Ellen Clifford: Cinderella at the Champagne Ball

The culmination of Effervescence LA, a three-day sparkling wine extravaganza in Los Angeles, was a Gala Dinner in the spirit of La Paulée. For those of you not familiar with it, La Paulée is a celebration of Burgundy . The Gala Dinner brings Burghounds and winemakers out with their cellar treasures for what is ostensibly the best wine potluck imaginable. If you haven’t read Bianca Bosker’s “Cork Dork,” you should pick it up if only to read her experience at this dinner filled with characters, ludicrously (or not!) expensive wines, and the antics of the rich and intoxicated. That chapter is entitled “The Orgy.” Based on this knowledge I was intimidated for Effervescence’s sparkling wine version of the banquet. I was worried about my ability to bring a sparkling wine that could stack up against everyone else’s. From what I read in Cork Dork I was picturing dinner with a bunch of Mr. Monopolys toting wine they likely didn’t understand but could afford to show off. For moral support I invited a fellow somm friend I had only recently met when we passed our Certified Sommelier exam together this spring. We’d pledged to celebrate our shiny new Court pins at some point and this dinner seemed like the ultimate toast to our success. We frantically texted all week in exhilarated anticipation of the event. “I feel like Cinder-fella,” mused my plus one. I myself felt like Cinderella trying to find something to wear for the ball. Do I regularly get to drink a lot of cool wine? Do I know a lot about wine? Yes and yes. But sparkling wine has never been a regular part of my life and I wasn’t sure if wine I could afford was wine that would stand up next to what I expected to be a long line of têtes du cuvées. Not to mention what to wear to such an event. I sought the advice of Maria Garcia at the Winehouse, a large and well-stocked store by the 405. I told her my journalist/actor/somm budget was limited so I wanted to bring something unusual rather than fancy. I also vaguely wanted to troll the tastebuds of the other guests who I imagined would be pedestrian wine snobs who only drink Dom Pérignon (not that there is anything wrong with that). “This may not be pleasurable to drink, but it will be fascinating,” Maria confided in me as she wrapped up my Lauer Riesling Sekt 1984. She told me it was liable to be a funky wine. Just what I wanted. For good measure I also got a bottle of Huré Frères “Eléments” Pinot Meunier Champagne. It would be less funky and still tasty and a 100% Pinot Meunier is not the norm. The two together fit neatly in my budget. I sighed a breath of relief. We arrived at Republique in our dapper best, me in a silk slip dress and ample eyeliner clutching my glass slippers—that is, bottles of bubbly—he in suit and tie, to relatively cheerful bedlam as no one had figured out where they were supposed to sit. But something was bubbling in peoples’ glasses already so chaos was reined in. I ran into several people I’d met at tastings over the last day or so, as well as another sommelier friend who was there to pour. I started to feel less nervous and more at home. I’m a wine fan, you’re a wine fan, everywhere a wine fan! At last we found our name cards at a table with direct view of the wine room. Before everyone at our table had even arrived a man a couple seats to my left interrupted our conversation. “Excuse me, I’d like to pour you some wine,” said the man with smart glasses and a spiky shock of gray hair. Happy to accept, I later found out he was a fellow wine and food writer. He poured Champagne Barons de Rothschild into our glasses (not flutes! Please use standard white wine glasses to truly enjoy your bubbly) and we toasted to what was to come. The Barons de Rothschild was classic. Balanced. And went well with the Leek and Potato Soup and Margarita’s Baguette, a housemade crusty bread that soon was served. Small bowls held diced potato just slightly past al dente, and another person came around with a pale pitcher of the silken soup to pour over the vegetables. A bite of crusty bread, a spoonful of creamy soup, a sip of bubbly to lighten and clarify all…we were off to a rousing start. A sommelier came out with the wines I had brought for my approval. I was anticipating not actually enjoying the Sekt I’d selected. Maybe it was my low expectations, but the opposite was true. I adored it. It was only mildly funky-which is to say perfect. Fascinatingly layered, the Lauer was complex and full but still went down easy. I was immediately thrilled with the choice and excitedly poured it for others. The next course was European white asparagus. Two hearty stalks that had been flown in from Holland fittingly lay in a delicate serving of Hollandaise. Never having seen the light of day, they were nearly as pale as me. White asparagus was a first for me. Imagine the texture of hearts of palm joined with a more subdued asparagus flavor. They say asparagus is hard to pair with wine but I’d gainsay these stalks would go with anything. A good thing, because at this point my Pinot Meunier was being poured, as well as another bottle or so. Everything on the table was too good to fail. Next came Channel Islands Rock Cod for everyone else. My vegetarian dish was roasted cauliflower in charred cucumber yogurt and a dash of za’atar. My scribbled notes on this dish say “holy perfect”. The charred cucumber mitigated the yogurt’s sometimes overly tart nature and managed to bring springtime freshness to the dish as well as mellowing the spice of the za’atar and…just know that all-in-all this dish was “holy perfect”. The parade of bubblies marched on—a 2006 Dom Ruinart I had tasted earlier in the weekend and put on my best hits list solidified its place in my heart. A 2006 Comtes de Champagne, the prestige cuvée of Taittinger made its way into our glasses. I looked around for the bringer of such fanciness and lo-and-behold the Taittinger had come from the young couple sitting opposite us. They were attending the dinner simply for the love of Champagne, not for any ego-stroking. And compared to them we were overdressed. My Mr. Monopoly visions had vanished. Next to us was