POP! The Ruined Crop: A Holiday Fable

International Herald Tribune

Thursday, December 28, 1967

In the reign of Louis XIV Christmas was not what it is today. For one thing, there were no snowflakes on the Pont Neuf. But what really bothered Louis, who was a true Frenchman, was that there was no wine for Christmas. On, sure, there was plenty of La Tâche and Romanée-Conti, but one drank that all the time. What was needed was something new to liven up the dreary end of the year and the awful business of giving presents to all those marquises and counts hanging around Versailles. True, he did get 20,000 presents in return, but even so.

* * *

Now at this time there lived a rather stupid, good-for-nothing monk who worked in the wine cellars of the Benedictine Abbey of Hautvillers in Champagne. Poor Dom Perignon couldn't do anything right.

For as long as anyone could remember the bottles had always been stoppered with a plug of wood wrapped in a rag, which was the best they could do without computers. One fall arrived a load of Portuguese cork oak, whose wood was said to make the finest plugs, but when Dom Perignon was told to carve new stoppers, he whittled them out of the bark instead of the wood.

There was no help for it, the bark plugs had to be used. The grapes had been gathered and pressed and the wine had finished fermenting. Unless the abbey was going into the vinegar trade – and it wasn't about to – the wine must be bottled at once.

Dom Perignon was told to fill the bottles and plug them up with the bark stoppers and rags. There were doubters who said someone should see that he got it right, but none of them wanted to stay down in the cold, damp cellar with the stupid fellow. They all claimed urgent intellectual work such as a deadline on a four-color illuminated manuscript.

When he finally came up and announced proudly that the bottling was done, everyone breathed a sigh of relief but no one thought to go down and inspect his work. Some months later, after a particularly trying day of ink blots and scratchy quills, the abbot decided that perhaps a taste of the new wine would lower his blood pressure. Instead what he saw nearly gave him apoplexy.

* * *

Dom Perignon had not used any rags at all in the bottling, but then he said it was all right because by mistake he had carved the "corks," as he called them, too large, and when he had forced them in anyway, they made a tight fit by themselves. This was actually true, and the abbot, who had been holding his breath during the explanation until his face was purple, let it out with a great diminuendo sigh.

His blood pressure shot right back up again when they opened a bottle, for the wine had refermented from being so well sealed and came foaming out and ran all over the floor. What good was this, roared the abbot, and he stormed off in disgust. Dom Perignon looked at the wine, which had by then subsided and was only sending up a thin stream of delightful little bubbles. It tasted quite nice, he thought to himself as he sipped what was left, but no one paid any attention to him and he found himself completely ostracized for having ruined the year's wine crop.

That December an order for wine arrived from the royal court at Versailles. The abbot was terribly pleased to think that the great Sun King himself wished to taste their humble wine, although secretly he didn't at all think it was so humble. He told Dom Perignon to fill the order at once and to be sure to send their best vintage – except for six cases he intended to keep for himself.

Sometime after the order had been sent off the abbot began to worry that perhaps Dom Perignon had forgot to hold back his special reserve and he went down into the cellar just to make sure. He needn't have bothered himself about his reserve for when he looked the whole vintage was still there.

The abbot felt a terrible knot begin to tie itself in his stomach. He tried desperately to control alternating urges to scream and to burst out crying, for what Dom Perignon had sent off was all but six cases of that disastrous foaming wine.

* * *

The arrival of the wine was announced during the Versailles Christmas office party, another in the tedious round Louis was subjected to constantly. Anything new was welcome, especially if it would shut up the British ambassador, who kept harping in his horrible French on how cozy their two countries would be if only Louis would let the British back onto the Continent.

The first bottle startled everyone as it opened with an explosive pop and the stopper flew up and banged on the gilt ceiling. Louis felt enormous gratitude for this distraction, for even the ambassador stopped talking. The first reactions to the foaming wine were rather reserved until Louis said he found it delightful, whereupon the entire court immediately proclaimed it an unqualified success.

It was such a success indeed that Louis remained up all night popping "corks" and drinking champagne. He declared afterward that it was the best Christmas party he could remember in a reign of 72 years. To this day these parties are known as "réveillons," from the French for awake because that was what one was supposed to stay until dawn.

And so everything ended happily after all. Statues were put up of both Louis XIV and Dom Perignon, and Dom Perignon's is still standing. Even the abbot tried to like the new champagne, but every time he heard a "cork" pop, a muscle on his cheek began twitching uncontrollably. It didn't really matter, though, because he still had intact the whole stock of his favorite vintage which no one else would drink now because it didn't foam.