La Fête du Champagne had some of the trappings of a glitzy Champagne event: the presence of Olivier Krug; a yacht fit for a billionaire looming on the pier, and lots and lots of expensive bottles. But what was happening in the sun-drenched ballroom was not your standard Champagne event with red carpet and Hollywood celebrities, nor was it the christening of a boat. Instead, La Fête du Champagne provides substantive opportunities for education, tasting, gastronomy as well as celebration. The only celebrities were the winemakers themselves.
“What we have here is a great picture of what Champagne is today,” Krug told me. “The energy is outstanding.” The great-great-great grandson of the founder of the house was shouting over the enthusiastic din of the room at the end of Pier Sixty on Manhattan’s west side. In the elegant room above the shimmering Hudson River, Krug – a director of the LVMH-owned house – was pouring four of his wines, just steps away from small producers such as Jérome Prévost, who makes only 1,300 highly coveted cases a year.
The event, now in its sixth year, provides a unique opportunity to geek out over the many details of Champagne production, to talk about growing conditions and vintages, and get insights from producers—in short, to treat Champagne like a wine and not a bauble.
Wines at the event are most likely to be poured by a winemaker, or by someone whose last name is on the label: Pascal Agrapart, Vincent Laval, Alexandre Chartogne or Mathieu Roland-Billecart. Before La Fête took off, a collector or enthusiast would have to travel to Champagne to get this close to winery principals.
Adding to the distinctive nature of the event, when the winemakers take a break from pouring, a team of top sommeliers steps in. Sommeliers arguably occupy the top spot in the New York City wine world; at this event, because they are away from their restaurants, they have nothing to sell. In fact, importer representatives are not allowed to pour at La Fête, and none of the Champagnes is available for sale, which sharpens the focus on learning and enjoyment.
Peter Liem and Daniel Johnnes founded and run the event that is cast in their image. Liem, a wine writer and winner of the James Beard award for his book Champagne, lives in Epernay and has a deep reservoir of knowledge of the producers and their wines. Johnnes, the wine director for Daniel Boulud’s Dinex group, also imports wines but is perhaps best known for La Paulée, an annual stateside celebration of the wines of Burgundy that is now in its 20th year. La Fête is modeled on La Paulée de New York.
The event built to a crescendo at the gala dinner prepared by four chefs—including Daniel Boulud and Arnaud Lallement from Champagne—who have a clutch of Michelin stars between them. Producers or top sommeliers poured a bevy of superb wines in large format bottles. A small sample of corks popped that night included 1999 Pol Roger Winston Churchill, 1989 Robert Moncuit, 1985 Agrapart Minéral, 1971 Dom Pérignon, and 1949 Veuve Clicquot.
La Fête is a big tent, encompassing small growers and big houses. In the past, the contrast between the grower Champagnes and the grandes marques, which buy from hundreds of even thousands of grape growers, has been painted as a “David and Goliath” battle, the plucky small artisan versus the soulless corporate.
Liem rejects that dichotomy: “I think the sooner we can get over that, the better. I’m much more interested in good Champagne versus mediocre Champagne. And good Champagne can be found in all corners of the region, no matter whether you make 2,000 bottles a year or 30 million bottles a year.”
Producers echo that mentality. “We need the opportunity to meet people who buy our wines and to taste the wines of our neighbors,” says Jérome Prévost. Speaking to the big versus small divide, he calls La Fête “important,” adding, “Before this event, it was impossible to do this.”
Pier Sixty is buzzing with the kind of excitement and thirst for knowledge usually reserved for the top still wines of the world. The parallel is apt.
“I don’t consider myself a Champagne expert,” Johnnes says. “But I sense the same energy in Champagne as Burgundy 25 or 30 years ago, where a new young generation, people like Dominique Lafon and Christophe Roumier, was beginning to take over.”
Whitney Schubert, the French wine buyer at New York distributor Polaner, importer of Agrapart, Laherte Freres and several others, nods in agreement. “Consumers think of Champagne as one of the most dynamic regions in France right now.”
Images courtesy of La Fête du Champagne® copyright Jen Del Castillo Photography 2019.