Book Review: Don and Petie Kladstrup’s Wine & War

The struggles of the Burgundy Vintners under the Nazis reveal much about culture, loyalty and what it means to be French

The best wines were hidden from Germans behind cellar walls | Photo: P. Staenman

War Passes, Wine is Eternal

It was on arriving in France in the 1980s, that Don and Petie Kladstrup discovered the world of cuisine and fine wine. It wasn’t that they had never tasted a decent wine before; there were some respectable vintages in their home state of California. But in France the wines were wonderful. Soon they were taking every holiday in the vineyards, and sampling some of France’s finest, including, to their suprise, old vintages produced during World War II.

“Amazingly they were all good,” Don Kladstrup said in a recent interview with Terrance Gelenter. “You know how bad old wine can be. And it got us to wondering, how did they manage to produce such wonderful stuff under such difficult conditions.”

So began an inquiry into the events of the war years in France and the remarkable role of the French wine industry aiding and abetting the Resistance. And along the way they came to a much deeper understanding of how important wine and the wine industry are to the very essence of what it means to be French.

The Kladstrups are wonderful story tellers. With an archive of memories and memorabilia collected over many years, in conversations with many of the greatest wine growing families of France, they have been able to reconstruct the experience of a culture and a community in war-time that reads like a thriller, yet is infinitely more disarming, because the scale is so personal. It’s about parents and children, cousins and colleagues all sharing a common goal, all engaged in a cherished life work.

These are families that take a long view, in which wars, famine and pestilence, however awful, are seen fundamentally as disruptions from the eternal cycles of life, things to be survived in order to get back to what really matters – that is, making great wine. These are families that hold tradition and loyalty among the highest values, along with devotion to a craft that they believe in their deepest hearts improves the lives of all they serve.

Even Germans.

From the interviews, the Kladstrups are able to tell us that Göbbels liked a good Burgundy, while Göring preferred Bordeaux, “especially Château Lafite Rothschild,” and that the wine merchant turned foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop – who had added the “von” to posh-up his profile – was dismissed by Hindenburg as an upstart. “Spare me your little champagne peddler,” he told Hitler, who alone among the Nazi leadership, couldn’t have cared less about wine.

So the Germans set up a system of commissioned buyers to deal with the French wine industry. And to insure they got the best, they selected those who really knew their way around: the German vintners, principally Otto Klaebisch, Adolph Segnitz and most importantly, Heinz Boemers, Germany’s leading wine importer. They had the knowledge, and they had the connections.

And, it turned out, long standing friendships often going back generations, which in some cases included being godfathers to each others’  children. And like the French families, these German Weinführer took the long view:  War was temporary, wine was eternal.  And the Germans wanted steady shipments of wine to keep the troops happy. So, for example, some of the men from the wine region were allowed to go back home to work in the vineyards rather than threaten the supplies.

The Resistance also figured out that the orders for wine and champagne gave them invaluable advance notice of troop movements: Where wine was delivered, the soldiers were sure to follow.

As the occupation began to take its toll, it bred deep resistance, revealed in what historian H.R. Kedward called “minor gestures of defiance made to look accidental or unthinking.” The French became masters at appearing stupid, forgetful and lazy, knocking over a German’s drink in a café, pretending not to hear or giving wrong directions to a German tourist.

Forbidden to display the French flag, a man might just happen to wear a blue workman’s cloth jacket, a white shirt with a red scarf tied at the throat. Another would simply get up and leave, whenever a German entered a restaurant or shop.

The vintners were central to work of the “maquis,” as the resistance was called, and used every tool available. The Hugel family of Alsace “fobbed off” poor quality wine on the Germans whenever possible, putting on false labels while charging the regular price. Other wine growers like Jean and Madeleine Casteret moonlighted with a little cattle rustling from the German military compound at Château Loudenne. Others pillaged from the trains passing through their villages. The Kladstrups’ research revealed many engaging details: One extraordinary find was the logbook of Henri Gaillard, stationmaster of St. Thibault Station, that suggests his satisfaction, and possibly his collusion, in the sabotage:

“I would like to remind you that it is now December and my toilet is still not fixed. I am attaching my list of missing freight for this week: seven packages of groceries, weight 210 kilos. Please follow up as quickly as possible. Henri Gaillard, Stationmaster.

Jean Monmousseaux, a wine grower and négociant from the Touraine, lived close to the boundary between the Vichy and the occupied zone, crossing almost daily to deliver barrels of wine to the Germans. The barrels were large enough to hold a person, a friend pointed out. After some experimentation, they learned how to take a barrel apart and put it back together around a man in two hours, and for over two years these barrels became the transport in an “underground railway” of resistance fighters back and forth across the Demarcation Line.

Perhaps most important was the role of the wine cellars themselves, that became storehouses for weapons and supplies, and safe houses for hundreds of those active with the maquis – in some cases, as for Maurice Drouhin, also for the vintners themselves.

Perhaps most fascinating in this endlessly absorbing story is the unavoidable sense that above the enmities of war, there existed a common culture between the French and the Germans through the appreciation of wine. At the risk of overstatement, perhaps in the end, the wine is only a metaphor for something deeper, for a shared belief in what ultimately gives life meaning, that goes beyond the struggles for power that dominate the worlds of politics, diplomacy or business.

And this wonderfully engaging book is full of such moments. As when, on the eve of the defeated Germans’  retreat from Paris in 1945, Paris Mayor Pierre Taittinger, also head of the Champagne house that bears his name, paid a call on the German General Dietrich von Chotlitz. He knew von Chotlitz had been given a clear order by Hitler take revenge on Paris, to “destroy it rather than surrender it to the enemy!”

He pleaded with von Chotlitz to reconsider. Together they walked out on the general’s balcony of the Hotel Meurice and looked out over the streets of the city, over the Gardens of the Tuilleries  and the comings and goings below.

“Turning to von Chotlitz,” the Kladstrups write, Taittinger said, “ ‘Generals rarely have the power to build, they more often have the power to destroy.’ He urged von Chotlitz to imagine what it would be like to return to Paris one day and stand on the same balcony…. ‘And among these splendid building… you are able to say, “It was I, Detrich von Chotlitz, who on a certain day,… saved it for humanity.” ’

The order was never given.

In 1959, von Chotlitz returned to Paris for a dinner given by Pierre Taittinger in his honor; on the way, he stopped in to see his former room at the Hotel Meurice and asked if he could step onto the balcony. Looking out once again over the beautiful city of Paris, he said, “Ah, yes, this is what I remember.”

The full interview with Terrance Gelenter is available at www.paris-expat.com

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