I

THE little car took to French gasoline, an expensive taste, with such ecstatic enthusiasm that there was no holding her, and before we knew it we had traveled two thirds of the way from Havre to Paris. It was still early, so we treated ourselves to a detour through Versailles, the only place I’ve ever seen where blue ironwork does n’t seem to be imploring a coat of black paint, and stopped opposite Louis XIV in bronze for a long look at the pink palace. In spite of this delay, we reached our hotel by three o’clock. The rest of the afternoon was spent unpacking very thoroughly.

We were dining with the W.’s at eight. They are both painters, — of pictures, not houses, — and he is a wine lover as well, but what I admire and respect most in him is his mastery of the bicycle. He rides one about the streets of Paris, heedless of danger, dauntless and debonair. There is an on dit that once, when he was pedaling across the place Vendôme, a pigeon, terrified by the midday madness of American-laden Ritz-bound taxis, flew clumsily against him, injuring its wing and scratching his cheek. He dismounted, picked up the silly bird, and rode home, steering with one hand and carrying the pigeon in the other.

His apartment was on the top of a rearranged private house. Fortunately, there was a lift which moved upward in spasmodic jerks and eventually deposited us without mishap on the fifth-floor landing. Mrs. W. greeted us, and suggested that it might be cooler outdoors. We followed her to a terrace furnished with green wicker chairs and tables. It overlooked the vegetable garden of a clinic, where gardeners even at this late hour were weeding and doing all the odd things that gardeners like to do.

‘ How nice that vegetables should be willing to grow in the heart of Paris!’ I exclaimed.

‘Yes,’ assented Mrs. W., ‘they have a very soothing effect on me.’

No one mentioned Mr. W.’s absence, and Mrs. W., an exceptionally attractive person, remained quite calm — the proximity of the vegetables, no doubt — during the half-hour interval before he joined us.

I sat by him at dinner, but we hardly spoke. An army of decanters and bottles absorbed his attention. I found them pretty absorbing myself.

‘That’s why I was late for dinner,’ he murmured, dreamily, waving his hand toward the array.

He had an agreeable profile, his skin was perfect, and his hair grew well about the temples.

I was thinking, ‘You are the cleanest-looking person I have ever seen,’ when he startled me by announcing: —

‘I haven’t used soap in twenty years.’

‘What do you use?’ I gasped.

‘Nothing. I exercise and take showers. That’s how to keep clean. Soap clogs the pores of one’s skin. I exercise every day on the roof.’

‘On the roof?’

‘Yes, I have a place up there where I run. Round and round one way, then round and round the other. Very healthy. Now taste that wine. It’s a white Volnay, quite unique. The Marquis d’Angerville makes a small quantity every year and he gave me a few bottles of the 1920.’

It was indeed delicious. There followed a Montrachet 1919, after which three red wines, all in decanters, were served: the first a Burgundy, Hospice de Beaune 1900, the second a Château Lafite 1874, and the third another Burgundy, Corton Clos du Roi 1923. We sipped, thought, swallowed, and discussed. Personally, I preferred the 1874 claret to the rest. With dessert we had a Perrier Jouët 1911, a great vintage in Champagne. This one had acquired with age a deep golden color, while losing nothing of its delicate yet permeating bouquet. Even the œnophile who turns up his nose ever so slightly at the best of sparkling wines (because the sparkle is artificially induced) must admit that Champagne is appropriate to more varied occasions than is any other wine, and that the very sparkle of which he complains often injects a welcome spirit of fun into naturally deadly entertainments.

Since the beginning of the eighteenth century, Champagne has been considered practically a synonym for the word ‘gayety’ — also the cause of most pleasantly ephemeral emotional disturbances. Monsieur André Simon tells us in his book on Champagne that, as early as 1721, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu wrote: —

They sigh, not from the heart, but from the brain, Vapours of vanity and strong Champagne.

Its use in England, however, as an enlivener was not general until after 1750. From then on its reputation spread, and to-day what is a dance, wedding, or christening without one of the great bruts or natures? That is, if one’s host is feeling generous. It is indeed almost the only wine that may be used throughout a meal. An extradry or sec can be substituted with the fish course, and a demi-sec or dry — pretty sweet, from the American point of view — is excellent with dessert. The latter is the best type for Champagne cocktails, as the addition of bitters is not the sacrilege it would be with finer qualities — which leads me back to Perrier Jouët 1911, the point from which I started on this ramble. Its use as a dessert wine was an exception to the rule, ‘a sweet Champagne with dessert,’ an exception made because the wines preceding it at dinner had been so superb that nothing but a very great brut could have held its own among them.

