Break Out the Bubbly

You can break out the bubbly this New Year's Eve without breaking the bank.

I'm not much of a drinker, but I do love Champagne. I have to confess that I'm a bit spoiled when it comes to Champagne. My father is a wine connoisseur and for special occasions can be counted on to provide the most amazing wines and Champagnes.  

The other advantage is the year I spent abroad living in Paris, France. It was there I cultivated a deep affection for all manner of coffee (like transcendental espresso with one lump of raw sugar) and fabulous Champagne. When you are young and in Paris, good Champagne is abundant and affordable, especially when the exchange rate is 10 francs to the dollar.

Currently, the exchange rate is nothing close to what I enjoyed, not to mention that the franc is now obsolete. So what do you do if you want to enjoy a little of the bubbly stuff this New Year's Eve but don't want to spend $100 a bottle?

Fortunately for Agoura, there is no need to mortgage your home in order to ring in the New Year, for we have good old Trader Joe's. And mind you, not just any . Our neighborhood TJ's has the original Wine Whisperer, George Annino.

Annino is modest, and humbly refers to himself as "the wine guy," but he is so much more than that. Annino is the only person I know who has his own trademark Trader Joe's chalk drawing of his likeness posted throughout the store. Next to my dad, Annino is my go-to man for wine and libation advice.

"The difference between Champagne and sparkling wine is that Champagne can only come from Champagne, France," said Annino.  "However, there are great sparkling wines for half the price. It's the same process. It's made the same way, but it can't be called "Champagne.'"

Annino has some great recommendations in a variety of price ranges to suit just about any budget.

Surprisingly, you can get a drinkable bottle for under $5.00.  Annino recommends Schloss Biebrich from Germany at an unbeatable $4.99 per bottle. "They do a nice job," he said.

In the $5.00 to $10.00 range, Annino suggests "R.S.V.P" ($5.99).  He likes the flavor which he describes as smooth, not overly sweet and not overly dry. "It's medium body but it's done very, very well. You can use it in a mimosa or on its own," he said.  

If you are looking for something a little off-the-beaten-path, Annino suggests the very popular Almond Creek Vineyard's almond-flavored sparkling wine. "A lot of people absolutely love this," he said. "At $5.99 it's one of our best sellers. It's a great value." 

Blason, Brut Reserve, Debourgogne is another nice selection from France. Annino is partial to Cremant. "It's absolutely outstanding," he said. 

Not a bad review for a bottle that will only cost you $9.99.  "I wouldn't make mimosas with this one but I'd drink it by itself," he said.

At $9.99, Trader Joe's North Coast Sparkling Wine earned an enthusiastic thumbs-up from Annino. "It's absolutely outstanding," he said. 

The bottle is 60 percent Chardonnay and 40 percent Pinot Noir. "If it did not say 'Trader Joe's' on the label it's a $20.00 to $30.00 bottle," said Annino. "It's a super, super buy."

If you are feeling a little flush and want to splurge a little bit, you cannot go wrong with Chandon Brut Classic (what I will be enjoying this New Year's Eve). It's made in California by the same people who make the super yummy Moet Chandon in France, but this is a California version.  "At $14.99 you are getting a lot of bang for your buck," said Annino.

If you want to kick it up a notch (okay, Annino says you would be kicking it up, "a lot") he highly recommends a bottle of Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin, a brut that has "tiny, tiny, little bubbles."  

"The tinier the bubble, the better it is," said Annino, sharing one of the secrets to a good bottle of Champagne or sparkling wine.

The Clicquot will set you back about $42.99 but if you want a fine Champagne, it's definitely worth it. I've enjoyed this Champagne before and it's superb.

As I've said before, I prefer to drink my Champagne "straight up" in a fluted glass, but the following are a few concoctions if you want to have a little fun with your bubbly.

However you choose to ring in the New Year, whether on a budget or sipping in style, I wish for you a healthy, happy and prosperous New Year. Happy 2012!


1/2 oz. 100% cranberry juice, fill glass with Champagne.


Enjoy this Italian favorite of peach puree or peach juice with Prosecco, an Italian sparkling wine.


Often served at brunch, enjoy a light Mimosa instead on New Years. Simply combine a little orange juice and Champagne and you are good to go.

Chambord and Champagne

I am fond of the sweet raspberry liqueur Chambord which happily pairs nicely with Champagne. Add a splash of Chambord into your glass and top with Champagne. Garnish with a fresh raspberry.  It's tasty and pretty. How can it possibly be bad?


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