The Most Blissful Sip

A wine that wouldn’t even rate on a 100-point scale can be unforgettably delicious under the right circumstances.

What is the most delicious sip of wine you can ever remember taking? I was recently compelled to ask myself that question while reading the excellent new book by Don and Petie Kladstrup, Wine and War (Broadway Books, 2001). The authors tell the story of the Germans’ activity in France during World War II, and their attempts to loot that country’s bottles and control the vineyards. The book is rich with stories, but one in particular fired my imagination.

In 1940, over a million French soldiers who’d been captured during the Nazi blitzkrieg of France were being held in P.O.W. camps deep in the heart of Germany. Most of these solders were from rural areas, and many had been associated in some way with the business of wine. In all of these camps, mind-numbing boredom and incredible hunger were constant companions; the only comfort many of these men could take was in dreaming of food and wine.

In an officers’ camp called Oflag IV D, an idea was proposed to turn dream into reality. It was during one of the many informal meetings the former winemakers would have, partially to overcome the tedium, mostly to discuss news about vineyards and compare viticulture notes. A man named Gaston Huet made the rather startling suggestion to put on a “wine banquet” to raise morale. But how could there be a wine banquet without any wine? Another prisoner, Andrew Caze, the owner of Lynch Bages in Bordeaux, had a quick answer: “Blackmail.” Knowing that there was wine and liquor circulating in a nearby camp for criminals, Caze warned his camp commander that if his group did not receive some wine for their banquet, he would inform the Gestapo of this breach of regulations. Deathly afraid of Gestapo retribution, the commander agreed.

This “grand fête” was all the men could think about for weeks. And after much trial and tribulation, they acquired 600 bottles from their homeland—enough for seven men to share from each bottle. A very small glass of wine indeed. Finally, the evening arrived. After a great deal of singing and speech-making, the men were poured their ration in their own small “glasses”—petite mustard containers.

It will come as no surprise that these winemakers and growers took their time to appreciate and savor what was in front of them. When the delicious liquid touched their lips, the flavors of the wine enveloped them and took them home, far away from their squalid circumstances. What they had sipped was a few ounces of a simple Chenin Blanc. Many of them said later that this was the best wine they had ever tasted.

Wine and War happened to be the book I was reading on my trip to the Napa Valley Wine Auction, where an auction lot of Screaming Eagle in 3-liter bottles fetched $650,000; where great wine flowed freely in the hot afternoon sun; where well-dressed people enjoyed a bounty of food…I couldn’t help but be struck by the contrast between what I was reading and what I was experiencing. This is no criticism of the auction or of the people of the Napa Valley; I simply wonder if the actual drinking of wines from any of these spectacular auction lots (assuming the bottles are ever uncorked) can compete with the experience that these French soldiers had with their single mustard jar of simple wine during those days of incredible deprivation.

Obviously, the enjoyment of a wine depends at least in part on the occasion, our perception of it in a place, time and circumstance. Several articles in this issue illustrate the point. You’ll find our staff-written report on rosé wine, a wine that struggles—at least among serious wine drinkers in this country—with an identity crisis. But there’s much enjoyment to be had in these wines, and the time-place-circumstance quotient couldn’t be more welcoming—summertime, vacation. I think you’ll find that rosés merit a reexamination.

Wine mixers like spritzers and sangrias also get little respect from hardcore wine enthusiasts, but they have their place, and that place is anywhere friends gather to enjoy good food. In this month’s Pairings, Mardee Haidin Regan and Gary Regan present recipes for delicious wine mixers and light, summer-friendly foods that complement them.

Whether you’re at a glamorous wine country auction, in your own backyard with friends, or in less happy circumstances, a sentiment expressed by an unknown prisoner in that P.O.W. camp applies. It is found in a typed message given to each prisoner at the “grand fête.” It read, in part, “With this little glass of wine that we are going to drink together tonight, we will savor not only a rare fruit but also the joy of a satisfied heart.”


Published on August 1, 2001

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