Wine Enthusiast Podcast: How Much Should You Spend on Sparkling Wine, Really?

Illustration for Wine Enthusiast Podcast Episode 79 on buying sparkling wine
Illustration by Paige Stampatori

At the end of the year, there’s one topic that’s top of mind to many wine lovers the world over: sparkling wine. Between December holidays and New Year’s Eve celebrations, plenty of occasions call for breaking out the bubbly. But how can your season sparkle without breaking the bank? Are big-brand Champagnes really worth all the hype?

In this episode, we pop the question: Is there a sweet spot for how much one should truly spend on sparkling wine?

Associate Managing Editor Emily Saladino taps Felix Salmon, Chief Financial Correspondent for Axios, to talk dollars and cents when it comes to high taste. Saladino also talks with San Francisco-based Sommelier and Wine Director Tonya Pitts, who is a Champagne Master-Level Certification candidate, to discuss all the finer points of fine Champagne and cover the key points to picking the perfect pour.

All in all, we break down what constitutes a good investment in sparkling wine and why, just in time to ring in the new year right.

You can also learn more about how sparkling wine is made, the grapes used in Champagne production or how to decipher a Champagne bottle with this neat infographic. For more shopping advice, check out these 12 spurge-worthy Champagnes to drink now or 6 cellar-worthy sparklers to hold for later.

Episode Transcript

Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting.

Speakers: Lauren Buzzeo, Emily Saladino, Tonya Pitts, Felix Salmon

Lauren Buzzeo 0:08
Hello and welcome to the Wine Enthusiast Podcast, your serving of wine trends and passionate people beyond the bottle. I’m Lauren Buzzeo, the managing editor here at Wine Enthusiast, and in this episode, we’re talking the topic that’s on everyone’s mind come the end of the year: bubbles. Are big brand Champagnes really worth the hype? Associate Managing Editor of Digital Emily Saladino considers if there’s a sweet spot for how much one should truly spend on sparkling wine to make the most of the season and all things that sparkle without breaking the bank. In this exploration, Emily taps Felix Salmon, chief financial correspondent for Axios, to talk dollars and cents when it comes to high taste. We also talk to sommelier and wine director Tonya Pitts, a Champagne master candidate, to discuss all the finer points of fine Champagne. All in all, we’ll break down what constitutes a good investment in sparkling wine and why, right in time to ring in the new year.

But before we bubble over, a quick word from our partner, Total Wine. Total Wine is a holiday wonderland of over 8,000 wines, 3,000 spirits and 2,500 beers, and with prices this low, you can afford to explore. The choices are awe inspiring, but not intimidating, especially if you think of Total Wine’s knowledgeable staff as friendly guides on your expedition. Wondering what to get your nutcracker of a boss? Put a bow on a bottle of vintage Bordeaux and you’re done. For the rest of the wine lovers on your list, you’ll find Merlot from the south of France, Oregon Pinots, super Tuscan reds, insanely delicious Spanish Riojas—you get the picture. And you can always count on their expert elves for spot-on recommendations for your holiday table. Prosecco with honey glazed ham anyone? Total Wine also offers lots of easy ways to shop, including online, in store or curbside pickup, plus same day delivery and shipping. Go to totalwine.com to check out options available in your area. Step into a wonderland of wine, spirits and beer in store or online at totalwine.com.

Emily Saladino 2:20
Associate Managing Editor Emily Saladino here. I have the absolute pleasure of talking about bubbles today with one of the foremost experts on the subject. My guest is Tonya Pitts, sommelier, wine director and wine consultant of the newly launched Tanya Pitts Wine Consulting based in San Francisco. She’s also a Champagne master candidate. Tonya, thank you so much for joining me.

Tonya Pitts 2:45
Thank you so much for inviting me to speak today, Emily.

Emily Saladino 2:49
Absolutely. Firstly, can you tell me about being a Champagne Master? I can’t even say it without like changing the tone of my voice. What does being a Champagne Master candidate, what does that entail?

Tonya Pitts 3:02
So first of all, a love and a passion for wine, and for the industry. Because of the love that I have, and passion that I have for Champagne in particular, when I found out that this was a course that was being offered by Wine Scholar Guild, I thought, well, maybe this is something that I need to add under my belt for myself. I actually got a grant from Black Wine Professionals to get the Laurent-Perrier Wine Scholars scholarship for the Master of Wine course.

Emily Saladino 4:00
How wonderful. Congratuations.

Tonya Pitts 4:02
Thank you, and, you know, it’s, it’s been really incredible, you know, to be able to within this time of Covid to really truly take a moment and, and pivot and that’s how all of this, you know has happened within the pandemic. And you know, if you were ever to come into the restaurant, that’s the first thing I greet everyone with is bubbles, whether you’re, you know, a guest or a friend or a friend in the industry, you know, you’re always offered bubbles as soon as you walk in. And I know this is this is going to follow me everywhere. Wherever I go is it’s gonna be okay, what are we drinking tonight? You know, bubbles.

Emily Saladino 4:56
The double edged sword.

Tonya Pitts 4:58
You know, but it’s a good one. And tiny bubbles make you happy. You know, they they are truly a mood elevator. If you are, at some point, just tired or have had a day, however, you know, you look at those beautiful bubbles moving so rapidly throughout a glass and you take a sip and immediately you are transported, transformed. And immediately, your mood is just elevated. It really, really is. It’s incredible what Champagne and bubbles do. They really, really do. It’s amazing.

Emily Saladino 5:47
You’re so right! No, it’s true, because, you know, I wanted to talk about how we can quantify Champagne and sparkling wine. But you’ve really hit the nail on the head like, you can’t in a way because there is this extremely emotional, ephemeral quality that just makes it a mood. I love the term it’s a mood elevator, like, it is! It’s a really great point. There is this kind of like intangible value to it.

