Vin ordinaire goes to war—and lives to tell the tale.
Wine, observed a French vintner the year before Hitler came to power in neighboring Germany, “contributed to the French race by giving it wit, gaiety, and good taste, qualities which set it profoundly apart from people who drink a lot of beer.” The beer-guzzling Germans had a different view, and when the Nazis overran France in 1940 one of their first atrocities was the theft of huge quantities of fine wine, champagne, and brandy that they carted away for the enjoyment of the top brass back home (including the teetotaling Hitler, who added thousands of rare vintages to his cellar). The Kladstrups, husband-and-wife journalists who have long been residents of France, are a tad fuzzy on where the orders to loot the country’s wine cellars originated—here they point to Hitler (who “did not even like wine”), there to the connoisseurs Goering and Goebbels (who did)—and they do not satisfactorily explain how some German officers managed to ignore those orders while others obeyed them to the letter. Still, the anecdotes they gather from chats with surviving members of the Resistance and the wine trade (including heroic luminaries such as Bernard de Nonancourt and Gaston Huet) give a powerful account of the importance of wine to French culture—and of the lengths to which ordinary citizens went to keep extraordinary vintages out of the hands of the invaders. Some restaurateurs and collectors, they write, hurriedly built false walls to shield better bottles, leaving inferior wines exposed to view; others spiked cheap young wines with carpet dust to make them taste old, spiriting away the real goods to safety. In many instances, the Kladstrups add, sympathetic Germans played along with the ruse and protected rare vintages, but more often French citizens caught at such trickery paid with their lives. The authors’ narrative is assured, detailed, highly readable, and does honor to all those who labored to keep French wines from barbarous hands.
An engrossing addition to the popular literature of WWII—and a treat for oenophiles as well.