Do You Like Champagne?
I do! Champagne plays a part in my historical novel Wickwythe Hall. It’s the connection between my fictional character, Reid Carr, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. In the novel, Reid Carr is a representative of French champagne house Pol Roger. In real life, Pol Roger was Churchill’s favorite champagne. Voilà! Fact meets fiction.
Churchill’s love of libations is well documented. He began each day with whiskey and soda or a tumbler of sherry, then moved on to wine, champagne, port with the cheese course, and ninety-year-old brandy before bed. But champagne was his favorite, particularly Pol Roger. He liked to have his own bottle by his plate at the table in order, according to his wife Clementine, “to be independent of the vagaries of butlers.” His zeal for French champagne ran so deep that during World War I, he roused his fellow troops with the battle call “Remember gentlemen, it’s not just France we are fighting for, it’s champagne!”
Not only did he have a taste for champagne, he had champagne tastes and lived beyond his means. In 1926, he resolved to tighten his belt. He wrote a note to Clementine stating “no more champagne is to be bought.” He attempted to reduce his cigar use to four a day. He directed that there be no fish course unless they had guests. But by 1936, he was in the hole again, owing to his wine merchant $75,000 in today’s dollars. Blessedly, the threat of imminent poverty inspired his most prolific work as a writer (kids, don’t try this at home). He literally wrote his way out of financial disaster.
His devotion to champagne and Pol Roger deepened when he met the striking Odette Pol Roger in 1944 at an Armistice Day party in Paris. He insisted she be invited to every dinner he attended in Paris thereafter.
Born Odette Wallace in 1911, she was 37 years Winston’s junior. In her youth, she and her sisters comprised a beguiling trio known as “the Wallace Collection.” Odette married Jacques Pol Roger, a co-director of his family’s champagne house, and the two lived near Jacques’ parents at Epernay. There, during World War II, Odette was a courier for the Resistance, bicycling 12 hours to Paris when needed.
In the years after the war, with her charm, beauty and joie de vivre, she became the face of Pol Roger. Her self-professed mission was to encourage people to enjoy champagne. She found a kindred spirit in Winston, and their friendship was deep.
Just as Winston was a professed Francophile, Odette likewise had English passions. She raised chickens, gardened, and was a devotee of fly-fishing. She spent summers at her chateau on a trout river in Normandy. She told The Daily Telegraph in 1970 that after a dinner in Paris, she got in her car to drive home and:
As the sun was coming up I was thinking of getting a bit of sleep when I looked down from my bedroom window and saw a huge trout in the stream which runs through the property. So I grabbed my rod and rushed down and caught him – still in my dinner gown. Well! Life must be enjoyed, no?
Odette sent her friend Winston a case of Pol Roger every year for his birthday. Winston named a racehorse after her. When he died in 1965, Odette placed a black border on the labels of bottles exported to Britain. Later, Pol Roger named its prestigious cuvée after him, rich and full-bodied as he preferred.
All of this may seem like a romantic glimpse into the long-lost past. But today, at your local wine store, you can still find a piece of history inspired by this great friendship: the Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill. And if the cost of the special edition ($250 plus) is too much, Pol Roger offers a $50 bottle. It’s still a splurge, but even now, in 2017, life must be enjoyed, no?
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