This is a Champagne story. Actually, it’s a love story set in Champagne country. There was a time in the golden past, oh, say 30 years ago, when a team of American newspaper correspondents with time on their hands would pile into a car in Paris and make what they half-seriously called a Champagne run. They would head for Reims, Epernay, or occasionally Avenay-Val-d’Or, a no-nonsense Champagne-producing town virtually unknown by the fashionable tourist centers just a few miles away.

In those simpler times, smaller producers made their own Champagnes and worked to sell them from their independent vineyards and wine shops. Usually they avoided well-heeled tourists and dealt with local enthusiasts eager for their little-known labels.

Buying was a ritual. Bottles after bottles were sampled, in homey kitchens or understated dining rooms close to the surprisingly immense cellars where the Champagne was made and aged. Invariably, the lunches at the vineyards were hearty, delicious and—very important—free of charge. By the end of the day, cases of the low-priced but delicious Champagne were hauled off by the well-fed Paris buyers, a few of them over-enthusiastic and a bit giddy behind the wheel, but studiously ignored by the local gendarmes.

One of the more remarkable Champagne makers in that little-known area around Avenay-Val-d’Or was neither a tourist nor a Champenois. Nor, for that matter, was he French. His name was Albert Justin Ricciuti, and he had been born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland. His early life was commonplace enough. He grew up in East Baltimore, graduated from Mount Saint Joseph High School in 1941 and enlisted in the US Army in 1942. That’s when his destiny began to change.

Like father, like son

Albert’s father Raffaele was born in Italy and, like hundreds of Italian immigrants, had moved to the US in the years before World War I. After scarcely enough time to pick up much English, he was scooped up into the American Expeditionary Force, and in 1917 found himself back in Europe—not in Italy, but in France. Stationed for a time in Arles, in rural Provence, he met a young Louise Pillier, and when he returned home to Baltimore, she went with him as his bride.

Some two decades later, following in his father’s footsteps, Albert was shipped off to another war in Europe, as a translator in the 20th Corps of General George S. Patton’s Third Army. “Thanks to my mother, I knew some French,” said Albert later. He landed in France, in the second wave at Utah Beach, on June 10, 1944.

Later that same year, as Patton’s army marched east, Albert met Paulette Révolte and her two sisters in Avenay-Val-d’Or, a town that was, as he once told me, “about three miles from Epernay and 4,000 miles from Baltimore”.

Thanks to Albert’s French, he and his buddies got acquainted with the girls, and dined at their family home. Albert, a devoted beer fan, also got briefly acquainted with real French Champagne while in the region. But the army marched on, and when Albert’s war was over he returned to Baltimore alone.

But he and Paulette exchanged Christmas cards from time to time, and in 1962 Albert returned to France to retrace his wartime route. He wrote to Paulette to let her know he would be passing through, he told Don and Petie Kladstrup, authors of Wine and War (Broadway Books, 2001). “We would love to see you again; please plan to stay with us,” she replied. “We have lots of new Champagne for you to taste.”

“That’s when it struck me—when I came back and saw her again,” he told the Kladstrups. “It was love at second sight.”

They married in January 1963, and, after a brief stay in Baltimore, returned to Avenay-Val-d’Or after Paulette’s brother said he could no longer run the Révolte family’s vineyards. Albert learned the business of grape-growing and Champagne production from Paulette. “I like to drink Champagne,” he said, “but I do not have what you would call a good palate. My wife is the one with the palate.” Said Paulette, “I don’t have to taste Champagne, it’s in my blood.”

“I followed her around,” recounted Albert. “I made notes about everything and kept a diary every day. I didn’t really know anything about Champagne, but what appealed to me was seeing the end product. It wasn’t like any other job where you work and work and never see what you’ve done.”

So Albert Justin Ricciuti of Baltimore became the first American to make Champagne. He wasn’t accepted at first, but “he was a good student and anxious to learn,” said Paulette. Steadily and quietly Albert became a solid member of the Champagne community, and it wasn’t all that long before Champagne Ricciuti-Révolte was producing 50,000 bottles a year. And some of it was bought by enthusiastic customers who made holiday Champagne runs driving out from Paris.

Al, who died in 2002, never took the vineyards or his harvests for granted. “Sometimes,” he told me many years ago, as the business was thriving, “I go down to the cellar at night just to look at the bottles. I still find it fascinating.”

The next generation

In the meantime, in 1963 and soon after John F. Kennedy’s death, the Ricciutis’ son was born. Al named the boy John, in honor of the fallen president. “Fine,” said Paulette, “as long as his second name is Charles, for De Gaulle.” John Charles Ricciuti is now president of Champagne J.C.R, the Champagne house that succeeded Ricciuti-Révolte. His wife, Nathalie Legras, is also from a Champagne family, in Chouilly, and there’s another generation in the wings. Son Ugo Raffaele Jack is already in a viticultural school program and plans to follow in the family footsteps.

J.C.R currently produces a small array of cuvées: Brut Réserve, Carte Noir, Rosé, Grand’Maison, Blanc de Blancs and two new ones, Cuvée Grand Cru and Cuvée Prestige Grand’Maison. But the one that stands out, in historic terms, is Cuvée Franco-Américaine, with a label pairing the French and American flags.

 

Champagne J.C.R, 18 rue Lieutenant de Vaisseau Paris, Avenay-Val-d’Or, 03.26.59.90.68. website

Originally published in the December 2010 issue of France Today

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