a woman who told us Billecart-Salmon Rosé was her go-to for brunches. She was there on her own. Drinking her truth. We attempted to amuse everyone with our tales of becoming sommeliers. The couple across from us brought up the “Somm” films and had questions about our ability to blind taste. We were more than happy to walk them through the process. They were lucky to have us! We were lucky to have them! The evening was elevating our spirits higher than even the carbon dioxide in our wine could! Then wine miracles began to occur. A Champagne was poured that turned our heads 360 degrees and back, so pleasant and unique as to be declared “the best so far.” It was the De Sousa Mycorhize Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru. It tasted like savory crème brûlée with a finish that would not quit. There was a subtle floral nature to it that reeked of vanilla bean. If it is possible to subtly reek, this Champagne manages it. I attempted to decipher the French on the back label and could only manage to figure out that it had something to do with the relationship between mushrooms and the wine. We declared it our best in show, and investigated who had brought the thunder. To our astonishment the earnest French man across the table told us it was his wine. We were dining with Valentin de Sousa, a fourth generation winemaker crafting his bubbles in Avize. The Mycorhize was his handiwork. I asked for explanations and Valentin leaned across the table and passionately described how the mushrooms and vines helped each other grow—the great symbiotic nature of biodynamic farming. Between the volume of everyone else extolling vinous virtues and his accent, I could understand half of his words. But one sip of his wine and all was clear. I need more. My god I need more. Our main courses arrived. I received spinach cavatelli with porcinis and morels. My meat-eating companions got “Heritage Poulard” which was a chic molded concoction. My pasta was one of those dishes I didn’t finish not because it wasn’t fantastic, but because I was scrawling notes on the spectacle of the evening. Suffice to say the morels in my pasta paired exceedingly well with the Mycorhize. At this point Surprise/Miracle #2 occurred. I finally got into conversation with the man to my left and found out he was Sergio Germano, the man behind the Ettori Germano “Rosanna” Brut Rosé, a Piedmont Nebbiolo-based sparkly. The “Rosanna” made my list of favorites at a tasting the night before. How did I end up seated by the creators of two of the most exquisite things I’d tasted in the last few days?! Incredible. Out of all the wines and this was my seating arrangement? This was magic. This was kismet. It was more than I could have imagined. Shortly after telling Sergio how much I’d cherished his Nebbiolo Rosé, a magnum of it showed up. Color me…drunk and exhilarated. We all clinked glasses again and again. Dan Perelli, creator of Effervescence popped in with a bottle to share. He explained that the “unfailing support” of Krug helped make Effervescence possible. It had been my favorite at the Grand Tasting of Champagnes earlier in the day, both for its complexity and balance. Krug I’d sip ‘til the cows come home. Or at least until Republique closed. Perelli later told me that “bubbles got you a seat,” which explained why there were so many winemakers in attendance. For the Champagne makers it was a chance to showcase their goods and taste others. For the rest of us, an opportunity to share wines we loved and connect with others with the same level of ardor. This was not merely the excuse to show off high-falutin’ bottles I’d envisioned. Dessert was served, an elegant Brillat-Savarin Cheesecake. It wasn’t actually a “cake” so much as a dish with a creamy mousse covered with quartered strawberries, graham cracker crumbs and a berry sorbet. It was served with Ratafia de Champagne, a potent and delightful vin de liqueur, but at this point I was stuck on the Germano’s rosé. Maybe the bubbles got to me because I found myself instructing Sergio Germano that he must take a bite of my strawberries (he’d finished his) and then take a sip of HIS OWN DANG WINE and observe how the two complimented each other. Me instructing him, like he didn’t already know the magic of his wine! Silly but at this point he gladly did so. We were swinging from the chandelier in spirit. I felt at home. I was with people who loved Champagne with an admirable purity of spirit. These were not just people who wanted to display that they could afford baller wine. These people CARED. Images of us all holding hands and tipsily skipping amongst the vines in parkas to ward off the Champagne region’s chill danced through my head. Visions of straight up moving to Piedmont where Sergio makes his wine so I could drink his sparkler and wash it down with Barolo also appeared. And my notes turned into more and more of a chicken scrawl. My last written note of the night says “Olivier Krug he threw a party,” which I’m guessing was my note taken when Dan Perelli explained that Krug made the dinner possible. To love wine is one thing. To be able to share that love with others who are equally enthralled…the wine becomes something greater. YOU become something greater. We live in a difficult and complicated world. I recognize the privilege of being able to drink and share these wines with others. I can only dream that I could bring a smidge of the joy I experienced at that dinner to the rest of the world. Good wine makes you want to be a better person. When the clock struck midnight we thankfully did not turn to pumpkins, our Cinderella/fella worries having ceased. We did however move to the downstairs bar and turned from bubbly to Boulevardiers to end the night. The next morning Miracle #3 occurred. I awoke with zero hangover—the true sign that what I’d been consuming was magic. - Ellen Clifford Delectable columnist Ellen Clifford is a WSET 3 and CMS 2 wine professional and comedic actress living in Los Angeles. Her musings on all things wine can be found on her blog Scrumptious Gruel and weekly podcast The Whine Situation . You can follower Ellen on Delectable and Instagram at @ellenclifford.