Tonya Pitts 6:16
Well, it’s this energy, if you would. I don’t know if it’s the movement of the bubbles in the glass and something that sets something in motion in your brain where things just get—you start firing your cylinders and your brain just start firing and going and you’re alert, first of all, you know, and then you take that sip, and you get this mixture of fruit, mineral, rock, and acid. And it’s just like, whoa. You kind of stand up straight from that first sip, and there’s a smile that comes and happens. And as I’m sitting here and talking about it, I’m imagining having a sip of Champagne or a sip of bubbles right now. And that’s what it does. It really does. It causes you to stand it attention.

Emily Saladino 7:24
Oh my god. If anyone listening to this hasn’t popped open a bottle by now I’m shocked. Just as you’re talking I’m like yeah, I want to be drinking that.

Tonya Pitts 7:36
And I think people when we think about bubbles, it’s that people think Champagne they think sparkling, they think Cava, Prosecco, but it’s really it’s the sound of the pop of the cork coming out of the bottle. Whether it’s the pop or a sigh, it’s the movement. And once it starts flowing into the glass, and we see the bubbles, and then we take that sip and it’s just like, whoa, hello.

Emily Saladino 8:11
Right, that full multisensory experience. It reminds me I’m not a huge, like, soda drinker. In part because I tell myself I don’t like it like as like a health move. You know, like, when you’re at the movies, and they show the Coca-Cola machines like filling up a fountain soda. I’ll sit there and be like, I want that. I want that so bad. It’s just that sound of carbonation. And like when it comes to it being Champagne, there’s so much else caught up. You know, I’m not trying to compare Champagne and Coca-Cola, although I’m sure there’s a thesis paper being written out there right now. But there’s this multisensory thing that goes on with it.

Tonya Pitts 8:52
Yeah, there is. There really is. And when you started talking about the soda fountain, I immediately saw what you were like, oh my god, I forgot all about that. Because it is sensory projection. And when we start to talk about things like that, when people have not had a lot of experience with wine or have difficulties, trying to explain what they’re tasting on their palate, I immediately go back to sensory memory as well. Because that’s what your that’s what your tastes are. You know it’s it’s all sensory memory and it’s interesting how all of that comes into play. And it does with your palate and with tasting wine. Which is why I tell people there is no wrong answer really. Because your sensory and your memories are your own. They’re unique to you. No one else has those.

Emily Saladino 9:52
I love that. I absolutely love that. That is something that I I find with sparkling wines in general and Champagne in particular. Is there is this there’s a reputation that surrounds it. It is it is often pricey, Champagne, and so can you give us an overview for someone who is new to to wine or to sparkling wine? Like why is Champagne a bit pricier? What is the production process that makes it differ from a $10, bottle of Prosecco or a $12 bottle of Cava.

Tonya Pitts 10:24
So, first of all, with Champagne, the prices will vary depending upon the producer. There is something that is called grower Champagne, which is absolutely fantastic and delicious. And there are some grower Champagnes that are really quite affordable, you can probably find a grower Champagne for 25 bucks a bottle and up. Those grower Champagnes are basically growers that supply grapes to bigger houses. Bigger houses being bigger Champagne houses that are more well known because they’re bigger production. They can’t supply all the grapes themselves, they have relationships with growers. And it’s really very hard to to grow grapes, anywhere in the world, but particularly in Champagne, and in Burgundy. In that part of the world, it’s just really very, very difficult. So part of that you’re paying for just the labor of having to make the product. But it’s also labor intensive. You know, when you make Champagne, you’re still going through the process of producing still wine. And Champagne happens to go through a second fermentation. And then that second fermentation that happens, if it’s a traditional method that is being used, Méthode Champenoise, there is something that happens that’s called riddling. And that takes time. And also, the riddling, which is the turning of the bottle ever so slightly, there’s someone that that’s their job. And that’s what they do. And it’s interesting, there are people within families that this is their job, and this is what they’ve done. And it’s really very prestigious thing to do, as well. But it also takes time. And within that, Champagne houses, whether they are a bigger house or a smaller house, in this process of producing Champagne, the Champagne is resting. And sometimes it’s resting in the cellar, you know, for five years or 10 years. It just depends, the longer it’s resting in the cellar, the higher the price tag.

Emily Saladino 13:12
Right, which makes sense, right? If we think about it as an agricultural product, you know, you’re spending money on like the farming and on the aging. You’ve got to store it somewhere for all that time.

Tonya Pitts 13:25
Yeah. And you know, and that’s what wine making is period, across the board, no matter what country you’re in. In some places, it doesn’t cost as much. In other places, it costs a lot more to do the farming, because it is an agricultural product. And because it is farming, it is agriculture. And it doesn’t just appear magically in a bottle.

Emily Saladino 13:56
As much as we might like, you know—there is this magic around it, right? Like what you were speaking about earlier so eloquently, there is this magic, but there’s a lot of hard work goes into creating that. I think that’s true of a lot of great art forms. And I’m sorry if that sounds sort of overly emotional to call it an art form, but it is you know? A lot of work goes into creating something that does create these strong feelings.

Tonya Pitts 14:25
You know, I always have compared beverage—wine, Champagne, if you would, it’s all associated with the arts. It always has been. When you think about since the beginning of time, you know, the Romans, the Greeks, Philistines, they all have wine. But also within that there was always the arts, pottery making, painting, singing, music, all of that. It all goes hand in hand with wine and with beverage and with food.

Emily Saladino 15:08
It’s true. No, it’s such a great point. And it is something that has art, it has economics, it has all of these things, intertwined. Politics. There is so much that goes into every bottle and every glass. Have you ever had the experience where you went out and you had a totally middling experience with like what should have been a nice glass of Champagne? When doesn’t it work? When doesn’t it gel?

