Wine is bottled memory. Each vintage tells a tale of a hot summer or rainy fall, an anniversary or romantic vacation. Sometimes it’s not the year but the winery that provides the memory: of a long-ago visit and conversation with the winemaker, perhaps. Or, in Tom Natan’s case, of the French Resistance heroine who helped his father’s family escape the Nazis.
Natan, 53, is the principal partner in First Vine, a District wine importer and online retailer. He and his business partners, Dare Wenzler and Cy Behroozi, founded First Vine in 2007 as an online importer and retailer, offering seven wines from three producers in southern France. Their portfolio has grown to include more than 60 wines from 18 producers. One of those, Château d’Assas, in a small village in the Languedoc, Natan discovered after a surprising exploration of his family history that took him back to Vichy France and the long-forgotten grave of his father’s little sister in a cemetery in Montpellier.
Natan’s time journey began in October 2011, when he and Behroozi (who is also his husband) traveled to southern France with Natan’s father, Tom Natan Sr.
“I knew my father had moved around southern France during the war, but on this trip he kept telling us stories that left our jaws dropping,” Natan says.
Natan’s grandparents had been prosperous Jewish fabric merchants in Vienna during the 1930s but left Austria for Belgium after the Anschluss — the German takeover of Austria — in 1938. When the Nazis invaded Belgium in 1940, the family “hired a taxi and said, ‘Take us to France’ ” — where, Natan explains, his grandfather was incarcerated as a prisoner of war because of his Austrian nationality. Instead of spending time in a POW camp, he chose to accept a mining job in southern France, then under the collaborationist Vichy government, where he would be helping the German war effort but could live with his family.
Young Suzanne Natan, born in exile in Brussels, died of encephalitis in a Montpellier hospital in July 1942 at age 2. A few months later, young Tom, then 8, contracted typhus and was treated in the same hospital. There, his father met a young hospital worker named Simone Demangel, who moonlighted as a Resistance fighter helping Jewish refugees and downed Allied flyers escape from France.
In late 1942, as the Nazis conducted mass deportations of Jews throughout France, she provided the family with forged papers that allowed them to go to Italian-occupied Nice. Mussolini’s government was not deporting Jews, and the family felt safe until the Allies invaded southern Italy, Mussolini fell from power and the Nazis took over in the north. Young Tom Natan was sent to Switzerland, where he lived in an orphanage, while his parents spent the rest of the war leading a nomadic life in the mountainous regions of northern Italy.
“It was like ‘Sound of Music’ in reverse,” Natan quips.
After the war, Natan’s grandparents worked for the U.S. Army in Milan. Swiss authorities put his father and other orphaned Jewish children on a train for southern Italy, bound ultimately for Palestine. When the train stopped in Milan, young Tom Sr. hopped off and rejoined his parents. The family emigrated to the United States a few years later.
With the help of one of his producer clients, Jean-Baptiste Peitavy of Domaine de Mairan, Natan found Suzanne’s gravestone in the Jewish section of Montpellier’s Saint Lazare cemetery. And they traced Simone Demangel, who died in the 1990s, to the Chateau d’Assas, north of Montpellier. There, her daughter, Marie-Claire, told them her mother — under the Resisistance code name “Pauline” — had helped many refugees escape France.
“My grandfather may have been the only person she helped who knew her real name,” because he met her at the hospital rather than through the Resistance, Natan says. He has written movingly on First Vine’s Web site of his explorations into his family history.
Assas is a wine grower’s town, and the local co-op, Les Vignerons du Pic, produces wines using the chateau’s name. Today, when Natan sells the Chateau d’Assas wine, “I feel closer to my grandparents, just knowing what they went through,” he says. “Looking at this bottle I think of them, my father and Suzanne. And I feel proud of Simone, and just to tell people what she did is amazing.”