Wine is important to France, dear to Frenchmen’s heart and soul. With Germany warmongering in the late 1930s, French winegrowers faced the prospect of losing their vineyards as they had barely a generation before. The battles of World War I had destroyed many vineyards, carving them up for trenches and cratering them with artillery. Chemical weapons poisoned the ground.
After the war, the Great Depression brought further devastation when the wine houses could not afford to buy grapes. Many winegrowers were forced to find other jobs to survive.
Weather ruined the harvest of 1939. And then war was declared. Men were called to military service, leaving a shortage of labor. In May of 1940, Germany attacked France, and six scant weeks later, France surrendered. Life changed drastically.
For many restaurants and wine houses, guarding their cellars was paramount. Working fast, they sorted out bottles of their best vintages and walled them off. Some brought in spiders to weave their webs over the new walls, making them look old.
|The French hid wine in cellars and caves from the occupying Germans during World War II.|
The famous La Tour d’Argent restaurant in Paris walled off their best. The German troops occupied Paris on June 14, an emissary from Field Marshall Hermann Göring came too. He went right to La Tour d’Argent and asked to see the wine cellars, especially the bottles of 1867, their very best. He and a contingent of soldiers were allowed to search the cellars, which they did for over two hours. They didn’t find the 1867 wine, but when they left, they took all 80,000 bottles of remaining wine.
Adolf Hitler did not care for wine, but he recognized it’s prestigious and profitability, and decreed Germany should have France’s best. During the first two months of occupation, looting was rampant. Soldiers pillaged millions of bottles from private homes and wine houses. Many of the worst worked for Göring, a copious plunderer.
Even the good requisitioned for Germany were being stolen. German authorities finally realized they had to control their troops. A trio of wine merchants (called weinführers by the French) were assigned to different regions in France to buy as much good French wine as possible to be taken to Germany and resold internationally. The franc had been sharply devalued, creating terrific bargains for Germany. The French had no choice in selling to them. They were forbidden to sell their wine to anyone else.
As much as possible, the French filled orders with their poor quality. They stole back their wine from railway cars and siphoned barrels bound for Germany. In one case, when a squad of soldiers stayed overnight, the French fobbed off earthenware bottles of “gin,” actually a strong laxative.
The Vichy French government, little more than a puppet government to the Germans, needed to pay horrendous occupation costs to their masters. They imposed a twenty percent tax on all wine sold by growers. Stores had to tack on another twenty percent when they sold the wine. A black market soon flourished.
As conditions worsened, and the Germans and the French Milice police became more oppressive, winegrowers increasingly helped the Resistance. They allowed their property to be used for air drops of weapons and as hiding places for the thousands of men gone into hiding to avoid being sent to Germany to work in war industries.
|American soldiers relax with wine found at the Eagle's Nest, Hitler's Alpine retreat.|
When the war finally ended, millions of bottles of wine had been stolen. Hitler’s cache of wine was discovered at his home high in the Bavarian Alps at Berchtesgaden. Half a million bottles of the finest wines in the world
Many vineyards had suffered from years of neglect with no one to prune or weed, no copper sulfate to combat fungal diseases that attacked grapevines during wet seasons, no plowing because Germany had requisitioned French horses.
But the French winegrowers had their own rescue. They broke down the added walls, dug up their gardens, and brought out their hidden reserves. They were back in business.
For Further Reading
Kladstrup, Don & Petie. Wine & War: the French, the Nazis & the Battle for France’s Greatest Treasure. New York: Broadway Books, 2001.