Today’s words come to us from one of the great female pioneers of Champagne, Lily Bollinger. Madame Bollinger (or Madame Jacques, as she was known) gave much to Champagne, including these terrific words. A British reporter once asked Madame Jacques when she drank Champagne, and she gave this glorious response. If you were ever in doubt about when to drink Champagne, doubt no more!
Madame Jacques ran House Bollinger from 1941 (after her husband, Jacques died) until 1971. During World War II, the Nazis commandeered Château Bollinger (and stole 178,000 bottles of Champagne). Rather than abandon her home and winery, Madame Jacques slept in her cellars. Despite critical shortages in workers, water, electricity, and gasoline, Bollinger continued to make Champagne during the war. Madame Jacques was a constant presence and force in the vineyards, riding her bicycle there each morning at 6:00am to help tend the grapes.
When the Germans stormed into France in 1940, they plundered all the great French wines — Champagne, Bordeaux and Burgundy. Each of the wine growing regions in France was assigned a weinführer, whose job was to supply the Third Reich with massive quantities of wine. How massive? The Third Reich requested upwards of 400,000 bottles of Champagne per week for their consumption. (Yes, the comma is in the right place. 400,000. Bottles. Per week. It’s staggering).
Ah, but the French came up with all kinds of ways to deceive their German occupiers. They walled up entire wine cellars with bricks, buried their wines under gardens, and even sunk their wine in ponds. In the compulsory shipments of wine bound for Germany, the French did everything from putting “good” labels on “bad” wines, to diluting wines, or loading full wine barrels onto Germany-bound trains, and then siphoning the contents so the barrels would arrive empty. (What’s the French word for cajones?)
The weinführer in charge of Champagne was Otto Klaebisch, a substantial man, both in greed and stature. And while some vintners in Champagne dealt with Klaebisch by employing some of the bolder approaches listed above, Madame Jacques chose a sly diplomacy:
At Bollinger, Madame Jacques devised her own means of keeping Herr Klaebisch (at least directly) out of the way. Receiving the man with courtesy and dignity, she offered him an armchair so narrow that it was unable to accommodate his considerable girth, compelling Herr Klaebisch to continually stand throughout his visit. For the rest of the occupation, he never called on Bollinger again, and the chair remains at the house today.1
If I ever have the good fortune to be in Champagne again, I’m planning a visit to Bollinger just to see that chair!
Bollinger is located in Aÿ, a commune in the Vallée de la Marne region of Champagne. In early August of 1944, the Allies bombed Aÿ, nearly devastating the village. Madame Jacques helped downed Allied pilots escape capture, prepared bodies for burial, and comforted grieving families. The Allied Expeditionary Forces awarded her a special commendation for her courage and assistance. By late August of 1944, General Patton and the Third Army arrived, and just in time, too — the hastily retreating Germans were planning to dynamite the Bollinger cellars.
Madame Jacques continued on after the war, rebuilding House Bollinger. In 1969, she made Vieilles Vines Françaises (Old French Vines), the first Champagne made exclusively from ungrafted Pinot Noir grapes. In 1976, the French government awarded her the Ordre National du Merit.
If I can carve out a few minutes of alone time tonight . . . perhaps I’ll trifle with some Champagne. 😉
1Hitner, Julian. “Champagne during WW2: From Vines to Victory.” Decanter. N.p., 10 July 2014. Web. 01 Dec. 2015.