Tonya Pitts 15:40
If someone doesn’t pay attention to whether the bottle is fresh or not. Whether or not they’re using a good closure on their Champagne and on their bubbles, because there’s—and it’s, you know, happened to me as well in my own restaurant—someone not paying attention pours a flat glass of bubbles and sends it out? And I’m like, okay, yeah, because I’ve caught them. You know, I’m standing there at the sidebar, like, oh, that’s—what’s in that glass? I’m like, No, you know, and I said, give me give me another flute, and let’s, you know, pour, and then you pour it and there’s barely any bubbles at all, I said, you know what, this is nearly flat, please open another. It’s that sort of thing. But that can happen with Champagne. It can happen with Cava, any of those things, you know, because the bubbles in the effervescence don’t last forever. And I think also, people don’t realize if they’re drinking an older bottle of Champagne, that those bubbles are going to be much more subdued. And it’s the same thing if you are drinking a bottle of you know, Cava, per se, or Franciacorta even, if it’s an older bottle, those bubbles are going to be much more subtle, and just not as vibrant and vivacious, but still really very good. But it just has these layers of tertiary flavors that come through. And it’s just different. It’s just different profiles for different palates. But I like it all. I like you know, the fresh, bright vibrations, high energy. But then I also like, you know, the ones that make you just kind of sit there think and ruminate. And you can have a meal with any of these beverages, whether it be Champagne or Franciacorta or Prosecco or any of it. It’s just a beverage.

Emily Saladino 17:59
Right, right. So the question I like, keep sort of ruminating on myself, as we’re talking about sparkling wine: What’s the right amount to spend? And that’s a really unfair question I’m asking you because there’s so much subjectivity to it, right? But what is the calculus that you use to approach like, as you were saying, do I want something that has nuance and that I’m going to sit and have a sort of contemplative experience with? Do I want something that is light and fresh and fun and going to put me in a great mood? How do you do that financial calculus in your head?

Tonya Pitts 18:39
So for me, if I want something light and bright and fun, that I don’t necessarily have to think about, I’m probably going to head to either Portugal for bubbles, or I’m going to head to Cava if it’s just something I don’t have to think about. Then the other that I look at is just a simple grower Champagne, but then I will also look in certain regions in Champagne as well. And also, I really like Blanc de Blanc which is basically white of white, which is Chardonnay. And those are always going to be for me, just fresh and bright and vivacious. And that’s more for my everyday drinking stuff. Which you can find a decent bottle of grower Champagne, you know, $25, under $30, which is not a lot of money to spend. And then even when you start looking at bubbles from Portugal, you’re probably looking at $15 a bottle and it’s about the same for will actually For some Cavas because the designation now for covers because people have moved out of certain regions, and you’re looking at certain designations, so the pricing in some Cavas have gone up as well. You’re looking at probably $20 for a really nice bottle of Cava, which that’s what most people are paying average for right now, for a regular bottle of white wine or red wine. So our prices are really comparative. They are. And, you know, we’ve got tariffs that have happened as well, in the United States for things that have come in from other countries, particularly Europe, and so that’s a little bit of a higher price tag that’s happened now. But that, to me, is more for the more high end products that are coming in in Europe, which is not necessarily what we’re talking about here today. But you know, even for myself, because of that, I’m not buying those particular products right now, because they’re so expensive.

Emily Saladino 21:22
I mean, that is what’s so upsetting, right, is you see the effects of this?

Tonya Pitts 21:26
Mm hmm. It’s people’s livelihoods. Just like everyone else, it’s a business. You know, and there are people that are attached to that, that have families, that have employees, and it’s on both sides, not just there in the country of the origin in which the products are coming from, but also where they end up on the other side. So it’s the trickle down effect, on top of everything else that’s going on with restaurants, and not getting support.

Emily Saladino 22:04
It’s so true. Yeah, we’ve, you know, I think it’s easy for, not for not for those of us in the business, but I think it’s easy for some folks who are outside of the industry to forget that it’s not just about a restaurant being closed, or a wine not being imported. When that restaurant is closed, that delivery person is out of a job. But there’s so many—this ecosystem that surrounds wine is so enormous. And I mean, it goes back to your very excellent earlier point about how part of what, you know, part of what affects Champagne pricing is the land where it’s farmed, and how it has to kind of age and riddle be riddled in, but be bottled, all of that. But that’s just you live in San Francisco, I live in New York, you know, these are places with high real estate costs, right? Like, we’re not foreign to how a certain destination can affect the price of real estate. And so I do think that that that is something that folks outside of the business can sort of lose track of because food and beverage just seems like something many of us look at as entertainment. And it is to a degree, but it’s also so many other things.

Tonya Pitts 23:17
There was an article that I was skimming through earlier this week, and it was talking about how the art of dining and going out to eat, particularly in New York, is it’s not just going out to a restaurant to go and eat. It’s an extension of your living room. And it is socializing. It’s a gathering place for everyone, for your friends, for your family. But even those people that are in that place that are a part of that establishment, become friends and family. And it is really so true. So, so true.

Emily Saladino 24:00
I love that and I it both it warms my heart and makes me sad at the same time. It does, it demonstrates the importance of hospitality in the truest sense of the word. And it does you know, I keep thinking about how you were saying earlier in this beautiful language, the ways that when you when you would greet people at the restaurant with a glass of sparkling wine, just the way it sets the tone and there’s so many aspects of our current quarantined lives that are so difficult and these are times where I’m really grateful for the pleasures like filling a glass with something that you love. You know, there’s just something about that. “Self care” is a term that gets overused but I think applies.

Tonya Pitts 24:46
In this day and age it really does. And I tell people all the time, if you collect wine, and you have a bit of a celler—and the celler can be anything. A celler could be your basement. A cellar could be, you know, the closet that’s in the dark, cool part of the house, you know? But if you have wine that you have been saving, go ahead and open that bottle and have it. There’s no better time than now to have that bottle of wine that you’ve been holding on to and waiting to take out for a special occasion because every occasion is special now, it really is. And so needless to say, I have gone through my own cellar as well and picked out bottles that I’ve been just kind of waiting, you know, to drink and enjoy. And I’ve been able to savor them over these last couple of months, with either just opening it or using a Coravin. And those are the things that bring us joy and to be able to share that glass and that bottle with your family or your significant other or friends or have something socially distance and be able to have it. Or, you know, if we’ve all been lucky enough to go out to a restaurant and have outdoor seating, indoor seating. However it’s been, those are just the small things that make us grateful because we are all social creatures. And I think that’s something that we all miss. But you know, when you can’t do all of that, there’s nothing like sharing a glass of wine via Zoom or FaceTime with someone.

