I collect toasts like other people collect stamps, or fantasy footballs (that’s how fantasy football works, right?). And New Year’s Eve, when we’re deep in our cups and in a state of deep conviviality, is the perfect time to bust them out, Steve McQueen style.
So grab a bottle of Champagne, and raise up your glass, and toast along with me. Here’s to you: Champagne for my real friends, and real pain for my sham friends.
Some Words on Champagne
“Three be the things I shall never attain: envy, content, and sufficient Champagne.” –Dorothy Parker
Champagne has long been thought as the wine of inspiration. It is referred to as sweet Ambrosia and as Bacchus’ blessing. Hemingway called it the tenth muse. Eartha Kitt said all Champagne tastes of our past lovers. It is the holy water with which we christen ships and births, the physical embodiment of celebration with which we declare victory. It inspires fits of flowery language, and purple poetry issues forth from even the driest tongue.
It’s good shit.
So why Champagne*? There are many theories. It might be that, in the 1500s, as the British developed the technology to bottle effervescent wines, it became vogue to celebrate with this new and popular style of wine. Or it might be that, as the Church was losing power in France after the revolution(s), people turned to Champagne to grace their rituals.
But Champagne had actually been making sparkling wines long before then, it’s just that for a long time this effervescence was seen as a flaw in the wine. The Romans were the first to plant vineyards in Champagne, where they produced red wines. But it’s so cold in Champagne that the grapes that grow there are thin-skinned**, high in acidity, and low in sugar. Because this tends to produce bitter, unpleasant wine (no Syrah in Germany, you’ll note), early winemakers would add sugars and yeast to the finished wines.
And what happens when you add sugar and yeast to living wine? That yeast comes to life and starts eating the sugars and, uh, excreting alcohol and carbon dioxide. This second fermentation, by the way, is the most important part of Champagne, and the most difficult to attain consistently and successfully (it’s part of the reason Champagne tends to be more expensive than, say, Prosecco***. And it’s the reason Champagne bottles are so heavy: thicker glass is less likely to explode). But the Romans thought it was fucking up their wine. Until some brave mad genius tried making white wine in Champagne, and letting it ferment a second time in the bottle, and found the result was delicious.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. That still red wine the Romans were making in Champagne? They were using it during their coronation ceremonies. So that may well be what started this whole “party with Champagne” business.
I tend to think, though, that any justification for why we celebrate with Champagne is just that: an explanation for the phenomenon, and not the reason for it. Champagne feels like a good time. It is lively and airy and elegant. Its pretty white fruit is inviting, its subtle sweetness is seductive and its bracing, mouth-watering acidity is refreshing and invigorating. And it’s bubbly. And bubbles are fun.
Any ritual we have is an excuse to drink Champagne, not the other way around.
Any Ritual Will Do.
A favorite of mine, and one that I make sure to do every New Year’s Eve, is actually Cuban in origin, but practiced in Colombia and Spain as well. It’s a tradition that my parents taught me, and their parents taught them, and so on.
Place a couple of grapes in your glass, and fill it with Champagne. At midnight, down the whole thing quickly, and every grape you swallow is a wish for the new year.
Maybe…maybe not that many.
One of the things I love about this tradition is what it means when you’re a kid. A sensible adult will put one or two grapes in a glass. Maybe three. But when you’re a child? And every grape is a wish you get to make? You stuff that sucker to the brim, don’t you?
And then you’re left with enough room for barely a spit of Champagne.
Another tradition I’ve picked up is not one I get to practice every year. For one, you need a snow bank. I don’t know about you guys, but here in New England we had that blizzard on Halloween that melted two days later, and haven’t seen a flake all winter. So thanks, global warming.
A couple of years ago, I was invited to a New Year’s Eve party. Late at night, and touched by the grape, my buddy Edgar grabs a couple bottles of Champagne and takes us up to the roof.
“I have a New Year’s ritual,” he says. He opens the first bottle and pours out some glasses. Then he throws the second bottle off the roof.
He says, “In the morning we’ll go look for it. If it breaks, then we have bad luck all year. If it’s frozen, then we’ve used up our bad luck, and we’ll have good luck all year.”
We asked him what happens if the bottle doesn’t break or freeze.
“Then we have Mimosas.”
Happy New Year.
*Champagne, by the way, is a place. There is no California Champagne - rather, there is sparkling wine made in the traditional style of Champagne. Just like there’s no Australian Port. There’s fortified wine made in the style of Porto. The difference is important because of what place implies. The terroir of Champagne is different from that of Anderson Valley, and no matter how good that bubbly is, it’s not Champagne (which is not to say that California sparkling wine isn’t as good as the sparkling wine made in Champagne; a lot of it is, and some of it is better, but none of it is Champagne).
**Part of the reason terroir is so important. Thin-skinned grapes are more directly influenced by the climate, and so produce more nuanced wines.
***Which is delightful and honest, if simple. It’s a great value, perfect for parties and my first choice for cocktails.