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

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.

10 Facts About Aspirin

Aspirin may be one of the world's best-known wonder drugs, able to do everything from cure a headache to reduce a fever, but its powers stretch beyond your medicine cabinet.

1. It's not the same as acetaminophen (used in Tylenol), ibuprofen (used in Advil and Motrin), or naproxen (used in Aleve).

2. There’s more than one way to take an aspirin. Americans swallow their tablets whole. The British dissolve theirs in water. And the French prefer theirs as suppositories.

3. The ancient Egyptians took their painkillers in the form of tree bark. Egyptian doctors used to give their patients willow bark to relieve pain because it contains salicin—the raw ingredient in aspirin.

4. Aspirin broke into the European market in 1763, after British clergyman Edward Stone chewed on some willow bark and felt a renewed vigor. He shared the stuff with his parishioners and relieved 50 cases of rheumatic fever in the process. After Stone reported his discovery to the Royal Society of London, the race was on to package the miracle cure.

5. A century later, French chemist Charles Gerhardt published an article on how to synthesize salicin in the lab, creating acetylsalicylic acid. Nobody paid attention.

6. Forty years after that, in 1897, German scientist Felix Hoffman followed Gerhardt’s process and took credit for inventing aspirin. Hoffman worked for Bayer Industries, which introduced the medicine in 1899 as the first mass-marketed drug.

7. In the mid-1940s, aspirin became a huge hit in Argentina thanks to radio jingles sung by future First Lady Eva Perón. Her country became the biggest per-capita consumer of aspirin in the world.

8. The wonder drug doesn’t just cure headaches; it can also revive a dead car battery. Just drop two tablets into the battery, let the salicylic acid combine with the battery’s sulfuric acid, and you’ve got an instant jump! Just make sure you don’t have any salt on your hands. Adding sodium to the aspirin-and-car-battery combo can cause an explosion.

9. So how does aspirin work? No one knew for sure until the 1970s, when British scientist John Vane discovered that aspirin reduces the body’s production of prostaglandins—fatty acids that cause swelling and pain.

10. Here’s another reason to eat your fruits and veggies: When the body gets a healthy dose of the benzoic acid in those foods, it makes its own salicylic acid, or aspirin.

A version of this story appeared in Mental Floss magazine.

Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images
How Kiss's Alive! Saved Their Record Label—And Changed the Music Industry
Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images
Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images

It was late 1974, and Neil Bogart, CEO of Casablanca Records, was falling apart. His wife of nine years had divorced him. Warner Bros., Casablanca’s onetime parent company, had cut the fledgling label loose, saddling Bogart with crippling overhead and advertising costs. The company’s headquarters—a two-story house off the Sunset Strip that Bogart (no relation to Humphrey) decorated to resemble Rick’s Café from the film Casablanca—had devolved into a hedonistic playground awash in cocaine and Quaaludes. A few years earlier, he’d made stars of the Isley Brothers and Curtis Mayfield, whose soundtrack for Super Fly had been an instant hit. Now, at 31, he was watching his career crumble.

But Bogart had a plan. As part of the split with Warner Bros., Casablanca inherited a promising project: a double LP of audio highlights from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. It seemed like a sure thing. In 1974, The Tonight Show drew 14 million viewers a night. The year before, as the CEO of Buddah Records, Bogart had sold more than a million copies of a similar compilation titled Dick Clark: 20 Years of Rock N’ Roll. Bogart was so confident in The Tonight Show project that he envisioned the album as the first of four highlight records, stretching back decades.

Before SoundScan existed to track album sales, the recording industry conferred “gold” status to any album that shipped more than 500,000 copies. Bogart shipped 750,000 copies of Here’s Johnny: Magic Moments From the Tonight Show. As it turned out, no one wanted to listen to audio clips of a late-night talk show. The album was such a flop that distributors even mailed back their free promotional copies. Industry insiders joked that it had been shipped gold and “returned platinum.” Or as Casablanca cofounder Larry Harris put it, “It hit the floor with a lifeless, echoing thud.”

By the end of 1974, Casablanca was broke. To make payroll, Bogart cashed in his line of credit at a Las Vegas casino. The label seemed doomed. It needed a cheap hit just to survive.

One of the bands on Casablanca’s roster was in similarly rough shape. Kiss, a flamboyant heavy metal outfit from New York City, had released three albums by the spring of 1975. The band had a cult following in the Rust Belt. But the moment Kiss stepped into the studio, they deflated, unable to replicate the raucous energy of their live concerts.

This may have been an impossible task. Since their first gig in 1973, the foursome had performed only in Kabuki-style makeup, black leather costumes, and towering platform shoes. Onstage, Gene Simmons, the Israeli-born bassist with a 7-inch tongue, spat fire and fake blood at the audience. Blasts of smoke and pyrotechnics punctuated hard-driving songs like “Strutter,” “Deuce,” and “Black Diamond.” At the end of each set, drummer Peter Criss rose 10 feet above the stage atop a hydraulic drum riser. This intimidating stagecraft belied Kiss’s sound: more pop than metal, closer to David Bowie than Black Sabbath on the ’70s rock spectrum. Kiss’s stage show was so over the top that Bogart pitched the band as a headline act before the foursome had a legitimate hit. Queen, Genesis, and Aerosmith all canceled bookings with Kiss because no one wanted to play after the band.

