Seven friends and I set off on the John Muir Trail in Yosemite Valley at 6 a.m. Aug. 29, headed to the top of Half Dome. We carefully planned our day and were fairly diligent about conditioning to prepare for the arduous daylong hike. We joked that we were oversupplied and had single-handedly boosted REI’s late-summer sales.
The night before our trek, we enjoyed a nice dinner and tried to get to bed early even though we were nervous and excited the day had finally come. We made sure to chill some post-celebratory champagne. I had initially forgotten to bring the bubbly but insisted as we left Los Altos Hills that we turn back and grab a couple of bottles in anticipation of our success.
Which got me to thinking: Why are champagne and sparkling wine the drinks of choice when toasting or celebrating? The sound of a cork popping is universally known, right? Weddings, boat launches and sporting events are punctuated with corks flying, champagnes or sparkling wines gurgling and frothing over, or even a thumb being firmly placed over the top to create a full spray or shower of the stuff. Champagne is synonymous with joy, celebrations and victories.
The discovery of champagne dates to the Middle Ages, when a French Benedictine monk tried his darndest to prevent the tiny bubbles from creeping into wines, an ongoing source of frustration for local winemakers. After some experimentation, and leveraging the climate and fermentation process to his advantage, Dom Pierre Perignon blended and corked the sparkling wine in bottles heavy enough to prevent explosions. He also began the practice of blending the local grapes at his disposal for a crisp and bright finish. Ultimately, the creation of the sparkling version of wine became a concoction in and of itself, and nobility and aristocracy routinely enjoyed it for its unique nature.
Today, France has worked hard to protect its Champagne region, and only sparkling wines that originate there are officially designated as “champagne.” However, sparkling wines are crafted all over the world, and California has plenty of locally grown favorites. To the dismay of the French, “champagne” has become the universal term for the sparkling end-product, regardless of its origins.
Earlier in the summer, I sampled a tasty champagne cocktail during my travels in Sweden. At a dinner party, my host said the “Hugo“ was all the rage in Munich this summer – très international, non? He rubbed fresh mint leaves in his fingers before dropping them in the bottom of a champagne flute, then covered them with approximately 2 tablespoons of Elderflower syrup (Saft Fläder – available locally at IKEA’s Swedish Food Market in East Palo Alto) and a couple of drops of lime juice, then drowned the mix in ice-cold champagne. The result was delicious, refreshing, flowery and ideal for a reunion-dinner toast. The beverage served as a pleasant reminder that sparkling wines should be enjoyed far more frequently than weddings and other celebrations.
Gathering with my seven weary hiking buddies at the Ahwahnee Hotel last week reinforced that I needed to write about my love of champagne. As I put that glass to my mouth and savored its crisp and cold deliciousness, I realized that I don’t drink enough champagne – or perhaps it’s that I don’t slow down to celebrate often enough.
As I write this month’s column, I’m in the waiting room while my husband undergoes knee surgery. It is a real downer – he will be laid up for a while – but, like my trudge up and back down Half Dome, this, too shall pass, and we will once again raise a glass of champagne in celebration. After all, tomorrow we celebrate 10 years of marriage. I’ll drink to that!