Wine & War: The Vinous Insurrection

May29th

Introduction

Welcome back for Part Two of an audio essay to celebrate National Wine Day, this past Saturday, May 25.

Most of what I’m going to share with you today is based on a magazine piece about wine and civility that I wrote two months after 9/11. On this episode we’re looking at the role wine has played in some of the greatest conflicts our world has ever seen from French winemakers’ fight against the Nazi wine trade, to the impact of 9/11 on the US wine economy.

If you missed part one, please go back and have a listen to Episode 24. I hope this is drink for thought for you.

 

Highlights

  • What role did France and French wine play in World War II?
  • How did people at all levels of the French wine industry resist the advances of the Germans?
  • Were there some in the French wine industry who profited from the Nazi wine trade?
  • What has been the post-conflict impact on wine for countries such as Germany, Italy and South Africa?
  • How does wine impact the economy of well-known wine-producing nations?
  • How did retail sales of alcohol in the US change after 9/11?
  • Has a link been identified between nationally traumatic events, such as 9/11, and substance abuse or addiction?
  • What impact did 9/11 have on wine tourism?
  • How did the increased border security affect California winemakers?
  • What was the greatest loss for the North American hospitality industry?
  • What was my experience dining at Windows on the World?
  • Can we learn important values from wine?

 

Resources

 

Wine Reviews

 

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Transcript & Takeaways

Welcome to episode 26!

This is part two of an audio essay to celebrate National Wine Day, this past Saturday.

If you missed part one, please go back and have a listen to episode 24. I hope this is drink for thought for you.

Consider the most famous winemaking country, France, and the surprisingly important role that wine played in the second World War. According to Wine and War, by Don and Petie Kladstrup, Hitler recognized the value of French wine as plunder — even though he considered it “vulgar vinegar.”

That should have been the first tip-off about the Führer’s character. As food writer A.J. Liebling has noted: “No sane man can afford to dispense with debilitating pleasures, and no ascetic can be considered reliably sane. Hitler was the archetype of the abstemious man. When the other Germans saw him drink water in the beer hall they should have known that this man was not to be trusted.”

After their invasion, German “wine merchants in uniform” (or Weinführers, as the French called them) went out to the French wine regions to buy wine at arbitrarily low prices and then sold it at a premium on the international market to fund the Third Reich’s war machine.

But many French winemakers resisted occupation by hiding their greatest wines in their cellars. At Domaine Drouhin, for example, the proprietor’s eight-year-old son collected spiders to spin webs in front of the fake cellar wall his father had built to hide the good stuff.

And Parisian carpet-cleaners donated the dust from beating rugs to restaurant owners, who used it to make bottles of young wine look older for the Germans.

Many vintners mislabelled their wines, and some went a step further: one Burgundian négotiant supplied the Germans with what they thought was gin — but was really Eau-de-Santenay, a powerful purgative.

In other acts of vinous insurrection, Loire grape grower Jean Monmousseaux smuggled Resistance leaders through German checkpoints in empty wine barrels. The owner of Chateau Pichon-Lalande, May-Elaine de Lencquesaing, hid two Jewish families in her labyrinthine cellar while Germans occupied the château upstairs.

There were collaborators too, though. The Bordeaux wine merchant Louis Eschenhauer increased his fortune by vigorously supporting the wine trade with the Nazis. And most vintners continued to make wine during the occupation, rather than uprooting their vines and smashing their barrels so that the Nazis couldn’t profit from them – a scorched vineyard policy of sorts.

But in 1939, the year World War II began, even Mother Nature seemed to join the Resistance: the vintage was terrible. (That was the wine that the French tried most to unload on the Germans.) By contrast, 1945, the year of the victory, was a spectacular vintage.

What about the Germans’ own wine? After the war, the country’s rieslings evolved from sweet liebfraumilch (think Blue Nun and Black Tower), into drier, more elegant wines that were more food-friendly.

In Italy, Chianti — whose empty bottles were best known as candle holders — got a makeover with the rise of Super Tuscans.

It was the same with South Africa: after Apartheid was abolished, its wines leapt forward in quality. And since the fall of the Iron Curtain, Hungarian and Romanian wines have also become increasingly well made.

Drinking wine for world peace is the sort of theory that comes from – well, drinking too much wine. But supporting our own hospitality industry – whether as a sommelier, a patron or even a wine writer — has never been more important.

Our wine and food culture is still as meaningful as ever: those in the industry are still the bearers of culture and comfort.

As well, wine is a vital part of the economy of any country that produces it, earning billions of dollars in revenue. The industry employs tens of thousands of skilled people, who work in wineries, restaurants and marketing companies as well as in spin-off businesses such as travel and recreation.

Even when the economy shifts, the alcohol business is usually one of the least volatile: we drink in good times to celebrate; we drink in bad times to console.

But the bad times after September 11 were different from previous conflicts and recessions. First, there was the “CNN effect”: people cocooning in front of their TVs to watch non-stop coverage.