But if Kiss was a circus act, Bogart was its P.T. Barnum. At pitch meetings, he’d unleash fireballs from his hand using magician’s flash paper, declaring “Kiss is magic!” Bogart hounded DJs, TV hosts, critics, and music magazines, pushing the Kiss brand. He even convinced Kiss to record a cover of “Kissin’ Time”—a single by ’60s teen idol Bobby Rydell—as a promotional tie-in for a nationwide kissing contest called “The Great Kiss-Off.”

None of it worked. And Kiss was fed up. The band received a meager $15,000 advance for its first three albums—Kiss, Hotter Than Hell, and Dressed to Kill— and despite Bogart’s fiery efforts, it had yet to see royalties. He’d even produced Dressed to Kill himself because he was unable to afford a professional producer.

Then Bogart had an idea. What if Kiss put out a live album? It’d be less expensive than a studio recording and might preserve some of the band’s incendiary live show. At the time, live records weren’t considered a legitimate product; bands released them mainly to fulfill contracts. But Bogart didn’t care. He knew this was his last chance.

Kiss liked the concept. Within days, Bogart had arranged to record a multicity tour, with stops in Detroit; Wildwood, New Jersey; Cleveland; and Wyoming. Since Bogart couldn’t finance the tour himself, Bill Aucoin, Kiss’s long-suffering manager, put $300,000 of his own money into costumes, expenses, and effects. To oversee the recordings, Bogart roped in Eddie Kramer, a star audio engineer who’d produced albums for Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin.

On May 16, 1975, 12,000 people packed into Detroit’s Cobo Hall—the largest venue in a city many considered the capital of rock ’n’ roll. Bogart and Aucoin went all out on production. To fire up the crowd, a cameraman followed the band from the dressing room to the stage, projecting the shot onto a giant screen overhead. During the song “100,000 Years,” flamethrowers wrapped the band in a curtain of fire. And this time Criss’s drum kit rose to twice its usual height.

The concerts were a massive success, yet the recordings were still mediocre. The energy was there, but the band’s musicianship suffered in its frenzied live performance. In the end, sound engineers recorded over much of the material. Nevertheless, certain core elements remain, including Criss’s drum tracks, lead singer Paul Stanley’s stage banter, and the propulsive fury of early singles “Deuce” and “Strutter,” in which the band’s energy soars in response to the sound of thousands of screaming fans. The physical record was an accomplishment of its own. A double album with a gatefold sleeve, it featured handwritten notes from the band, a glossy eight-page booklet, and a centerfold collage of in-concert photos.

Alive! was released on September 10, 1975. Five days later, Aucoin sent Bogart a letter of termination: Kiss was leaving the label. In desperation, Bogart, who’d recently mortgaged his house, cut Aucoin and the band a check for $2 million to retain them. Then everyone sat back and watched the Billboard chart.

The result was unprecedented. Alive! peaked at No. 9 and remained on the charts for the next 110 weeks, becoming the band’s first record to sell more than a million copies. By the end of 1975, major rock bands from Blue Öyster Cult to REO Speedwagon suddenly found themselves opening for Kiss. Today, Alive! has sold more than 9 million copies, making it the biggest selling Kiss album of all time.

Alive! rescued both Kiss and Casablanca from oblivion. The band’s next three albums—Destroyer (1976), Rock and Roll Over (1976), and Love Gun (1977)—were all certified platinum. In 1977, Kiss topped a Gallup poll as the most popular act among American teens. The late ’70s saw a superstorm of Kiss merchandise, including Kiss makeup kits, pinball machines, Marvel comic books, and even a made-for-TV movie called Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park.

But Alive! also changed the music industry. “Shortly after it hit, just about every hard rock band issued live albums,” says Greg Prato, a writer for Rolling Stone and the author of The Eric Carr Story, about Kiss’s short-lived drummer Eric Carr. “Some of those albums were the best live rock recordings of all time: Thin Lizzy’s Live and Dangerous, the Ramones’s It’s Alive, Queen’s Live Killers, Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same, Cheap Trick, At Budokan.”

What makes Alive! a masterpiece, though, is how it captures the essence of Kiss—a hard rock band that was meant to be seen, or at least heard, live. “The emphasis on a live album is the experience itself, specifically how close the record translates and interprets the experience of actually attending the show,” says author and Kiss fan Chuck Klosterman. “[Alive!] jumps out of the speakers. It feels like a bootleg of the highest quality.”

Ultimately, Bogart’s excessive spending habits, along with his prodigious cocaine use at Casablanca HQ, led to his ouster from the label in 1980. By that point, he’d become the reigning king of disco, breaking such acts as the Village People and Donna Summer. He died of cancer two years later at age 39, having just created Boardwalk Records and signed the then-unknown rock goddess Joan Jett. In the decades after his death, the iconic metal band he’d helped bring to the top continues to tour, even making an appearance on American Idol in 2009. For 40 years, Kiss has been sending drum kits aloft (albeit with a different drummer), performing in fully painted faces, setting stages on fire, all in an effort to recapture an impossible sound. With Alive!, Bogart had created a chimera. It was a record that could never exist in real life: part raucous energy, part polished studio overdubs, a “live” masterpiece better than the best live act in rock history.

This piece originally ran in Mental Floss magazine.


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