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  • Writer's pictureSusan Welsh

From Here to Epernay

Among the possessions my dad left behind when he died—the photos and letters and books— it’s Frank Schoonmaker’s Encyclopedia of Wine that most reminds me of my time selling wine with my father. This precious copy is one more artifact from the old wine shop. It was always kept, ready for perusal, on top of the bottles in the “Italian” section, usually somewhere between a Pio Cesare Barolo and an Antinori Tignanello. It’s the book I turned to every time business was slow. I was trying to educate myself in order to answer questions intelligently and share whatever I was learning with other nascent wine aficionados. Many a friendship developed over a common love of wine and all the reasons to purchase it-- to enhance—food, mood, celebration, commemoration. . .

I committed to reading the Encyclopedia of Wine all the way through but by the time I reached page 123, I had landed on what would become and continues to be my greatest passion in the wine world—champagne. Schoonmaker’s description of the region “90 miles northeast of Paris” on some 71,000 acres of vines planted with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier, became my obsession. I am still intrigued with the beverage the French benedictine monk Dom Perignon likened to “drinking the stars.”

The grape seed had already been planted, years earlier, when my father handed me a flute of Louis Roederer Cristal, at the age of 19, and asked me what I thought? What did I think of a prestige cru originally custom-crafted to satisfy the demanding tastes of Czar Alexander II? Well, I liked it very, very much. Of course, even a wine merchant recognizes there is excellence in far more affordable luxuries, and in 2001 my father gave me a bottle of Billecart-Salmon, a gift to celebrate the purchase of my first home. It has since become the house favorite.

Schoonmaker died in 1976, decades before The Avenue de Champagne in Epernay, a nearly one kilometer stretch of private dwellings, champagne producers, and cellars filled with millions of champagne bottles was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is one of many aspirational travel sites on my post-COVID bucket list. In the meantime, I’ll dream of New York, and Paris and Epernay, where one day I will raise a toast to my father, the man who introduced me to some of the finer things in life.

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