And inevitably revealed, the books that I always meant to read, continually bobbing up and down in the overladen bookcases around our home.
Thus in the early weeks of 2010, and 70 years after the Axis invasion of France, I finally began to read “Wine & War” (E-Reader excerpt) an alternate view of WWII through the eyes of winelovers, Don & Petie Kladstrup. As described by The Wine Doctor, their book is a series of stories of survival under Occupation as told by many of the wine making families of France. It is these stories that predominate over the often awful military details described elsewhere. And also because of these unusual circumstances one man was able to gather the stories of wine and food of regional France.
The story starts in Berchtesgaden in the Bavarian Alps and just across the river from Salzburg, where I had first heard of its Eagles Nest during a trip to Austria in late 1981. We had peered up at it – barely visible so high was it – as our Guide told us of its history as Hitler’s fortress. Really … just an interesting aside from our skiing holiday in the area near St Johann’s am Pillersee in the Austrian Alps. WWII seemed so long ago to us back then, in our twenties, and yet in1981 these events at Berchtesgaden had occurred less than 40 years earlier.
The Kladstrups tell of the vast quantities of French Champagne and wine plundered & railed to Berchtesgaden, despite the efforts of many French to secret as much as possible away behind fake walls in their cellars.
In the opening page the Kladstrups describe the uncovering of half a million bottles of Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Chateau Mouton Rothschild & many other vintages recovered from Berchtesgaden in 1944 by Sergeant Bernard de Nonancourt & others in the French Army. And there were many, many other items stashed there – thus in reading “Wine & War”, I began to appreciate Berchtesgaden’s significance.
In fact it was the stories in “Wine & War”, that made understanding life under the Occupation a closer reality. In movies we often see occcupied Paris, but less of the countryside, such as the Great Wine Regions of France. In “Wine & War” the family stories tell of yet another war after so many … of taking the longer term view … of preserving the family’s wine heritage & economy to be ready in the years after the conflict ended. And also to comprehend the creation of a “borderless” Europe – what would be later called the European Union – to avoid such wars in the future.
Memorable stories for me were those of members of French wine families in POW camps – such as Gaston Huet of the Loire who organized the great wine tasting party on January 24 1943, the feast day of St Vincent – patron saint French winemakers – but in the end had to be spread over several days to accommodate 4000 prisoners.The plan was for 700 bottles of wine to “be obtained to enable each prisoner just one glass of wine. The organising committee was composed of representatives from each of France’s wine regions “- an indication of the geographic spread of the POW population. Many of the prisoners did not come from wine backgrounds, and so Huet generously shared his knowledge of wine regions, wines & their characteristics, so that the rare experience could fully savoured.
Huet recalled years later “I don’t know what we would have done without that party. It gave us something to hold on to. It gave us a reason to get up in the morning to get through each day. Talking about wine and sharing it made all of us feel closer to home, and more alive.”
In fact it was years later when the Kladstrups went to interview Gaston Huet about his opposition to the French Government bringing the TGV railroad through the vineyards, that the whole story of wine in France during the war began to unfold.
Equally evocative – Roger Ribaud also in a POW camp – ‘Christmas 1940 “On this Noel of 1940, I have begun to write a little book in an effort to dispel some of the sadness that we are living with and share some of the hopes we cling to in our captivity, of returning to our homes and loved ones and the values we hold most dear” … Ribaud began to make a list of French wines, every wine he could think of: some he had tasted, others he hoped to taste. He sorted them by region : Burgundy, Bordeaux, Champagne, Alsace, the Loire. He classified them according to their finesse, body and bouquet. ‘
It would become a book entitled Le Maitre de Maison de Sa Cave a Sa Table – The Head of the Household from His Cellar to His Table – this is a memoir of great food and wine and how they can brought into perfect harmony” – google it and you will still find reference to this great work -with copies sometimes still available.
Writing on whatever scraps of paper he could scavenge made “long cold lonely days seem shorter“… and Ribaud “asked other POW’s about their favourite wine and food combinations , what grapes grow best in their regions and how they prepared certain foods … over time he compiled a huge core of information and knowledge, not only about the famous wines but about small country ones barely known outside their villages……
“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 …. Roger Ribaud sent a copy to each of his fellow prisoners of war ‘I hope this will ease the pain of imprisonment and yet be a souvenir of our friendship and the years we shared together’.“
Roger Ribaud stressed that one did not have to be an expert to know about these things, that most of this could be learned by reading, tasting and talking to others …”
True knowledge sharing ! And in the most unexpected situations …