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My Life in Bubbles

By Don Clemens

I can’t help it. Whenever the Winter Holidays approach, I begin to really crave wines that are loaded with bubbles. It’s not that I don’t like them during the other seasons, but there is just something about bubbly and the ending of another year that makes me feel somewhat like the Roman god, Janus. I find myself looking both backward to the past and forward to the future. (If THIS year, 2020, doesn’t make you want to look forward to the future, I’d like to have some of whatever you’re having...)

In my fairly long career in the world of wine, I have found myself somehow inexorably mixed up with bubbly wines. As a retail liquor store manager, it meant that as the Holidays approached, I had to decide which bubblies to stack and promote. In those days, there wasn’t much American bubbly to get excited about. It usually meant stacking Cook’s or André “Champagne” by the dozens of cases, and more modest stacks of Almaden and Korbel, and making certain that the shelves were fully stocked with some of the more popular, authentic French Champagnes, such as Piper-Heidsieck, Mumm’s and Moët & Chandon’s range of products up to and including Dom Perignon. Domaine Chandon, located in the Napa Valley, had just been established (in 1973), so the French invasion of America’s Wine Country had only just begun.

In fact, that was the year that I was hired by Almaden Imports to begin to introduce a rapidly expanding line of European wines, along with their California product, into the greater Chicago/northern Illinois market. Almaden was by then a serious producer of California sparkling wines, particularly under their flagship label of Charles LeFranc Cellars. The Oeil de Perdrix (‘Eye of the Pardtridge”) was a particular favorite of mine, and my brother’s. But, within that larger portfolio was my first real connection with a French Champagne producer – Laurent-Perrier. I learned that it was very easy to fall in love! The Laurent-Perrier Brut Rosé and I had quite a nice relationship while I worked with the company. But, in 1977, one of my restaurant customers was opening a new, exciting restaurant concept in Chicago’s Watertower Place, and they wanted me to be the beverage manager. Seduced again, but this time by being empowered to run the whole beverage program.

The restaurant, “The Chestnut Street Grill”, was initially going to be loosely modeled after some San Francisco Bay Area casual classics, like Scott’s Seafood and The Tadich Grill. As we were setting the tables for some publicity stills, a decision was made to "dress up the tables” by putting white tablecloths on them. Eureka! We just got fancy! Everything got turned up a couple of notches. As we settled in, I began to create my wine lists of approximately 70 American wines, with an ever-rotating daily selection of four optional by-the-glass offerings. I would change the list every six weeks, giving my suppliers more opportunity to provide wines of limited production. This was when I found out about Schramsberg’s amazing bubblies. There weren’t many wines that were always represented on my wine lists, but Schramsberg and Almaden’s Charles LeFranc always had a slot. “So French-like!” was the almost universal opinion of those customers looking for a delicious bubbly. But, living in the suburbs an hour away from the restaurant began to take its toll. Once again, another opportunity to expand my horizons popped up.

So, Vintage Wine Merchants of California was looking to add regional positions, and I had generally been selling the brands that they represented on my wine lists. It seemed like a great match. Happily, one of the wineries, Chateau St. Jean, was in the process of developing a new sparkling wine program. The decision was an easy one. Thirteen states, some driving, some flying and certainly more economic advancement: it was not a hard choice. A few years later, one of my distributor customers suggested that I might like to run their on-premise wine division as they were expanding their territory in the Chicago Metro area.

Here we go again! They were a Moët-Hennessy and Schiefflin distributorship, with several French Champagnes and German Sekts in the portfolio. The lure of sales management, sleeping in my own bed every night and having more “friends and family” time to enjoy life was too strong to ignore. Plus, I still got to call on all my favorite restaurants in the Chicago area, a real plus. And, as it would turn out, a return to the dynamics of working in a world-class restaurant.

Once again, one of my customers, who owned several successful Chicago restaurants, was preparing to re-open one of Chicago’s legendary spots, “Maxim’s de Paris”, in its original Gold Coast location. And, he was bringing in a full brigade of six French chefs, all of whom had worked in Michelin-starred restaurants. The Chef de Cuisine was Jean Joho, formerly of Auberge De l'Ill, a 3-star restaurant in Illhausern, Alsace. George Badonsky was really stepping up to the plate by refurbishing and modernizing this wonderful place. And I was going to have some real fun and a serious challenge. My charge was to develop one of Chicago’s finest wine lists and to focus on Maxim’s historic stance of having a splendid party scene, with Champagne being an integral part of the party. My wine list ultimately had 118 sparkling wines on it. We featured six champagnes by the glass every night, with a Maxim’s de Paris private label always part of the fun. Typically, there would be Perrier-Jouet Brut NV and Laurent-Perrier Brut Rosé NV all the time, and then we would play among the thirty-two other Non-Vintage Bruts drawn from the extensive Champagne list.

Having a master list of 118 sparkling wines meant that there were some unique storage and service issues. We solved this early on by building a separate Champagne room, just off to the right of the lovely bar in the Bagatelle Room, which was the name of the cocktail lounge in the restaurant. Keeping the Champagnes stored and at service temperature was accomplished by maintaining a 40-degree F temperature in the Champagne room and maintaining a minimum of 3 bottles of each bubbly in that room. (The featured wines were of significantly larger volume.) Well, mission accomplished: a million-dollar wine cellar and my wine list wins Wine Spectator Grand Award. Next mission?

An upstart Napa Valley winery, William Hill, is looking to grow. Regional sales manager position at a significant salary increase? Sure, why not... 18 months later, VP Sales/Marketing? Sure, why not...

My Bubbly Story doesn’t end quite here. I spent six years with Mr. Hill, then the winery was sold, and I’m looking to return to my family and my Midwestern roots. Roederer U.S. Marketing calls, and I return to my roots as the Regional Sales Manager for what becomes Maisons, Marques & Domaines, the sales arm for Roederer Champagne and its ancillary acquisitions. I spent the next six years promoting the excellent California sparkling wine made at Roederer Estate, in Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley, as well as the terrific French Roederer Champagnes.

New management, new job – Charles Krug in Napa beckons. Two years later, a key distributor asks me to join them as Marketing Director. They get purchased by Terlato Wines International, a major producer/importer, and I spend the next 13 years as Director of Wine Education, constantly learning about and loving wine – and (happily) that included literally dozens of outstanding producers of those tiny bubbles. Ah, the memories!

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