Your champagne bar specializes in grower-producer champagnes. What makes grower-producer champagnes special?
A Grower Producer or Recoltant-Manipulant (RM) is a producer that grows grapes and makes champagnes exclusively from grapes from their own vines. Most of the RMs I have relationships with produce only 10,000 to 50,000 bottles a year. With most RMs, you’re looking at a one-person operation (i.e. the farmer is the winemaker and controls the entire process from the vineyard to the bottle). The best smaller houses focus on natural winemaking. You can see this when you visit the region and you can taste it when you drink their wines. The vines and the soil look noticeably healthier and the quality of the fruit shows this. No processing during natural winemaking results in a better wine. I often make an analogy to beer. Anheuser-Busch is the world’s largest brewer. Compare a Bud Lite to a locally-produced fresh craft beer, and you’ll see and taste the difference.
You founded SFCS in 2014. What have you learned in the last six years? Any surprises?
The quote “I am still learning” from Michael Angelo resonates with me as I am constantly learning from my guests while pouring champagne and from my travels to the region.
The biggest surprise is this current Pandemic and how my clients have been so supportive. The pickup and deliveries have made the difference in surviving this mess. I intend to continue to offer these services after the lounge reopens.
Also, I did 100 bottles in 100 days, and that had some surprises. I was able to focus on just that one bottle each night and have it alone on a clean palate. There were some bottles I thought I knew that ended up being completely different when they were not part of an evening filled with several glasses of different champagnes.
I saw in a Chronicle article that you were an electrical engineer by day. Is this still the case? How might these two professions intersect?
I studied electrical engineering at Drexel University in Philadelphia from 1980-1985 with a focus on electronics (specifically audio preamps and amplifiers). Music is the other passion of mine, and it is a perfect complement to food and wine.
BMA is the A/V Integration business I started in 1994 which is licensed C-10 as an electrical contractor with a focus on low voltage systems i.e. I sell audio systems integrated into your home or business. I had done a lot of the Silicon Valley’s conference rooms from 1994 to 2008. I started BMA as a “temporary” business I could run until I found what I really wanted to do. It took 20 years until starting SFCS to get there. I still work on BMA projects for preferred clients on a limited basis. I have days when I start early with an AV Project and transition to pouring champagne for SFCS clients in the evenings, so I can do both, but it makes for a long day. I don’t intend to walk away from BMA entirely, but my focus now is on SFCS. I would prefer to drink a glass of champagne with you rather than install a home theater for you. I could cross-market the two businesses but it feels like a shameless plug, so I only do it when asked.
Apparently flutes are no longer the glass of choice for champagne. Can you confirm?
I learned many years ago how the correct glass impacts any wine experience. I have been carrying my own wine glasses with me to restaurants for several years. It is awkward at times but I will not drink any wine if it is not served correctly. Wine glassware is an obsession and it may be time to find a good therapist to address this; however, I cannot suppress the engineer in me that craves to learn more about the science involved and why wine is different in each glass. Unfortunately, it has not been easy getting answers to my questions.
My guests do benefit from my research trying the same champagne in the five or so different glasses. Many are completely shocked at the difference it can make. When the lounge is open, I offer an option for what I call fun with glassware. I pour the same still wine in three different glasses to show how different they can be. It is fun and very surprising. Champagne from RMs are fine wines to be treated as such and served in a fine wine glass. Flutes are tall and narrow and filled to the top, thus there is no room for the wine to open up or for you to smell the aroma or bouquet of the wine. What you smell is what you taste (think about having a cold and congestion and no taste). A proper wine glass made for champagne allows the wine to open up in the glass and let you smell the aroma and bouquet with proper balance. It was interesting to see Olivier Krug at a recent virtual event with Max Riedel and Olivier stated, “drinking champagne in a flute is like going to the symphony with earplugs.” I have to agree.
I imagine you keep up with the trends of the champagne world. Is there anything you’re particularly excited about?
My guests are discovering that champagnes are more than just a celebratory beverage, and they make for an excellent pairing with a meal. I have been enjoying champagne with every course of almost every meal when I dine for a long time so it does not feel like a trend to me but it is new and exciting to most others.
Also, brut nature or zero dosage champagnes are currently trending, and many consumers select champagnes looking for the lowest added dosage. Unfortunately, this is not ideal. Dosage is sugar or concentrated and rectified grape must. It’s added to champagne to balance the wine after disgorgement. Warmer climates are bringing earlier harvests with more natural sugar in the fruit. There’s less of a need to add dosage, but note the amount is not an indication of the quality of the champagne. Making brut nature champagne for a market trend results in champagne that is out of balance.
And…you may consider replacing your flutes for a proper wine glass a current trend, though that still has yet to really catch on.
Is global warming making an impact on champagne?
Champagne has certainly benefited from the warmer climate over the past decade+. It is interesting to speak to some producers that are 10th or 11th generation. They recall, as kids, the harvest taking place in October. Now, it’s happening in September, and sometimes even in late August. But it is starting to get too hot. 2019, for example, did have some extreme heat and it was sad to see photos from my friends in Champagne showing grapes burnt on the vines. In a recent interview, Rodolphe Peters of Pierre Peters, addressed this same question, stating that the golden years for champagne have passed. They’re now working around the warmer climate. Future champagnes will reflect the negative impact of global warming. Some producers, however, are working with different varietals that can handle hotter temperatures.
You’re closed for the pandemic, but you’re offering some great packages for pickup and delivery. How’s this going?
The pandemic has changed everything for now and for what could be some time to come. I was expecting months without any income until my clients started to place orders for champagne for pick up or delivery. I recently introduced a Virtual Champagne Experience. This gives me the chance to introduce the champagnes and provide some education for my clients much like being at the lounge. It also creates a foundation for future purchases and is essential for those that are new to SFCS.
Any final comments?
I live a champagne lifestyle and enjoy sharing it with others. That is what the San Francisco Champagne Society is about. It is not just a glass of bubbles, but a champagne experience that, for some of my guests, develops into a lifestyle. Join me for a glass sometime if you can to see for yourself what this is all about.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.