Like most Americans I love a good underdog tale: the story of a little guy who bests a big corporation or a rube from the sticks who one-ups some society snob. But it's hard to find an underdog story in American wine today, when the "little guys" are mostly Microsoft millionaires making a few cases of Napa Cabernet. It's easier to find one in Champagne, where a handful of small grape growers are producing wines that can compete with—and even surpass—some of the most famous names in the world.
Admittedly Champagne seems an unlikely setting for this sort of tale. After all, its wines are synonymous with luxury and prestige. And the underdogs, in this case the growers, are not exactly downtrodden. In fact, they own nearly 90 percent of Champagne's vineyards, valued at around $1 million an acre. That's more expensive than any other region in France except maybe for some choice parcels in Burgundy and Bordeaux.
But few of the 15,000 or so growers own more than five acres, which means they can't make enough wine to offset the cost of production. Therefore, only about 4,000 growers make their own wine; the rest sell their grapes to the cooperatives or to grandes marques like Moët & Chandon and Perrier Jouët. In fact, big Champagne houses account for about 70 percent of total Champagne production and about 97 percent of sales outside Europe. They have long been the names that stand for Champagne.