A Happy New Year to all our readers, and a little warning to help make them happier: You may soon be seeing signs in your

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Where's the Fizz?

A Happy New Year to all our readers, and a little warning to help make them happier: You may soon be seeing signs in your supermarket wine section offering fabulous prices on some of the world's finest champagne marques. Natural, you say? Just unloading the overstock from the holiday season? Yeeees, and no. There's an overstock of fine champagne, all right, both vintage and nonvintage, but the surplus has been accumulating for a decade. And it's beginning to affect the quality of what you're likely to find on the shelf. Champagne improves with age. True, up to a point, and always assuming that the bottle in question has been treated perfectly all the way from maker to your cellar. But that assumption is a dangerous one, because just a few hours sitting in a steel container on an open dock in bright sunlight is enough to take a serious toll on the flavor and liveliness of fine wine. Sitting around too long in a warehouse can take a more subtle toll, too. The go-go 1990s were boom years in the champagne market, and growers, makers, and shippers all ramped up production, so when sales hit a wall after the turn of the century, there was an awful lot of bubbly in the pipeline. Some prestigious brands like Veuve Clicquot, mass market in all but name, can move enough product to ensure that it reaches the consumer still fresh, but a recent local taste-through of available stocks of other big names turned up a lot of flat high-end fizzy. Even relatively high-volume Moët & Chandon products were showing their age, and the more prestigious the label and pricier the tag, the more disappointing were the wines the trade tasters sampled: faded bottles of Deutz, Taittinger, Roederer, Bollinger, Dom Perignon. Only superpremium Krug escaped censure by the tasting team. When you're talking about wine that retails for $60 and up, $50 is no bargain if what's in the glass is flat, fizzless, and dull. But what can the hapless consumer do about it? In supermarkets, you're lucky to find a wine clerk who knows much about champagne, particularly the smaller- production high-end makers. (Pete's and Pete's Bellevue are exceptions: They specialize in wine, champagne especially, and buy enough from their wholesalers to demand best quality.) As with almost all questions about wine marketing, the answer is the same: Except for everyday plonk, buy your wine from a store that specializes in wine, ask for advice (about plonk, too), and then, most important: Follow the advice you're given. Professional wine merchants won't steer you wrong. They have no economic interest in doing so. Where wine's concerned, a satisfied customer is a customer who over time will become more discriminating, demanding, and willing to pay more for ever-better bottles. Of course, you want bargains. Wine merchants know what the bargains are. If you spend too much time reading price tags, you're sure to find some dandies, but you'll get stuck with enough doggies that you'll wish you hadn't tried to beat the system. Caveat potor. rdowney@seattleweekly.com

 
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