After dinner, we had coffee and 1830 brandy, in a room full of blue glass and nasturtiums. Then we climbed a ladder to the roof, fifteen square feet of flat space surrounded by a brick wall high enough to support one’s elbows. The night was warm and windy. A full moon hung low in the sky and away to the left Montmartre, crowned by the Sacré Cœur, assumed an illusive beauty in the soft white light. Banks of gray clouds rolled apart, disclosing bottomless blue-black depths of night, sprinkled with pale little stars. At times the moon was hidden. I glanced toward the Tour Eiffel, once ablaze with the impudent splendor of innumerable electric lights, now shrouded in darkness, and felt sorry for Monsieur Citroën.

II

Next morning, as usual, the telephone waked us. It was Monsieur Bollinger. He was yearning for a breath of salt air, but wanted to show us his Champagne establishment before the call of the sea grew too strong. Would we come to Reims that afternoon ?

We lunched at Foyot’s, on a bottle of perfect Chablis, a long conversation with the best sommelier in Paris, and a little fish.

The trip to Reims was pleasant. I saw something I had never seen until that day: ‘VIVE LE ROI’ painted in large letters on walls and houses. It was rather exciting, and a relief from the monotony of LIBERTÉ, EGALITÉ, FRATERNITÉ — DÉFENSE D’AFFICHER — and the many other things one reads on walls. In Reims we tried to visit the cathedral, but the doors were locked.

Monsieur Bollinger stopped for us at seven o’clock and drove us to a country inn, where we dined out of doors. He was younger than I had expected, looked American, but spoke English with the accent of those who have learned the language in England. He was brisk and alert, and one felt beneath his charming manners and gentle courtesy a quick impatience easy to arouse. His blue eyes sparkled with humor. Reddish hair hinted at Breton ancestry. A human dynamo of energy and vitality built on foundations of uncompromising integrity.

With a bottle of Bollinger ’26, we discussed politics in general and the Croix de Feu in particular. It was the first I ’d heard of them or of their remarkable leader, the Colonel de la Rocque. His career and army record led us back to the war.

More Champagne was brought. Charlie and Monsieur Bollinger had both flown at the front in ‘18. Common friends were unearthed. Before we’d finished coffee, a warm liking had been created by the bond of similar tastes.

‘Come,’ said Monsieur Bollinger, ‘we will go and explore the trenches by moonlight.’

It was a soft clear night and the former front was near by. Within ten minutes we could distinguish the white chalk face of one of the much-disputed Monts de Champagne. We left the car and walked up a road that seventeen years ago would have taken one straight into the German lines. Not a tree, not a bush, not a blade of grass. Trenches cut deep in the clay soil, moistened by countless rains and moulded by countless feet, had been cast into a permanent monument to war.

We sat on the edge of a shell hole, silently listening for the echo of sounds that had once been familiar. The stillness hurt. A narrow strip of No Man’s Land separated us from the German first lines. I wandered toward them. At every step one walked on pieces of metal lying where they had fallen so long ago. Surely a trick of moonlight must be responsible for that glint of steel ahead. I advanced reluctantly and, reaching the German trench, peered over its parapet. There, six feet below me, I saw a helmet. The paint had worn away in places and the exposed steel shone in the moonlight. Was it my imagination, or was the helmet rocking slightly as though recently flung to the ground? I turned and ran. Whispering voices and flying footsteps pursued me.

Charlie and Monsieur Bollinger, sitting where I had left them, looked reassuringly solid. They were talking earnestly, but paused for a second, surprised by my precipitate return, before continuing their conversation.

Charlie was saying, ‘It’s curious that the vintages of 1914, ’15, ‘17, and ’18 should have all turned out as well as they did with labor conditions what they were.’

‘Not to speak of the bombardments,’ supplemented Monsieur Bollinger. ‘ Of course a lot of Champagne was lost in the actual cellars of Reims’.

