There are several theories behind the origins of Champagne sabering, (aka lopping off the tip of the Champagne bottle’s neck with a sword or knife.)
Patrick Cappiello, the owner/winemaker of Monte Rio Cellars in Sebastopol and Wine Director of Walnut Street Café, has a favorite: As Napoléon Bonaparte was conquering Europe, he shared Champagne with his troops, who were armed with swords. They opened bottles by hacking the tops off with their blades. (Some also add that this bottle-opening method was easiest for cavalry on horseback.)
“That’s the coolest theory, the one that I always go with,” says Cappiello who is also the Food & Wine host for Playboy and founding member of Winemakers & Sommeliers for California Wildfire Relief. “But no matter what the legend, it’s a statement of celebration and should be carried on.”
Consider what Napoleon said, “Champagne! In victory, one deserves it. In defeat, one needs it.”
In 2014, Cappiello was Food & Wine magazine’s Sommelier of the Year. He’s also the go-to guy for Champagne sabering. He first discovered the allure of sabering more than a decade ago from a friend who is one of the country’s top Champagne collectors. The friend would saber a bottle of Champagne in the corner at the famous Veritas restaurant where Cappiello worked at the time. “It was fun and theatrical for everybody,” he explains.
Fast forward to Cappiello working at the lavish Gilt restaurant in the New York Palace Hotel. In 2012, when they announced their closing they gave a blowout party. “As the night came to an end, the chef and I jumped on the bar of this two-Michelin star restaurant to make a speech and thank everybody,” Cappiello recalls. “I had a 1998 magnum of Dom Pérignon and a chef’s knife.” After the speech, Cappiello sabered the bottle and the crowd went crazy. “It was very emotional,” says Cappiello. “That was the moment when I realized, wow, this is very impactful.”
Whenever Pearl & Ash, Cappiello’s former New York restaurant, received a great review they would celebrate with a bottle of bubbly. Built on a shoestring budget, the restaurant was voted one of the top 50 new restaurants in America by Bon Appétit magazine (so those bottles of bubbly came often.)
At one shindig, Cappiello broke out a double magnum of Pierre Peters Champagne, got up on the bar with his chef and partner and sabered the massive bottle. “Week after week we just kept doing it. I thought, this is so much fun, let’s keep going,” Cappiello explains. He ultimately found a four-foot-long Katana sword on eBay, which became his and the restaurant’s saber.
One of his best tips is to make sure that you have a sparkling wine that has a fair amount of pressure. "You have to use a serious sparkling wine in order to get it to work. There are slightly sparkling wines that are called pet-nat which don’t work so well. Instead go for champagne, cava, and some proseccos," he shares. "Franciacorta, a sparkling wine from Lombardy, Italy, is very champagne-like and provides high pressure."
Also, Cappiello advises that the champagne bottle should be very cold. "The cold will keep champagne in the bottle," he advises. "The warmer your bottle, it will expand and wlll create too high a pressure. So if you use a warm bottle you’re going to lose most of the champagne on the ground. It's better to have it cold."
Understandably, in this techie age, there’s something alluring and romantic about sabering. “It energizes the room,” Cappiello says. “Opening a bottle of Champagne has a celebratory drive behind it. But there’s also a very dramatic presentation: you have a sword. You’re up on a bar. Then there’s an intense pop with Champagne shooting out. It’s very interactive and exciting. It demystifies the idea of wine.”
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