Welcome back to my “live-blog” of one of my favorite historical novels, Herman Wouk’s 1971 opus The Winds of War. This is part of my “Literary Summer” enterprise where I’m bringing you lots of stuff on great books for summer reading, and some wine suggestions to go with them. With the exception of the rather middling Auslese I selected for myself and reviewed in the last segment, all the wine suggestions come from Michelle Williams of the RockinRed Blog, one of the finest wine blogs you’ll see anywhere. Though as you’ll see tonight there’s a bit of a wrinkle, and a helpful exigency has tweaked tonight’s wine selection. So, if you’re ready to travel back in time to the World War II era, let’s get started.
In the last installment, I ended in August 1939 just as war was brewing over Poland and Natalie and Byron were about to take an ill-advised trip to that troubled country to see Natalie’s ostensible fiancé, Leslie Slote. But first, Victor “Pug” Henry pulls off a diplomatic coup: in a routine report on the combat readiness of Nazi Germany, he offhandedly predicts a nonaggression pact between Hitler and Stalin. In real life, of course, this dumbfounded the world when it was announced on August 23, securing Hitler’s rear flank so he could go carve up Poland. In The Winds of War, Pug’s report catches the eye of President Franklin Roosevelt. Just as the attack–and World War II–begins, Pug is summoned from Berlin to Washington to meet the President. Meanwhile, Natalie and Byron are stuck in Poland.
The August 1939 pact between Hitler and Stalin shocked the world because it was so unlikely. Herman Wouk uses this as a plot device in The Winds of War.
The scenes taking place in Poland are the true stand-out of this section, especially those before the shooting starts. Though Slote demands Natalie go home immediately, she wants to go to Krakow to see her distant family, where they’re gathered for a wedding. Despite war looming Byron goes with her as sort of a protector. Wouk then describes the wonderful rustic setting of rural Poland, especially Jewish Poland, on the eve of World War II. The extended family is all gathered; Natalie and Byron are welcomed; a night of merriment and celebration, quintessentially Old World Jewish, occurs just as the reader knows Hitler’s tanks are rolling. Wouk describes Medzice, the Jastrows’ hometown, in very rustic terms: “Cows and horses grazed in tall waving grass spotted with wild flowers. Water bugs skated on the surface of the slow-moving brown river. Fish jumped and splashed, but nobody was fishing.” You can almost smell it, and as a reader you thrill along with Byron at the joy, wonder and strangeness of the Jewish wedding festivities.
Of course, the war starts. Just as it does Wouk introduces an interesting literary diversion: he has us read the text of part of a (nonexistent) book called World Empire Lost, written in the 1960s by a German general, Armin von Roon, who is in prison for war crimes. In the story, we learn that 20 years after the war Pug Henry has retired from the Navy and translates Roon’s book from German into English for an American publisher. The purpose of this book-within-a-book is to provide some birdseye-view strategic view of the war, and also to see what it looked like from the German perspective. After Roon describes why the invasion of Poland was strategically necessary, Pug adds in a translator’s note, “The reader will have to grow used to the German habit of blaming other countries for getting themselves invaded by Germans.”
This famous photo of a Polish girl mourning her mother, killed by German aircraft, is recreated pretty faithfully in The Winds of War.
The war scenes themselves aren’t as vivid as the rusting wedding in Medzice, but they’re pretty vivid. Byron and Natalie drive in a battered car from Medzice back to Warsaw with a bunch of refugees, most of them Jewish, enduring strafing runs by Luftwaffe planes. Once back in Warsaw–where Slote says neutral Americans will be “exchanged” through the German lines by diplomats–they fall under various air raids. The character of Byron is beginning to take on a heroic edge. Slote, by contrast, is a flat chattering bore. What does Natalie see in this guy? I’ve read the book dozens of times and I still can’t figure it out.
In various subplots, Pug’s son Warren strikes up a romance with the daughter of a powerful Congressman, and Madeline gets a job in radio in New York. Pug does get to see FDR. These scenes are almost comical, as Wouk has character after character ask Pug, “What’s Hitler really like?” The real story, though, is Byron and Natalie.
So now, on to the wine! For this segment of the book I asked Michelle to find me something “rustic,” in keeping with the great scenes taking place in the Polish countryside. She steered me to a Bodegas Bilbainas Viña Zaco Rioja 2011. Here are her tasting notes:
This wine was crafted from 100% Tempranillo. It poured a deep garnet into the glass and opened with rustic aromas of red and black fruit, smoke, touch of leather, floral notes and spice. On the palate this Tempranillo delivered pleasing flavors of black cherry, blackberry and plums, along with smoke, licorice and toasted walnuts. This wine is rugged yet well-structured, showing balance between the fruit and earthiness, with round acidity and integrated tannins. Hard to beat this quality at $9.99 a bottle.
Unfortunately, as with a previous suggestion in the Mysterious Tales series, I couldn’t find this wine in my state! However, the proprietor of the wine shop I went to look for it–the Broadway Wine Merchants–took about three seconds to suggest a similar substitute: an Estate Bottled Montebuena Rioja, 2010. I did not know what to expect, but honestly, one sip of this and I was in love. Maybe not enough to chase a bottle around war-torn Poland, but still. This was surprisingly mellow for a relatively inexpensive Rioja, with a subtle but still endearing taste. There’s kind of a smoky flavor on the finish, and I do detect a terroir taste that could be called “rustic.” In any event it’s a supremely enjoyable wine, and not too heavy even for a very warm summer evening (as this one is). Big thanks to the fellow at Broadway Wine Merchants, who saved this blog with prescience and quick thinking worthy of Byron Henry himself.
Stay tuned for my next segment…the war in Poland isn’t over yet!