If you tour Moët & Chandon’s caves today, as I did during a recent day trip from Paris, you’ll learn a little bit about the famed champagne house’s history. They will tell you an official version of the history that’s heavy on the details of wine production, but super light on the people and events.
What they leave out of the official version though is definitely worth hearing…
There was no mention whatsoever during the tour about what happened at Moët during recent history, during WWII. So I thought I’d tell part of that story here to you. Below is the story of Count Robert-Jean de Vogüé (“de Vogüé”) who ran Moët during that time. He struggled bravely, but unsuccessfully to protect the company from German control and barely made it through the war with his life, only to find himself in a unique position after the war.
Occupation Begins, Summer 1940
In the first weeks of the occupation, more than 2 million bottles of wine were stolen by Germans. It was comparable to full scale looting of the sort seen after natural disasters and coups, but in this case it involved some of the most storied vineyards in the world and Moët suffered more than most.
“The Chandon château on the grounds of Dom Pérignon’s abbey had been burned down and many other buildings belonging to Moët were taken over to house German troops. To add insult to injury, the company had also been ordered to supply the Third Reich with 50,000 bottles of champagne a week, or about one-tenth of all the champagne the Germans were requisitioning.”
To stop the looting, the Nazi’s appointed a weinführer to each wine region. They were often from the German wine trade and knew both the French producers and their wines ensuring that the Germans got what they wanted, all the best wine available. At least before the acts of sabotage and subterfuge that would come to characterize the French occupation.
The weinführer for region of Champagne was Otto Klaebisch. (Don’t forget his name! He’s important.)
De Vogüé was well respected man among the champagne producers. As the Germans pressed Moët specifically and the producers in general for more and more champagne to fuel and reward their conquests, the champagne producers banded together to form a trade organization to collectively bargain with the Germans. They choose de Vogüé as the single delegate to negotiate with the Germans on their behalf.
As The War Dragged On, 1940-1944
Over the next couple of years, Klaebisch and de Vogüé often found themselves at odds, but they remained mostly cooperative. Until one day when everything changed.
De Vogüé was arrested and accused along with the other leaders of Moët of actively helping the Resistance (which they were). He was charged with obstructing trade demands and sentenced to death. The sentences brought outrage and resulted in region wide strike. Ultimately de Vogüé’s sentence was suspended, and he sent years in prison (along with the other executives) while Moët was placed under direct control of the Germans.
“To be a Frenchman means to fight for your country and it’s wine.”
— Claude Terrail, owner of Restaurant La Tour d’Argent
As the occupation dragged on, food became scarce and rationed. There was little domestic wine industry since all wine was reserved for the Germans, and all efforts to maintain the planting and harvesting of the grapes became increasingly difficult without access to basic fertilizer and treatments for pests and rot, in addition to financial strain. The difficulties that champagne producers faced to keep their vineyards alive were monumental despite the Third Reich’s unquenched love of champagne.
As Patton’s army advanced quickly toward Champagne in July of 1944, the Germans were caught off guard. Thankfully they fled without destroying the miles of cellars and bridges as they had threatened, but they left behind a country and a region in tatters.
The advancing armies found massive destruction in the occupied zones and people holding on by a thread in hopes of liberation as moved from camp after camp. De Vogüé’s finally returned home after his year and a half long imprisonment in Ziegenhain labor camp, but he was one of the many who just barely made it through.
“De Vogüé was not supposed to have survived. The Nazis had put the letters NN against his name — Nacht und Nebel (Night and Fog) — which meant work him to death and dump him into an unmarked grave. Just after he arrived at the camp, a sadistic guard told him, “You know what they say about Ziegenhain, don’t you? Those who come to Ziegenhain come here to die.”
De Vogüé contracted gangrene in his little finger on his right hand while at Ziegenhain and was ignored when he requested a medical attention. So he found a piece of glass, sharpened it as much as possible, and without anesthetic, cut off his finger to save his own life in hopes of living long enough to see his camp liberated.
When the day finally came, he faced another obstacle. By this point he was so weak and frail that he didn’t have the strength to walk much further than a few kilometers before collapsing.
“As he lay unconscious along the road, a British officer passed by and stopped. He was a man whom de Vogüé had once worked within Champagne. The Englishman jumped out of his jeep and picked up de Vogüé; then he notified de Vogüé’s family that he was bringing him home.”
“When de Vogüé arrived, all the joy vanished. No one recognized the frail, sticklike figure who could no longer stand on his own. He bore no resemblance to the elegant, dynamic man who had run the Moët & Chandon champagne house and who had faced down Otto Klaebisch.”
De Vogüé did survive to find that he and the other champagne producers then faced the huge job of rebuilding both the vineyards and their properties, often ransacked by the Nazis, with very limited resources already spread very thin. It must have been a long, steep road to recovery.
Post War Tribunals
In an interesting twist, de Vogüé received a summons and was called as a “hostile” witness against Otto Klaebisch (the former weinfürher of Champagne) who was being investigated for economic crimes. But de Vogüé surprised everyone by supporting his exoneration:
“He was in a difficult situation,” de Vogüé told the court. “I don’t believe for a minute that he himself would have ever ordered by arrest or those of my colleagues. It was the Gestapo.”
De Vogüé was given an opportunity to exact revenge after being worked almost to death in a labor camp for an arrest at least implemented by Klaebisch, but instead he took the high road and recognized the difficulty inherent in the murky gray area in which many Germans had to operate in order to survive.
My Tour of Moët’s Cellars
While I wished the tour covered more, don’t get me wrong, I had a great time at Moët. I enjoyed hearing about the traditional French way of making champagne (the Méthode Champenoise), especially their rare grand vintages, and learning that Napoleon who was a huge, early fan of champagne, had actually stood where we stood in those cellars.
“Champagne! In victory one deserves it; in defeat one needs it.”
— Napoleon Bonaparte
Leaving it out their WWII history probably makes sense for Moët, in an effort not to alienate German tourists (especially in light of their strong purchasing power these days), but in my opinion it’s a waste of a great story!
Below are some of pictures from the tour. Enjoy!
Click on any of the thumbnails above to see a larger version.
A Bonus Fact
Champagne producers passed information about German campaigns on to British intelligence often in advance of the campaign itself based on German champagne orders. The Germans ordered a shipment be packaged for transport to a very hot country, which turned out to be Egypt, and requested a specific shipment for delivery in Romania planning ahead to celebrate in advance of their invasions, which I imagine came as great intelligence for the Allies. // I loved hearing that and couldn’t resist sharing!
- Wine and War: The French, the Nazis, and the Battle for France’s Greatest Treasure, by Don & Petie Kladstrup. // All quotes listed above (except the Napoleon quote) are from this wonderful, meticulously researched book. They come from the following pages, respectively: 86, back cover, 229, 230, 237.
- Another book by the same authors is Champagne: How the World’s Most Glamorous Wine Triumphed Over War and Hard Times. I haven’t read it, but think it might be a great follow up!
- Moët & Chandon // Visit Their Cellars