It was 1o o'clock in the morning and raining when we arrived at the Gonet winery, but my friend C and I weren't complaining. We'd been in the Champagne region less than 24 hours, and already we'd feasted on prosciutto di Parma and Gouda on French baguette, freshly squeezed orange juice and coffee as black as peat. The bus had arrive à l'heure at our lovely hotel on the outskirts of Reims (pronounce a bit like the Engish word 'rince' with your nose pinched), setting in motion the answer to a silent promise we'd made ourselves not so many years ago: we would visit Champagne, husbands be damned. But raining it was, and quiet. The house, completely dark. But we were exactly where we were supposed to be: on the cusp of fulfilling a dream.
Minutes later an elderly man appeared. Monsieur Godet himself, hair still slick from his shower.
"I am sorry," he said, his r's rolling with utmost French civility. "It is a holiday in France today. It is the day we visit the graves. Between my wife's family and my own, we have five to visit. I did not expect you."
He had me at, "I'm sorry." The gentleman was forgiven.
Monsieur Godet escorted us past his large steel vats of this year's stewing juice, to the elevator that took us into his cellar. He showed us the cages where he loaded hundreds of bottles at a time so that the sediment from the wine's second fermentation, that which produces the wine's characteristic bubbles, would settle down to the cork. He showed us the machinery that would later uncork, fill and recork the bottles; the forklift that stacked the cases; and the nooks and crannies where his workers didn't come often enough.
"They work 35 hours per week," he said. "No more." His sigh spoke volumes.
Shortly thereafter he escorted us to his lovely banquet room reserved for tastings. Its windows overlooked rolling hills of vineyards as far as the eye could see. The tables were adorned with handpainted bottles of conspicuous vintage; the walls bore certificates of honour. On a long central table lay a tray of nearly two dozen champagne flutes. Along side were four bottles he'd painstakingly chosen for our pleasure. At the table's center was a large silver spittoon beside a plate of the infamous pink biscuits of Champagne. Let the tastings begin.
He poured his Champagne Reserve Brut to start. It was lovely with fine bubbles and a pale colour. The glasses were filled more than the typical drab afforded by Swiss caves. I was impressed by his generosity. Half way through, I heard the pop as the second bottle opened. Curious to compare, I scanned the room for a place to empty my glass, still half full. I found my way to the center of the table and tipped my flute into the silver spittoon.
The second glass had a remarkable nose. "Honey," we all agreed. I sipped slowly and appreciatively, but when third bottle made it's appearance I turned again for the large silver vessel. I was mid-dump, past the point of no return, when our charming host cried, "Not the vase!"
I can only be grateful that he'd not cried, "Not the urn!" Had I poured his lovely cuvé over the ashes of his dearly departed belle-mère I fear I might not be here to write this post.
I honestly never noticed that I was the only one pouring off my glass. I apologized profusely and for the rest of the day never once poured my coupe into anyone's precious family heirloom.
It was a lesson that I will not soon forget: when in Reims, one drinks.