In New York for a Broadway gig, actor Alan Rickman needed a specific bottle of champagne. He walked into the wine shop Chambers Street, well known to wine ferrets who seek exquisite hard-to-find bottles, and asked for Veuve Clicquot. The salesperson was dismayed: Rickman had been to the shop before and always departed with imaginative choices, and Chambers never carries Veuve and its ilk. It's not because the stuff is rare -- those bubbles are about as rare as rhinestones. Brands such as Moët & Chandon produce about 30 million bottles annually, but Chambers prefers grower champagne (affectionately known as "farmer fizz"), which represents about 4 percent of all champagne produced. This elixir, like its big-brand counterparts, comes from the Champagne region of France, but unlike them it is made by individual vintners from grapes they grow themselves. A maker of grower champagne might produce no more than 10,000 bottles a year, often much less. In the end, the store sent Rickman elsewhere.
This trend of saying no to the Goliaths and yes to the Davids is gaining ground and has finally come to the West Coast. In truth, the trend might have originated in Los Angeles. Santa Monica's Wine Expo GM Roberto Rogness has been spurning soulless brands for more serious producers since 1993. While there are classic shops like Wally's Wine & Spirits in West L.A. that cover all the bases for their huge studio clientele, there are others who specialize. When Dan Perrelli of The Wine Hotel in the Miracle Mile area gets requests for a ubiquitous champagne, he has a ready answer: "I politely send them to Ralphs." This is not merely a small-is-beautiful aesthetic but also more of a shop philosophy: Why not pay less for a wine that can be heart-stoppingly beautiful?
And though buying habits die hard, the shops are thrilled with their small gains. Perrelli claims he has a studio-boss customer who only buys champagne that is positively reviewed in The New York Times (its chief wine critic, Eric Asimov, is an ardent grower-champagne drinker). And a British director who recently was converted to a 2002 J. Lassalle Special Club from his usual Dom Perignon cleaned the store out of the stuff, says Perrelli.
The industry, which benefits from the bigs with things like Oscar sponsorship, has been slow to wean itself off industrial brands. "Hollywood isn't typically a 'bite the hand that feeds' kind of place," says Jill Bernheimer of Melrose Avenue's Domaine LA. "So the big brands are bound to have impact on buying patterns here if they're helping to foot the bill." Nonetheless, there's hope. Bernheimer was a happy woman the other week when she received a phone call from a customer. She says, "He asked for a bottle of champagne he couldn't find in Costco."
CHAMPAGNE BY THE NUMBERS
1. NV Vinos de Terrunos German Gilabert Cava Brut Nature Reserva
Biggest bargain in quality bubbles? This from Spain: clean, fresh, tingly. " Plonk Wine Merchants, $16
2. NV Ulysse Collin Extra Brut Blanc de Blancs
The richness of this sturdy chardonnay comes from the oak aging. The Wine House, $65
3. Jacques Selosse Initial
Selosse is the big daddy in the grower-champagne category and the winemaker that made it clear that, yes, you can be organic in Champagne. Silverlake Wine, $157.50
4. NV Chartogne-Taillet Cuvée Sainte-Anne
When weaning customers off better-known brands, this is Domaine LA's go-to for a trauma-free transition to artisanal wine. Domaine LA, $50
5. '96 Ployez-Jacquemart Liesse d'Harbonville Magnum RD
Double bottles are so impressive. Perrelli's nuts about this citrus-dressed wine from an elite vintage. The Wine Hotel, $275
6. Laherte Freres Brut Rosé
Rosé champagne? No-brainer. Laherte has captured the imagination of the town's sommeliers this year. Woodland Hills Wine Co., $37.50
7. '88 Krug 750ML
Before Krug was a brand, it was … Krug. Wine consultant Robert Bohr describes its "contradictory sensations -- what you'd expect from such a complex wine." Wally's, $500
8. NV Landron Atmospheres
The only reason this is so cheap is that bubbles from Nantes are a secret bargain. Domaine LA, under $20
9. NV Bouchard Val Vilaine Inflorescence
Rare alert! Only 80 cases made their way to California. Sky-meets-earth thrilling. The Wine House, $55
10. Champagne Barons de Rothschild NV
A new entry from the house of Mouton. Given its pedigree, this is better than it needs to be. It's
not grower, but it's delicious and always classic. Wally's, $100
11. Jacques Lassaigne Les Vignes de Montgueux
Grower Emmanuel Lassaigne squeezes this velvety, lemon-accented apple-pie-crust champagne that inspires devotion. The Wine House, $50