Since I've just read this fascinating book, I've decided to post my very first book review. Wine and War is the compelling tale of how French people protected their wine from the Nazis during the World War II occupation. I was a history major in college, specializing in modern German history, so it's pretty clear I was going to enjoy this book. But I think anyone who's interested in history of that type as well as the history of winemaking would find this book irresistible. It's written by Don and Petie Kladstrup, a husband and wife team living in France writing about wine and food. They spent quite a bit of time traveling around France talking, in many cases, directly to the people that lived through the occupation, to get their stories about what happened. Rather than presenting these stories as individual anecdotes, however, they weave the tales together into one complete narrative that gives you the whole story of the war and its effect on wine production in France. In that sense the book reads like a gripping novel: it's a real page turner you can't put down. I don't want to spoil the book too much, but I will give you a few teasers from the book.
Winemakers in France knew that the Germans were bitter at their defeat in World War I, and would be looking to exact revenge. Many winemakers spent the frantic days just before the occupation taking their most prized bottles, moving them to deeper areas of their cellars, and then walling off of those areas with brick so the Nazis wouldn't find them. The winemakers' children gathered spiders and brought them to the new wall so they would spread cobwebs and make the wall look old and dusty. Winemakers also found ways to deceive the Germans throughout the war. Germany claimed France as its crown jewel and demanded its winemakers provide German high society with their finest bottles. The French winemakers placed grand cru labels on their worst wines (which were really terrible, wartime conditions do not make for good harvests) and shipped them to the Germans, many of whom were clueless about what good wine was, so they drank and savored every last drop!
There is a serious side to the book as well. All joking aside, this book gives you an excellent view on just how important the wine business is to France. The only thing I can think to compare it to in the United States is the auto industry. Wine production is that important in France: the country actually makes policy decisions based how it will effect the industry. This is something we in America don't relate to at all as far as wine is concerned. When you consider this, it makes sense that the French would go to such extreme lengths to protect their industry. It's easy to sneer and laugh at the French, as many do, for laying down their arms so quickly and hiding in their wine cellars, protecting their precious collections. But those collections represented the effort of decades of work, and millions of dollars in assets, the fruits of which provided a living for millions of French families. Imagine if a foreign country invaded here, and began requisitioning and exporting all of our cars, dating back 20-30 years? Then imagine if they took over all the factories in Detroit and took all the production of those plants for themselves. Our country would fall apart. Fortunately for the French, wine bottles are a little easier to hide than cars!
Later in the war, many of the French winemakers became integral parts of the resistance, offering up their caves for hiding troops. They even smuggled soldiers and spies across enemy lines inside oak barrels used to make wine. Wine producers also helped the Allied forces, by providing information on wine shipments to the German army, a real time indicator of troop movements and buildups that kept the Allies one step ahead.
When I was a history major, I learned that history is not just about what the important rulers did on such and such a date. That's high school social studies and I always found it boring and tedious. Real history is about what it was like to live in a certain time. What difficulties did the people on the ground encounter? How did they navigate their daily lives? This is exactly the kind of information Wine and War provides, and the Kladstrups do it in a way that really brings those people's stories home, as only the best history texts can. It's a very moving and intimate portrait of what it was like to live through German occupation, and at the same it brings the importance of the wine industry in France into stark relief. If you love history, you'll love this book; if you also love wine, well then you'll be in heaven. Enjoy!