Farm to Glass: Why Sommeliers + Wine Directors Love Grower Champagne (and You Will, Too)

Grower Champagne

Small is big. These days it seems you can’t shake a stick — reclaimed from the fallen branch of your backyard tree — without hitting a thoughtfully crafted, local product. Online marketplaces like Etsy allow artists and artisans to create and sell their wares in limited batches. In the U.S., microbreweries are popping up at record rates while drinkers are eschewing macrobrewery offerings for the more uncommon beers in their own neighborhoods. At local farmers markets, we talk with the folks who grow our favorite apple, and we’re on a first-name basis with the cow that produces our milk. (Kidding about that last one, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility, right?)

The same is happening in France’s Champagne region. Grape growers, many who once sold the entirety of their grapes to large Champagne houses (think Moët & Chandon or Veuve Clicquot, among others) are now keeping all or a portion of their harvest to create their own wholly interesting, beautifully complex sparkling wines. Referred to as “grower Champagne,” it’s not a new practice, but it’s one that has gained popularity in recent years as consumers actively seek out a more artisanal product. There’s no need to wait for New Year’s Eve or your next big life milestone to raise a glass. Sommeliers and wine directors from some of the country’s top restaurants tell us: there’s so much to celebrate about grower Champagne.

Edouard Bourgeois, Sommelier, Ca Boulud, New York, New York
“When I started at Café Boulud, the wine list didn’t differentiate between grower Champagne and Champagne from houses. Being from this region of France, I felt it was important to promote the Champagne growers by showcasing them in their own category. (The difference between the two is simple, by the way: grower Champagnes are made by a producer who grows their own grapes and vinifies them into Champagne. They control the process from A to Z. On the other hand, Champagne houses are producers who own their land but buy grapes to feed their production.) I am constantly searching for the obscure, hidden gem wines to feature on my list, and there are many in Champagne with great personalities and a real sense of terroir.” Make a reservation at Café Boulud.

Grower Champagne

Alicia Kemper, General Manager and Wine Director, fundamental LA, Los Angeles, California
“I chose to include grower Champagne because I appreciate the pureness and thoughtfulness of the wine. These winemakers could easily sell their grapes to the big houses for more money, but instead, they choose to make something extremely complicated that could all be compromised due to unfortunate weather. Champagne from the big houses often lacks in many ways, whereas most grower Champagnes over-deliver, not only in taste but in quality and terroir as well.

My favorite grape in Champagne in Pinot Meunier. A lot of people would disagree, however, when it is done right, it is out of this world! I have one Pinot Meunier dominant wine on my list: Christophe Mignon (who comes from a long line of farmers in Le-Mesnil and makes wine that is super fresh, minerally, and has amazing texture).

Aside from the Mignon and Meunier, the Larmandier-Bernier Terre de Vertus is just next-level delicious. It is from a single vineyard and doesn’t have a drop of dosage, so the terroir really shines through. After being left on its lees for nearly a year, it undergoes battonage, which gives it richness and that oh-so-lovely texture.

In terms of pairings, I love pairing Champagne with something fried or weighty — especially burgers. A lot of times people are like ‘Whaaaat?’ but then they taste them together, and often, their minds are blown.” Make a reservation at fundamental LA.

Grower Champagne

Jackson Rohrbaugh, Assistant Wine Director, Canlis, Seattle, Washington
“We love grower Champagne at Canlis because there is a closer connection between the personality of the grower and the wine in the glass. Single vineyard wines take this concept to its fullest expression. The Jérôme Prévost La Closerie “Fac-Simile,” a Pinot Meunier rosé from the village of Gueux, is one of our most treasured bottles. It provides a refreshing, fruitful palate cleanse alongside chef Brady Williams’s Barley Porridge with geoduck and green strawberry.” Make a reservation at Canlis.

Grower Champagne

Melanie Kaman, Director of Wine & Beverage, Addison, San Diego, California
“For grower Champagne, what I have found is the products are more organic, they’re anywhere from a third to half the price of the large Maisons, and they’re a lot better quality. They’re smaller production, they’re really well made, and you’re supporting local. Even if it’s not local California or local New York, you’re supporting a family of growers, not a conglomerate. You’re getting these beautiful, finely crafted, small-production Champagnes for a lower price, and, in my opinion, a better quality than some of the large houses.

