Tales of the Vine: Champagne Charlie
January 22, 2012 1 Comment
Charles Camile Heidsieck was a successful French merchant who founded the Champagne firm Charles Heidsieck in 1851. Soon thereafter, he visited the United Statesfor the first time, and immediately saw the potential for the American market. He retained an American agent to facilitate import sales, and in a matter of months the mass import of Champagne was a hit. In no time, Charles became a fixture in New York high society and earned the nickname “Champagne Charlie”.
In 1861, Charles received news of the impending Civil War in theUnited States. With over half of his company’s assets tied up in unpaid American accounts, Heidsieck made a hasty trip to try and collect the debts owed him. Upon his arrival, his U.S.import agent told him a grandiose lie concerning a supposed new law passed by Congress which absolved Northerners from having to pay debts to the South. This new law, the agent claimed, also absolved him from having to pay his debt to Heidsieck.
In a last-ditch attempt to seek repayment directly from the merchants that had received the Champagne, Charles set sail for New Orleans With the war now in full-force, he had to travel in secrecy, going as far north as Kansas to avoid detection by the Union Army. When he finally arrived in New Orleans in 1862, he found the city to be nearly bankrupt and his debtors penniless.
One merchant offered to give Heidsieck a warehouse full of cotton in exchange for payment. The cotton was very valuable but would have to be smuggled out of Mobile,Alabama with the use of two blockade runners. Despite Heidsieck’s best efforts, both ships were intercepted and all the cargo destroyed.
By this time, all routes to the North were completely sealed, so in order to return to Europe, Heidsieck had to go back to New Orleans to charter a boat toMexico or Cuba. To facilitate his passage, the French consul in Mobile gave him a diplomatic pouch with a request to deliver some documents to the consulate in New Orleans. Arriving in New Orlean son May 5, 1862; he found that the city had fallen to Union forces. As his diplomatic pouch contained documents from French textile manufacturers about supplying the Confederate army with uniforms, “Champagne Charlie” was immediately seized, charged with spying, and imprisoned. His imprisonment sparked a diplomatic incident between France and the United States government which would later become known as The Heidsieck Affair.
By the time he was finally released from prison, he was in frail health and his business was bankrupt. He returned to France in November of 1862, demoralized and broke.
In early 1863, Charles Heidsieck was approached by an American missionary with a letter from the United States. The letter came from the brother of Heidseick’s former agent inNew York. The man was ashamed of how his brother had swindled Heidsieck out of his obligations and offered him a stack of deeds to land in Colorado as means of repayment.
As it turned out, the deeds were for one-third of all the area of a small town known as Denver, Colorado. Denver (as we all know) was soon to become one of the wealthiest and largest cities of the American West.
In a few years time, Heidsieck was able to sell the land, repay his debts, and re-launch his Champagne House, becoming the wealthy and debonair “Champagne Charlie” once again.