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To Love the Vines
It was late august 1939, and French winemakers were fretting about the harvest. Two months earlier, the outlook had been bright. The weather had been good and there was the promise of an excellent vintage. Then the weather changed. For six straight weeks it rained, and temperatures plummeted.
So did the mood of winegrowers attending the International Congress of the Vine and Wine in the resort of Bad Kreuznach, Germany. The weather was all they could think about—that is, until the next speaker was announced. He was Walter Darre, the Minister of Food Supply and Agriculture for the Third Reich. Winegrowers had been jolted when they first walked into the convention hall and discovered a large portrait of Darre's boss, Adolf Hitler, dominating the room. Like the rest of the world, they had watched with growing alarm as Hitler annexed Austria, carved up Czechoslovakia and signed a military agreement with Italy's dictator, Benito Mussolini. Many, fearful that full-scale war was just one step away, felt sure Darre would have something to say about the latest events.
But when the Reichsminister took the podium, he did not speak about the war. He did not even talk about wine. Instead, he called for the Congress delegates to go beyond the concerns of wine and winemaking and work instead to "advance the mutual understanding of peaceful peoples." Those in the audience were thoroughly confused.
What they did not know was that at almost the same moment Hitler himself was giving a very different kind of speech—this one to his high command—in another German resort, Berchtesgaden, the favored vacation spot of the Nazi leadership. The Fuhrer was telling his generals what was coming next and exhorting them to remember, "Our opponents are little worms. . . . What matters in beginning and waging war is not righteousness but victory. Close your hearts to pity. Proceed brutally."
Within a week, his forces invaded Poland. The date was September 1, 1939. French winegrowers at the conference were promptly summoned home. Two days later, France, along with Britain, Australia and New Zealand, declared war on Germany.
For the second time in little more than a generation, French winegrowers faced the agonizing prospect of trying to get their harvest in before vineyards were turned into battlefields. As in 1914, the government mounted an extraordinary campaign to help. Winegrowers were granted delays in being called to active duty, military labor detachments were sent to the vineyards and farm horses of small growers were not to be requisitioned until the harvest was completed.
Memories of that earlier war, "the war to end all wars," still haunted them—the brutality, the hardships and especially the staggering loss of life. Out of a population of 40 million, nearly a million and a half young men were killed, men who would have entered their most productive years had they survived. Another million lost limbs or were so badly wounded that they could no longer work.
It was a bloodletting that left almost no family in France untouched: not the Drouhins of Burgundy, the Miaihles of Bordeaux, the de Nonancourts of Champagne, the Hugels of Alsace, nor the Huets of the Loire Valley.
Gaston Huet's father returned home an invalid, his lungs permanently scarred after his army unit was attacked with mustard gas.
Bernard de Nonancourt's father also suffered the ravages of trench warfare and died of wounds soon after the war.
The mother of Jean Miaihle lost her entire family when German troops attacked their village in northern France.
The Hugel family, which had lost its French heritage and nationality when Alsace was annexed by Germany after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, sent their son away so that he could escape being drafted into the German army.
Maurice Drouhin, a veteran of trench warfare, escaped physical injury but not the nightmares which haunted him for years afterward.
Like nearly everyone else in France, these winemaking families watched with trepidation as the specter of another war approached. Although France had been the winner earlier, it had paid a terrible price. Could it afford another such victory? Many in France doubted it, especially Maurice Drouhin, who had witnessed the horrors of war close up.
Thoughts of his family and vineyard were all that comforted him as he huddled with his men in the muddy blood-soaked trenches of northern France, peering at the enemy across a strip of no-man's-land. Although the winter of 1915 still had that part of the country in its grip, Maurice knew that back home in Burgundy, the vines already would be stirring and workers would be busy pruning. If he closed his eyes, he could almost picture it, the men with their secateurs working their way slowly down the long rows of vines; and he could almost hear the church bells that called them to work each day.
Those bells were the first sounds Maurice heard each morning when he awoke in his home in Beaune. For him, they were the background music to life in the vineyards. They rolled across the villages and wheat fields, they sent children racing to school and mothers scurrying to markets for the freshest produce of the day. They heralded lunchtime, dinnertime, and called people to worship, and to celebrate. But as World War I ground on, they were calling more and more people to mourn.
Now, on the battlefields of northern France, the sounds that surrounded Maurice were artillery and machine-gun fire and the agonized cries of the wounded. In the heat of one battle, he saw a German soldier crumple to the ground, unable to move after being shot. With German troops too frightened to venture into the storm of bullets to retrieve their comrade, Maurice ordered his men to cease firing while he raised a white flag. Then, in impeccable German, he shouted to the Germans, "Come get your man. We will hold our fire until you have him." The Germans moved quickly to rescue their fallen comrade. Before returning behind the lines, however, they halted directly in front of Maurice and saluted him.
Later, in a letter to his wife, Pauline, Maurice described the incident. Pauline was so moved that she passed the story on to the local newspaper, which published it. Headlined "The Glorious Hours," the article said, "The glorious hours sound not just for heroic action on the battlefield but also for those activities that occur in daily life, for it is when war is over that a soldier's heart and character are also revealed."
Maurice was highly decorated for his military service. Among his awards was the Distinguished Service Medal from the United States government, a medal for which he had been nominated by Douglas MacArthur. But as proud as Maurice was of that medal and his life in the military, it was his life in the vineyards that held even greater meaning for him—one that beckoned him home when the "war to end all wars" had finally ended.
