Champagne Thoughts for Holiday Cheer
It’s that time of year again, when the wine writers and bubbly lovers all prepare for their over-the-top annual fix. You can expect a blizzard of articles informing you of the year’s best or most interesting or finally-available winners of the sparkling sweepstakes: Champagne, Cava, Cremant, Franciacorta, Prosecco, etc., etc. And all are bound to be tasty, festive, and the ideal pairing with... something.
It was, in fact, a mere handful of weeks ago that I made my first pilgrimage to the hallowed ground of Champagne itself. For years I had been anticipating this trip, and had an insider’s line-up of small growers and big Champagne houses to visit. And truth be told, there are worse ways to begin such a journey than with a few delicious days and nights in Paris.
I would meet, and greet, and taste and talk and gather all the facts and figures and general impressions that we writers thrive on. And I did; however, the Champenoise offered me something else, something totally unforeseen and perhaps even more valuable than their insights on sparkling wine.
My driver was himself a maker of Champagne. After preliminary greetings and a quick breakfast of croissant and coffee, we departed my hotel in Paris to motor along the A4, Épernay- and Reims-bound. The man was a born tour guide, an advocate for all things French: history, architecture, art, food and culture. As we passed verdant fields and farmlands approaching the medieval town of Château-Thierry, he began reciting the history of the area as a key battleground, beginning with the 1814 Battle of Château-Thierry in which the French defended their capital from Prussian invasion.
And then he got teary-eyed. “Up ahead,” he said, “is the American cemetery.” My look told him that I didn’t know what he was talking about.
“You see, we have been invaded many times in Champagne. The Marne river, just ahead, has always been the final line of defense for France. Once our enemies cross the Marne, it’s an easy march to capture Paris itself.
“During World War I, Germany invaded France to challenge the Western Front, and the Kaiser’s troops easily overran Reims and came this far, across the Marne to the Belleau Wood. Our troops couldn’t hold them; every day was a retreat. And then came the Americans. They refused to fall back and held the Germans along this entire line before launching a counteroffensive that lasted over three weeks. Thousands of your soldiers died and there were many heroes in their successful drive to push the enemy back.
“It is only because of you Americans that Paris was saved. That is something we never forget.” As he spoke I saw an oversized American flag fluttering proudly from atop a huge pole off to the side of the road. A highway sign indicated the exit for Aisne-Marne American Cemetery.
“It is here, where over 2000 American defenders are buried, that French and American presidents come to meet and show their mutual respect.” I looked over at my companion. “All France knows this,” he said, “and we are eternally grateful.”
In the silence that followed, I reflected on the magnitude of what he had told me. Imagine, I thought, a foreign cemetery on U.S. soil as the final resting place of soldiers who had fought and died to save America; of their foreign flag flying gloriously over U.S. soil; and of our unending gratitude for their sacrifice. How incredibly moving. France will never again, to me, be the caricature of unfriendly, beret-wearing snobs that popular culture loves to parade before us. It’s humbling to realize that we hold a more revered position in many French hearts than we ever realized, so narrow is our thinking.
On the brink of the holiday season, this was a touching reminder of how much we depend on others, on friends and family, on colleagues and allies. I asked, with some hesitation, others in Champagne about this historic battle. All concurred; the Americans’ amazing bravery and refusal to retreat saved their nation. And, I was told, there is another American cemetery nearby where close to 6000 troops are laid to rest. Only later did I learn that there are eleven such cemeteries in France, on ground gifted to the U.S. in perpetuity, by the French government.
I wonder, will there one day be American cemeteries in Iran? Or Afghanistan? Will the world care or have we moved beyond appreciating what others sacrifice for us? Too often, it seems, we expect their efforts, or consider them our due. Perhaps it’s time to once again consider not what others can do for us....
Still, life goes on and we will write our books and articles, arrange our highly-anticipated tastings, attend those lavish holiday parties, and sip flute after flute of delicious, delightful bubbly. As we should. A realization that some give more than others is hardly earth-shattering, and those who do, often do it so the rest of us can live as we choose.
But as this particular holiday season evolves, two simple actions would seem to be in order. First, give a moment’s thought to those who’ve extended you a hand, of help or friendship or comraderie, and be thankful for their efforts.
And think next of the remarkable men and women who’ve chosen to don a uniform and go into battle that others can improve or preserve a way of life. The holidays are lonely, I suspect, on the outposts of war, and the comforts few. So pull out your very best bottle of Champagne—yes, your very best—surround yourself with those who matter most to you, and proffer a toast, of good health and good cheer, to all those brave heroes keeping us safe at home. Here, here!
As the Champenoise will tell you, no bubbly will ever taste so good.
For more information on American War Memorials
and Cemeteries abroad go to www.abmc.gov
Wine & beer expert Jim Laughren’s latest book
A Beer Drinker’s Guide To Knowing & Enjoying Fine Wine,
is now available at amazon.com and independent