For those in the know at Mardi Gras, champagne is a must at the private Krewe Balls where the daughters of the South’s leading families are still introduced to society in New Orleans in the grand style. Nearby in a reserved seating area, many other lovely ladies in full ball gowns wait, each holding a “call-out” dance card that lists the name of their partner for every memorable dance.
It is a magical environment and one that is perfect for the elegance of champagne. Yet champagne is not an ‘indigenous’ wine in the South and had to be imported for America to learn to love it, thanks to one remarkable and courageous man - Charles Camille Heidsieck.
Born in 1820, Heidsieck was surrounded by champagne from birth. He was the son of Charles-Henri Heidsieck, the famed French champagne merchant who rode into Moscow on a white stallion in 1811, just ahead of Napoleon's advancing army, with case upon case of champagne and order book. He was ready to offer credit to the winning side and cash-only to the losing side.
Despite the victorious bells that pealed in Beethoven’s glorious 1812 Overture, Napoleon lost in the first of many losses that would lead to his exile on the remote island of St Helena. Meanwhile back in France, there was still champagne to blend and sell.
By 1852 the younger Charles had learned the champagne trade and was ready to look for new markets. The new and growing nation of America seemed perfect. Landing in New York with a large shipment of high quality champagne, his wine and outgoing personality charmed everyone. He opened enough accounts that soon he had to obtain the services of a stateside agent to represent him when he returned to France.
Success after success followed and soon Heidsieck was exporting large quantities of champagne to America. When he traveled to America, his arrival was covered in the major newspapers and the grand dames of society competed to obtain his presence at their balls and salons.
Heidsieck was a skilled marketer and understood the importance of image matched to the quality of his produce. His sparkling personality matched his wine perfectly and soon he was known simply in America as “Champagne Charlie”.
Everything went well until Charles (or "Charlie" as the Americans affectional called him) received word that a civil war was about to break out in the United States. With over half of his future revenue tied up in unpaid American accounts, Charles hurriedly boarded the first ship to the U.S. to collect the funds before chaos broke out.
On arrival he was shocked at the situation he found. In an effort to cut the economic base from the South, the American Congress had just passed a new law heavily restricting trade with the south - especially cotton. Charles had earlier accepted undelivered southern cotton as payment from some of his outstanding accounts. Based on the new law, his former agent refused to work with him to obtain payment or to account for strangely missing funds.
Horrified at the financial disaster now facing him, his family and his employees, Charles sought the aid of the rich and famous whose homes he had once graced. But with the first bloody causality lists now consuming the attention of everyone, no one had time to help a French wine rep for champagne that no one was now in the mood to drink.
Taking matters in hand, Charles headed south to New Orleans to appeal for direct payment from those who owed him money. But the Civil War that now consumed the nation made it impossible for him to travel directly to the Crescent City.
For over a year and with dwindling finances, Charles Heidsieck struggled to reach his destination. When he finally arrived in New Orleans he found a city shattered by war and poverty, not the glittering jewel of the South that Charles had known in happier days.
No one had creditable money, only piles of worthless Confederate dollars. Once more cotton was offered in payment for the long ago enjoyed champagne. That was not what Charles wanted but it was better than nothing.
Actually the South had been unable to export cotton to the waiting mills of Europe for over a year. As a result, cotton was very valuable but exportation was blocked by the northern navy. Charles loaded his precious cotton aboard a blockade runner (a la Rhett Butler of Gone with the Wind fame) in Mobile, Alabama only to learn that the ship and its cargo had been captured at sea and destroyed.
Depressed and without any funds, Charles returned to New Orleans to learn that the city had fallen to the Northern forces and was occupied by the unsympathetic Major General Benjamin F. Butler (known to Southerns as “Beast Butler”). Because Charles had naively agreed to carry letters from the Confederate Government to various French textile manufacturers inquiry about the purchase of army uniform should he be able to reach Europe, Butler convicted him of being a spy and threw him in jail!
Finally those who had enjoyed his champagne in peace came to his defense in war. As the news spread that Charles of Heidsieck Champagne fame was imprisoned in New Orleans, letters supporting his character begin to arrive at the White House from both the States and France. The resulting diplomatic furor is known in history as the “Heidsieck Incident”.
His release was finally granted on 16 November 1862. By this time, he was in frail health with his business nearly destroyed. Returning to France, he found that his beloved and long suffering wife had been forced to sell off portions of the family’s estate to keep the demanding debt collectors at bay.
But fear not, the story has a happy ending. In early 1863 there was a knock on his front door. When Charles Heidsieck answered, he found an American missionary with a packet of papers and a letter standing there.
To his amazement the good minister carried a letter that was from the brother of Heidsieck's former dishonest agent in New York. The letter’s writer was ashamed of how his brother had cheated Heidsieck and wanted to offer him a stack of deeds to a piece of land in distant Colorado as a means of repayment.
As it turned out, the deeds established ownership to about a third of a new western town called Denver. Within a very short time, the massive mineral finds were discovered nearby and Denver became the richest city in the American West.
Charles soon sold the land and with his heaven-sent new wealth proudly re-established the Heidsieck House of Champagne. As the story of his struggles and his courage to succeed spread, royal court after royal court declared Heidsieck the champagne for those who wanted to enjoy only the best.
But nowhere was he more loudly cheered and his champagne enjoyed more then in New Orleans. To this day, those who swirl at the great and grand Krewe Balls always take a moment and raise their glasses to the beauty and heritage of the evening and the tale of Champagne Charlie, the man who, like the brave city of New Orleans, never, never gave up!
Your Culinary World copyright Ana Kinkaid/Peter Schlagel 2011