The French, the Nazis, & the Battle
for France's Greatest Treasure
By Don & Petie Kladstrup
Broadway Books -- 279pp -- $24
Wine writing often falls into flowery descriptions of sun-drenched vineyards where everything looks pretty and tastes nice. That's a pity. Properly examined, wine opens a fascinating window on social and economic history, with stories of family conflicts, money, and power. From its title, Wine & War looked like an attempt to meet this higher standard, promising a realistic, gritty narrative. But it fails, due to charmless writing and historical mythologizing.
Co-authors Don and Petie Kladstrup, a husband-and-wife team, focus on a dramatic period: the German invasion and occupation of France from 1940 through 1944. Their narrative considers the fate of five famed French winegrowing families in five different wine regions: the Hugels in Alsace, the Huets in the Loire Valley, the de Nonacourts in Champagne, the Drouhins in Burgundy, and the Miaihles in Bordeaux. The Kladstrups live in France and know the territory.
When the story begins, the French wine world is already reeling. As the Kladstrups write, "the years between the First and Second World Wars had brought mostly misery to winemakers who suffered through a string of horrible vintages--and not just because of the weather." Once the destruction of World War I had been cleaned up, the Great Depression forced down prices and even the best growers struggled to make ends meet.
Under German occupation, the situation worsened. The invading Nazis pillaged cellars. American and British markets were closed off. Eventually, the Germans dispatched weinf?hrers to oversee the French wine trade. The authors are good at describing the complex relationships between the Germans and the growers, who needed German markets to survive but often felt bullied and cheated on price.
Unfortunately, the Kladstrups' narrative jumps about, and their writing is marred by hackneyed phrases: "World War II was the defining moment of those who would run France's vineyards." Worse, the story is billed as "the remarkable untold story of France's courageous, clever vintners who protected and rescued the country's most treasured commodity from German plunder during World War II." Despite many stories of Resistance-minded winegrowers, the conclusion isn't supported. Most modern scholarship holds that the vast majority of French vintners collaborated with the Germans.
Only near the end of the book, on page 205, do the Kladstrups turn to the case of Bordeaux' most prominent wine merchant, Louis Eschenauer, who after the war was convicted of collaboration, jailed, and stripped of all citizenship rights. The authors' love of French wine seems to have almost blinded them to the fact that their heroes were, more often than not, simply frightened businessmen willing to trade their souls to sell a few bottles. By William Echikson