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Just Off-Camera

"They respect you if you write. The dumber the world gets, the more the words matter." -Dan Jenkins

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Bring The 'Pagne

As predicted, I had to battle through a vicious hangover at 8 a.m. on Sunday morning. Sort of surprisingly, my four friends also managed to do it. The allure of Champagne region and the French countryside was calling. We picked up our rental car, a kind of European version of a Toyota Corolla, and it was brand new. We were definitely the first people to drive it. It had about 15 km on it. Considering our physical states, we were in extraordinarily high spirits. We cranked up The Killers’ “Mr. Brightside” and hit the A4, the main highway east out of Paris.

As soon as we got off the A4 at exit 21 toward Epernay, we were at the mercy of the road signs and the directions culled from mapquest.fr. The streets were poorly marked, not to mention narrow, especially when we would pass through the small towns scattered throughout the Marne valley. The views, however, were breathtaking. Twice we pulled over to get out of the car and just take in the sights. Or maybe we pulled over because the combination of a hangover and twisting, hilly roads made us sick. I’m a little fuzzy on that point.

After an accidental detour through a scenic rural town, where we stopped to get some delicious pastry and directions, we finally found Epernay. All of the Champagne houses were closed for their lunch break when we got there, so we had to kill time until 2:30. We kind of staggered around town, trying to find a convenience store where we could buy Powerade (they don’t have Gatorade in France, as far as I can tell). It didn’t take long to realize that the amenities in Paris aren’t quite as plentiful in the countryside. We settled for a place that sold bottled water.

A side note about France: Every freaking store and restaurant sells the same selection of about four beverages (other than wine). Coca-Cola, Fanta, Orangina, water. If you want something else, good luck.

After a meal eaten in a scenic park near a pond that smelled really funky, it was time to visit the cellars. Our first visit was to Moet & Chandon, which is probably the best-known Champagne house. In front of the entrance, they have a statue of Dom Perignon, the monk who invented the Champagne method and who lent his name to the high-quality, expensive bubbly that rappers eschew in favor of the cooler-sounding Cristal.

We went inside to get our tickets for the tour for a very reasonable eight Euros. One of my friends, looking at the sign for tours, asked whether we should take the tour of the caves or the cellars, upon which the woman behind the counter kindly informed us that “caves” is French for “cellars.” We waited in a bourgeois drawing room decorated with portraits for a few minutes, then proceeded to watch a short (and extremely snooty) film about Moet and the making of Champagne. Then it was on to the “caves.”

France is in the middle of a brutal heat wave, so we eagerly welcomed the chill of the cellars. For some reason, we decided we wanted to look good while we visited Champagne houses, so we wore dress shirts and pants. That was really stupid of us. We ended up feeling far worse than we looked. Although we were told that the cellars would be cold and we should bring a sweater, we thought that they were the perfect temperature.

Unfortunately, we had to stay with our tour group inside the cellars, because beneath the stately Moet mansion, there are about 27 km (18 miles) of cellars. These cellars must house close to 20 million bottles of Champagne in various stages of aging. There are dozens of rooms off the main corridors that house upwards of 20,000 bottles each.

Our tour guide led us from stack of bottles to stack of bottles, telling us about the Champagne process. She didn’t talk too much about Moet specifically, and I got the impression that it was supposed to be clear to us that Moet is the Cadillac of Champagne houses. Mission accomplished there. I was blown away by their cellars.

Following the cellar tour, we went to their tasting room, where they poured us each a glass of Moet. Try to get one of those in the States for 10 bucks, even without the tour. Among my group, there was much toasting and high-fiving as we enjoyed our hard-earned Champagne (believe me, by getting up that morning, we earned it). Then it was on to the gift shop, where you could buy all kind of Moet and Dom paraphernalia, not to mention bottles of the stuff, the prices of which began to approach over 700 Euros. I bought a bottle of Dom. When am I ever going to have a chance to do it at the source again? It only set me back, um, 110 Euros. At least I get some of that back when I leave France via their tax rebate (and thanks to my International Economic Law class, I can tell you why).

It was pouring rain when we left Moet & Chandon (probably to the growers’ delight), but we had to hustle to the car so we could drive further down Avenue de Champagne to our other destination: Mercier.

My unsophisticated self had never heard of Mercier, but it quickly became apparent that if Moet & Chandon is the Bellagio of Champagne houses, then Mercier is New York New York. While Moet had you wait in a posh room that felt like a millionaire’s private gallery for their tour, Mercier had you wait in an atrium that housed the world’s largest barrel of wine (213,000 bottles worth, 20 tons empty, 16 years to build, FYI). Moet showed its introductory film in another luxurious room with a nice plasma TV; Mercier showed its film in a custom-built, three-screen theater. To get to Moet’s cellars, you walked down some stairs. To get to Mercier’s cellars, you rode down an elevator with a window that looked onto a model of a lush vineyard, then a small winemaker’s shop, and then a carved relief of cherubs holding bunches of grapes. Basically, Moet knows it’s the bomb and assumes you do too; Mercier wants desperately for you to think it’s the bomb.

