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When it comes to bubbly, just say yes

At resorts and restaurants, especially along the coast, Champagne opportunities beckon.

June 02, 2004|David Lansing | Special to The Times

MY year of Champagne, inaugurated on an 18-hour flight to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in January, began with both good and bad news. The good news was that my employer was paying for business class. The bad news was that I was seated between a hyper 5-year-old from Canada named Bernice (who liked nothing better than showing me her drawings of what looked like gnomes but were actually, she explained, the flight attendants) and a young woman from New Orleans, Christine, who clasped a bottle of Xanax in her sweaty palm as the plane took off.

Our flight left L.A. at 1:40 a.m. Sleep was out of the question. For one thing, Bernice needed my help retrieving the crayons that dropped like lemmings off her tray every five or 10 minutes. For another, Christine talked nonstop, punctuating her monologues on James Spader (big fan) and collecting retro sunglasses (her hobby) with revelations like, "My therapist says if I talk to strangers I'll feel less anxious and won't need so much Xanax -- am I boring you?"

Dilemma at 30,000 feet

Sometime after 3 in the morning, an attendant came by and spread white tablecloths on our trays in preparation for "dinner." She got a ginger ale for Bernice, who proclaimed it the best ginger ale she'd ever had, and asked Christine and me if we would like a glass of Champagne.

My dilemma: Do you start drinking Champagne at 3 in the morning at 30,000 feet at the start of an 18-hour flight? Probably not a good idea. In fact, definitely not a good idea. I was just about to decline the attendant's offer when Christine put her hand on my wrist and said, "Honey, here's what I say about Champagne: Anytime, anywhere, if someone offers you a glass of Champagne, you have to say yes. That's just all there is to it." And then she handed my glass to the attendant, who filled it to the top with Veuve Clicquot.

And so, streaking through an inky night toward sunrise in Taipei, with the young but worldly Bernice on one side of me and the charming, if neurotic, Christine on the other, I drank Champagne. And rather enjoyed it. In fact, I enjoyed it immensely. I didn't even mind it when Christine told me the story of how, before coming on this trip, she'd gone to a Chinese fortuneteller in New Orleans who encouraged her to buy a silver monkey because this was the Year of the Monkey.

"I'm a Red Rabbit myself, but monkeys are supposed to be lucky," Christine said, showing me the charm, which now hung on a chain around her neck.

"I hate monkeys," I told her. "They remind me of sullen juveniles, always glaring at you and making rude noises." I finished off my bubbly. "I say forget about the Year of the Monkey. This is the Year of Champagne."

Christine's eyebrows arched upward. "Honey, I agree. Let's get another glass and toast to the Year of Champagne."

Measure of sophistication

The timing was providential. My 50th birthday, which I'd been dreading, was just days away. Suddenly, with a simple pop of the cork, the monkey was off my back. There was much to celebrate. Life was good. And that is how it started.

I have a theory: You can measure a city's sophistication by the number of Champagne bars it supports. Barcelona, one of my favorite places in the world, has dozens (they are called xampanyerias, which sounds as festive as a popping cork). There are several famous ones in Berlin, London and Paris (the best, Bubbles, is just off the Champs-Elysees), and Chicago, New York and San Francisco each have at least one good one.

What about Los Angeles, you ask? Nothing. Nada. Zip.

"Why is that?" I asked Emmanuelle Chiche, co-owner of the Bubble Lounge in New York and San Francisco.

"Good question," she said. "With the ocean and the weather and people's attitude on the West Coast, there should be one. Los Angeles has some absolutely amazing restaurants, but Champagne is definitely underexploited in Southern California."

Well, yes and no. True, we have no xampanyerias here (if I had Trump-like pockets, I'd hire Amy, from "The Apprentice," to open one, and we'd call it Amy's Xampanyeria Salon), but a number of resorts and restaurants, particularly along the coast, are doing their best to follow my lead and indeed make this the Year of Champagne.

I learned this shortly after my return from Malaysia, which coincided with my birthday. After a grueling and remarkably nonfestive day, I sat down at the bar at Troquet in Costa Mesa and, feeling a wee bit sorry for myself, remembered my decision and ignored their Pinot Gris, my usual selection. Instead I went straight for the Veuve. Things began to look up immediately; I was happy again. That glass inspired me, the next day, to bypass the elaborate martini bar at a wedding reception and instead order a bottle of Pol Roger, a legendary sparkler I'd long heard about (its tete de cuvee is named after Winston Churchill, who said, "In victory we deserve it, in defeat we need it") but never sampled.

In the weeks that followed, I began noticing Champagne ops around every corner.

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