Book Review: Wine and War

I picked up ‘Wine and War’ at Capitol Hill Books near my house. This secondhand bookstore is a bibliophile’s dream…and a fireman’s nightmare. Floor to ceiling, the store is stuffed with books and has that great musty ‘old book’ smell. Originally a townhouse, there are tiny narrow paths (you really shouldn’t bring in a big bag like I did) that weave through the various sections, books overflowing from the shelves. The bathroom houses the foreign language section. The old kitchen has become the section for classics. There is an attempt at alphabetizing but it really doesn’t get past the first letter of the last name – Jane Austen could be right in front of Louisa May Alcott – and that suits everyone just fine.

The history sections of the store are treasure troves. I am not even sure how I found ‘Wine and War’ – I certainly wasn’t looking for it (you don’t go in there with a specific title in mind). It just popped out at me. Seven dollars later, I had a new title to add to my long history reading list. It was such a unique topic, I put it at the top of the list and settled down to read. With a glass of wine, of course.

Wine and War: The French, the Nazis and the Battle for France’s Greatest Treasure
By Don and Petie Kladstrup

We all remember learning about World War II in high school history. But never had I heard mention of wine and its own drawn-out battle during the war.

The authors did an excellent job of telling a broad story line through the lens of different families involved in wine-making and wine distribution, including both the French and German perspectives. Their research was primarily from interviews with people who were directly involved, which made it all the more appealing.

When France became an occupied country, the Germans demanded that French wine be sold only to them, at prices of their choosing (that would be beneficial to Germany and subsequently bankrupt the winemakers). The ‘weinfuhrers’ from Germany were sent to the big wine regions of France – Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne – to negotiate prices and initiate deliveries to Germany. They completely controlled the market. One of the most amusing parts of this piece of history was that Hitler and his team chose people knowledgable about French wine to serve as weinfuhrers- most of whom personally knew many French winemakers and were smart enough to know that, when the war eventually ended, they did not want to ruin business contacts. Their sympathies lay with the French and they worked hard to negotiate fairer prices and would occasionally look the other way when the canny French would pour their worst vintages into a bottle labeled with a fine vintage to ship off to Germany. This wasn’t always the case, but sympathetic weinfurhers helped the French wine industry scrape by during this difficult time, and some even resumed their working relationship with the French winegrowers after the war.

While families struggled both emotionally and economically (incidentally the war years led to some of the worst vintages because of lack of field hands and horses – most had been requisitioned by the Germans – as well as supplies like fertilizer and fuel), the actual vineyards remained remarkably untouched by war.

Battles were rarely fought in the vineyards. “‘Great news, mon colonel, we have found the weak point in the German defenses. Every one is on a vineyard of inferior quality.'” Keeping the vineyards relatively free from fighting allowed the various winegrowers to continue working their vines during and after the war. In fact, one part of the American and French tactical plan following D-Day was the “Champagne Campaign.” It’s primary goal was to keep the battles out the vineyards. Allied troops pushed up through the vineyards to join forces in other locations to keep the war from coming to them. “‘I need hardly tell you,’ a French intelligence officer told [a war correspondent] later that day, ‘the horrible consequences of such a decision. It would mean war, mechanized war, among the grand crus! Would France ever forgive us if we allowed such a thing to happen?'” The economic value and cultural significance of the vineyards was far too important to ignore. The authors noted that indeed this was likely the first time “gastronomic considerations had a direct bearing on military planning.”

During the war, due to labor shortages and lack of supplies, and simply terrible weather, wine production fell dramatically. In 1939, production was at 69 million hectoliters*. By 1942, it was at 35 million, just half of what it used to be. Following the war, there was a lot of work to do to bring the vineyards back to pre-war standards. Jean Monnet (the future father of the European Economic Community) was in charge of the economic recovery program and a wine man himself. He understood the serious trouble the wine community faced. At the end of the war 1.5 million French families were dependent upon some aspect of winemaking for their livelihoods. Though money was scarce, he kept their needs in mind when it came to funding.

Following the war, the process of wine making dramatically changed. It was bittersweet- profits went up but the community changed dramatically. Workers became employees rather than being seen as an extended part of the family. Everything became mechanized. Those requisitioned horses were no longer needed. According to one winemaker who rebuilt his industry following the war, “‘The increase in economic well-being has led to a change in mentality. More and more people are thinking about the profitability of wine rather than the quality. I think there used to be a lot more pride.'”

The most enjoyable part of this book came from stories woven with the interviews conducted with wine families. Each family had their own battle to fight. There were periods of relative calm and heightened points of escalation. Many families became involved in the Resistance, and some winegrowers were arrested and spent the majority of the war in labor camps. Those stories were always difficult to read. But their cunning and quick thinking led to a lot of wine being saved. They hid special vintages in caves or behind false walls. They sold all their bad wine to the Germans- some so bad it would probably not sell any other way. The end of the book was heartwarming: POWs returning home to their vineyards, digging out their stash of fine vintages they had squirreled away, and toasting the victory.

Full of interesting facts and detailed stories of the tumultuous time, this book is one to savor, just like a nice French wine.

*1 hectoliter equals approximately 26 gallons.

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