The piece de resistance of the Mercier tour, though, was the tram that rode through the cellars. Instead of walking (as we did at Moet), we all piled into a tram that was guided by – get this – a laser reflected by a track on the ceiling. In fact, we were even warned by the tour guide not to take flash photographs toward the front of the tram because the flash might disrupt the laser. We, of course, completely ignored him, and it made no difference in the ride. I was secretly hoping the laser would suddenly go haywire and cause the tram to veer sharply into a rack of Champagne. We also made the obligatory references to Dr. Evil. “All I want is a tram through a Champagne cellar with a frickin’ laser beam; is that too much to ask?”

Mercier’s tour talked more about the company’s history than Moet’s did, and we learned that Eugene Mercier founded the place at the tender age of 20 and immediately began the Mercier tradition of gimmicks. He commissioned the giant wine barrel in the atrium for the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris; it came in second place to the Eiffel Tower. He also hosted wine tastings for the Parisian elite – in a hot air balloon bearing the Mercier name high above the city. And his son arranged for the final stage of a car race to be held in Epernay – in the subterranean Mercier cellars, which are several kilometers long. Our tour guide, very proudly, asked us how many bottles we thought were broken during the race, and all five of us answered correctly: zero. Fool should have known better than to ask a bunch of law students a transparent trick question like that.

After the tasting (good, but no Moet, naturally), we went into Mercier’s gift shop, where I picked up a bottle for a mere 16.50 Euros. If I can find a sword anywhere, I’m going to give sabrage a shot – it’s an old French tradition of opening Champagne bottles with a saber. I looked up how to do it online, so I think I can handle it now. Besides, I don’t care so much about spilling a bottle of Mercier. The Dom, on the other hand, is going to stay as far away from swordplay as possible.

By that point, it was time for dinner. Unfortunately, in Europe, there are no restaurants open between lunchtime and dinnertime, and it was still only 5:00. Our options were to wait until 6 for a few places to open, drive back to Paris and eat there, or go to the Epernay McDonald’s. Since this was the only time I’ll ever be in Epernay (although I’d love to come back – it’s beautiful there and would be a sweet spot for a romantic vacation), I talked the group into waiting it out to get a true Epernay dinner, which ended up being at a very mediocre restaurant anyway, but it still beat McDonald’s.

Feeling much better after a couple meals and a couple glasses of Champagne, we piled back in the Corolla and drove (very, very fast) back to Paris. We rolled down the windows, threw on Guns N’ Roses’ greatest hits CD, and blasted “Paradise City.” And then we got back to the hotel and I slept for 12 hours.

Like Ice Cube said, I gotta say it was a good day.

After the 12-hour recovery period, we ventured out the next night to see The Faint and Bright Eyes in concert. I saw the Faint once before, at Cornell, when they opened for No Doubt, and they were pretty good. All I knew about Bright Eyes was that Conor Oberst is “critically acclaimed.” I’d never heard one of their songs, though. So basically, I was looking forward to seeing The Faint.

The venue, Le Trabendo, was a 700-person joint that was pretty cool – the stage was actually on the same level as most of the floor, except for a lowered pit area right in front of the stage. Plus, the beers there were only four Euros. Unfortunately, like most of Paris, it was not air conditioned.

The Faint got on stage and absolutely rocked the place. They had a great stage presence and their songs had really likeable grooves – extremely up tempo. The crowd, which politely applauded when they took the stage, really got into them, yelling and cheering and jumping around in front. I’ve rarely seen an opening act get such a reception. Most impressively, though, was the video screen projected behind the band as it played. The images on screen were synced perfectly with the music.

At one point, the singer said, “Do you want to hear a political song?” While we were half worried that as Americans, we were about to get our asses kicked, the crowd cheered for the song. The band then launched into a song whose words I couldn’t understand. What was very clear, though, were the pictures on the screen – shots of various CNN and Fox News anchors with their mouths altered so that they were singing the lyrics along with the singer. Occasionally their names would be shown on screen – upside down. And the ticker scrolled news items that basically portrayed America as an imperialist bully. Then, suddenly, they got to the only word of the song that I understood – “paranoia.” They repeated it over and over as it flashed on the screen in front of the news personality. The crowd loved it.

After an awesome set like the one The Faint played, it was going to be hard for Bright Eyes to top it. And they didn’t. They were alright, but really, I just couldn’t get into the mood – it was the musical equivalent of chugging a case of Red Bull and following it with NyQuil. It didn’t matter, though. I felt like I got my money’s worth from just The Faint. I’d go see them again in a second. And I think I’m going to get their album.

Oh, and eventually, I’ll get around to seeing things like The Louvre and Musee d’Orsay.


  • At Wednesday, June 29, 2005 11:35:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Whew! I'd say it was a pretty good day. :-) And if you need a sabre for your next trick, come see me for an authentic one from the Austro-Hungarian cavalry. MB


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