edited by Sue Courtney
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Wine and War
published in 2002 by Hodder and Stoughton
ISBN 0 340 76678 6
"To be a Frenchman is to fight for your country and its wine". So said Claude Terrail, son of Andre Terrail, owner of Paris's famed restaurant, La Tour d'Argent.
Fighting for the wine is the essence of the book. It is World War II and the German forces are invading France, taking its treasures and amongst that the country's most precious jewel - wine. But the vignerons will not allow it to happen. They hide wine in cleverly disguised underground cellars. They lie to protect some of the greatest vinous treasures ever made. The wine resistance is formed and they become masters of wine fraud. Labels claiming great wine of great vintages is in fact 'vin ordinaire'.
Wine and War is a compelling read. It is the story of heroic wine makers and their families during these terrible times that started in 1939, coinciding with a disastrous vintage.
The story is told by the heroes themselves; the main players in this intriguing but true tale being the Drouhins of Beaune, the Hugels of Alsace, Mme Lanson of Champagne, the Miaihles of Bordeaux and the Huets of Loire. Their stories, as related to authors' Don and Petie Kladstrup, intertwine throughout the book.
Robert Drouhin recollects how he helped to conceal the family treasures, which included good stocks of the 1929-1938 vintages of the esteemed Romanee-Conti, in the labyrinth of limestone caves underneath the city of Beaune. As Robert's father Maurice Drouhin built a wall to hide the recess where their treasure was stored, Robert with his sisters and his mother collected spiders to put on the new wall. The webs they spun made the wall look as if it had been there forever. This was fun at the time but a young Robert Drouhin had no idea how dramatically life was to change. When the Germans invaded Beaune and seized any wine they could lay their hands on, they did not look twice at the wall young Robert had helped to conceal. The treasure was safe.
Cellars throughout the country concealed treasures in a similar fashion - and not only wine. But the Germans came and took what they found.
There were particular wines they were looking for, especially the prized 1867's known to be in the possession of the famous Parisian restaurant La Tour d'Argent. But the prized 1867's were nowhere to be found. "They have all been drunk", Field Marshall Hermann Goring was told. Goring seized the 80,000 bottles of wine in the restaurant's cellars unaware that the 1867's were hidden in a concealed cache that held 20,000 of the restaurant's best bottles.
As wine was seized, the wine resistance worked hard to make sure the wine did not reach its destination in Germany. Rail shipments mysteriously disappeared. Barrels arrived empty. But still the Germans persevered and 320 million bottles of French wine made its way to Germany each year. By 1941 there was a wine shortage in France.
In the north, Alsace was once again under German rule. Champagne had been overrun by the Germans. But when de Vogue (of Moet) was sentenced to death the entire workforce went on strike. De Vogue's punishment was reduced to imprisonment.
A young Gaston Huet from the Loire Valley, captured and held as prisoner for most of the war, longed for his home and for the taste of his Vouvray. He managed to arrange a special wine celebration in the POW camp. "It saved our sanity . . . Talking about wine and sharing it made all of us feel closer to home and more alive. It was only a thimbleful but it was glorious and the best wine I ever drank."
This is just one of the special stories in the book.
The book is written in eleven chapters and has an extensive glossary, bibliography and index. It is well written and extensively researched and utterly compelling to read, culminating with the victorious recovery of wine from the 'Eagle's Nest'. It was 1945 - a triumphant vintage in France.
The only thing this book lacks is having no orator from the Rhone to add to the history of France's fight for its wine.
I thoroughly recommend Wine and War to everyone who is interested in the history of French wine. It is a tribute to the courageous young winemakers - some, like Gaston Huet, who went to war and 'came home not young anymore'.
It is a fascinating book I didn't want to put it down.
© Sue Courtney
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