The Death of Champagne

All this, and now champagne?

The industry is in trouble, warns BBC News, Paris. After the perfect growing season—golden sunshine ripening the grapes at just the right pace; rain drenching the wines at precisely the time they thirsted, meaning they will burst with flavor instead of squishing and rotting. But “a billion bottles have been left idle in cellars,” so demand has flatlined.

This makes me want to cry. Not because I buy champagne every week (though a friend does; after years of grindingly long hours as an obstetrician, she vowed to make her life a little more lighthearted) but because I do not.

Champagne is special. It is a symbol of celebration, of kick-up-your-heels festivity. When we have a bottle on hand, I feel like I have a $100 bill tucked into my wallet, and I wait eagerly for a reason to open it. The wallet or the bottle. Either one’s contents will be emptied with a lavish gesture of abundance.

When champagne pours like water, it is a novelist’s shorthand for wealth. Its presence promises sophistication—in a loft in the Flatiron district, notes an old gossipy ad magazine, “the ad women were partying on Cosmopolitans, champagne and raw fish”—not sloe gin fizzes and sardines. Yet champagne can be earned by anyone: Just win a tournament or a prize, launch a ship, seal a big deal, marry or stay married. On New Year’s Eve, we all celebrate (though I have noticed more and more people shrugging it off and staying home, even before the pandemic, and this, too, depresses me. We did what we always do to ruin a holiday: made it too expensive, raised the emotional expectations, made it somehow dangerous. New Year’s Eve could have been elegant without being exorbitant, but this country has never figured out how to make its rituals of consumption egalitarian.)

Now, fancy holiday parties and sporting tournaments and awards ceremonies and big public celebrations are all canceled. This, notes the BBC, has “ignited tensions in the hundreds of wine villages around Reims and Epernay of a kind not seen since World War Two.” On August 18, after a hypertensive negotiation, the growers and the négociants (dealers who buy for the top Champagne houses) will announce just how many grapes each grower is allowed to put on the market.

That number is always fixed, and surplus is either abandoned in the field (a sob catches; I want to fly to northeastern France with a wicker basket and gather up the orphans myself) or stuck in the fridge as a fallback if there is a bad harvest the following year. The growers are not interested in sticking away extra; they need the cash, and this year’s will be an extraordinary harvest, deserving to be bottled immediately.

But no one is buying, the négociants point out, and why should they pay to warehouse all that unopened festivity? Our “milestones” are death counts. Athletes keep testing positive. Awards are flattened into video and streamed, and maybe the person’s family watches, at least until their loved one’s video, but they are probably sipping craft beer at best.

In her grave, Madame de Pompadour (King Louis XV’s mistress) is spinning the earth into powder. Champagne, she maintained, was “the only wine that leaves a woman beautiful after drinking it.” Certainly it leaves her a little … bubblier… as the carbon dioxide speeds the loosening of stays and inhibitions. But champagne plays a larger civic role as well: “Its success in oiling the wheels of social life is so great and so universally acknowledged that its eclipse would almost threaten a collapse of our social system,” write the British author Henry Vizetelly in 1882.

And here we are. Collapsing.

This cannot be allowed to happen. There is no substitute for champagne. If someone cries, “Hey, let’s open a bottle of prosecco!” you fetch a picnic basket.

I have a plan. All of us who can do so comfortably, without risking our mental or emotional health or that of a possible baby, must pledge to drink a little Champagne every week. (Okay, it can be from California, but I am capitalizing the word as one does when it comes from its eponymous region of France, because that is its origin and that is where it seems to be in crisis.) We are drinking more in the pandemic anyway, n’est-ce pas? The bubbles will cheer us up far faster than those grim vodka tonics. We can share a bottle with our neighbors, each of us three feet from the picket fence, or hand one to that sweet guy who brings the Amazon boxes (I now know him by name).

A friend’s dad once told her to take her teenage sulk back upstairs “and don’t come down until you can sparkle like champagne.” I grinned when she recounted the tale—so WASP, and at the same time so admirable. The softer, more sociable version of a stiff upper lip. Sometimes we do need to be upbeat for other people’s sake—and especially now. High spirits are contagious, too. Our celebrations might be smaller, quieter, and more casual, with fewer people to whoop and giggle when the cork shoots into the air. But if we change the way we think about triumph, we have plenty of reason to open a bottle of Champagne.

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