My wife was out of town last week on business, so my mother volunteered to pick up the girls one afternoon, to give me more time to work. Late in the day, headed back to my house to have dinner with them, I stopped to buy two whole, fresh Mediterranean branzini.

Like an awful lot of people, I acquired my love of food—and of cooking—from my mother. As a kid, I adored her meals, and I always had seconds and thirds, even when my father was dieting. She’s also a great audience for food, a great enthusiast, so I love making her dinner.

My grill is out of gas just now, so I seasoned the branzini and laid them in a nonstick grill pan, loosely covered, while I made a pair of simple Provençal sauces: one from dry-farmed Early Girl tomatoes, and one a tapenade. Then I opened our first wine—a half bottle of Arlaux brut Champagne, nonvintage. My goodness, how I’ve begun to love Champagne. This is new for me, the result of a magazine article I wrote a few months ago, interviewing a man who collects Champagne. But I’ve discovered what many other people already know: that good French Champagne is one of life’s miracles, and suitable for even the simplest of nights at home. There’s something in the smooth uplift of the fine bubbles, and in the elegant balance of the flavors.

On the night in question, with that Arlaux, I discovered that Champagne tastes especially wonderful in the company of my mother—who is, in her way, very much like Champagne. There’s something bubbly and bright in her conversation, and she’s always uplifting, playful, friendly, and willing to play high or low, as the mood demands. She also likes to have a good time, and savor a fun wine, and turn an ordinary occasion into a minor party.

When the half bottle was empty, we turned to an Italian white imported by Bonny Doon Vineyard. It’s called Il Circo “La Funambola,” from the DOC Erbaluce di Caluso, and I bought a case of it awhile back at $4.99 a bottle—a steal offered by my local grocery store. The wine had come so cheap, in fact, that I’d foolishly allowed myself to think of it as everyday stuff, even a cooking wine in a pinch. But recently, with only a few bottles left, I’ve finally gotten over the bargain and realized that this is a sensational wine, an absolutely delicious blend of lemon and pears, acid and full-mouth fruit. When the fish was done, and I’d ladled on the tomato sauce and spread around the tapenade, and put out a platter of flageolet beans, and when the girls joined us and bravely picked at their servings, the cheap Erbaluce turned out to be an exceptional pairing, and I drank far, far more than I should have.

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