We have a beautiful tasting menu with 10 or 12 courses, and we feature a dish in a caviar tin; it’s a smoked salmon rillette, and it’s topped with golden Osetra caviar from Galilee Farms in Israel, served with a warm brioche toast on the side. I always pair it with Champagne. One of my favorites recently has been Paul Bara, their Brut Rosé, and then I also really like the 2007 Gaston Chiquet Brut.” Make a reservation at Addison.

Grower Champagne

Thomas Pastuszak, Wine Director, The Nomad, New York, New York
“Grower Champagne continues to be one of the most exciting categories of wine in the world: we’re talking about producers in the Champagne region who farm their family-owned land conscientiously and meticulously, grow incredible grapes from noble terroirs, and create their own, unique expressions of their villages through the wines they are making. It’s now taken on a site-specific excitement that wine lovers only used to be able to find in places like Burgundy, the Rhone Valley, or the Mosel, and these Champagnes are some of the most incredible food wines, whether to start the meal or to finish it. At NoMad, we regularly recommend drinking a variety of styles and producers throughout our guests’ meal: the grower Champagne category lets us do that and create some amazing pairings with chef Humm’s cuisine.” Make a reservation at The NoMad.

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Watch: How to Saber a Champagne Bottle

Want to make a splash on New Year’s Eve? Saber a bottle of bubbly. Nothing rings in a new year quite like Champagne, loud cheers, and the suggestion of a little danger.

We asked Johnny Slamon, sommelier at Alexander’s Steakhouse in San Francisco, to show us how to saber a Champagne bottle like a pro (and, of course, safely). Johnny worked at the Fifth Floor restaurant for five years before joining the opening team of Alexander’s, where he’s built what he calls an “aggressive” Champagne program.

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Worst Wine List Trends: #DinersChoice Award-Winning Sommeliers Speak

iStock_000022788693SmallThis week, we celebrated the 2014 Diners’ Choice Award winners for the Top 100 Wine Lists in America. Like snowflakes, no wine list is exactly like another. Each is a reflection of a sommelier’s unique perspective on the wines that will shine alongside a restaurant’s menu. Similar to menus, however, wine lists can fall prey to bad trends that diminish a diner’s experience. We asked this year’s award winners to share their thoughts on the worst wine list trends. Read on for their, ahem, juicy responses.

Lack of smaller pours. AIDA Bistro & Wine Bar proprietor Joe Barbera bristles at restaurants offering glass or bottles only with no option to try a taste with a two or three ounce pour, for example. “This also doesn’t provide the customer the ability to create their own flight.”

Too few wines by the glass. “For my personal taste, it is the lack of wine available by the glass. At Amelie, we offer more than 100 wines by the glass and we try to cover many terroirs, geographic areas, and various winemaking techniques. Our prices give our customers a chance to try new wines and see all the differences. Many wine lists have extensive options of wine by the bottle, but the high prices make it difficult for the guests to try these amazing wines. I think a wine list can be made with exceptional wines at affordable prices,” says Germain Michel of Amelie.

Showcasing only large production wines. “Everybody sells wine these days: Amazon, grocery stores, gas stations – you name it. And they all seem to be carrying the same mass-produced wines. This is the trend I am noticing in some restaurants. The wine lists are offering the same wines as a gas station. Maybe it’s because they think people will recognize the wine names,” says Tom Bush, retail wine manager, at Balaban’s.

Poor organization. As Dan Sachs of Bin 36 points out, “It’s difficult for typical diners to know how to navigate a wine list, and, often, lists can be organized by price or regions. While these may make sense from the restaurant’s perspective, if the diner is not familiar with, say, Italian reds, organizing the list by region is not very helpful. In the end, we want our guests to make a selection that will be enjoyed and enhance the rest of the dining experience – and it shouldn’t be stressful.  A wine list can be a tool to reduce or ramp up the stress level.”

Having a big list merely for the sake of having a big list. Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurant winemaker Rob Warren says, “The worst trend that I see is overcomplicating the wine list for the sake of having a big list. Most customers choose wine based on familiarity and price. It is important to have the popular varietals on the wine list, and even some more obscure ones, but within those varietals there are often too many choices at or near the same price point. Pick a $20, $40, and $60 Cabernet Sauvignon that go well with the food you produce. Do the same for the other varietals on your list, and your customers will be much less intimidated.”

High prices and low quality. Amer Hawatmeh, owner of Copia Restaurant and Wine Garden, isn’t a fan of wine lists that feature low quality and high price or high quality with even higher prices and limited choices. “We strive to resolve all of this at Copia by offering a great selection of more than 1,100 varieties of wine that represent the world, at retail prices.”

