How French winemakers outwitted the Nazis (and an anecdote about the Woltners at La Mission)

With all things D-Day dominating the British headlines, the BBC published the piece below, which is an interesting read.

It reminded me of a story I heard circa 1990 from Françoise DeWavrin, co-owner with her husband of Chateau Woltner in Napa, where their winemaker Ted Lemon made some terrific Howell Mountain chardonnays. She was an heir to the Woltners that owned La Mission Haut-Brion until it was sold in 1983.

During the war, the family had to share the chateaux with German officers, who had appropriated it for themselves and hung an enormous Nazi flag from the eves – to the consternation of the Woltners.

Eventually, Françoise’s grandmother approached one of the officers and said something along the lines of, “Are you really sure you want such a large German flag here? Allied bombers might think this was an important place.”

The flag came down.


For those who have not read it, I found the book, “Wine and War” to be a fantastic read that details many unique stories across Bordeaux, Champagne, the Loire and Burgundy during the occupation/resistance.


I thought it was a good book. My late father also told me about a book he read about how great artworks were preserved during WWII.

Big disclaimer that I wasn’t there and am not any sort of expert. But the way Wine and War depicted the saintly and highly clever French outwitting the bumbling Nazis at every turn did feel a little Hogan’s Heroes to me. I kept wondering if and to what extent the stories were embellished.

And it’s not that I wouldn’t be able to understand the pressures and limitations on the people involved forcing them to get by in less-than-perfect ways, either. You do what you can in those situations to get by, and people living in the comfort we live it have little standing to judge. But it did feel like it was trying a little too hard to sell me a point of view there.

Anyone else feel that way? Or am I being too cynical? It’s certainly possible that I am, maybe jaded from so much manipulative media and entertainment in the modern world.

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History IS written by the victors.


Ha. Perfect line.


I visited the neuschwanstein castle in Germany and took the tour. Cool place, it’s the basis for Sleeping Beauty’s castle.

At the start of the tour the guide is explaining the various rooms we’ll be seeing and the general layout and history of the castle.

After she’s done I asked “will we see the rooms where the Nazi’s hide all the stolen art during WWII?”

That didn’t go over well. :sunglasses:

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Yes! Wine and War was a fantastic read

I am sure there is embellishment to some extent in some cases.

That said, my husband and I visited Chateau La Riviere in Fronsac through the miles of underground limestone tunnels. As part of the tour, you can see the wall and cellar which hide the wines from the Germans and prevented their destruction. I could see how the Germans did not suspect, as there was no giveaway that the wall was created as a “smokescreen”.

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Your father-in-law was talking about Monuments Men. Good movie, better book.


I found Wine and War a bit saccharin and didn’t finish it.

If you want to see a fabulous (if long) treatment of the moral dilemmas the French faced, the series “A French Village” is terrific. It’s set in an occupied village in eastern France near the Vichy border. It begins with the German invasion and each season covers a period of the war (the roundup of the Jews, the formation of the resistance with its mixture of leftists and nationalists, the arrival of the Americans, even the the post-war political wrangling between right and left and the reprisals against those who collaborated).

In the early episodes, I thought it was too easy on the local officials who tried to placate the Germans. But as the story unfolded, it became clear that that was just the set-up – ultimately the series was all about moral choices.

Evidently it caused something of a stir in France and stimulated discussion about collaboration, which had been ignored while the resistance was celebrated.

Highly recommended if you can commit the time. Great scripts and acting, and I was told by a lawyer I know in Paris that it was scrupulously researched historically.


A long relevant story about some of my favorite people:

When I started importing Champagne, one of my suppliers was Champagne Gilbert Bertrand in Chamery. My ex-company still imports the wines into some states: It’s now Champagne Bertrand-Delespierre.

I met Gilbert Bertrand about forty years ago. A small, energetic man of about 60, but clearly not in good health. His voice was a rasp. His parents had sheltered Jews in their caves. They were caught and the Nazis shot them and the Jews out of hand. Gilbert was in his teens. The Nazis stomped him and crushed his larynx.
[I heard the story from a neighboring grower; neither he nor his family ever mentioned it.]

Gilbert survived, married, his small Champagne Estate prospered, he and his wife had two sons and a daughter. About 15 years later, a nice surprise: Another daughter (he and his wife were about 50 when she was born).
I was visiting in 1986. Sally had been very ill, was now able to take care of herself but not Matt, so I made the trip with Matt during his spring break. He was 9. At the end of our lunch visit, Gilbert’s daughter, also 9, stood up and announced: “I’m first for Show and Tell today and I don’t have anything. So I’m taking him with me (she pointed at Matt). We laughed, but I borrowed their phone, juggled some appointments, and told Matt he was going to school that afternoon. He rolled his eyes, but was delighted.

Gilbert died a few years later, his widow a decade later. Gilbert’s son Didier married Chantal Delespierre, daughter of growers a village over. The family and wines go from strength to strength.

Dan Kravitz


I’m confused, Dan. Sally is your wife? And Matt is your son? And what does the show and tell have to do with their wartime experience?


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Nice story in the excellent current bbc series on lost voices from d-day. They detail the daring capture of pegasus bridge by british airborne troops landing on gliders. When they were relieved by royal marine commandos coming from the beaches, the french guy who owned the cafe next to the bridge ran into his garden and dug up nearly 100 champagne bottles to give them!


My thoughts exactly.

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