This post is based on a book by Don and Petie Kladstrup: ‘WINE AND WAR / The French, the Nazis, and the Battle for France’s Greatest Treasure’ (Broadway Books; May 2001).
Be it a Bordeaux or a Sauvignon, wine is a symbol of French culture. Yet while the consumption of wine is usually associated with festive, celebratory occasions, it has had a long relationship with warfare as well. Over the centuries, commanders have made sure that their troops had wine on the front lines to improve their moral and perhaps their performance. But during World War II, the combination of wine and war played out in a unique way when the French did everything in their power to keep their wine – and their national identity – out of the hands of the invading German forces.
Award-winning television correspondent Don Kladstrupand his wife, Petie – who together have written extensively about wine – offer a fascinating look at a side chapter of French history. Based on three years of eyewitness interviews and painstaking research, the Kladstrups’ book tells the remarkable stories of the daring men and women who risked their lives to save this precious symbol of France and a key part of the country’s economy.
The stars of WINE AND WAR are the prominent winemaking families from diverse regions of France: Pichon-Longueville, Comtesse de Lalande, which was owned by May-Eliane de Lencquesaing, Poniatowski of Vouvray, and Couly of Chinon, just to name a few. The main characters, in addition to Lencquesaing and Drouhin, are Bernard de Nonancourt of Laurent Perrier Champagne, the Hugel family of Alsace, and Gaston Huet of Vouvray. Ranging in geography from the south of France (which was kept somewhat free of German occupation during the war) to the Alsace region (which was annexed by Germany), each family encountered unique obstacles and advantages when struggling to save their wine and grapes from invaders. For example, Maurice Drouhin of Maison Joseph Drouhin, built a false wall to hide his prized bottles from the enemy.
However, not everyone in the employ of Germany was out to sack and pillage the vineyards of France. In WINE AND WAR, the Kladstrups explain the importance of the somewhat obscure position of weinfuhrer. Weinfuhrers were men appointed by Hitler to find good French wine, which then would be seized and sold by Germany on the international market for a tidy profit. However, the weinfuhrers were in the wine business themselves, and were well aware that someday the war would end and France and Germany would again have to do business as neighbors. With an eye to future cooperation, the weinfuhrers did what they could to minimize the damage to France’s wine industry.
Poniatowski buried his best wine in his vegetable garden. Gaston Huet of Vouvray drank his best wine with some of his men before surrendering to the Germans. “Foreau’s brother-in-law Gaston Huet used the natural caves of the Loire Valley to hide his stocks of wine. Then he planted weeds and bushes in front…” After he built his false wall, he also gathered live spiders in his cellar and placed them strategically around the wall to spin cobwebs in order to make the wall appear old.
Domaine Huet was to later buy the Clos du Bourg plot. The Kladstrups do not mention that Ch. Vavasseur was a Vichy collaborator and then owned Clos du Bourg. He made a small fortune supplying the German occupation forces with sparkling wine. (See “Marianne in Chains” by Robert Gildea, Macmillan, 2003, p338)
The gift of wine to a WWII soldier
The Kladstrups interweave their tales of winemaking heroism with historical information that gives these stories depth and context. They explain not only the state of French winemaking before and during the war, but also how the government’s actions affected the industry, the Germans’ methods of seizing wine and intimidating winemakers, and the details behind historical events like the taking of Hitler’s mountaintop home – known as the Eagle’s Nest – where bottles upon bottles of France’s finest were discovered in the cellar.
WINE AND WAR brings World War II France to life, clearly showing how part of the country prayed for its independence from the Nazis while fighting to retain its sense of national identity’ during the occupation. The interviews conducted by the Kladstrups with those who lived through this time and performed these acts of civil disobedience offer vivid testimony to the quiet heroism of these men and women, who did whatever necessary to carry on France’s great winemaking traditions.