Sunday, January 20, 2008

Wine & War by Don & Petie Kladstrup

The French, the Nazis, & the Battle for France's Greatest Treasure

The usual history of the French Resistance in World War II focuses on urban battlegrounds, with underground strategists meeting in cafes and cellars beneath Parisian landmarks. But outside the city, in Champagne, Burgundy, Vichy, Armagnac and Cognac, an equally fierce resistance was waged by the vintners of France.

In Wine & War, Don and Petie Kladstrup reveal the German plan to plunder the bottled treasure of the vineyards of France, and the determined struggle by the French in vineyard, winery, negociant and wine cellar to protect their wares. Why would they do so? The Kladstrups make it clear that to the French winemaker, their wines are more than product; they are family and regional history, cultural icons, and the heart of the French way of life.

It began with the fall of the Maginot Line on the north-eastern border of France. Wine-makers in the Champagne region relate seeing soldiers from the line fleeing through the vineyards because the roads were crowded with refugees from northern France who carried their worldly goods on their backs. As they fled, soldiers discarded their arms in among the vines — even today, rusting rifles are found when vineyards are plowed up.

When the fleeing French soldiers were followed by the German army of occupation, a two-fold battle began: protect the fine vintages of France, and sell the German the poorer qualities as rare old wines. In the Chateau Laudenne, the cellar acquired a new back wall that was carefully festooned with spiderwebs brought from all over the vineyard. Behind that wall, the Chateau's famous wines rested safe from the German troops. Meanwhile, ancient dust gathered from carpets cleaned at a certain company was bagged and distributed to restaurants. They would dredge this dust over the shoulders of a raw new bottle, then sell it to the unsuspecting Germans as aged and valuable wine.

In the Hugel vineyards in Alsace, the 1939 vintage was "disastrous." The weather that year did not cooperate, and the grapes did not develop in sugar. Wine making has such seasons, and the Hugels simply barreled the puny wine and stored it away. When their vineyards were occupied, the German army requisitioned wine by the barrel for the Russian front. "They never specified the vintage," Andre Hugel related. "So whenever we filled these requisitions, it was always the '39 we shipped."

From the weinfuhrers to the Champagne Campaign of liberation, this book is a trove of tales of how surrendered France fought the German occupiers with wit, wiles and bad wine. Lay in a good Burgundy, light a fire, and sit back to enjoy the rich adventure of Wine & War.