Uncorking A Controversy

Will There Be A Bottleneck On Bubbly This New Year's Eve?

FORGET WHAT YOU'VE heard about planes dropping out of the sky, total collapse of the infrastructure, catastrophic computer crashes and general mass hysteria. When it comes to apocalyptic Y2K predictions, none strikes more fear into the hearts of the multitudes than a projected shortage of champagne.

Celebrate the millennium without a bit of the bubbly? Unthinkable! It's even rumored that threats of a champagne shortage are contributing to an increase in incidents of what is being called Millennial Anxiety Disorder (MAD). This is serious stuff. Yet, a dire shortage is what many wine industry experts have been predicting since late last year. Due to widespread reveling, the demand for champagne was expected to double, if not triple. In fact, many prognosticators anticipated that the shelves would be bare by mid-September. Can it be true?

First off, a quick refresher on what we mean when we talk about champagne.

Technically, the term does not refer to a particular kind of fizzy wine, as many of us might think. The term "champagne" can only legitimately be used when referring to wines that come from the Champagne region of France. A champagne method, however, is used to produce bubbly wines around the world, and this accounts for the more generic use of the word.

Second, the reality of champagne production decrees that the available supply in the world at any one time is absolutely finite. Vintage champagne must age for at least three years, which means that there can be no quick fixes for sudden fluctuations in the market. Whatever was put in the bottle three years ago is all there is.

To make matters more intriguing, many champagne producers let their wine age beyond this minimum three-year period and release it only after five or six years have gone by.

The possibility of a shortage, then, is not as far-fetched as it might at first seem.

Still, at least one local wine seller hasn't yet seen anything like a run on bubbly at his store.

Tom Smith, co-owner of the Rumrunner Wine & Cheese Co., says that he's heard all the hype about champagne deficits, but, so far, has yet to note any sales trends that would support such an alarmist theory.

"The truth of the matter is, we really don't know," says Smith about the reported shortage. "All I can tell you is that we are still able to get plenty of champagne from our distributors. Everybody's holding their cards pretty close to the vest these days, and it's hard to get an accurate picture of what's really going on."

Of course, most champagne houses had the foresight a few years ago to set aside quantities of earlier vintages and step up production to accommodate this potential increase in millennium sales. Still, no one seems to know if these steps were enough to avoid a deficit situation.

According to Smith, nobody is willing to say exactly what they have on hand.

"From a business perspective, I should be playing along with this whole idea of a shortage," he says, "but frankly I'm not seeing it. And no matter what the situation is, I'd like to survive this millennium thing with my integrity intact."

Still, Smith counsels that complacency probably isn't the best approach either.

"What I would say is that if you have a particular bottle in mind or a personal favorite or are fond of the pricey stuff, buy it now."

Bottles that seem sure to fly off the shelves long before the stroke of midnight on December 31 are Roederer's Cristal and Veuve Clicquot, Smith says. If either one of these is listed among your essentials for a righteous celebration, don't delay in making your purchase.

Smith says that while supplies of these brands sometimes trickle into the Rumrunner, they are still getting them. Contrary to popular wisdom, he says, the top wine holiday in this country tends to be Thanksgiving, so while folks are in buying their bottles for that occasion, it wouldn't be a bad idea to peruse the champagne aisle and make a selection.

Regardless of the availability of high-end champagne, there should be more than enough sparkling wine and more mainstream bubbly brands to be found. Sparkling wines, which take only 60 to 90 days to produce, should be in plentiful supply, and supermarkets will no doubt sell an unprecedented amount of American brands like Andre, Cook's and Totts, all bottled in artfully designed millennium packaging.

In addition, several of the upper-end champagne houses also produce less expensive non-vintage varieties. Unlike the vintage varieties, which are made from the wine of a single, usually good, quality year, non-vintage champagnes are a blending of several vintages. Many of these house-style champagnes are considered quite good and should not be overlooked when shopping for effervescent libations.

Unless you have a heart set on one particular brand or vintage and wait too long to snag a bottle, it seems obvious that the alcohol will be flowing freely as people prepare for the once-in-a-lifetime privilege of ushering in a new golden age.

"Trust me," says Lewis Perdue, publisher of Wine Investment News in a published report, "there won't be any shortage of hangovers on January 1, 2000."

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