Ever since Dom Pérignon supposedly proclaimed, "Come quickly, I am drinking the stars!," Champagne has been a game changer. It has come to represent luxury and celebration. Luckily, it's only 90 minutes down the A4 from Paris to the center of Reims, home to the cathedral where French kings were crowned for a millennium.
We visit Ruinart, the oldest Champagne house dating back to 1729. Descending 40 meters below into les crayeres — the cool, moist chalk caves where the magic happens — the impression is rustic, the walls marked with gashes from workers who carved out the huge maze of tunnels that undergird the city. There, thousands upon thousands of bottles line the damp underground corridors, fermenting and aging until 90 pounds per square inch of pressure are ready for you to pop the cork. We taste the 2002 Dom Ruinart Rosé, chosen as the top Champagne for 2015.
Just around the corner is the mythical Les Crayères hotel. It's got a Michelin-starred restaurant inside, but nestled discreetly on the lush grounds is Le Jardin, a bountiful brasserie that's the perfect place for an al fresco lunch.
There's an enormous bottle of rosé (in a giant plexiglass tub filled with iced water) that takes a team to pour and a bread guillotine, which slices from a long rustic multigrain loaf. My country terrine with mushrooms and onions is superb, and the lime curd tart with dollops of toasted meringue could give any Florida key lime pie a run for it's money.
Our after-lunch tour at Veuve Clicquot is full of glitz. Like Ruinart, the house is part of the LVMH multinational conglomerate. Fairly priced at Costco, Veuve Clicquot sells 90 percent of its Champagne to the U.S. market.
As I return to Paris, preparing for a day of travel back to Tampa, I can't help but feel exceptionally lucky.
In the Paris of Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin there was no Eiffel Tower, and average Parisians lived in abject poverty. They didn't sip aperitifs at ubiquitous sidewalk cafés; great food and wine was reserved for wealthy aristocrats. Even famous diplomats faced an arduous two-month journey by sea to embrace France. Now, average Americans may experience culinary glories previously unimaginable.
It's a great time to be alive.
Editor's note: CL food critic Jon Palmer Claridge is in France doing "research."