Sunday, January 29, 2017

Wine and War

My husband celebrated his birthday in Europe last year. We split the time between Belgium and France so that we each got our fair share of beer (for him) and wine (for me). Aside from the festivities, we also visited World War I and II sites and museums. I learned more than I wish about both world wars, the rise of Hitler, and the Nazi regime. Even as we toured wineries in Champagne and Burgundy, the long intricate underground cellars whispered stories of wars and resistance.

Moet et Chandon's cellars span 17 miles underground
Drouhin caves were an escape route from the Gestapo
Recommended by one of the tour guides, I downloaded Wine and War: The Battle for France's Greatest Treasure by Don and Petie Kladstrup onto my Kindle. The book retells stories of wine families from five prominent wine regions during the Nazi occupation: Champagne in the north, Alsace that borders Germany (and was in the past part of Germany), Loire that is south of Paris, and the two grand regions of Burgundy and Bordeaux.

Behind newly built walls were hidden wines 
The Nazi invasion of France would also mean taking over the country's prized possessions - the vineyards and the wines. Although Hitler was a teetotaler whose habit of adding sugar to his wine would annoy any serious wine drinker, it did not stop him from amassing the best of Bordeaux (Rothschilds, Lafites, Moutons, Latours) and major Champagne houses (Krug, Bollinger, Möet, Salon) to his mountain-top retreat, known as the Eagle's Nest. Needless to say, there were rare Burgundies like Romanee-Conti, Cognacs, and ports that were recovered after the fall of the Nazi regime.

The French survived and resisted the Nazis in ways that only the French knew how. They hid the best of their wines in secret caves and ponds and blatantly showed off the lesser wines to sell to the Germans. (One story involved children collecting spiderwebs to make a new wall look old! It worked as the Germans walked past the wines hidden behind that wall.) Several winemakers were actively part of the resistance, operating from their own cellars. Others negotiated charmingly and formed relationships with more sympathetic German officials. A few families risked their own lives to hide and protect their Jewish friends and American allies.

Whether they were trapped in war prisons or free in the vineyards examining the damage caused by artillery and lack of care, the health of their vines was constantly in the minds of the French winemakers. Many prisoners-of-war were kept strong by memory of their beloved wines. In fact, a gastronomic guidebook, Le Maître de Maison by Roger Ribaud, was conceived in one of the POW camps.

French vineyards now vibrant were in a state of disrepair during the war
History has a strange way of reminding us that if unguarded, humankind has a tendency to blame our misfortune on and target our discontent at those who are different from us. Thankfully, we are comforted by the fact that the human race also has the ability to correct the course, protect those in need, and resist tyranny.

The next time I open a bottle of Joseph Drouhin or Huet Vouvray, I will remember Maurice Drouhin who engaged in resistance activities from his cellar and Gaston Huet who survived five years as a prisoner of war. I will remember we can correct the course.

My Verdict: The book is a great read for wine geeks. The style unfortunately has a little awkwardness in the flow as the authors tried to weave in the various stories they collected. Still I enjoy being delighted by the history behind some of the wines I have tasted or cellared.