In the late '80s, early '90s, there was a Champagne bar on the Newport Peninsula aptly named Bubbles. It served a wide variety of French Champagnes by the glass, and I was intrigued by the labor of love that making true Champagne involves, usually selecting some combination of varietals to balance the sugars and flavor. I loved knowing that in France the "riddler" is not a Batman nemesis, but rather the person whose job it is to gently shake and tilt the aging Champagne at prescribed intervals to release the cloudy sediment into the neck of the bottle so it can be disgorged later. I enjoy bubbles – in my wine, in my water and in my bath. In autumn, I went on a quest to visit the bubbly Champagne region of France.
I recommend the Air France nonstops from LAX that get you to Paris tout de suite. The train to Reims is an easy 45-minute jaunt from Paris and a very short taxi ride to the Grand Dame of all the Champagne houses, Vranken Pommery, which sits in the heart of Reims and has a rich and storied past. Founded in 1858 by Louis Alexandre Pommery and Narcisse Greno as a wool trading company, the enterprise passed to Jeanne Pommery, his widow, upon the death of her husband in 1860. She purchased the 12 miles of underground limestone and chalk caves dug out by Roman soldiers that house up to 20 million bottles of Champagne. Today, the chateau juxtaposes the layered history of a world-class French country estate with a huge modern art exhibition that has changed annually since 2004 – something of a surprise at first sight.
If you take the time to book in advance, you can arrange a lunch on the property to coincide with your tour. We feasted in an intimate room lined with mini bottles of the limited-edition POP Champagne. The perfectly balanced menu included an appetizer of identical-sized quadrants of mini eggplant pieces and Roma tomatoes roasted with a little garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper, which was then sautéed with large shrimp. Chicken breast with sautéed mirepoix in a Champagne sabayon sauce followed. The coup de gras was a mandolin-thin sliced apple tarte tatin. Each course was paired with flowing Champagne, complementing the flavors in the meal expertly, and by the end, I was ready for a nap on this gray day. Instead of sleep, a satiated and lazy group of us headed next door to tour Villa Demoiselle to taste more Champagne.
The VIP tasting included some of the brand's more famous pours, and we had a chance to view vintage bottles from all the "good" years in the Champagne museum. Louis Sorel designed Villa Demoiselle in a blend of art nouveau and art deco style, but with a concrete structure and metal frame. The villa survived two world wars before it became home to hippie squatters in the ’70s. Built from 1904 to 1908, the mansion was exquisitely restored 100 years later by Paul-Francois and Nathalie Vranken, faithful to the original style. Artisans, many of them local, took five years to return the manse to its former glory after the building's near demolition in 1980. Michelle Andre, who rejected the permit and placed the building under the protection of the city of Reims Architecture and Heritage Department, saved Villa Demoiselle.
I was not familiar with the work of Majorelle, an important art nouveaux artist whose work figures prominently in Villa Demoiselle, until my trip to his gardens in Marrakech earlier last year. While the exterior of Villa Demoiselle sports clean art deco lines, the fanciful furniture and dramatic interior are reminiscent of the art nouveau style. We lingered in the kitchen with a larger-than-life stuffed rabbit seated at the kitchen table, held court at the bar in the library, and gazed at original Lalique platters. The dramatic fireplace and bar are prime examples of Majorelle’s work and are masterpieces in and of themselves. The windows now overlook a lawn art installation of a tower of inverted blue bottles and offer a view of the Pommery Estate.
If you have time, visit Notre Dame de Reims, the site where the French coronations were held and home to inspiring medieval stained glass windows and panels by Marc Chagall and Brigitte Simon.
Grab a coat before heading down into the infamous Les Caves Pommery. A football field-sized tasting room and store sit atop the heart of the estate. Below, you are schooled in the world of Champagne, and view an ever-changing selection of contemporary art – an interesting mix of modern humor adjacent to dusty Champagne bottles. The installation is meant to be shared. I rounded a corner to find a life-sized faux older couple complete with a sun hat and glasses buried in the sand, and in another cave, a teenage satire on the parental relationship. I stopped in the Pommery store to grab some gifts and, later that night, fell asleep with the wet, sweet, musty smell of the vines filling my room.
When You’ve Had Enough of the Countryside, Head for Paris
Pack The Great Gatsby or your favorite Hemmingway novel, load some Cole Porter on your iPad, download some images from Picasso and Modigliani on your iPad and head back to Paris. In the center of all the action is rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, where Le Bristol Paris has famously perched since it opened in 1925, during the height of the roaring '20s. Le Bristol has exceedingly large rooms (especially for Paris), almost half of which are suites, furnished uniquely in classic 18th-century style. No two rooms are the same, and no reproductions are allowed. My room with a view was spacious and overlooked the famous Boulevard. I sat, people watching, in between visiting Le Spa Le Bristol by La Prairie, dining at Epicure, Brasserie 114 Faubourg and drinking the night away in the chic and cozy Bar du Bristol, which opened in time for last year's fashion week to accolades and awards.
Fa-raon, the hotel cat, welcomes adults and children, and often, you can find him lounging in the lobby. Surprisingly, this elegant hotel, which is a popular spot for diplomats and the rich and famous, also welcomes families with their children's club, "Les Amis d'Hippolyte." A favorite activity is an art contest to draw Fa-roan's white fluffy face. Parents can take in the hotel's famous Fashion Tea on weekends, with a rotating group of shockingly stunning models draped in the latest luxury clothing, while children entertain themselves with gardening, walks and dining on the special kid's menu created by the three Michelin-starred chef, Eric Frechon, who oversees all of the hotels fine dining experiences.
But adults should head for Le Bar, which is part English manor, mixed with Italian marble, leopard-cloaked chairs, and an ever changing screen of art, music and moods. The bar is headed by the adept Maxime Hoerth, formerly of the Ritz Bar, who seems far too young to have been named Meilleur Ouvrier de France (master craftsman) in 2011, but his energy is exuberant, and his cocktails are almost as delicious as his charm.
Le Bristol keeps its sense of humor intact by playing Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris on a continual loop. I think it best to follow the Midnight in Paris itinerary and visit the Rodin museum. An outdoor ode to the most famous sculptures, it's a romantic setting to view those pieces we only see in photos in art school in the U.S. If you find yourself in Paris before January 5, be sure to take in the Camille Claudel Reserve Collection Exhibit.
On the way back to the hotel from my taxi, I spied something I cannot fathom. A Frenchwoman, on this sunny day, in a wrap trench coat, with a scarf tossed casually around her neck, wearing pants, jewelry, heeled Mary Janes, smoking a cigarette and talking on the phone, was riding a bike through Paris traffic. She should be in the circus. I was flummoxed. "Wasn't she hot? How come her hair didn't look messy? Doesn't it take effort to do all those things at once?" I was giggling to myself, but I must remember to squash my natural desire to smile when I pass Parisian strangers. Memories of Mrs. Abramo's seventh grade French class flooded my brain. I loved everything French so much that on Bastille Day, when other kids brought cheese to celebrate La France, I made boeuf bourguignon for 12-year-olds (yes, I used real red wine as I took the authenticity of the dish seriously)! There is nothing like smiling at a Parisian to startle them. However, order a croissant without saying “bon jour," and off with your head! I head out for a morning walk and can't help but smile again to myself as I stroll the rainy streets the morning of my departure, and then I smirk as I realize Jean Paul of Laguna Beach 's Jean Paul's Goodies has been reinforcing this important French lesson that I learned early, all along. Go for the bubbles, stay for the luxury.