CHAMPAGNE CHARLEY A tale of one man's quest for only-the-best bubbly

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Still wine you match with food. Champagne you match with an occasion.

The bubbles make all the difference. A sparkling wine is indeed wine, but it's something more, too. It's festive in a way that chardonnay or cabernet sauvignon is not. That's why we use it to christen ships.

There is no formula for matching a sparkling wine with the right occasion. It's more art than skill. It takes experience, it takes enthusiasm, it takes a sense of what's fun and what's appropriate.

Some people have the gift. Some don't. This is the tale of one who does. We'll call him Charley.

He's an ordinary fellow, a bit more prosperous than most, with two remarkable qualities.

The first is that he's imaginary, which saves him big time on taxes and lets him exist outside the normal parameters of time. No matter what age he is, it's always 1994.

The second is that he adores champagne and other sparkling wines. He commemorates virtually every happy occasion of his life with the pop of a cork and the gentle hiss of bubbles running down the side of a tall fluted glass. His friends tease him about his obsession and call him Champagne Charley, but they don't mind because he's a generous soul who loves to share.

It all started during his year as a foreign exchange student in Paris, when a beautiful young woman named Colette introduced him to several of life's delights, not the least being champagne. They sat in a tiny bistro and laughed as they clinked their glasses and gazed into each other's eyes.

In legend, when the blind monk Dom Perignon sampled the first champagne he cried out: "I am drinking stars!" It's a bunch of hooey, of course, but that's the way Charley felt that night when for the first time he felt the crackle of champagne on his lips.

It was love from the first. (No, not with Colette. He dumped her after two months for an American girl named Gladys.)

Ever since Paris, the story of Charley's life has been punctuated by bubbles. Since then, Charley has tasted champagnes and would-be champagnes from all around the world. Over the years has developed a keen palate and an uncanny ability to choose just the right sparkling wine for every occasion.

When Charley returned from Paris and entered law school in 1994, money was tight and champagne was expensive. But he'd been spoiled. His tastes were too refined to drink Andre or any of the other weird-tasting pseudo-champagnes made by bulk fermentation in a tank.

To him, such wines were good only for making fizzy mixed drinks. After all, once you add orange juice and grenadine to make a mimosa, it doesn't much matter whether you're using a $4 J. Roget from California or a $25 Pol Roger Champagne. As a matter of fact he tried it one night and preferred the mimosa with J. Roget, a wine that otherwise is best suited for spraying around locker rooms.

No, Charley knew he would have to find something made by the laborious process of fermentation in bottle used in Champagne itself, the methode champenoise.

He learned that the least expensive wines made by this method were the cavas of Spain. These, he found, were a step up from Andre, but the overly earthy flavors of Freixenet and Codorniu put him off. Still, he found that some of them, such as Mont Marcal (about $8), were entirely appropriate on Friday nights when he and Gladys would celebrate the end of the week with a takeout from the local Sichuan restaurant.

When Charley landed an internship with one of Baltimore's leading law firms, he took Gladys out to a nice restaurant and they both ordered rockfish.

He couldn't afford champagne, but there on the wine list he spied Mumm's Cuvee Napa Brut Prestige, a California sparkling wine that sells at retail for about $12. He knew this would be a full, flavorful wine with subtle flavors of peach and pear -- not particularly in the champagne style but very good in its own right.

It was, of course, perfect for the occasion.

When that internship blossomed into an offer of a job upon graduation, he and Gladys toasted his success with Roederer Estate, a bargain at $15. And when she passed her certified public accountant exam, they clinked glasses filled with Scharffenberger Cellars Brut ($13) from Mendocino County. Both, of course, were excellent.

About this time, it was becoming increasing clear to Charley that this thing with Gladys was for keeps. After all, besides loving her, where would he ever find another woman with a palate as keen as hers?

So Charley set the stage carefully. Knowing there are few things in life a woman enjoys as much as a man cooking for her, he invited Gladys over to his apartment (which he actually cleaned) for a dinner of poached salmon in a sorrel cream sauce.

He knew that there are few things that go as well with salmon as a fine, dry sparkling rose. But he was also thinking about the way the light would glimmer off its pale pink colors. (Oh, he was a crafty one, was Charley.)

He made his choice with care. He considered Scharffenberger Brut Rose ($22), a wonderfully crisp wine from Mendocino County, with delicate hints of strawberry and cherry. He toyed with the idea of the flavorful, forceful 1989 Iron Horse Brut Rose from Sonoma County's Green Valley ($25), whose deep pink colors made it one of the prettiest wines he's ever seen.