Emily Saladino 26:52
Well, Tonya, I will be raising a glass to you, to your expertise, and to what I hope will be—I just I look forward to all of us being able to be our social selves one day soon. But in the meantime, I thank you so much for your expertise and for sharing so much with us today.

Tonya Pitts 27:11
Thank you so much for having me today. It was was really nice to get to talk to you, and to talk about one of my loves, Champagne and bubbles, sparkling wine.

Emily Saladino 27:24
Absolutely. Well, I personally feel it’s rarely a bad time to drink Champagne. If sparkling wine had a season this would be it, the December holidays and New Year’s Eve. And so I want to explore a question that is pretty topical, which is how much should you actually spend on sparkling wine? To help me sort through this, I asked Felix Salmon to join me. Felix is the host of the Slate Money podcast and the chief financial correspondent at Axios. In addition to being a financial expert, Felix, you are also a wine connoisseur. So let’s talk Champagne versus other bubbles. If you have the means, you know, if spending money on a bottle of wine isn’t going to make it impossible for you to pay your rent this month, should you shell out for Champagne over, say, a good Cava, or a good bottle of English sparkling wine? And what sort of factors go into that purchasing decision?

Felix Salmon 28:27
Most sparkling wine that’s not Champagne is actually going to be cheaper than most of the still wine they buy on a regular basis. If you want to go out and find a bottle of really delicious Cava, you can find that for like 12 bucks, and it will be good. And there’s amazingly, you know, perfectly good, tastes-like-Champagne stuff out there, especially from Spain and from other places, which is like really cheap. And if what you care about is like a bang for the buck metric, or like how good is it per dollar spent? I feel like low price sparkling wine from places like Spain has to be way, way up there. But by the same token, because it’s so cheap, it’s really kind of hard to fit to make yourself feel because you know it’s cheap, it’s hard to make yourself feel that it’s special.

Emily Saladino 29:23
Right? Right. Right. And this is you know, this is again it it is this, there is this psychological component to drinking wine in general, I should say. And to spending money. It’s not just wine, it’s not just Champagne. When you are spending money on anything. At risk of getting too philosophical, this is like why capitalism is so tricky, right? There’s emotion and identity caught up in it.

Felix Salmon 29:55
And yeah, and as an English person, I can tell you that one of the more weird little sub corners of this whole conversation is English sparkling wine. Which is crazy expensive. I mean, ludicrously expensive. It’s the one place where you can actually spend more than you would on a bottle of Champagne. You know, like, why am I spending more than I would on a bottle of Champagne on this English sparkling wine? Which is good and I like it, but that one really puzzles me.

Emily Saladino 30:31
Right? No, it is really interesting, because I have had some great English sparklers. But just from a simple like cost value analysis, it is pricey. It is a pricey endeavor, particularly compared to Champagne.

Felix Salmon 30:46
Which you definitely expect to have—and which does have—like a famously enormous mark up. Right? On some level, I think everybody understands that the profit margins on Champagne are just astronomical. And when you spend a lot of money on a bottle of Burgundy, say, then you can kind of understand why is this very small lot, and it’s all very handpicked, and it’s been aged for however many years and there’s a lot of this expertise and all the rest of it. And none of that is true in Champagne. It’s a very kind of mass produced agricultural product, turn it into sparkling wine, churn it out by the hectoliter. And yet, somehow that name, that particular part of France, has this capitalistic branding and resonance that makes people feel comfortable with spending money on it in the way that they don’t feel comfortable spending money on something from Sussex.

Emily Saladino 31:47
Right. Well, let’s talk let’s talk about the Champagne geeks a little bit, right? So let’s say I self identify as a Champagne geek, where are the Cava geeks? Where are the Sussex, the Franciacorta geeks? Like where are they?

Felix Salmon 32:02
I’m sure they exist. I mean, I’m sure there are a bunch of Franciacorta geeks in Italy, you know? I mean, is there’s such a thing as a grower Cava? Maybe there is?

Emily Saladino 32:13
Oh, that’s an interesting question. I don’t know the answer to that question. There are definitely grower Champagne acolytes. Are there grower Cavas? That’s a good question.

Felix Salmon 32:21
Um, you know, the English stuff all comes from individual vineyards. And I think on some level, that’s where you’re going to find the geeks is where you can find identifiable differences between specific winemakers who are growing grapes in specific places, which you can do in Champagne. And I’ve never seen it in Spain.

Emily Saladino 32:48
Right, right. And you know, it kind of I’m thinking about that, that experience when you’re in a restaurant and you are poured something—or like, not even necessarily a restaurant. When you go to a wedding and there’s a toast, and you’re like, this isn’t necessarily the finest sparkling wine I’ve ever drunk. But this is a really lovely moment, right? Like, I’m not gonna sit there and be like, yes, father of the bride, like, oh, gross, where’s the bouquet? You know? I’m not gonna sit there and like judge harshly the sparkling wine. I’m sure there are people who do. But I’m not gonna sit there and judge harshly the sparkling wine in my glass at a Champagne toast at a wedding. However, if I am in a restaurant, and I am footing the bill for that bottle of Krug, I don’t know. I think I’m gonna feel really strongly about if I’m spending the money, I really want to love it.

Felix Salmon 33:43
And that’s entirely reasonable and you should. Although I can’t I can’t avoid mentioning the classic wedding scene in season one of Succession where this guy Tom Wambsgans marries into this like gazillionaire family and his parents walk around the party on the night before basically just telling everyone we paid for the wine, you know? Because they obviously spent like half their net worth paying for this wine that no one is paying any attention to.

Emily Saladino 34:17
Right, right? And oh my god, when I saw that there’s a couple of like Succession moments that really like hit, you know, for me personally as like someone who works in food and beverage. And one of them is that. I have definitely been someplace where I have brought a bottle of wine to like a dinner party and I would shudder to admit it, but I’m trying to impress everyone and I’m like, I picked a cool bottle and then no one cares. I’ve totally been there.

