The time-honored symbols of the good life, champagne and caviar, haven’t gotten much play since the days of “Dynasty” and Robin Leach. Perhaps we’re not as ostentatious as we were then, or maybe we just can’t afford such luxuries anymore. Also, quotas and bans to protect the Caspian Sea’s endangered sturgeon (the only fish whose roe can be called caviar) fuel a black market that many of us are too socially responsible to ignore. But, a recent dinner at Keswick Hall featuring American caviar revealed the quality and affordability of a domestic version that’s legal and sustainable, yet exceptional enough to share the company of our country’s finest sparkling wines.
Sparkling wine and caviar took center stage at a recent Keswick Hall wine dinner.
Robert Gardner, owner of American Caviar Co. (and a UVA alumnus), discussed the history and present state of homegrown caviar while Keswick’s Executive Chef, Dean Maupin, prepared five dishes showcasing the orbs in all their glistening glory, paired with a Champagne-free wine line-up. Gardner sells to chefs all over the country who buy his product for its ecological soundness as well as its outstanding flavor. “My mission is to demystify caviar—to remove it from the special occasion realm and to encourage people to incorporate it into their meals,” Gardner said.
Not a particularly lofty mission given that caviar used to be peasant food—something that the Caspian fisherman ate on boiled potatoes to promote longevity. Settlers of America discovered that sturgeon was the most abundant fish on the continent and by the turn of the century, the US produced 90 percent of the world’s caviar. The salty spheres were even used as a thirst-inducing bar snack at saloons—a nickel bought you all-you-can-eat caviar.
So, what turned this prosaic munchie for beer-drinking commoners into an extravagant delicacy eaten only with champagne and mother of pearl spoons? In a word, greed. We lapped the rivers dry like a bunch of Augustus Gloops until even the Delaware River boomtown named Caviar, New Jersey, during the rush was demoted to the far less glamorous Bayside, New Jersey. Abroad, the Black and Caspian Seas became so over-fished and polluted that scarcity drove prices to ridiculousness (say $200 an ounce for golden ossetra). So, those that could afford it matched dollars to dollars and drank Champagne for the ultimate indulgence.
Nowadays, the Hackleback Sturgeon is the only wild sturgeon fished from American waters, but word on the river is that even it’ll be protected within the next two years. Fortunately, wild-caught trout and paddlefish, along with farm-raised sturgeon, produce roe so versatile and exquisite that we don’t have to put all of our fish eggs into one basket.
When asked about the classic champagne and caviar pairing, Gardner said that he prefers to drink beer with his caviar. (Not surprising coming from a man who anoints his bagels and cream cheese with trout caviar instead of lox.) But, despite his beer tastes and caviar budget, he believes that the minerality and effervescence of a sparkling wine is the ultimate palate-primer for the tantalizing “pop” of each briny egg. Some American caviar still costs a pretty penny (it ranges from $90 per pound for trout to $2,400 per pound for farm-raised ossetra), so, make the patriotic and economical choice and buy your bubbles stateside.
Gruet from New Mexico costs no more than $15, but could easily fetch three times that. Here in Virginia, we’re blessed with Champagne-native Claude Thibaut who makes the stunning Thibaut-Janisson Blanc de Chardonnay for under $30 and the fun-loving Virginia Fizz for under $20. California, of course, has top shelf bubbly from Domaine Chandon, Iron Horse, J, and Schramsberg, just to name a few. L. Mawby, in the unlikely state of Michigan, makes a $20 rival to Champagne’s much pricier Blanc de Blancs (see Winespeak 101).
Don’t over-think which sparkler to pair with which caviar. The point is that the two mimic one another in both looks and taste. Tiny iridescent pearls beckon you with beauty and then tickle your tongue and your fancy. On a blini or a bagel—with bubbly or beer, American caviar affords us all a lifestyle of the rich and famous. Pinkies in the air not required.