October 18, 2006
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In a celebratory mood last night, I pulled from the refrigerator a bottle of sparkling wine, set it on the kitchen counter and...did a double take. Only at that moment did I recognize that the customary cork mushrooming from the neck of a bottle of sparkling wine was missing. No cork, no wire cage, no thick and glistening foil wrap, just the sort of simple metal cap you find on soft-drink bottles. What was going on here? Did they ship the wine before finishing the packaging?

Those were my first thoughts. Then I began to wonder how the heck I was to open it. It just didn't seem right to dig into a drawer and fish out an old-fashioned church key to pry off the cap. Sparkling wine, after all, calls for a dignified ceremony.

Then I remembered the little booklet draped on the neck of the bottle and which I had tossed aside. Taking another look I learned that the producer of the wine, Domaine Chandon in the Napa Valley, had replaced the traditional cork on its most prestigious sparkling wines with what it calls a "Crown Cap." The move is intended to eliminate any prospect of the feared "cork taint" that quietly kills so many bottles of wine.

Then I turned the page to learn that this enlightened move doesn't come without a price. "Used by winemakers worldwide for over 50 years, Crown Caps require a unique opening tool," advised the booklet. This would be the "disgorging key," which to judge by the photo with the explanation looks kind of like a disposable razor. Just hook the "blade" under the edge of the crown and press the handle. Presumably, the cap will ease right off.

I don't have a "disgorging key," however, and the booklet didn't tell me how I was supposed to get one. But fixed to the side of the kitchen counter was a classic Coco-Cola bottle opener. Gingerly, and quite unceremoniously, I propped the Crown Cap under the opener and pressed down gently. The cap slipped off gracefully, with no "pop" and no wine foaming from the top. No drama, either.

I filled two flutes and we began to enjoy a sparkling wine of fairly astonishing richness. It was the Domaine Chandon Etoile Brut ($29), a golden, fine-beaded blend of chardonnay (75 percent) and pinot noir, nearly two-thirds of the fruit from Napa County, the rest from Sonoma County. It spent five years on the lees, the dregs from winemaking, like dead yeast cells, which enhance a wine's complexity. That prolonged exposure is evident in the Etoile Brut in its robust yet creamy texture and layered flavors of nuts, honey and stone fruits.

When it comes to the Etoile Brut, Domaine Chandon's winemakers are directed to disregard the usual standards of making sparkling wine. They're to pay no heed to traditional considerations of appellation, vintage and blend, only to find the finest fruit they can and transform it into the finest sparkling wine they can envision. That unconventional approach carries over to the packaging, right down to that disarming cap. My Coca-Cola opener worked just fine, but with the holidays nearing, and the prospect of enjoying another bottle or two of the Etoile Brut, I'm going to be looking around for a "disgorging key."

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