‘But I thought the Germans never got into them.‘

‘ It was n’t the Germans, madame. It was our own troops. They—’

‘ I remember,’Charlie broke in, ‘there was a story at the time. Some men quartered in the cellars pulled out those wedges which prop up long stacks of bottles. In consequence whole sections collapsed, and the “caves” were knee-deep in Champagne.‘

‘Then why is there any at all left?’ I wondered.

‘A sound psychologist at G. H. Q. issued an order allowing each of these men his bottle of Champagne a day. From then on, it was considered bad form to exceed one’s ration.‘

Charlie looked at his watch. ‘It’s late. We ought to go.’

On the way back to Reims we passed a tank abandoned on a bank by the roadside. It stood out in sharp black relief against the whiteness of the Milky Way.

The following morning we slept late, so late, in fact, that it was necessary to visit the vineyards by car instead of on foot, which suited me much better. The vines were a nice healthy dark green with a robin’s-egg-blue finish, the result of ‘sulphating’ to kill mildew. It was a good year, the grapes well developed for July, yet separated on their stems — a desirable state of affairs, I learned.

Monsieur Bollinger owned vineyards in the different districts from which various types of grapes are blended to make a fine well-balanced Champagne. We inspected them all before lunch. A billowing sea of vines, with here and there the head of a vigneron silhouetted against the horizon like some lonely swimmer.

We lunched for two hours — hors d’œuvres, two meat courses, cheese, a superb raspberry ice cream, fruit, coffee, Cognac, and a lot of talk. There were four of us, including Monsieur Bollinger’s cousin. First we had a magnum of still Cramant 1911 which was nectar. I pleaded with the partners to sell us a few cases, or bottles even, to take back to America. This, they infinitely regretted, was impossible, as, after we had consumed the present bottle, there would remain only eight in the world.

While absorbing our second magnum, a Bollinger brut 1915, they told me more about Cramant. It is one of the best districts of the Côte des Blancs, a region planted entirely with white grapes. The wines from the vineyards of this region lend to the finished product known as Champagne its delicate qualities of lightness and finesse. The black grapes grown at Aÿ, Bouzy, Sillery, give to the final cuvée or blend the lustier characteristics of full body and perfume. This was news to me, as I had no idea that a bottle of good Champagne contained wines from the different grapes of different districts, situated in the strictly limited Champagne area, all contributing their personalities to an harmonious whole.

‘Please,’ I begged, ‘tell me more. Show me everything and tell me all about it in words of one syllable.’

‘Very well,’agreed Monsieur Bollinger. ‘We will devote the afternoon to an exhaustive tour through the établissement and cellars of the Maison Bollinger, but to do this we must hurry back to Aÿ.‘

We hurried — so much that at no time were the four wheels of ‘ mon cousins’ heavy car all on the road at once.

Elle tient bien la route,‘ said Monsieur Bollinger, who was driving.

‘Tant mieux,’ gasped ‘ man cousin’ briefly.

I remembered the words of a French soldier who once, on seeing me wince at the sound of a shell whining overhead, tried to soothe my fears.

‘Don’t worry, mademoiselle,’ he had said; ‘you will not hear the whine of the shell that hits you.‘

I hoped in a confused way that this might also apply to roadside trees.

Safely, if a little shaken, we reached Aÿ and, without waiting even to draw breath, began my first lesson in Champagne making — began conscientiously at the beginning, as represented by a building somewhat resembling a large cement-floored barn, where in the autumn at vendange, or picking time, the grapes are brought to be pressed. There was no activity here at the moment, but we saw how the juice is conveyed to casks, in which the first fermentation takes place. When this has been completed and the wines racked, those from different vineyards are skillfully blended or ‘assembled’ in such a manner as to correct their individual shortcomings. In the preparation of a vintage Champagne, this blend or cuvée is made up predominantly from the wines of a year in which nature has particularly favored the vines. For non-vintage and also for cheaper Champagnes, the blend of young wines is toned up with various types of older ones. Blending can be a fine art, and the judgment and experience of the individual Champagne house in the making of its cuvées largely determine the quality and the special characteristics of the finished product.

I had n’t a doubt of it, but my mind was in a whirl. However, I had asked for information and ought not to complain because I was getting it. So I tried to concentrate.