Felix Salmon 34:47
Yes, yes, absolutely. Or that other thing which you do where you’re like you turn up to a dinner party and you like slip the bottle of wine to the house and you’re like, this is not for the dinner party. This is for you later. Because you don’t want 18 different people to just like drink it without paying attention to it.

Emily Saladino 35:05
Oh, yeah, that’s like the pro move, right? When you’re like, this is between you and me, fellow wine person.

Felix Salmon 35:11
It’s so obnoxious.

Emily Saladino 35:16
You know what, though? That again, it does speak to the sort of cult that surrounds a lot of wine, but particularly Champagne. There is this special thing that is very hard to put a price tag on that is connected to, A) exclusivity in general, but B) Champagne. And I would say like if I worked in fashion, I’m sure I would say like, there’d be another exact, you know what I mean?

Felix Salmon 35:42
I can’t think of anything really which has the, in the sort of luxury goods world, that has the combination that Champagne has, of being both very aspirational and expensive, and also being completely ubiquitous and with no real supply constraints.

Emily Saladino 36:07
Whoa, the supply—yeah, you really, you really hit that one for me. Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. No, that’s a really interesting point.

Felix Salmon 36:17
The world is never going to run out of Veuve Clicquot, you know?

Emily Saladino 36:24
Right, right. And like, that is part of the, you know, that ephemeral attraction to Champagne is—and the geekdom, right? It’s kind of like a Manhattan address. You know, there is a physically limited amount. And so you, you really zero in when you listen to Champagne geeks, for lack of a better word, um, devotees. When you listen to Champagne devotees tasting flights, they will say like, ‘Oh, I taste the difference in the elevation of it,’ you know, and it’s so specific that it gives this sort of economics of scarcity thing to it.

Felix Salmon 37:03
Right. I mean, there’s the economic, like, that’s certainly happening with the grower Champagne, and like, ‘Oh, my God, I found this really cool thing has zero dosage.’ You know, I have no idea what you’re talking about. And then, you know, what people aren’t talking about is the normal blended Champagnes, which is what 95% of all the Champagne that anyone ever drinks. Which has, which has none of that but has exactly the same markup like the grower Champagne from the blender champions basically cost exactly the same.

Emily Saladino 37:40
Right. Right. And actually, I think that is that is the, the crux of the issue in terms of there’s I mean, there’s obviously so many factors that go into this purchasing decision. Your financial stability as an individual, the setting, whether you’re buying at home or at a restaurant or etc. But then yes, there is also that element of what exactly are you buying? And like, what does that mean to you?

Felix Salmon 38:11
I do think that people who care about wine, a much more likely to buy the grower Champagne. They’re going to be like, why would I pay LVMH gazillions of dollars to buy their mass produce blended Champagne, when I can support some winemaker instead? And so the wine geeks, especially because the grower Champagne are not more expensive, the wine geeks will just buy the grower Champagnes. And then everyone else on the planet who’s not a wine geek with with the vast majority of Champagne drinkers, and the vast majority of Champagne will gravitate towards just the brands and something recognizable. Like, if you’re in the fashion industry, it’s Ruinart for some reason, I don’t know why. There’s different brands, you know, if you’re in some kind of nightclub, it’s going to be Cristal. If you’re in some other type of place on the South of France, it’s going to be Krug. I have no idea how these things kind of work. But it’s all about the brand names. It’s all about the recognizability. And it’s all tied up in the fact that it’s always just a little bit painfully expensive to buy. And if it wasn’t a little bit painfully expensive, then you’d actually probably wind up just paying even more because there’s always like, one notch higher, if you want. There’s always like something even more expensive that you can buy if you want and there’s always some, you know, crazy vintage or something. But yeah, vintage Champagne I used to I used to, many, many years ago, I used to be really into the idea that it wasn’t proper wine if it wasn’t vintage. I gave up that one years ago.

Emily Saladino 40:00
What changed? What made you, what made you love the idea of it being vintage? And then why did you decide to move away from that?

Felix Salmon 40:09
So I think it was it was just my sort of teenage snob in me was like, a wine needs to be a vintage, right? You need to just, you know, it’s like it’s exactly the same thing why I didn’t drink blended whiskey, right? It was like, a blend is just—there’s something impure about it. Whereas a vintage at least you let you’re knowing that it’s coming from one place in one year or at least one year. And now, I guess I’ve just stopped caring so much. Do you have a feeling that like, the Champagne should be vintage? Do you value vintage Champagne more than you value non vintage?

Emily Saladino 41:03
I don’t know if I value it more, but I value it differently. I love all of my children equally—no. I don’t know if I necessarily can say one is better, but I have had like the unique privilege and like extremely cool experience of tasting through flights, like one house’s vintages. That for me, if I had not had the opportunity to do that, and I 100% had the opportunity to do that because of my job. Like it wasn’t something where I spent thousands and thousands of dollars in order to taste through these flights of vintage Champagne. Quite honestly, had I paid out of pocket to do it, I bet I never would stop talking about the experience. But having done that, having tasted through vintages, it was eye opening for me because I kind of am, you know, how shall I say this? Like, iconoclast would be like a polite way of saying it, you know, just kind of a complainer. And so I went into it being like, how different can it be? Just by a nonvintage. They put so much into that. Houses really put a lot into making sure they like maintain their brand as a nonvintage. But tasting through vintages, oh my goodness. It was really, really eye opening for me. So I kind of get the appeal of both.

Felix Salmon 42:21
So there’s a large amount of this amount of vintage variation is what you’re saying?

Emily Saladino 42:28
Yes, and the ability to taste…. The vintage variation is a great way of putting it and then the ability to taste within the vintage and then among the vintages those variations is just exceptional. Like I think that that is such a that’s such an exceptional experience. I don’t know too many people who do that regularly. I guess Champagne makers, I guess they’re doing it all the time. But like, I think in terms like there’s value in vintage to me, but there’s also a lot of value in non vintage Champagne.

Felix Salmon 43:04
Okay, but as you, as you are the person who’s done this, I want to stick with the vintages for a minute, because you’ve done it and I haven’t. Am I correct in surmising here that you’ve done this with like more than one brand?

Emily Saladino 43:20
Yes.

