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Bubble Trouble: The Not-So-Sweet History of Champagne

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By Eric Furman

Just hearing the word "champagne" conjures up images of sparkling wine, popping corks, and wild celebrations. But mentioning that other Champagne—as in the northeastern region of France—evokes a much more complex bouquet. Filled with wars, political clashes, and controversy, the bubbly region and its eponymous drink have produced a rich history worth toasting to.

Divine Origins

Today, the region synonymous with sparkling wine is crowded with vineyards—but that wasn't always the case. In fact, during the 17th century, France's Champagne district was known primarily for its high-quality wool. Then a Benedictine monk named Dom Perignon came along and changed everything.

champagne-dp.jpgAt the age of 29, Perignon was appointed business manager of Champagne's Abbey at Hautvillers. Realizing that the financial health and reputation of the monastery was tied to its vineyards, the Dom set to work resurrecting the beaten-down vines and reconstructing the cellar. In almost no time, the Hautvillers vineyard was up and running.

Nowadays, many people credit Dom Perignon with inventing champagne by forcing bubbles into sweet wine. That's a myth, though. In Dom Perignon's day, bubbles were considered a serious wine flaw, and the good monk actually went to considerable lengths to eliminate them during his 47 years as cellar-master. And while he never succeeded on that front, he did succeed in making bubbly wine a whole lot better.

For starters, he was the first winemaker in Champagne to use corks, which kept the carbon dioxide from escaping, thus creating the bubbles. He also used a process of gently pressing his grapes, so that it eliminated the dark color that came from the skins—producing a clearer, less murky wine. He even blended his grapes to make a light white wine, which suited the effervescence far better than the heavy red. Legend has it that upon first tasting his vastly improved beverage, the Dom exclaimed, "Come quickly, I am tasting the stars!"

Loyal Royals

Dom Perignon brought such nobility and renown to Champagne's sparkling wines that they soon became the preferred libation of royalty—namely, France's Sun King, Louis XIV.

For much of his life, Louis XIV drank champagne almost exclusively—a habit that made one province very wealthy and another very jealous. Burgundy, to the south, felt the Sun King was giving their fine red wines the shaft. They soon engaged Champagne in a war of words carried out via inflammatory pamphlets and public seminars deriding their wine. The feud was no small affair. In fact, it lasted for more than 130 years, and many times, the two regions seemed to teeter on the brink of a civil war. Of course, the Champenois learned to embrace the long-detested bubbles along the way, and it didn't hurt that doctors began claiming the bubbles cured malaria (a proclamation that caught the attention of everyone with a moat).

Louis the Great was hardly the last emperor to take a liking to the region, however. At age 9, Napoleon Bonaparte was sent to study at the Brienne military academy in Champagne, where he developed an early interest in the local brew.

In fact, before each of his military campaigns, Napoleon made a point of passing through Champagne to obtain a supply of bubbly from his good friend Jean-Rémy Moët.

After all, Napoleon once claimed of champagne, "In victory you deserve it, in defeat you need it." One can only assume that post-Waterloo was a time of need.

Sadly, in the ensuing years, Champagne's ties to royalty did more harm than good. In 1870, Bonaparte's nephew, Napoleon III, declared war on Prussia, and by the time Prussian troops overran Alsace and Lorraine, the only thing standing between them and Paris was a patch of land called Champagne. The Franco-Prussian War was one of the bloodiest of the 19th century, and many of the deaths, according to one observer, occurred in fields "strewn with fragments of glass from champagne bottles." Within a short time, Prussia had won the war, and France was left nearly bankrupt.

It was about that time that Louise Pommery decided to introduce a radical new idea to the world: dry champagne. Brut, as it became known, was more expensive and more difficult to make because it required more fully ripened grapes. But the extra effort paid dividends. The world loved brut, and within three years, France's economy was back on track. Along with the cabaret, the cinema, and the cancan, champagne played a large role in the Belle Époque—the nation's greatest era of peace and prosperity. It's no wonder, then, that the sparkling beverage quickly became a fixed part of France's national character.