* * *
That life was one of legend and myth, a life which, in many ways, had changed little since the Middle Ages. "It was a simpler time in the vineyards," Maurice's son Robert recalled years later. "We had a way of living, a way of making wine that was natural and tres ancienne."
It was made the way their grandfathers and great-grandfathers had made it. There were no experts to rely on, so everyone followed the traditions they knew and had grown up with. Plowing was done with horses. Planting, picking and pruning were done according to the phases of the moon. Older people often reminded younger ones that the merits of pruning were discovered when St. Martin's donkey got loose in the vineyards.
It happened, they said, in 345 a.d. when St. Martin, dressed in animal skins and riding on a donkey, went out to inspect some of the vineyards that belonged to his monastery near Tours in the Loire Valley. He was a lover of wine and had done much over the years to educate monks about the latest viticultural practices. On this occasion, St. Martin tethered his donkey to a row of vines while he went about his business. He was gone for several hours. When he returned, he discovered to his horror that his donkey had been munching the vines and that some had been chewed right down to the trunk. Next year, however, the monks were surprised when they saw that those same vines were the very ones which grew back the most abundantly and produced the best grapes. The lesson was not lost on the monks, and as centuries passed, pruning became part of every winegrower's routine.
Days began early and lasted until the work was done. There were no fixed hours. As they pruned, checked for maladies, tied back shoots that had come loose—day after day, week after week, month after month—workers came to know each vine personally. There was an almost mystical connection as they let the vines set the rhythm and pace of life.
After picking, grapes were crushed with bare feet. The must, or grape juice, was then poured into giant vats, followed by a process called pigeage, in which naked workers plunged themselves into the frothy liquid. Holding tightly to chains that had been fastened to overhead beams, the workers would then raise and lower themselves over and over again, stirring the must with their entire bodies so as to aerate the mixture and enhance the fermentation. It was a dangerous exercise. Hardly a harvest went by without some workers losing their grip and drowning, or being asphyxiated by the carbonic gas given off by the fermenting juice. Victims were almost always men, since women, in some parts of France, were barred from the chai, or winery, during harvesttime. Their presence, according to superstition, would turn the wine sour.
Yet harvesttime was always the happiest time of the year. When the last grapes were picked and loaded onto a horse-drawn wagon, workers would gather wildflowers to decorate the cart and to make a bouquet for the lady of the house. She would hang the bouquet above the entry to the cave, where it would stay until the next harvest to bring good luck—and good wine—to the house. Others would even scatter grape leaves on the floor to encourage the "good spirits" not to leave.
Time, then, was almost magical; it felt never-ending, Robert Drouhin recalled. During walks through the vineyards, he and his father often stopped for long, rambling conversations with the workers.
"People seemed to have more character then. They never hesitated to tell my father what they thought or how they believed things should be done, and my father was always ready to listen. Those were the moments when I learned to love the vines."
Unfortunately, those vines were in miserable shape. The years between the wars had brought mostly misery to winemakers, who suffered through a string of horrible vintages—and not just because of the weather. Battles that had raged during World War I had rendered vineyards, especially those in Champagne, practically lifeless. They had been sliced up by trenches and blown apart by artillery and mortar shells, which left enormous craters in the ground. Worse were the chemical shells that leaked into the soil, poisoning the vineyards for years to come.
World War I had arrived just when winegrowers were beginning to recover from another crisis. Phylloxera, a tiny insect that attacks the roots of grapevines, had invaded France in the middle of the nineteenth century, reducing vast areas of vineyard to what one winegrower described as "rows of bare wooden stumps—resembling huge graveyards." Over the next thirty years, the disease would spread to every vineyard in the country, prompting the government to offer a 300,000-franc prize to anyone who could find a cure. All kinds of ideas were suggested, ranging from the bizarre—planting a live toad beneath each vine—to the hopeful—watering vineyards with white wine. Some growers flooded their vineyards with seawater; others sprayed their vines with a vast array of chemicals or simply burned them. Nothing seemed to work.
The remedy, as it turned out, was something totally un-French. Growers discovered that by grafting their vines onto American rootstocks, which were naturally resistant to the root-eating louse, they could save their vines. It was a long and costly process. Vineyards had to be uprooted and replanted. Then growers had to wait several years for their vines to begin bearing fruit, and even longer for them to reach full maturity.
Just when things began looking up after World War I, disaster struck again. This time it was the Great Depression, and the effect on the wine industry was devastating. In Champagne, major houses could no longer afford to buy grapes from their growers. In Alsace, huge numbers of winegrowers went bankrupt. Those in Bordeaux were forced to accept prices that were below the national average—the first time in history that had happened. In Burgundy, wine production fell 40 percent as nearly half the vineyards went uncultivated. Even the great Domaine de la Romanee-Conti was floundering, but the family which owned it was determined to hold on to it. "My father felt it was like a beautiful jewel a woman has in her jewelry box," Aubert de Villaine recalled. "She would not wear it every day, but she was determined to keep it so she could pass it on to her children."
To do that, de Villaine's father did what many other winegrowers were forced to do to survive: he took on another job. It was his third. He was already managing the family farm and running Romanee-Conti; now he started working in a bank as well. "My father was constantly busy; he never stopped," de Villaine said, "but that is how much he loved Romanee-Conti and he spent every spare moment working there."