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The Intriguing History of Charles Heidsieck Champagne

Charles-Camille Heidsieck was the first merchant to take Champagne Stateside. A story of war, bankruptcy, espionage, and prison, there must have been something in the bubbles…

Revellers in the US bought 20.5 million bottles of Champagne last year, making it the second largest export market behind the UK for the celebratory tipple. And all those hangovers can be attributed to one Frenchman who saw that the New World needed some French flair: Mr Charles-Camille Heidsieck – the original Champagne Charlie. 

He came from good vintage. As the nephew of Florens-Louis, the founder of what is now Piper-Heidsieck, and the son of Charles-Henri, a man, who in 1811 rode into Moscow ahead of Napoleon’s army with cases of champagne and his order book, ready to provide alcoholic service to whichever side won, Charles was never destined to a quiet life among Reims’ vineyards. 

The real action began just before his 30th birthday. Not content with working for the family firm, Charles branched off and formed his own Champagne house, eventually storing his wines in ancient Roman caves below the town (almost 165 years on, the same caves are still used for the maturation process). Believing that France’s Champagne houses had successfully saturated Europe, Charles took a leap of faith and in 1852 crossed the Atlantic to North America, touring New England and New York, partying with the great and good, and selling his Champagne on a mass scale. When he returned to the US five years later, he arrived to banquet receptions and huge newspaper coverage, welcoming back ‘Champagne Charlie’. He sold 300,000 bottles in 1857 alone.

The halcyon days didn’t last long. By 1861, America had collapsed into civil war, and with more than half of his money tied up in the US, Charles travelled back to settle up. His American agent, however, used new legislation, which absolved the north from paying for cotton, to claim that his debts were wiped clean. Charles had no choice but to make a clandestine journey to New Orleans in the Confederate South, to claim his debts directly. Unfortunately for him, New Orleans was bankrupt, save for one of Charles’s clients, who owned a warehouse full of cotton. Charles accepted this as payment, and attempted to sneak it past the Union blockade that surrounded the city by using blockade running ships. These were sunk, along with his money.

Out of pocket and disheartened, Charles decided he’d sail to Mexico and escape to Europe. In order to help his safe travels, the French consul in the town of Mobile had Charles take a diplomatic pouch to New Orleans, from where he would sail. When he arrived, the city had fallen into Union hands, and Charles was arrested on suspicion of spying for the French. He denied knowledge of any information contained in the pouch – actually orders for more ammunition for the Confederate army – but was held in Fort Jackson, along the Mississippi, sparking what became known as the Heidsieck Incident. It took six months, a petition from his wife and a letter from Napoleon III to Abraham Lincoln, to secure his release, by which time he was bankrupt and frail. 

For once is his life, Charles then got lucky. The brother of his American agent offered some land in the US as payment for his sibling’s debts. The land was originally part of a 300-strong village that had grown to 300,000 inhabitants following a flood of refugees from the South. 

Charles was now the owner of a third of Denver. He sold the land and returned his Champagne house to its former glory – the serene hilltop cellars expressing nothing about their owner’s remarkable story. One-hundred-and-sixty-five years later, the nickname may have been bestowed on countless bon vivants, but there will only ever be one true Champagne Charlie.

Instilling the spirit of Charles, the Champagne House is now running a series of 'Maverick Encounters', lifting the lid on the worlds of those it deems modern mavericks - fascinating characters that have revolutionised their respective fields. The first encounter was held at Blenheim Forge, with a lesson in knife craft from three masters of Japanese steel and artistic flair. In September, guests entered the studio of South London based papercut artist and illustrator, Poppy Chancellor, to follow her tips on creating the beautiful, intricate and sometimes risqué designs that have made her the most celebrated paper artist in the country.         

The next event, with raconteur and designer extraordinaire, Joshua Kane, will be held in November, and will offer an insight into the work processes and approach to life of one of London's most exciting tailors, who has just completed the second of his sell-out fashion extravaganzas at the London Palladium (see our interview with Joshua here). When I chatted to Joshua, he was excited about the opportunity to work with Charles Heidsieck: "It's a great idea. I love retelling stories and telling stories, and what they mean and stand for. The whole project I’ve just done, the whole teaser for the collection I’m working on now – I directed three short CGI films, which is basically bringing the story to life, this fictional fantasy story I've created.

"Charles was an absolute maverick, a pioneer, and absolutely insane from the sounds of things. In the same way, I started from scratch three years ago, started the business in my bedroom, had a vision to create what I wanted to create with dynamism behind it.

"We weave all our own fabric, we create our own produce, we create our own tailoring from it... and we also multitask," he said as he stepped up with his camera to photograph another model for the casting.

The Encounter will be very different to his previous projects: "I always think things swing one way to the other. For the Maverick Encounter, I want to go polar opposite to the show. The show was huge, and large, and all-inclusive, and for everyone to experience on all different levels. I want to strip the Encounter back and actually say – because we’re limited by space – that what it should be about is one-to-one time, and actually no frills, no nothing. Fabric on the table, shears in your hand, learning about what it takes to create, and how this all began."

This is music to the ears of Charles Heidsieck executive director Stephen Leroux, who said, “Maverick Encounters highlight the spirit at the heart of our Champagne House. Our ethos is centered around an open mind, a quest for excellence and a willingness to share our unique ‘savoir-faire’.

"Our mavericks are people that recognize this and bring the same attitude to their own fields. Maverick Encounters was set up to try and discover entrepreneurs and talents who are already writing their own story, and perhaps without knowing it, their own legend – just as our founder did centuries ago.”

To join Joshua in his Fitzrovia store, go to maverickencounters.com, or email charles@maverickencounters.com