In the end he decided to save these California wines for a different salmon dinner -- perhaps one where he and Gladys would tell good friends the (he hoped) happy news. For the proposal itself, he wanted a true French champagne, a wine of such unsurpassed elegance that it would linger in memory like one's first kiss.

But he didn't want to spend 100 bucks.

So on a warm summer night in 1994, over glasses of Billecart-Salmon Brut Rose ($40), a champagne every bit as delicate and persistent as the most expensive luxury cuvees, Gladys agreed to be Charley's bride. Gladys knew she would have accepted his ring over pizza and warm beer, but she always teased him that it was only the wine that made her say yes.

On their wedding night, they arrived at the country inn where they would spend their honeymoon. There in the room, courtesy of considerate friends, was a bottle of Pol Roger Brut ($28), perhaps the most ethereal and delicate of nonvintage champagnes, one best savored by itself.

Charley and Gladys agreed it was wonderful but somehow they never got around to finishing that bottle.

Shortly after that came the news that Gladys would be having a baby. For almost nine months, Gladys remained resolutely wine-free.

Now Charley isn't big on famous names. Most of the time he'd rather taste something wonderful from an undiscovered producer than plop down big bucks for an overrated luxury cuvee.

But sometimes symbolism is important. You want a famous name because it says something and requires no explanation.

So the night after Gladys fought her way through a long, difficult labor to deliver a 9-pound daughter, Charley came to the hospital with two glasses and a chilled bottle of 1985 Dom Perignon ($60- $95). Gladys couldn't drink more than two glasses, but she later swore it was the best wine she'd ever tasted.

They were a handsome couple and they loved to entertain. When guests arrived at their house for dinner they were always greeted by a light, refreshing glass of sparkling wine.

In the early years, before promotions and big cases fattened their bankbooks, the wines generally did not come from Champagne. But Charley chose carefully, knowing that wines such as the creamy, fruity Pierre Sparr Cremant d'Alsace ($14) and the full-bodied Chandon Carneros Blanc de Noirs ($14) are just as fine as many champagnes at twice the price.

When wine-obsessed friends from California visited, Charley especially enjoyed serving them glasses of the zesty, yeasty Boordy Vineyards 1991 Blanc de Blancs ($15). Only later would he reveal that the wine was from Maryland.

The years passed and the careers of Charley and Gladys prospered. Instead of California sparkling wines they now served their guests the light, elegant Taittinger Brut Francaise ($25) before dinner and the more robust Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin Brut ($25) with the seafood dishes Charley loved to cook. And each Thanksgiving, Charley and Gladys would down their turkey with a vigorous Bollinger Special Cuvee ($30).

When Charley made partner, they celebrated with the exceptionally complex, hearty 1985 Bollinger Grand Annee ($50). When Gladys became chief financial officer of her company, they celebrated with the crystalline beauty of the 1986 Pol Roger Vintage Brut ($35). This time they finished the bottle.

The pinnacle of Charley's career came in 1994, when he argued an important tax case before the Supreme Court. He won, and his client sent Charley a bottle of Krug Grande Cuvee ($95). He and Gladys savored it with caviar, and they agreed that this was even better than Dom Perignon.

Soon after that triumph came a shock. Their daughter, Chardonnay, announced she was getting married to a fine young man and they wanted a big church wedding and a huge reception.

This created a sticky situation. Four hundred guests would be raising their glasses in a toast, and because of Charley's reputation, they'd be expecting something good.

But Charley was up to the challenge. He instructed his caterer to pour Domaine Ste. Michelle Brut from Washington state's Columbia Valley. From long experience, he knew that it was the best methode champenoise sparkling wine on the market for $7- $10.

After they retired, Charley and Gladys traveled the world from Australia to Champagne, tasting sparkling wines wherever they went.

But time catches up with us all, and Charley became gray and bent. His skin grew sallow and his breath short. His doctor told him it wouldn't be long.

As his friends and family gathered around his bed one day in 1994, Champagne Charley whispered out a last request. His son-in-law scurried to the cellar and brought out a precious bottle, which he plunged into ice water.

About a half-hour later, in the dim light of late afternoon, Gladys held a flute of 1975 Bollinger R. D. ($300) to the lips of Champagne Charley. Ancient bubbles, carrying toasty and endlessly layered flavors from decades past, flowed over ancient lips.

The wine's miraculous properties apparently were exaggerated. Charley only finished fourth in the senior marathon that year.

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