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TOP-OF-THE-LINE BUBBLIES SOLD OUT
BUYERS STEPPING UP TO BETTER CHAMPAGNE, SPARKLING WINES

As glasses of champagne and sparkling wines are raised and clinked at midnight tonight to celebrate the arrival of the new millennium, sellers of wines and spirits will have an extra reason to celebrate -- record-breaking sales of things bubbly.

Burton Notarius, owner of Premier Wines and Spirits, 3445 Elmwood Ave. in the Town of Tonawanda, said the coming of Y2K has brought big bucks, not bugs, for his retail category.

"We've seen the largest (year-over-year) percentage increase in our history for the October through December period," Notarius said. "In wines (which includes champagnes) we're up 15 percent in December, which is traditionally a huge month."

Notarius, Western New York's largest seller of wines and liquors, said sales of premium champagnes and sparkling wines actually started to pick up in the early fall as high-end consumers began to fear shortages.

"They bought early and they bought more than usual," Notarius said. "There are now seven or eight of the top-shelf labels we are out of, but overall, we can still take care of your New Year's Eve needs."

Those heading out to the corner liquor store today should not count on scoring bottles of top-of-the-line bubblies, such as Dom Perignon, Louis Roederer Cristal and Laurent-Perrier's Grand Siecle Brut. Those prestige labels were must-haves on the lists of those buying early and are scarce.

But if you weren't planning to spend upwards of $200 a pop for your midnight toast, there's still plenty of good stuff to fill your glass with, ranging in price from $10 a bottle, to over $100.

"One of the really great things about this category is that you'll find quality in an $8 to $10 bottle that meets or exceeds what you got in a $20 to $40 bottle just 10 years ago," Notarius said. "That's especially true of California labels."

Mark LaChiusa of Hodge Wine & Liquor, 463 Elmwood in Buffalo, said that store's top seller are $10 bottles of Domaine Ste. Michelle.

"It's definitely the most popular. It has a decent quality, not sickening sweet. You can buy it and feel confident most people will like it," LaChiusa said.

It's sister, Ste. Michelle Chadon, at $18 a bottle, is also moving well.

Hodge has also charted big increases in higher-end labels, and so far has enough to go around thanks to owner Jim Pepe's decision to start stockpiling bottles two years ago.

Bill Mack, owner of Frontier Discount Liquor, 121 Grant St., said he's noticed a lot of customers moving to higher priced champagnes and sparkling wines this holiday season.

"That's the big trend. I don't see them buying more, but they are stepping up," Mack said. "Those who went for a $10 bottle in previous years are coming up to the counter with a $40 or $50 bottle."

He credits the booming economy and the milestone New Year's for the big spending.

"They have a lot to celebrate and feel they deserve something extra special. I'm not hearing any complaints about prices," he added.

While champagne has cultivated an exclusive, luxury image, it's really more of a mass market product. Annual production in recent years has been around 270 million bottles. This year, thanks to expected increased demand due to both millennial consumption and robust economies in the U.S. and Europe, production was bumped up to around 325 million bottles, or 27 million cases.

Worldwide, New Year's revelers-in-waiting have rung up some $3.5 billion in sales of bubbly drinks, a new revenue record.

And for the record, while the term "champagne" is commonly used in reference to any wine with bubbles, technically speaking, only those produced in France's Champagne region can officially be called champagnes. Despite the fact they represent 90 percent of volume, those produced elsewhere are defined as "sparkling wines."

As far as the care and keeping of your just-bought bottle of champagne or sparkling wine, the experts agree it should be deeply chilled so its taste is ice cold and crisp. This will take about six hours in the refrigerator and about a half hour in a bucket filled with half ice, half water.

Figure each bottle will serve three people, giving them two 8 oz. glasses each, according to local retailers.

The key to a successful uncorking involves covering the bottle with a heavy towel or cloth and untwisting the wire cage and keeping a thumb over the cork. Then hold the bottle at a 45 degree angle, gently twist the cork and ease it out. If done correctly, you'll hear a soft hiss and pop, not a bang.

The bottom line is: The less dramatic the uncorking, the more fizz you'll get in your glass, where it belongs, instead of on the floor.

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