Tired wines by the glass. “Exploring wines by the glass is a great way to learn more about the endless world of wine. But one of the disturbing trends we see is that of restaurants offering only predictable wines by the glass,” says Domaine Hudson proprietor, Mike Ross. “We offer a range of distinctive wines by the glass. We take pride in helping patrons expand their horizons. Very often, these discoveries become customers’ bottle favorites.”

A lack of cohesion. Elaia wine director and advanced sommelier Andrey Ivanov states, “Too often I find a wine list without a sense of purpose or theme. Whether it is regional, style-driven, whatever the tie that binds, a list should tell a story. It is a look into the creative mind of the person who put it together: what they enjoy, what they are passionate about, and how they choose to communicate that passion to their guests. Guests rely on the beverage professional to guide them through the sometimes-nebulous world of wine; this is our craft, this is our passion, this is our contribution. At the end of the day, without proper context, it is still just rotten grape juice.”

Refusing to evolve. Matt Roberts, wine director for Eno Vino Wine Bar and Bistro, says, “There are wonderful, established wineries, wines, varietals, and producers that have stood the test of time because they are consistent with their quality and are a MUST to be represented on any wine list. One thing that we try to do at Eno Vino is not only have these constants represented on our list, but always save room and space for the unique, the ‘boutiquey,’ and the small producer. It’s essential to always keep your list revolving and evolving! It’s not necessary to change everything; switch a few things up here and there. There is no greater feeling than someone trying something new and loving it!”

Focusing solely on arcane wines. Fearrington House Restaurant wine director Maximilian Kast reveals, “I find it troubling that some wine buyers are creating lists that focus only on esoteric wines. Don’t get me wrong; I love esoteric wines, and we have them on our list, but when a guest comes in to your restaurant and does not recognize a single wine on your wine list, you have set an uncomfortable tone for their evening. Having a list which has some ‘mainstream’ wines from good producers balanced with some more esoteric wines will actually make guests more prone to choose the esoteric wines, because they feel like they have a choice, as opposed to having it forced upon them.”

Lists driven by wine sales reps. “I have seen that, at least in our area, a lot of restaurants pay very little attention to their wine lists and leave it to their ‘liquor’ sales rep — not even a wine sales rep — with total disregard to the link between food and wine, offering what the reps need to sell and not what would be best with the food they are preparing. You can find the very same wines in seafood restaurant, pizzerias, grill, and barbecue places. To us, wine is as important as food to make it a complete experience,” says Griffin Market owner Riccardo Bonino.

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OpenTable Reviews Reveal #DinersChoice Top 100 Wine Lists in America — with Slideshow

As we look forward to toasting the holidays in the coming months,we are pleased to honor the 2014 Diners’ Choice Award winners for the Top 100 Wine Lists in America. These awards reflect the combined opinions of more than 5 million restaurant reviews submitted by verified OpenTable diners for more than 20,000 restaurants in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Highlighting restaurants with deep-yet-accessible wine lists that include the affordable and the extravagant, the complete list of award winners spans 28 states and includes, Acquerello in San Francisco, Marche Bacchus in Las Vegas, and Vino Vino in Austin. While California, home to more than a thousand vineyards, has the greatest number of winners with 16, the list indicates that wine appreciation isn’t limited to the country’s wine-producing regions, with Ohio boasting 12 winners, followed by Illinois with nine, and Maryland with eight. Texas has six honorees, while Missouri, New York, and Virginia all have five; Michigan and Washington each have four. States with three winning restaurants apiece include Florida and Wisconsin. Colorado, Nebraska, North Carolina, and South Carolina, respectively, have two award winners. Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Hawaii, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, New Jersey, New Mexico, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee are also represented.

The Diners’ Choice Awards for the Top 100 Wine Lists in America are generated from more than 5 million restaurant reviews collected from verified OpenTable diners between October 1, 2013, and September 30, 2014. All restaurants with a minimum “overall” score and number of qualifying reviews were included for consideration. Qualifying restaurants were then scored and sorted according to the percentage of qualifying reviews for which “notable wine list” was selected as a special feature. The complete list may also be viewed at http://www.opentable.com/m/best-wine-list-restaurants-in-america/.

Did your favorite wine list win an award this year? Let us know here or over on Facebook!