Felix Salmon 43:21
Okay. So here’s my question: What’s bigger, the difference between brand A and brand B, or the difference between one vintage of brand A and another vintage of brand A? Like if I had like a 2000 brand A and a 2005 of brand A, and I had a 2000 of brand B and 2005 of brand B, like with the 2000s be more similar or with the brands be more similar?

Emily Saladino 43:52
That is a great question. And the answer is the brand is the bigger differentiator. The maker is really the bigger differentiator. Tasting the work of one winemaker, for me, is more significant than the year itself. Does that answer your question?

Felix Salmon 44:13
That does. So we are right. So I wrote something for you a million years ago about like the value of wine labels. And the main job that a wine label does is it makes people believe that what they’re drinking is on some level the same as what they drank last time. And without the label, you would never really you wouldn’t be able to know that because people don’t have that kind of sense memory and it might not even be true. But you’re saying that it is actually true on some level?

Emily Saladino 44:44
I’m really glad that what we could do with this podcast is sort out how right we are. No, but I i do think that the question you asked is really interesting because it also I have to say I’d like to think of myself as a relatively informed wine drinker because of what I do for a living. But, part of what made one of my Champagne tasting experiences so special was, again, an intangible. It happened to be a snow storm. And I met a winemaker on like a rooftop, like an enclosed rooftop, and a roof of lower Manhattan hotel, and it was crazy. And he, like, exactly a half hour before he had to leave to get on a flight, and then his flight was canceled. So we like hung out for a long time. I’m like, all of these things. I would be lying through my teeth. If I told you that they didn’t contribute to the experience. I’m not saying that I was like, well, the wine was gross before but now I love your Champagne. I’d like to think we’re all a bit more impartial than that, but that is kind of that special quality to Champagne is that it gets caught up in this sort of romantic thing that is really difficult to quantify financially.

Felix Salmon 46:06
And I have to say that like, of all the things that Champagne goes very well with, snowstorms is definitely up there on the list.

Emily Saladino 46:16
What are the other things?

Felix Salmon 46:19
I’m a fan of Champagne with sushi, I have to say. Also foie gras.

Emily Saladino 46:28
Sure, sure.

Felix Salmon 46:30
Yeah, anything expensive basically.

Emily Saladino 46:34
Yeah. And I mean, and grocery store potato chips, though, like, you know, high-low. But I did want to ask, and this is speaking of how right you and I always are, I did ask you another question, which is, you know, as a financial expert, you spoke a little bit about vintage versus non vintage. Do you think aging Champagne, like if I have a celler?Imagine, if I have like a hypothetical celler or just space in my closet, a climate controlled nook, do you think that it’s a good investment to buy Champagne to age it?

Felix Salmon 47:10
Um, I can, I can answer that very simply: no.

Emily Saladino 47:20
Well, I guess we’re done here.

Felix Salmon 47:26
I think that is a real arbitrage, if you want to put it that way. If you care about the actual taste of what you’re drinking. And now, as I say, we are moving well beyond 99% of the use cases of drinking Champagne, and we are getting into the whole like, connoisseurship world of, ‘I am drinking a fine wine here, which has a depth and the complexity and all the rest of it.’ The overwhelming majority of the time anyone drinks Champagne, like that is not the main reason they’re drinking the Champagne. But if you really care about drinking very fine, complex wines, which happened to be made in Champagne in the sparkling soil, then I would certainly say that the smart buy would be to just go out and buy something old and vintage for basically the same price if you can buy something branded and new. I’m sure it is possible to go out and buy some wonderful like 1964 Dom Perignon or something. And you’ll be like, oh, wow, this is amazing. Or some like even rarer grower Champagne. And those are great. But precisely because you can actually go out and buy them and maybe you buy it at auction or something like that, you don’t need to buy it at release, and then sit on it and hope for it to go up in value because I don’t think it actually does go up in value. I think there’s definitely a case for it getting better or more complex or changing in interesting ways as it gets older. If you like the older stuff, and you can afford the older stuff, then you should drink the older stuff, by all means. But the way to get older stuff is to just buy old stuff. It’s not to buy young stuff and then sit on it for 20 years. That’s a dumb way of doing it.

Emily Saladino 49:37
So answer, I’d like us to answer the question of the day, which is, okay, we’ve decided that there’s a value to Champagne that extends beyond the bottle and some of that has to do with where you’re drinking it, with whom, the circumstances that surround your drinking it. Then there’s also there’s like a sort of an emotional psychological element as well as a financial element. Then there’s a temporal element, which is, let’s say, I’m like Felix is right, I’m going to buy an aged bottle and drink it today, because I’m just sitting on cash and I want to drink some Champagne. I love this hypothetical.

Felix Salmon 50:22
Honestly, I think if you take one thing from this podcast because, as we all know, 2020 year of drink the good Champagne, or just drink the good wine, because, you know, you never know what might happen tomorrow. It’s a terrible year, and people should just be drinking. I’ve been drinking some extremely good wines this year and I don’t regret a minute of it. But yeah, if you are one of those people who’s thinking, you know what, I’ve never had like a 30 year old Champagne. I wonder what that takes like? Go out there. Buy it. Drink it. It’s 2020. Have something good happen to you in 2020. You deserve it.

Emily Saladino 51:04
I love that. Yeah, it’s kind of I call it like optimistic existentialism. You know, what does it all even mean anymore? But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It also can be a positive, where it’s like, if it’s all so like, draining and difficult, why not live your best life?

Felix Salmon 51:24
Exactly. Anyway, to go back to your question.

Emily Saladino 51:27
The question, I guess of the day are, you know, our big overarching question is, let’s say in this fun hypothetical world, I have determined the optimal bottle for me, and you know, I’ve decided that I want to drink some aged Champagne and I’m not going to go broke doing it. How do I decide my price range?