That translated to less dining out and more drinking at home: in New York City, retail liquor sales in the final months of 2001 were up 12% over the previous year. And in California, alcohol sales in grocery stores surpassed those in restaurants for the first time in ten years.

White-tablecloth restaurants that cater to business people and tourists suffered. But local neighbourhood places that serve comfort food – modestly-priced restaurants and pubs — were busier than ever. Demographers observed that people were staying longer at these places, and ordering stiffer drinks.

Is that a good thing, though? Columbia University’s Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse found that four large U.S. cities, including New York, experienced a substantially increased demand for alcohol and drug treatment.

Nationally, treatment admissions increased ten to twelve percent. The Centre is tracking these trends to see if the current surge in drinking will follow the pattern of Oklahoma City, where studies showed that three times as many residents as before required treatment after the 1995 bombing of the federal building there.

The second factor that made this downturn different from others was the new fear of travel. When people stopped flying in the weeks after the attack, they also stopped travelling to winery tasting rooms.

California owners reported that sales eventually returned to normal – but from visitors within a three-hour drive, rather than from foreign tourists. This hurts small boutique wineries the most since they depend largely on selling to customers who can’t buy their wines at home.

Wineries that depend on duty-free sales felt the pain too, and not just because fewer people were flying. Drinkers who still travelled were reluctant to put wine bottles in their checked luggage, for fear of breakage – but U.S. airlines won’t let them take bottles in their carry-on bags anymore. So they just don’t buy.

Tighter border security is also an issue for Californian winemakers, who often depend on undocumented labourers from Mexico to pick the grapes: some industry analysts estimate that these workers comprise as much as half the workforce. Since few American labourers are willing to tackle such gruelling work, a shortage of Mexicans could cause a dramatic rise in the price of Californian wine.

But the greatest loss for the North American hospitality industry, in both business and human terms, was one of America’s most prestigious restaurants — Windows on the World, situated at the top of the World Trade Center. This restaurant had a cellar of 50,000 bottles, sold more wine than any other in the United States, and its school educated some 15,000 people in wine appreciation.

I remember dining there back in 1999 and can still recall that soaring feeling, looking out at the city sprawled out beneath me in all its light-beaded splendour. For three hours, I was no longer an unsophisticated girl from Canada – I was New York.

I drank a sample flight of Château d’Yquem, Latour, Lafite, Margaux and Haut-Brion — the generous sommelier kept topping me up. Dining there was one of the high points in my life, an experience I thought I’d remember forever. And now I know I shall never forget.

On the morning of September 11, Michael Lomonaco, the restaurant’s executive chef, stopped off briefly in the lobby instead of taking the elevator straight up to his office — a few minutes’ delay that saved his life. But 73 employees, including two sommeliers, were killed.

Also dead were those who worked in the cafeterias and food concessions on the less-glamorous concourse level. These workers, often immigrants, only earned $10 per hour — but many were the sole means of support for their families.

Of course, the hospitality industry doesn’t have a monopoly on being humane. But it does highlight the fact that wine can teach us important human values. For instance, making wine teaches us to invest in excellence. Vintners pay a premium to buy the best vineyard land so that they can plant on the slope that gets the most sunshine. And they use expensive oak barrels for more nuanced aromas, rather than just tossing in wood chips.

Secondly, making wine teaches us to be patient. Vintners must wait at least seven years before their vines produce mature fruit, and then they have to allow the wine to age in the bottle for several years. They can’t rush it to market, and they can’t double production by adding more line workers.

Thirdly, wine teaches us to be selective. Vintners prune the vines as they mature, so that by harvest time the remaining grapes are fewer but more concentrated. And when Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate, they bottle the wine under a less prestigious label — rather than dilute a good name.

Every step in the process of making wine is a move towards excellence, and each decision reflects the vintner’s willingness not to sacrifice quality for profit. (You can’t dress up a bad wine as a good one — no matter what cute little furry creature you put on the label.)

Fine wine asks us to be more demanding of ourselves: to learn about a subject that is as cerebral as it is sensual, and to share that knowledge with confidence rather than arrogance. That’s something that my online course students know so very well as they become confident in describing the wines we tasting together.

As the British poet Thomas Chatterton once said, “What is war and all its joys? Useless mischief, empty noise. What are arms and trophies won? Spangles glittering in the sun. Rosy Bacchus, give me wine — happiness is only thine!”

I hope you enjoyed this episode! If you did, please tell a friend about it, especially one who is interested in wine and history. My podcast is easy to find, whether you search on its name Unreserved Wine Talk, or my name.

You can tag me Twitter or Facebook @nataliemaclean, on Instagram I’m @nataliemacleanwine.

You’ll find links and resources in the show notes at nataliemaclean.com/26. Next week, we’ll be chatting with Esther Mobley, on the gripping stories that catapulted her to become the columnist for one of the most prestigious wine columns in North America, the San Francisco Chronicle, at just 24 years of age.

Finally, if you want to take your wine and food pairing to the next level, join me in a free online video class at nataliemaclean.com/class.

I can’t wait to share more personal wine stories with you.

Thank you for taking the time to listen to this one. I hope something great is in your glass this week!

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