'War is the mother of all and the father of all." I don't know who said it, but I've got a friend who is forever quoting it. He might get a kick out of the latest offering from authors Don and Petie Kladstrup: Champagne: How the World's Most Glamorous Wine Triumphed Over War and Hard Times. The book opens with the authors picnicking amid the ramparts constructed by Attila the Hun in 451 A.D. "'What an incongruous setting for a picnic,' we thought. Then again, what better place to try to reconcile le champagne, the wine that is the symbol of friendship and celebration, with la Champagne, a region that has been drenched with more blood than perhaps any other place on earth."
The Kladstrups present an astonishing account of war after war, invasion after invasion, culminating in the nightmare of World War I, which saw trenches dug right through the vineyards and soldiers marching through underground cellars to the front lines. The story of Champagne during the Great War provides the book its heart. "It was Champagne's darkest hour," write the Kladstrups. "Ironically, however, it was also the brightest, for at the very moment when all seemed lost, the people of Champagne found the strength and will to hold on."
But the story is not contained by the wars -- it bubbles over into a history of the region and its singular product. The book is the source of considerable delight, not least for its illustrations of history repeating itself. I had always been amazed at the tremendous effect that one episode of 60 Minutes had on the wine industry. But that one episode, which aired in 1991, suggested that drinking wine -- especially red wine -- might actually be good for you. Wine sales exploded. I've heard it said that the show triggered a gradual but inexorable shift in the US wine market, one that led consumers away from white wine and toward red. Apparently, people took drinking "to your health" very seriously indeed.
I had thought it a quirk of our health-happy times -- imagine needing to be told that a source of sublime gustatory pleasure (not to mention a gladdened heart) was good for you before indulging. If it was a quirk, it was not a new one. King Louis XIV loved champagne, and his doctor, Antoine d'Aquin, assured him that it was good for his health. But his doctor's rival, Guy-Crescent Fagon, preferred Burgundy. (This was in the days before champagne always had bubbles, so the comparison was a little less apples-to-oranges.) When Fagon managed to get himself appointed as the royal doctor, he decreed that only Burgundy would benefit the king's health. The Dean of the medical school in Beaune gave a rousing, if not terribly scientific, account of Burgundy's general superiority. Champagne rallied with an expert of its own. A fierce debate erupted -- Louis was the biblious trendsetter of the day, and suddenly, Louis was off the champagne.
The book reports that the conflict eventually "collapsed under the weight of words," though the health claims of Fagon's side surely suffered a blow when the king died of gangrene. His royal doctor's advice: "Just bathe it regularly in Burgundy wine. It'll be all right."
Three centuries later, but still more than 50 years before that episode of 60 Minutes, the flag of healthfulness was waved again, this time to rally the troops against Prohibition. The book quotes André Simon, writing about how "champagne makers began seeking out 'missionaries who might persuade the young people of America that champagne was the fairway, as opposed to the out-of-bounds of hard liquor and soft drinks. '" Champagne was said to "prevent depression, appendicitis, and infectious diseases such as typhoid." French boxers started beating their American opponents. A French doctor broke the 100-year mark and wrote a book about it. You can guess the reason he gave for his longevity.
Or consider the modern-day gripe that many wines today are overhyped, that marketing has eclipsed quality, making the consumer susceptible to $75 letdowns. Champagne reminds us of Eugène Mercier, who "caused a stir at the 1889 Exposition when he arrived with a team of 24 white oxen hauling the world's largest wine barrel, a cask that took 16 years to build and contained the equivalent of two hundred thousand bottles of champagne." And this was in a day when you had no guarantee that your champagne was made entirely from grapes, which made the hype all the more ridiculous.
Champagne is a love letter to a region, a people, and the wine they created. But it's the best kind of love letter, one that keeps some measure of clear-eyed objectivity in the midst of its devotion. Even without the wars, there was plenty of conflict -- producer vs. vigneron, growers in the Marne département vs. growers in the Aube -- and plenty of hardship when business dried up. The Russian Revolution of 1917 erased 10 percent of champagne's market. The communists "branded champagne 'a degenerate capitalist habit. '"
The wine provides a cheery lens through which to view the history of the nation -- it was there at the ascent of the French Pope Urban II; it was served to Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette at their last meal, even as it was sipped by the tribunals that sentenced the aristocracy to death; it accompanied Napoleon on his campaigns; it served as a national emblem during the Belle Epoque; it fortified the soldiers in the trenches; and it was Eisenhower's first thought after receiving the Germans' surrender in Reims on May 7, 1945.
The Kladstrups's story had to end somewhere. They chose to end it there, and perhaps with good reason. "Today," they write in the epilogue, "champagne is a multibillion-dollar industry, a far cry from what it was just a few years ago. While big doesn't necessarily mean bad, Pierre Lanson finds something a bit sad about it. 'Business is so different now,' he told us over lunch, noting that Lanson is no longer a family business. Like many other champagne houses, it had been taken over by corporate giants," one of which "makes over 200 brands of champagne."
Lanson then launched into a story about his father, who died at 98 while sipping champagne with his doctor. "Isn't that a wonderful story?" asked Lanson. It is. But it's hard not to feel a touch of backwards-looking melancholy upon reading it. Wine is a product, albeit one amenable to sentiment and myth. It's important to remember that, and it's important to stay close to sense -- how does it taste? But the Kladstrups do a fine job of making the case for wine as something more: "By the end of the 19th Century, champagne was firmly fixed as part of the national character. 'It resembles us, it's made in our image,' said the writer Adolphe Brisson. 'It bubbles like our spirit, it is piquant like our language, it sparkles and chatters and is constantly in motion. '"