What’s In a Name?

Have a sip of farmer's fizz on the East Side


December’s gluttonous lily has been gilded. Picture this: Every Friday, you find your way to Campus Fine Wines, the gem of a shop on the corner of Brook and Sheldon Streets. You snag bacon-wrapped meatloaf from the Hewtin’s Dogs truck, conveniently parked just outside, and then head inside for gratis sips of champagne’s most distinctive and uncommon sub-category, known colloquially as “grower’s champagne” or “farmer’s fizz.” Is there a better way to (repeatedly, tipsily, blissfully) ring in the holiday season? Likely not. Just don’t forget the napkins.

Campus Wine’s new owners, Andrea Sloan and Howard Mahady, conceived and launched this new tasting series as a way to convey their vision for the shop. Since taking over in July, the duo has worked to protect its longstanding role as a locally oriented hub, and to reflect that ethos in what lines their shelves. To the co-owners that means seeking out and highlighting wines produced by vintners who harbor “real respect for the land, the grape and those who drink,” rather than those with high wine scores or marquee names alone.

Essentially, their vision borrows from the locavore movement that’s accrued runaway popularity over the past decade. Among chefs, food vendors and everyday eaters, principles like seasonal variance, respect for passion, quality over profits and regional distinction long ago became ubiquitous – and maybe even the new normal.

This is not to say that Boozeland is untouched by locavorism. Take craft beer, which skyrocketed in recent years and vastly overtook corporate giants’ growth rates. And, of course, there’s an increasingly prevalent recognition of terroir, an elusive concept that refers to distinctive wines that capture a place and time, as opposed to generic bottles stamped out primarily for profit.

Yet as Sloan and Mahady both note, such developments are heartening but nowhere near the sweeping, even astonishing shifts in our food systems. Simply put, the beer, wine and liquor industries have lagged behind in puzzling ways.

As for champagne specifically, two main factors stymie a leap forward. First, there’s the matter of cuvées, or blends, which are most champagnes’ bedrock. To make a cuvée, champagne houses blend any number of grape varietals, regions and years, then add a signature “dosage” to yield a house style. Uniformity and regularity as a fine brand are the goals, rather than seasonality or diverse character.

Second, many champagne drinkers covet prestige above all else. Buying a bottle says, “I have taste,” or, “I have money”, and though what’s in the bottle can be excellent, that’s almost beside the point.

By contrast, small-scale makers of “grower’s champagne” or “farmer’s fizz,” so-called because these vintners grow their own grapes and approach the craft like artisans rather than scientists or lifestyle hawkers. Fascinating, idiosyncratic wines are the result, made in minute numbers with intimate oversight. Whereas a luxury label might put out one or two million bottles per year, for instance, a typical small producer puts out 3,000.

Big houses have acquired a kind of critical mass, producing 70% of the region’s wine and netting up to 97% of sales outside Europe. Underdog houses lack comparable resources to market and distribute their champagnes effectively, meaning that growth to scale – which could secure stability, to say nothing of prosperity – eludes them. Some have lucked into cult status or a distributor who took on their cause, but most scrape by as they can, continuing out of sheer passion for what they do.

And, yes, what they do is damn fine. Purveyors have increasingly caught on, and routinely rate the wines as equaling or surpassing those from glitzy appellations. Yes, of course, well-known champagnes are delicious, but the contention is that they’re delicious but dull by comparison. It sounds too good to be true, but Mahady insists that the growers’ champagnes regularly won the blind tests that he conducted among staff. He and Sloan are confident their customers will be won over, too, if they give the wines a shot.

With on-the-house tastings throughout December, on Fridays from 4pm-7pm, there’s no viable excuse not to. Bring change for Hewtin’s, and prepare to be charmed.