Felix Salmon 51:51
What I would say is that if you uh, if you’re actually going to the whole like, I’m going to buy vintage Champagne thing then at that point, you’re just at the mercy of the wine merchants. There aren’t that many places you can buy it. You just have to basically pay whatever they’re asking. Maybe you just buy whatever’s cheapest that they’re selling because it’s you know, you’re gonna be buying some bottle of vintage Champagne. You never really know what you’re getting anyway. But I do think that the bigger question, if I want to celebrate at the end of 2020, and I want to break out a nice bottle of Champagne because God knows we all deserve it at the end of this year. How much should I spend on that? And the answer to that I think is probably I’m gonna say two-X what you normally spend on a bottle of wine.

Emily Saladino 52:54
Oh, I love this. A formula as opposed to a dollar sign, comprising all of these confusing factors and variables. I love this. This is why we have Felix Salmon, noted financial expert to help us. No, I absolutely love this. It speaks to personal comfort, right? Like what my personal comfort level is when I’m taking out my credit card or my wallet. And it speaks to celebration. It speaks to it being special, whether it’s me on my couch in front of Zoom, or it’s me in the imagined restaurant meal of my life. That is a really smart way of approaching it. If I normally spend $50 at a restaurant, I’m going to spend $100. if I normally spend $30 at a wine shop, I spent $60.

Felix Salmon 53:47
Or if you really want to make it an occasion to remember and super special because I cannot repeat this enough: You deserve it this year of all years. Here’s my next idea, don’t spend two times what you normally would on a bottle of Champagne. Spend four or five times what you normally would on a bottle of wine and get a magnum. Because a magnum of Champagne is just the best thing in the world.

Emily Saladino 54:16
That is an excellent adendum. A magnum is really exciting.

Felix Salmon 54:22
Magnums by their nature they just—I mean, number one they taste better, we know that. But number two, all the stuff that we love about Champagne, that symbolism and the specialness of it and the memorability of it all just gets ratcheted up just by nature of the fact that you’re drinking out of magnum and you’re opening a magnum. It like Magnum-y me feeling about it?

Emily Saladino 54:46
It’s magnamity. No, it’s true. It’s true. I absolutely love the way you put that like it. It does. It heightens everything that’s already there with Champagne, all of those intangibles it just kind of like, I don’t know, it turns the volume up on all of them. I absolutely love that.

Felix Salmon 55:09
On aconnoisseurship level, too. I’m getting out of my debth here. I am not a wine connosieur, I’m not a wine expert. But I honestly do believe that the increase in quality that you get by bumping up a bottle size that you get with all wine is more pronounced with Champagne than it is with most wine.

Emily Saladino 55:36
That is true. That is, like, technically true. But I would argue while that is true, just because of the way it ferments, I would argue, while it’s accurate for most drinkers, it doesn’t even matter. Right?

Felix Salmon 55:54
It doesn’t matter that much.

Emily Saladino 55:56
Yeah, like, you know, part of the reason why the motivation behind this podcast of talking about price is not just that I’m kind of cheap. That is true. But it’s also that I was drinking a sparkling wine and my partner who doesn’t work in food and beverage was like, what makes this so good to you? Because I was like, Oh my god, this is amazing. And I was like, I think this is a really interesting issue because we all know that the term Champagne. Most of us in the US know the term Champagne as being something connected to luxury, connected to special occasions, etc. But like, do we really necessarily know what, why, and does it matter? You know, does it doesn’t matter, to whom and why? And again, this is quite like cerebral, but I think wine is cerebral, like I think it is philosophical.

Felix Salmon 56:52
It certainly is. And, and you’re absolutely right. But I want to turn the tables just for a minute here and say like, you know, as a cheap person who cares about not just throwing money down the drain, if you’re not deliberately overspending on Champagne for the sake of overspending on Champagne, which is a totally legitimate thing to do and I have no problem against it, but like if you just want to buy something really good and sparkling and wine to celebrate with, what do you do? Do you do Cava, do you do Franciacorta, do you do like South Africa or Australia, California? You tell me.

Emily Saladino 57:36
I mean, that is a great question. That is something that would depend, if you are like I want bubbles, I don’t actually care if it’s Champagne, I want to like it. I would then say like okay, what is our price range? Like what are we looking to spend? Do you want to have something like you’ve never had before? What have you had before? What have you liked? If you told me like I know you’d mentioned you like white Burgundies right? Which kudos. Same. Then we could say like, okay, let’s go from there. I think there’s a lot of really great Alsatian Crement and like great bang for buck right there. Like that’s a good place to go if you’re like, I kind of just like to have something that I haven’t had yet, but I want sparkles and I like a certain like a linear crisp flavor profile. So like there’s that. But you also could be like, I just want something fun and there’s nothing wrong with that and like, you know, maybe I don’t want to spend a ton of money. You can get really high quality Cava for like $25, like really good stuff. So I think like it depends on those factors.

Felix Salmon 58:43
Yeah, if you want a sort of wine snob it, then you’re like ooh, here’s this amazing thing from the Savoie or something like that. You’re like great, that’s the wine snob wine. And if you’re just like give me something which is going to be super delicious for my celebration, then I’m with you. Go to Spain. Or possibly, like Italy’s more dangerous because you can you can get it’s very easy to wind up with some terrible Prosecco if you go to Italy.

Emily Saladino 59:07
Right, right. Yeah, there’s a lot there’s a lot of ways to like…. I remember once someone told me—I was really excited to go to Paris for the first time and someone was like, ‘You can’t have a bad meal in Paris.’ Like you can absolutely have bad meals in Paris. And I kind of feel that way about Italy, where like people have this idea that like there’s no such thing as bad Italian wine and like hard disagree. In the same sense that there’s bad wine from everywhere. I’m not picking on it. You know, like there’s bad wine from a lot of places. But I do think that with with sparkling, there’s there’s a lot of potential. You can get a lot of really great Italian sparkling wines that are super crisp and dry and like high acid, but you can also have stuff—and maybe you love stuff with a lot of RS with a lot of residual sugar and a really fruity flavor profile.

Felix Salmon 1:00:01
Especially if you mix it with orange juice. It’s great.