The following spring the vins de cuvées, with the exception of those being held in reserve for future blendings, are bottled. To each bottle is added a small quantity of cane-sugar syrup. Firmly corked and wired, the bottles are then laid away on their sides in the cellars for about four years. During this period the sugar causes a natural secondary fermentation in the bottle. This in turn produces the pleasing bubbles which actually bring out and enhance all the gay charming elements in a Champagne de grande marque.

We now, to my great relief, descended to the cellars. These differ from those of Reims in that they are excavated, while the latter are natural caves. Miles of dark corridor, dimly lit at distant intervals by low-powered electric bulbs; hundreds of thousands of bottles lining the walls; cobwebs festooned and matted to the ceiling; tracks laid along the earthen floor. A train of small trucks clattered round a curve toward us, rendered no less alarming for being man-pushed. Occasional gnomish figures worked crouching in shadowy corners, candles flickering at their elbows.

Instinctively I lowered my voice. ‘Go on, and then what?’ ‘At the end of four years,’ Monsieur Bollinger continued patiently, ‘ the bottles are placed neck downward in so-called pupitres, wooden racks, designed to hold them in this position. Here they remain for several months, the remueur giving each bottle a periodic twist of about a quarter turn which encourages the deposit to slide down the sides and into the neck, where it finally settles on the cork.’ I now understood the solitary activities of the mole-like men we’d met from time to time.

‘Eventually comes the dégorgement, or removal of the cork with its layer of adhering sediment, a delicate operation accomplished in one of two ways; in some establishments, by freezing the neck of the bottle, thereby making it possible to withdraw the cork together with the frozen lump of deposit; in others, by hand, which requires great manual dexterity.’

The damp, chilly mustiness of the cellars was giving me claustrophobia. In the distance a Romanesque arch filled with light suggested that our tunnel opened out into an underground room of some sort. Such was the case. In fact, Monsieur Bollinger led us there, saying that he would rather show than describe the final operations performed on Champagne.

Several small groups of workers were busy with mysterious-looking contrivances. We watched the cork removing proceed with rhythmic precision. The wine, still in its original bottle, should now be crystal clear and completely dry, all the sugar having been used up in the process of fermentation. One little old man had specialized for years in verifying this fact. Before being recorked and wired, each bottle receives a small dose of liqueur d’expédition, the amount depending on whether the Champagne is to be offered as a brut, extra-dry, sec, demi-sec, and so forth. For a brut, only a very small quantity is added, and for the sweeter types correspondingly more. A large dose of liqueur may mask the imperfections of an indifferent blend; a brut, however, must stand on its own intrinsic merits.

We saw all this done before going on to the labeling department. Here, in large airy rooms aboveground, women — usually the wives, mothers, and sisters of vignerons, or cellar workers — predominate. Each woman has her allotted task. One pastes on the labels and passes the bottle on to another, who neatly presses tinfoil about its neck and shoulders. It is then wrapped in tissue paper, usually colored, before being finally popped into a straw paillon. From now on, men again take charge. There is a carpenter shop where scores of cases are made daily. We stood surrounded by mountain peaks of these new white cases, all packed and nailed up, their addresses clearly printed on sides and lids in shiny black paint. They were going to England, Spain, America, Japan, and the Straits Settlements, there to be unpacked by hands of many races, white, black, yellow, brown.

The personally conducted tour was over. I knew all I could learn in one day about Champagne. The moral to the story was this: only good grapes, carefully picked and sorted at the right time, then properly pressed and fermented, make good wine. Good wine makes good Champagne only when watched over and nursed by experts.

In 1928, a very great year, the best grapes sold for twelve francs a kilo. It takes two kilos to make one bottle of Champagne. Add six years’ worth of time and labor to these initial twenty-four francs, and the cost of production per bottle mounts to a pretty price. Our government pays sparkling Champagne the doubtful compliment of taxing it at the rate of over $17 a case, so, what with one thing and another, it is not surprising that a really fine Champagne is necessarily an expensive drink.

It was after four o’clock, and physically exhausted, if mentally stimulated, I accepted with thanks Monsieur Bollinger’s offer of a bite and a swallow before starting on our homeward journey. The swallow turned out to be a last large bottle of Champagne.