Book Review: Champagne Charlie: The Frenchman Who Taught Americans to Love Champagne, by Don and Petie Kladstrup

Posted by | Posted in Book Reviews | Posted on 02-07-2022

We take for granted that champagne has always been part of the American experience. It hasn’t. In Champagne Charlie, former journalists Don and Petie Kladstrup chronicle how a Frenchman by the name of Charles “Champagne Charlie” Heidsieck became the torchbearer of bubbly onto the American scene. It’s a story I’d venture few know (but should!) and the Kladstrups do it great justice.

In the mid 19th Century, the American market was still largely uncharted territory for the Champenoise. The likes of Moët and Clicquot had done modest business, but getting the product across the Atlantic was a chore (particularly before French pharmacist Jean-Baptiste Francois discovered the formula for determining how much sugar could be added without causing bottles to explode) and American tastes could be quite fickle.

Charles Heidsieck saw in America an opportunity, a chance to make his name and fortune. Having established a champagne business with his brother in law, he made his first journey across the Atlantic in 1852. Five years later, Charles Heidsieck & Co. was selling 300,000 bottles a year in the states, roughly equal to all other champagne houses put together. By 1859, America had become the largest market for champagne. Heidsieck was a celebrity; the face of Champagne in America. People started calling him Champagne Charlie, and patrons at bars everywhere could be heard ordering “a bottle of Heidsieck.”

There were of course plenty of struggles too. Heidsieck’s travels, for instance, brought him far from his family for months on end, which weighed heavily on his marriage. During his time in the American South, he witnessed firsthand the realities of slavery, which, as his journal entries bear out, shook him greatly. And all the while he was making in-roads throughout the American market, his New York sales agent was screwing him, refusing to pay overdue payments, which eventually rose in excess of a million, in today’s dollars.

This was also America in the 1860s, and Heidsieck could not have known that he was endeavoring to cement himself as the king of champagne in a country that was itself an over-pressurized bottle about to explode. The American Civil War would upend his business and nearly cost him his life.

The Kladstrups weave a wonderful narrative, rich in history both well-known and obscure. I have a great interest in the history and literature of the Civil War era, so to learn something (actually quite a bit) new was a real pleasure for me. For example, I never knew much about Major General Benjamin “Beast” Butler of the Union Army. His patently checkered military historyincluding the role he played in Heidsieck’s incredibly ill treatment during the waris so outrageous as to read like fiction.

My recommendation
As I like to say, good books transport their readers, putting them smack in the middle of the time, the place, the people, the action. Champagne Charlie does just that. Simply captivating; especially for those, like me, who love 19th-Century American studies.

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