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Habeas Blogus

Book reviews, more for my memory than anything else.

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Location: Austin, Texas, United States

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Wine & War, by Don & Petie Kladstrup

Started 6/10, Finished 6/15

This was another of the "3 for 2" books I can't help buying over at the local Borders. I haven't blogged much about it, but I'm a bit of a wine guy, and seeing this book about protecting French wine during World War II was irresistable. Now, as my fellow writer Emily noted, "hey, I thought non-fiction made your ass twitch!!? What's up with that book?"

I can't explain it. I believe I have read, not counting schoolbooks, 5 non-fiction books in my life, and off the top of my head I can only think of 3. I didn't expect to finish this one at all, but hey... something really clicked with me and I couldn't stop.

January 1st of this year I had a bit of a brainwave: I've spent more money taking classes to learn about wine than I've spent on the wine itself. K and I took a 13-week course from the Grape Vine Market here in town, and neither of us can remember anything about it. I took a UT informal class abou wine tasting. I've been to Central Market tastings, Whole Foods tastings, and even friends' houses for tastings. When I go to someone's house, people invariably ask me, "hey, you've taken all those wine classes... what should I serve with dinner tonight?" or "how do you like that Cabernet? Doesn't it remind you of the ocean, with hints of blackberry and peach pie--no, vanilla peach pie?"

I don't know. I don't know I don't know I don't know. I've never tasted or smelled blackberry in a wine. I've never found a wine to be "coquettish" or "arrogant". I couldn't even tell you what it means for a wine to be "very tannic". I think I was too busy drinking too much of the wine at these tastings.

But January 1st of this year people were talking about resolutions. I don't make resolutions. I say I'm gonna try to do something, then I try to see if I can do it. In 2003 I wrote a novel. In 2006 I read 25 books. In 2007 I decided I was fed up with trying to learn about wine in the same old way. I was going to apply the study techniques I learned in my degree program to the problem of understanding wine: drill, drill, drill. Spend all the time you think you need on one single subject, until you believe you understand it well enough to move on.

I decided to spend the entirity of 2007 studying one single winemaking region, preferable of France. Usually a wine tasting will give you 2 hours and 3 wines from, say the Loire Valley or the Cote du Rhone. That just wasn't enough. Rather than an evening, I'm taking a year.

I settled upon the Burgundy region because of no other reason than because on January 2nd, the daily wine calendar I got for Christmas last year (see the expectations I've set?) recommended a 2003 Louis Jadot Chambolle-Musigny Premier Cru "Les Charmes".

Now that's a mouthful. I had heard of Louis Jadot and I had lived through 2003. Other than that, that was a bunch of words I could pronounce just fine, but which baffled me utterly. The description explained that it was a Pinot Noir from the Burgundy region.

So I started Googling.

And Wikipedia-ing.

And finally, Burghounding.

I know enough about Burgundy at this point to fill up several blog posts, and I probably will at some point. I've only had a few, though, because the good ones are so darned expensive. Reading books about wine has been the closest I've been able to come to some of the magnificent things that have come out of this tiny and very beloved area of France.

So we get back to Wine & War, which is as much about Burgundy as it is about Bordeaux, Beaujolais, Alsace, the Loire valley, and the Cote du Rhône. Since I'll probably be studying French wine for the next 5 years, it was right up my alley.

Now to the ethical question: Jess brought up an objection to the very premise of this book, one that I admit I had thought about the moment I read the jacket pitch: how the hell can you think about saving your precious, silly little bottles of bubbled-up grape juice while six million Jews are roasting in Krakow? Not to mention the other atrocities going on all around you?!

The answer is never overt, in fact the question is never posed. Nothing of this sort of objection or query is ever made, and it's becomes easy to understand why: these people were doing everything they could to protect the people, to save as many lives as they could. Several were hiding Jewish families somewhere in their chateaux. Some were helping downed American pilots cross the border into France, where they would hide in the cities and countryside, escaping from the Gestapo on punishment of death. Nearly every winemaker was a member of the French resistance. What I came to understand, which to our educational system's eternal shame I never learned in school, was that the devastation of the French army was so quick, so total, and so unexpected, that the citizenry found themselves under the thumb of martial law within weeks of the first bullet. They were expected--no, directed at gunpoint--to go about their normal lives, particularly so that they could supply the Third Reich with the supplies and even some of the luxuries of the French lifestyle that were demanded. The Germans were determined to sap the country completely dry, forcing it into a state of dependence on their conquerors.

These people did save every blessed human life they could, well before they even thought to save their wine. And the stories about the lives being saved have been told and retold, so the authors believed it was time to tell the story of the bubbled-up grape juice. At length I was convinced enough to doubt the moral dubiousness of choosing this as an important tale to tell.

That question put to rest, this is one hell of a yarn. It made me want to pull a Da Vinci Code and write a novel from their non-fiction premise and hope the judgment goes as well for me as it did for ole Dan Brown.

It reads like fiction, which is probably why I could get through it. They don't go into detail about winemaking, but they do spend some time discussing the fears of being a winemaker and of some of the things the Germans did to manipulate the process.

The story that stuck with me the most was about one winemaker, I believe Joseph Drouhin (whose wines are available right now at the Austin Wine Merchant), from Burgundy. He had large casks of some grand cru wine, some of the most valuable fluid in the world, sitting in his cellar. Some Germans came by to demand their weekly ration of industrial alcohol, but he had none to give them. They looked at these large oak casks and said, "that's okay, we'll just take this and boil it down".

Horrified, he tried to explain, this wine is worth 100 times what you want. Please, let me sell it and I will give you the alcohol next week. It will be no trouble at all...

The soldiers went down the row of casks, pouring one cup of heating oil into each. Decaliters of wine, not to mention the ancient casks themselves, were spoiled instantly.

After that, the winemaker buried what little stock he had left and increased his Resistance activities considerably.

They are small stories, less important than most of the others we have heard hundreds of times, but I found that even in this microcosm, the realities were the same as in the larger world: heroes and villains, good and evil, courage and insecurity. All the same lessons of the greater war on display even in the smallest encounters. I'm glad they chose to tell this story, and I'm certain that it's still only half-told.

If I were to fictionalize this, I can't imagine the amount of research I'd have to do. Fortunately, the subject of French wine isn't altogether unpleasant to study, both in the academic and in the practical senses.

Book #17 will be The Book of Three, by Lloyd Alexander

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