Emily Saladino 1:00:07
You’re like, I want something that already tastes like a Belini, no problem. And I think like, I don’t know, that’s again where the trying to put a financial value on any wine, but I think especially sparkling because we culturally link it to celebrations and to special events, it’s tricky. It is so subjective, because you’re not just talking about taste and you’re not just talking about economics, but like, there’s some—at risk of sounding like too marketing speak—there’s some personal brand going on there. I might just want to identify as someone who drinks grower Champagne, whether or not I really taste or understand the difference, like maybe that’s just my brand.

Felix Salmon 1:00:56
Right. Exactly. It’s like the very fact that you know the word grower Champagne. It’s already like setting aside for most people who like Champagne. Or the kind of people who frankly, like you know, will drink anything sparkling and consider it to be Champagne, which is almost the the best possible world to be in that you can buy, you know, some $15 something from California and it have a have a cork that pops out with a pop and you say Champagne, and everyone’s celebrating with Champagne, and you get all of the celebratory upside. Your downside is 15 bucks. I mean, what’s wrong with that?

Emily Saladino 1:01:35
It’s so true. It’s so true. I feel this way about not wanting to get contact lenses because I’m like, if I just don’t wear my eyeglasses, and I’m a little nearsighted, everything looks amazing. That’s like the, it’s the sparkling wine equivalent, where you’re like, great, I spent $15 and had great Champagne, like, call it a win. And that’s the thing is like, I think then though the, the tricky part of that is like, I still need to wear eyeglasses if I’m going to drive a car. If you spend $15 on like something that is not Champagne and you like it, you then are confused that someone else might spend $150 because you’re like, that wasn’t a $150 bottle of wine. You know what I mean? Like, that’s where that like, that’s where there’s this like uncanny valley of cost value analysis.

Felix Salmon 1:02:26
Yeah, yeah. I mean, maybe. Although I’m not even sure that’s tru. I feel like on some level, I had this moment at some point, I can’t even remember how old I was where I actually because I grew up in a vaguely sort of wine loving family. most if not all of the sparkling wine that I drank when I was growing up was Champagne, and was often quite good Champagne was nearly always vintage Champagne. And then one day I discovered there was such a thing called non vintage Champagne. And I was like, Ooh, that’s, that’s like, I don’t know if I’d go there. And it turned out, it was actually fine. And then I discovered there was all this other stuff called Cava or something like that, which was, it helped me like it was just as good. I almost felt that was the point at which I was like, wait, hang on a sec, were they like just having me on all along? Was this like some huge con, that like here I was believing that you needed to spend a huge amount of money on vintage Champagne to get anything good. And in fact, there’s this Cava, which is great, which costs a fifth of the amount of money. How come I didn’t know this a little long? Why was I spending all this money on Champagne?

Emily Saladino 1:03:44
Right? It’s a hell of a grift.

Felix Salmon 1:03:46
It’s a grift.

Emily Saladino 1:03:48
But again, you know is it goes by it is so personal, like you might have relatives who were like no, like that combo doesn’t do the same thing for me. You know what I mean? Like it might not you sparkle the same? Right? It might not hit the same way. And like, that is actually why I think your formula works so well. The two-X works so well, in that like, it allows for so many of our personal variables.

Felix Salmon 1:04:19
It does and then there are also I mean, I have to say you know who you are, some of you are listening to this podcast. There are some people who are just really into the whole concept of like blind tasting and what I want to pay for is nothing more and nothing less than the liquid in the glass. And, you know, all they care about is this. It’s like take away all of the knowledge of the price takeaway, the branding, take away that bottle, and all I care about is what’s in the glass. And for you guys, then basically you should never be buying Champagne because it will never be worth the money.

Emily Saladino 1:05:03
Right? Right, you should buy your all of your clothes at Uniqlo. So sorry, that was like a personal. But like you shouldn’t shell out for designer clothes, right? Because you’re not buying a brand and you’re not buying fashion, you’re buying something functional, like that is a very different relationship to wine than like, I’m excited to try to taste the sight of this Champagne house, right? Like that is a, I just need a t-shirt. You know, like, those are two very different like desires from the purchase.

Felix Salmon 1:05:38
Or the idea that if you are trying to taste the sight of the Champagne house then that’s only worth it if it tastes better without knowing where it came from or without knowing what the Champagne house was. Because me knowledge is so integral to the appreciation of Champagne, knowledge of what you’re drinking, knowledge of who made it. Knowledge that it’s Champagne, knowledge of how much it costs is so much a part of the experience, way more than it is at most wine. And it is of most wine, but with Champagne it all just gets dialed up.

Emily Saladino 1:06:14
No, that’s super true. You’re right. It does. It is part of wine, I think in general, and it is heightened with Champagne. That is so true. Oh, Felix, thank you. I feel like we thought we weren’t necessarily going to be able to answer this unanswerable question. But we sort of did. I think we hit upon a very smart approach, if not an answer.

Felix Salmon 1:06:38
Well, I’m glad I’m glad we managed to find somewhere and I’m glad that you helped me get there in the end, and I help you get there in the end. So will you promise me to open up something special and bubbly this holiday season?

Emily Saladino 1:06:52
I absolutely will. It is a promise.

Felix Salmon 1:06:55
Excellent. Very glad to hear it. All right.

Emily Saladino 1:06:58
Thanks, Felix.

Felix Salmon 1:06:59
Thanks, Emily.

Lauren Buzzeo 1:07:03
I don’t know about you, but after listening to those conversations, I’m ready to celebrate and shop for sparkling wine with confidence. This year has been quite a ride, but what better way to close out 2020 then with a bottle of bubbly you know is going to treat you and your bank account right. Here’s to a great new year and great glasses of fizz ahead. Subscribe to the Wine Enthusiast podcast on iTunes, Google Play or wherever you find podcasts. If you like today’s episode, we’d love to read your review and hear what you think. And hey, why not tell your wine loving friends to check us out too. You can also drop us a line at podcast@winemag.com. For more wine reviews, recipes guides, deep dives and stories, visit Wine Enthusiast online at winemag.com and connect with us on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter @WineEnthusiast. The Wine Enthusiast Podcast is produced by Lauren Buzzeo and Jenny Groza. Until next episode, cheers.

Published on December 23, 2020
Topics: Podcast