Trick or Treaty?

In order to cement the Champenois' hard-earned contributions to world culture, France forced some specific language into the 1891 Treaty of Madrid. It stated that sparkling wine could only be named champagne if it was produced in Champagne and made with grapes originating there. As happy as this made the Champenois, it also created a confusing problem. Champagne itself didn't have defined borders; thus, when the French government formally declared in 1908 that only those vineyards in the Marne and Aisne districts had the right to call themselves "Champagne," well, it caused quite a ruckus in the neighboring Aube region. (This would be roughly the same thing as Major League Baseball suddenly declaring the Toronto Blue Jays a minor league franchise because it isn't really located in the United States—even though they've won the World Series.)

What happened next was predictable: protests, riots and 6 million bottles of good champagne destroyed. Of course, the incident was nothing compared to the devastation, confusion, and sheer terror Champagne experienced during World War I. The German toll on the area was horrific. In fact, the destruction of buildings like the Rheims Cathedral (a building that had seen the coronation of many a French monarch, celebrated with many bottles of—what else?—champagne) was so dramatic that among the many stipulations of the post-war Treaty of Versailles was a further, more forceful clarification of the 1891 proclamation that only the Champenois could legally produce a sparkling wine called champagne.

That seemingly minor concession in the Treaty of Versailles has become the linchpin of the business in France. The fact that no other nation (nor any other region of France, for that matter) can legally produce champagne gives long-established houses like Moët & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Taittinger, and Krug a huge advantage when it comes to sales. Sure, other places produce sparkling wine, but in Italy it's called spumante, in Spain it's called cava, and in Alsace, crémant.

Interestingly, American sparkling wine producers have been able to get away with printing the word "champagne" on their labels, but only because they've sneakily skirted the system. Even though President Woodrow Wilson signed the Treaty of Versailles, the U.S. Senate never ratified it; therefore, American winemakers are technically not subject to the strict standards of the treaty. (Which is why Korbel sells a bottle of "California Champagne" for less than $15.)

Champenois of the World

Today, the champagne business in Champagne is as strong as ever. In fact, things are going so well that some insiders worry that the only place for the region's industry to go is down. They warn that small producers are introducing new brands too quickly, and that they might be at risk of overcrowding the market. Of course, the biggest problem seems to be growth. Because Champagne has a finite geographical size, it can only hold so many vineyards, and right now, the region is at its capacity.

Not to worry. Even though the Champenois make a wine for the best of times, they've had more than their share of the worst of times. And somehow, that special homemade bubbly always seems to carry them through.

If you think Dom Perignon is the only "real" French hero whose name graces the shelves at your local wine store, take a closer look.

Claude Moët: The first Frenchman to devote his entire business to sparkling champagne. People thought he was crazy, but now his surname is the first on every label of the biggest champagne house in the world.

Jean-Rémy Moët: Claude's grandson, and one of the first to export his product to the United States. Interestingly, he counted George Washington among his many clients.

Barbe Nicole Ponsardin (Madame Clicquot): A widow who inherited her in-laws' wine house in 1805, Nicole devised a method for alleviating the clouds and murkiness that had, until that time, plagued bottled champagne. She also insisted on using the French term for widow (veuve) on her wine labels, and we've had Veuve Clicquot in our stores ever since.

"Champagne Charlie": A real-life James Bond, Charles-Camille Heidsieck was the dashing, daring, and devious salesman who landed on America's shores in 1852 and became, literally, the toast of New York. He made millions popularizing his bubbly stateside before the Union imprisoned him as a suspected spy during the Civil War.

Madame Louise Pommery: The genius who not only introduced brut, or dry, champagne to the world, but who also used the popularity of her Pommery & Greno vintages as leverage to
save many a Frenchman's life during the bloody Franco-Prussian War.

This article originally appeared in the January-February 2007 issue of mental_floss magazine.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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© Nintendo
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.