The Kingdom of Vines

“`Our wines evolve slowly and nobly, carrying with them hopes for a prolonged life,’ explained one winegrower. `We know our land was here before we came and that it will be here long after we are gone. With our wine, we have survived wars, the Revolution and phylloxera. Each harvest renews promises made in the spring. We live with the continuing cycle. This gives us a taste of eternity.'”
French winegrower quoted in Don and Petie Kladstrup, Wine and War —

When it comes to great combinations, I count books and wine among the best. Last month I read Wine and War: The French, the Nazis, and the Battle for France’s Greatest Treasure, and last week I attended a wine tasting at a working farm and vineyard in the Green Mountains (that’s part two, coming soon).

I started learning about French history in college, when I studied French language, culture, and literature. I became fascinated by the twentieth century, particularly the war years. Specifically, la Résistance captured my imagination, but not until I read this book had I ever heard about the compelling and pivotal role that wine makers played in this most daring of movements. Wine and War is a thrilling and engrossing read. It weaves together the stories of several families from different regions of France in order to tell the broader story of what happened there during the German occupation in World War II — to the families, the farms and vineyards, the industry and trade, and to the wine itself. If my visit to California in April opened my eyes to the intricacies, nuances, and complexities of drinking wine, this book opened my eyes to its cultural embeddedness, economic magnitude, and historical significance.

The book follows several key figures in the French wine trade in the middle of the twentieth century, some of them from families that had been growing grapes and producing and selling wine for decades or even centuries in the Loire, Champagne, Burgundy, Bordeaux, and Alsace. The authors did years of research, site visits, and interviews to pull together the stories of these families and their vineyards from just before the German occupation began, through its early stages when the German occupying forces were a relatively benign invasive presence (les allemands sont correct), to the later years when they became a ruthless, terrorizing army as the tide started to turn — characterized by, among other things, their terrifying unpredictability. As time passed, the authors recount, “Farms were burned, villages were razed and thousands were executed by firing squad. Even the vineyards were no longer safe. `Every day as we tended our vines, we listened for the click of the rifle.'” The book tells a story of remarkable courage, fortitude, ingenuity, and resolve, and explores complex questions of the ethics of survival and complicity. The entire time I was reading I couldn’t help imagining these people thinking, really, Germany? Again?

I can’t capture the magic of the book, so I won’t really try. But here are some highlights. If any of this interests you, it’s worth the read.

Drunk soldiers

Early in the war, when support for Pétain was high, “Those in the wine trade were especially enthusiastic. They knew Pétain owned a small vineyard on the Riviera. They also remembered what he had written about the role of wine during World War I: `Of all the shipments to the armies, wine was assuredly the most awaited and most appreciated. To procure his ration of wine, the French soldier braved perils, challenged artillery shells and defied the military police. In his eyes, the wine ration had a place almost equal to that of ammunition supplies. Wine was a stimulant that improved his morale and physical well-being. Wine, therefore, was a major partner in the victory.'” Or, in other words, war is more bearable when you’re shitfaced.

The improvement of morale remains a theme during the second world war, too, as the Wehrmacht requisitioned tons of wine and champagne from the French to “maintain the morale of its troops.” (In addition to the millions of bottles of French wine shipped to the front, following the war French and American liberating forces found more than half a million bottles stuffed inside a high mountain cave at Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest.)

Wine as Military Science

Champagne shipments provided significant intelligence about Germany’s movements throughout Europe and north Africa; by tracking shipments the French could follow where Germany was amassing its troops; wine makers supplied this vital information. The book cites one example where, despite Germany’s protestations that they were not planning to invade Romania, the enormous quantities of wine that were being shipped there suggested otherwise. They invaded days later.

Wine’s active role in the Resistance

At first it was sabotage lite:
– Siphoning wine from train cars while they were stopped in small town stations and replacing the weight by pumping the barrels full of water.
– Tampering with wine and champagne — sending bad or lesser batches to Germany while hiding better vintages. Special labels were created that said “Reserved for the Wehrmacht” — these bottles were filled with “plonk.”

But as the war escalated and the Resistance ramped up its efforts:
– Tracking shipments of wine to German forces and then secreting that information away to London.
– Using oak barrels to smuggle goods and people.
– Building false walls deep inside cellars and caves to hide and preserve important bottles.
– “Winegrowers stepped up their assistance to the Resistance by allowing their property to be used for nighttime parachute drops of money, arms and supplies …”
– Winegrowers and farmers aided Frenchmen who fled to avoid being conscripted into Vichy’s forced labor programs for the Third Reich and hid these members of the Resistance in their barns and cellars.

Wine as Lifeline

Two stories: the first of a man, Gaston Huet, imprisoned in an officers’ camp in Germany. Each POW received rations that he could use to have things sent from home. Huet decided to convince all the inmates to use their rations to have wine sent to the camp, and he spent months planning a bare bones evening of wine appreciation and tasting. Due to a miscalculation of the weight of some types of wine bottles against the weight of the parcels they were allowed to receive, by the time the event happened each prisoner only got a small swallow of wine. However, the diligence that was required for planning the event, and the satisfaction of tasting even the smallest drop of French wine, infused the camp with a sense of purpose and hope. “Take your time to appreciate what is in front of you,” Huet said during the banquet. “Admire it before you bring it to your lips, this mustard glass now filled with nectar, and take the time to remember that tonight our goal is to do nothing but glorify one of our greatest treasures.”

Cultural sidebar: in the United States we consider Betty White a national treasure; in France, it is wine.*

Story number two is about Roger Ribaud, imprisoned in another POW camp, who began writing down his thoughts, on stolen scraps of paper, in order to pass the time and help dispel the sadness. He began listing every French wine he could thing of, both those he had tasted and those he had not. He enlisted his fellow prisoners to help him compile the list, which he sorted by region. Then he did something that hadn’t been done before [in print]; he began to write down what he had eaten with different wines, and which combinations worked and which didn’t. By the time he was finished he had written a book, which eventually became Le Maître de Maison de Sa Cave à Sa Table (The Head of the Household from His Cellar to His Table). “After the war, his book was published to great acclaim and hailed as one of the first books that paid serious attention to regional wines and food.”

Wine Wisdom

From Millie who served us in the tasting room at Buena Vista Winery: the key is to match your palate to your wallet, which echoes Roger Ribaud who said that it wasn’t necessary to stock every wine in the world, rather “to have a cave with wines you like and which fit your budget.”

From Georges Duhamel in Wine and War: “`Wine was one of the first signs of civilization to appear in the life of human beings. It is in the Bible, it is in Homer, it shines through all the pages of history, participating in the destiny of ingenious men. It gives spirit to those who know how to taste it, but it punishes those who drink it without restraint.'”


Once it was all over, Georges Faiveley noted, “`The wind of the apocalypse that blew from the east for sixty months, driving away laughter and happiness from the kingdom of vines, and leaving only the silence of death, has finally ended.'”

Finished reading (listening to) Tina Fey’s Bossypants.

*This is a joke; I love Betty White.
**All the photos in this post were taken at the Benzinger Family Winery in Glen Ellen, California.

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