The room half-heartedly laughed as the sommelier struggled to open a bottle of Moet & Chandon Brut Imperial Rose by chopping at it with large knife. He was using a technique called “sabrage,” and it was a celebratory way of opening a champagne bottle, originating somewhere in the ranks of Napoleon’s cavalry, or so I’ve heard.
I vaguely remembered seeing it being done before but I clearly recalled it taking less than 2,000 attempts. As he struggled, I wondered if the pressure had gotten to him. He stood on a stage in front of a room full of, what appeared to be, older sophisticates and socialites. His hands looked somewhat shaky and unstable from the numerous failed attempts and possibly even the champagne we had been drinking. As he uncomfortably hacked away at the pressurized glass container with a very large and increasingly inaccurate blade I imagined the possible outcomes.
The sommelier focusing no further than the bottle, the glass refusing to give in and lose this battle of will; he determined to win by any means, hacking at it with increasing force until finally lopping the top off and sending someone home minus an eye. Perhaps the bottle might have been shaken one too many times resulting in it exploding like a hand grenade, turning the front of the room into a bunch of well dressed casualties. Or maybe he’s so desperate to make the trick work for us that he loses focus for one second and chops off his own hand instead.
I sipped my champagne. What a horrible way to celebrate I thought.
We were on our third bottle at the “Decanted Series,” a champagne tasting in Montreal. Normally this isn’t my scene, but a friend invited my girlfriend and me to celebrate a birthday and it was the night before New Years. Besides, I had never been to a tasting of anything before. Well, that’s not entirely true. Depending on how you look at it, this was my third.
The previous two tastings I had been to were an olive oil and a cheese tasting. It occurred at the Jean-Talon market. As I was walking through, I passed a station where different olive oils were being offered on small pieces of bread, and next to this, another tasting to show off the local artisanal cheeses of the region. As I was leaving, I helped myself to both and made a tiny cheese sandwich for the road.
So there I was at my third tasting, seated in a room full of people purposely not wearing blue jeans, painfully conscious of the ones I had on, thinking I could get away without the tucked shirt, but the jeans, well, those just made me look like a cretin.
I had thought the place was fancy because it had a coat check, and then people arrived in full suits. When I was waiting to give them my snowboarding jacket, I almost turned around and walked out when two women in front of me took off their large coats revealing their ballroom-like-gowns and replaced their shoes with stilettos before entering.
I felt out of place and terribly under dressed. Wearing salt stained sneakers, I imagined how I must look to them, some simple creature with head cocked back and to the side, breathing heavy through an open mouth littering my chest with drool, not sharp enough to realize the implications of my appearance, aggressively assaulting the eyes of everyone with the decency to dress well when going out. It was a champagne tasting genius, I thought, not beer. I should have known.
We sat at a table with six others. Two people I knew, who introduced me to the four I didn’t. They were all extremely nice and outgoing, taking me about 15 minutes to shake that “new guy nobody knows” feeling. Good people.
No sooner did we finish the introductions when the host of the evening took the stage of the 1930’s style Cabaret Lion D’Or. Like most of the public events I have attended in Montreal, he split the speech between French and English equally, as he detailed the rest of the evening.
We were to try three different champagnes; Ruinart Brut, Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Brut and Moet & Chandon Brut Imperial Rose, all from the champagne region of France and according to the event folder on the table, all in the $70 range. The sommelier for the evening, Guenael Revel, would explain to us what it was we were drinking; the history, production, and subtleties in flavor so they can fully appreciate the champagne and I can go home and pretend I know what I’m talking about.
“Oh, no, no, you savage,” I imagined myself saying to the family at holiday dinners, “you don’t open it like that. Give it to me. Does anyone have a sword on hand, maybe a saber? I’ll show you how to open and appreciate a good bottle of champagne because I know one when I see one, that’s for sure.”
My family very impressed and my father saying “You’re holding a bottle of Pepsi.”
The host had taken a poll to see who didn’t understand French. A few of us Anglophones raised our hands making it clear there were enough people in attendance to warrant an English presentation as well as a French one. Regardless, the only English he spoke the whole night was “Sorry, my English isn’t so good but I’ll try to remember to speak it.”
Under other circumstances I might have been upset-I know my champagnes as well as I know my sodas-but there was too much to see and do to be bothered by it all.
When it came time to open our bottles, we were encouraged to aim the corks far and high, shooting them into the walls or ceiling. Some corks came down gently, or not at all as they landed in the lights over head, while others were sent on terrifying head-level trajectories. I watched, waiting to see if someone was going to go home with a black eye, knowing somewhere in the back of my mind it could very well be me.
To my right sat a man who looked awkwardly like Antonio Banderas in Desperado, young and Spanish with long wavy brown hair, wearing a white pirate dress shirt unbuttoned at the top and cuffs open, a large soul patch on his chin and a probable owner of sleek cigarette yacht he frequently made high speed oceanic escapes in.
He had the air of a Bond villain; they all did. The old, the young, both male and female alike; they all looked as if they were attending an international underground gathering of connected politicians and super villains.
Then again, I drank three Coors Light-quickly-before we arrived at the event, so I don’t know if I had a flawed and narrow perspective from the start, but I do know I didn’t fly home in a private helicopter that night and retire to a secluded lair on some tiny island, and I suspect I was one of the few who hadn’t.
A Jazz band played later in the evening. Despite actually enjoying the music in some awkward and limited capacity, Jazz and I never really got along. I want to like it, and in public I pretend to, but I guess just haven’t taken the time needed to appreciate it. To me, it always sounded like a drunken argument between a piano and a saxophone in the back of a dive bar. However, that night, it all seemed to sound good and fit very well; so well that I actually wrote “good vibes feeling warm” in my notepad twice, completely and drunkenly independent of each other.
The bassist for the Jazz band was making the most brain sick and distorted faces I have ever seen in a musician-and that’s saying a lot-as he lost himself in the music. So irrationally passionate and intense were these expressions that I recorded seven minutes of just his face on my camera as he played.
There was something really enjoyable about it all, the art deco style of the cabaret, looking like an old gangster shoot out might happen at any moment, the engaging and intelligent conversation happening all around me, meeting new people and drinking champagne, it was all very nice and definitely something to be celebrated.
All of it was absolutely worthy of trying to chop the top of the last bottle of champagne off with a large knife to put an exclamation point on the night. Finally, he struck the bottle lopping the top off, making a clean cut, spilling champagne all over the stage while the audience cheered, along with me, who was happy to be there, and to see everyone go home with both their hands.