Barons de Rothschild (Lafite)

Extra Brut Champagne Blend

Classic and crisp, an excellent start opener. It went very well with potato leek soup. — 10 months ago

Eric, Shawn and 14 others liked this

Germano Ettore

Rosanna Brut Rosé Nebbiolo

Bam! One of my winners of the night. The fruit cuts in sharply but gives a slow and graceful bow at the end so cutting into the dance is okay. Need more. — 10 months ago

Serge, Ira and 16 others liked this
James Forsyth

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Just tried this and you nailed it
Ellen Clifford

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@James Forsyth ooh, glad you are getting to try it!

Krug

Grande Cuvée Brut Champagne Blend

Oh yes yes yes Krug. Again with the buttered toast sensation that turns me on to the big house bubblies. Undercurrents of marzipan but this marzipan is vacationing somewhere tropical. — 10 months ago

Eric, Kim and 34 others liked this
Norman Gennaro

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Several bottles as well. Life is good. Very good!

Bollinger

Special Cuvée Brut Champagne Blend

70 percent Pinot noir! This would be damned delicious with some cheese and a dark bread. The fruit notes on it are slightly cooked, and the toasty taste is a perfect char. — 10 months ago

Eric, Jason and 15 others liked this

Wine de Sousa

Mycorhize Grand Cru Champagne Chardonnay

Slap me in the face and call me morel. This is a TKO. I could drink this for the rest of my days. — 10 months ago

Eric, Shawn and 13 others liked this
Severn Goodwin

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Intrigued by your score, I will seek this out...👍
Ellen Clifford

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@Severn Goodwin would love to hear your thoughts! I absolutely adored it

Ruinart

Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne Chardonnay

This was the first thing I tried in the Effervescence master class! Light, simple and elegant. Incredibly fresh and a smidge tropical! Toasty finish. I’d like to walk around parties drinking this out of the bottle. Someday... — 10 months ago

Eric, Jason and 14 others liked this

Ruinart

Dom Ruinart Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne Chardonnay 2006

My favorite of the first event of Effervescence LA ! In the meantime if I could even just smell this wine I’d consider it a treat. It is the most perfect delicate biscuit with just a dash of lemon curd. An elegant alcoholic tea party treat. I am ruined. I’ll dream of this until I taste it again. Thank you @Delectable Wine for sending me and stay tuned for a column with more bubbly details. — 10 months ago

Shaughn Buchholz
with Shaughn
Trixie, Bryce and 34 others liked this
Bryce Wiatrak

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Champagne is indeed a daily essential
Ellen Clifford

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@Norman Gennaro It’ll be up sometime after this weekend! I’ve got more bubbles ahead...

Peter Lauer

Réserve Sekt Riesling 1984

Okay a few more sparklings from last weekend I need to catalogue. Slightly funky, slightly savory, and still ever so fresh. Love the Sekt! — 10 months ago

Ron, Eric and 16 others liked this
Severn Goodwin

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Nice, I haven't opened any of my bottles yet.

Taittinger

Comtes de Champagne Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne Chardonnay 2006

Oh hey. This Comptes talks. It says “I am here” the way landing a proper tours jete feels good I probably messed that ballet spelling. But this wine was lovely and lively and precise. — 10 months ago

Evan, Paul and 22 others liked this
Joe Lucca

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Just had the 2006 and it was bangin’

Louis Roederer

Brut Premier Champagne Blend

This is slightly Pinot noir dominated. It is slightly tart yet also creamier. And toasty. It was like drinking a savory trifle. I’m not sure if that sounds appetizing but trust me, it worked! — 10 months ago

Eric, Jason and 13 others liked this