value?

In honor of New Year's 2002, the Star-Bulletin's wine columnists made these value suggestions for sparkling wines generally available in Hawaii:

Chandon Reserve Cuvee 495 ($18.99)
1994 Charles Brut Classique, Anderson Valley ($18)
2000 Moscato d'Asti, Tintero Elvio "Sori Gramela" ($17)
NV Charbaut, Epernay, Brut ($17.95)
Prosecco, Zardetto ($10)
1998 Michel Olivier, Blanquette de Limoux, Brut ($8.95)

Lesson 3: You're probably drinking it too cold.

Andrea Immer, emcee and coordinator for the Kapalua wine fest, said champagne is her favorite wine. "It's got extreme complexity and I really believe it is the last world-class wine that remains within the price range for ordinary people."

Great champagnes can be had for $25 or so -- not pennies, she admits, but much more affordable than a gold-plated French Bordeaux.

As for great food pairings, Immer's favorites are sushi and shellfish. Other panelists suggested all manner of seafood, but especially dishes made with light sauces; fried foods (fried chicken was specifically mentioned); smoked duck and game meats, especially with rosé champagnes (pink).

"With great champagne, the next day the glass still smells great," Immer said. "I can get by with the smell and not drink so much."

Scent, of course, adds to the appreciation of taste. So, what can you smell in that glass of Perrier Jouët? Citrus and tropical fruits, the panelists agreed, byproducts of the wine's clean acidity. Various nuances as the wines age: toasty scents, nuttiness, earth tones.

Andrea Immer discussed the virtues of Champagne on Sunday. Behind her is master sommelier Larry Stone.

As a glass sits and warms slightly, new scents emerge, Immer said, picking out as her benchmark the fragrance of mushroom consommé. "That's when I know I'm really in love with it."

Dame said the optimum temperature for champagne is 50 degrees, but that American restaurants have trained customers to expect it bone cold. This may be good for covering the flaws in cheap wines, but with fine (and expensive) vintages, the flavors can't bloom until the chill is off the glass.

Finally: Most wines with bubbles are meant to be consumed "young," or within a few years of bottling, which is also good for average consumers who don't have wine cellars and can't store wines for decades until they peak.

Still, luxury sparklers, such as Perrier Jouët, do improve with age. "Really old champagne is a lot of fun," Dame said. It doesn't always hold onto its effervescence, but shows great depth and flavor.

"I call it the distinguished gentleman."



Sommeliers Virginia Philips, left, and Alpana Singh spoke at the wine festival.

Women wend their way
in the world of wine

By Betty Shimabukuro

KAPALUA, Maui >> Being a woman in a man's world of wine has its advantages.

"If a girl is standing in front of a guy and saying a wine is very soft and sensuous and voluptuous, the guy will say, 'I'll take two bottles,'" said Alpana Singh, a woman who sells wine as sommelier for Everest restaurant in Chicago.

A joke, at least partially, from the trenches of the wine world, where women are carving out more and more positions of influence.

Andrea Immer trained restaurant staffs in wine service for Starwood Hotels & Resorts and later as cellarmaster at Windows on the World atop the World Trade Center. "I had to train waiters not to give the wine list to the oldest, most in-charge-looking guy."

Immer found that a woman in the dining room handling the wines was disarming to customers, less-threatening than a stern-looking guy in formal dress with a silver tasting cup hanging from his neck. She said she'd offer guests advice on their wine selections and, "they'd be, like, 'That nice lady from the next table came over to talk to us about wine.'"

The Kapalua Wine & Food Festival, held over the weekend on Maui's west side, honed in on the growing role of women in the wine industry.

Singh and Immer personify that growth. Singh passed the advanced sommelier course in 1988 at age 21, the youngest person ever to do so. The wine list she designed for Everest is renowned for its selection from the Alsace region of France.

Immer has achieved what will for Singh be the next step: the title of master sommelier, indicating passage of a grueling string of examinations by the industry's premier certifying body, the Master Court of Sommeliers. Just 51 people hold the title worldwide; 10 of them women.

Immer was also host and coordinator of the Kapalua festival and brought in two more women who wield power in the wine world -- Virginia Philip, chef-sommelier for The Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, Fla., and Karen King, sommelier for Union Square Cafe in New York -- for a seminar called "What Women Want."

(The answer to that, by the way, is "maximum cooperation from the men in their lives," Immer said.)

It may remain the case that men maintain much of the star power in these circles, but the influence of women cannot be ignored. For one thing, Immer said, they buy most of the wine, at supermarkets where they are the primary decision-makers about what a family eats and drinks.

But they are also making inroads at the high-profile levels of educators and writers, as the professionals in restaurants who decide what wines to buy and how to present them, and as winemakers.

For example, Cathy Corison, who produces her own Corison Cabernet Sauvignon from her winery in Napa Valley, Calif.

She entered the industry 27 years ago, fresh out of the University of California, Davis, with a master's degree in enology (winemaking). At the time, most of California winemaking was controlled by Italian families, she said -- "very European, vis-a-vis men and women. Men made the wine."

She began as a "cellar rat," doing the unglamorous work that needed to be done in a winery. But it was a time of great growth, the industry's first major expansion since Prohibition, Corison said.

By the mid- to late-'70s there simply weren't enough male Italians to meet the demand for new wines. It was a prime time to grab opportunity and attention, she said. "That was good if your wine was good and bad if it wasn't."

By 1987 she had released her own Cabernet.

Styling her wines, she says, is like finding the right approach as a woman in business. With both, there is a balance to be struck between subtlety and aggressiveness. "I love walking the knife-edge. The yin and yang. Power and elegance."

Or, perhaps, masculine/feminine. Singh plays on such tried-and-true descriptors in teaching people to appreciate various wine styles.

"Pinot Noir is elusive, very sultry, the Audrey Hepburn of grape varieties," she said. "Very fragile, yet very strong. Sexiness, but a lot left up to the imagination."

Cabernet Sauvignon is Katherine Hepburn. "Strong and assertive. You don't want to mess with her. ...

"Zinfandel is the party animal ... crazy hair, gets up on the bar and dances."

Madonna, someone else in the room suggests.

Yes, and Merlot is June Cleaver, "soft and round and very agreeable. Actually, it's more like Martha Stewart ... It can be very intense and tannic. It can have a dark side."

Finally, Syrah. That's Janeane Garofalo: "Always dressed in black, reading Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky. Not the one everyone gravitates to. It's more of the oddball."

The most important point in the discussion, Singh said, is that wine, for those who love it and make the attempt to understand it, excludes no one, especially as wine masters grow more approachable.

"Wine is gender-blind, color-blind, ethnicity-blind, age-blind. Its something everybody can participate in."

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