Tuesday, February 22, 2011
A Wine Book Like No Other
A short time ago, I revisited one of my favorite wine books that deals with that topic. It’s an engrossing, little-known tome, now in paperback, titled Wine and War: The French, the Nazis & the Battle for France’s Greatest Treasure. Authored by Don and Petie Kladstrub, it is based on several years of research and interviews, and covers the determined resistance and the harrowing, occupation experiences of five historic, well-known winegrowing families from the premier appellations of Burgundy, Bordeaux, Alsace, Loire and Champagne.
When WW II began, a significant portion of the French population was involved in the production and distribution of wine. (Some estimate a minimum of twenty percent.) Their national identity, indeed their very “French-ness,” was inextricably intertwined with wine—its storied history, its cultural and economic links, as well as its perceived, good-life sophistication. It was the nature and depth of those aspects that underpinned their resistance to Germany’s occupation.
The Nazi assault on France’s wine industry, the heart of its economy, began with the physical damage to the vineyards, followed by looting as the Germans advanced through the villages. It continued with Germany’s seizure of the key chemicals that the farmers needed to protect the vines. But the most ambitious aspect of the occupation was a wide-ranging economic plan, using wine industry-knowledgeable civilians—known as Weinfuhrers—to oversee and control the pricing, production, as well as the distribution of the wines from the above regions.
On the other hand, one of the most important and unanticipated occurrences during the occupation was the how the Weinfuhrers were more circumspect than their Nazi commanders about potentially damaging France’s economy and the wine trade in particular. While their actions were not always benign, they nevertheless managed a complex and difficult situation. As such, their conduct significantly eased Frances’ re-entry into the world wine market after the war.
The authors detail imaginative and occasionally amusing actions that winegrowers and storied restaurants took to limit the damage and losses to their vineyards and inventories. They also recount in memorable detail, a cinema-worthy, “wine tasting festival” that took place in one of the prisoner of war camps. (Who else but the French would or could conceive that?)
Intimate, real life experiences are what make for interesting historical reads. Wine and War has more than its fair share of them. If you crave wine information beyond the traditional topics of grapes and appellations, high critic ratings and the latest cult wines, this short, interesting read will likely satisfy.