A Toast to Champagne Charlie: The Fantastic Life of Charles Heidsieck
The illustrious House of Charles Heidsieck is one of the most highly esteemed Champagne houses in the world. Having won over a hundred awards in the last couple of decades—including 11 Grand Or medals, 101 gold medals, and 25 silver medals—its name has become synonymous with ‘luxury’ Champagne. But beyond its award-winning wines, the maison’s foothold in winemaking history is also highly attributed to the incredible life of its founder, Charles “Champagne Charlie” Heidsieck.
Singapore Wine Vault delves into the colorful history of Champagne Charlie—how this master wine promoter managed to single-handedly popularize Champagne in America, was tried as a Confederate spy, and became the one-time owner of a third of Denver. So, dear readers, buckle your seatbelts because this is going to be one bumpy ride.
A History of Marketing Genius: the Genetics of Cunning
To understand the craftiness and courage that brought Charles Heidsieck incredible success in his early career, it’s important to look into his family history. Charles Camille “Champagne Charlie” Heidsieck was born in France, in June 16, 1822.
His father, Charles-Henri Heidsieck, was a Champagne merchant who gained tremendous publicity for riding into Moscow in 1811—on a white steed, no less!—carrying cases of Champagne and an order book, right before Napoleon’s advancing army. His goal was to offer Champagne to the victor of the impending battle.
Champagne Charlie’s grand uncle, Florens-Louis Heidsick was the co-founder of the House of Piper-Heidsieck, while his uncles Pierre Auguste Heidsieck and Henri-Louis Walbaum founded the Champagne maison of Heidsieck & Co Monopole. Suffice to say, young Charles grew up surrounded by vineyards, with Champagne on his brain. Raised under Prussian ideals matched with Reims traditions, he grew up a cultured young man with a strong dedication to the art of winemaking and marketing.
Furthering his Champagne connections was a marriage to Amélie Henriot in 1850. Amélie was the granddaughter of Apolline Henriot, who founded the Champagne House of Henriot in 1808. The respected House of Henriot, was known for being the official Champagne supplier of the court of the King of Holland—a remarkable honor that was confirmed by His Royal Highness Prince Fredrick of Holland in 1881.
Introducing the Champagne firm, Charles Heidsieck
In 1851, a year after his marriage to Amélie, 29-year-old Charles Heidsieck, decided it was time to create his own brand of Champagne. His wife immediately convinced her brother, Ernest Henriot, to enter into a partnership with Charles. Together, they created the maison of Charles Heidsieck. It was a partnership that lasted over 20 years, until in 1875, Ernest began devoting all his time to his own brand, Henriot et Cie.
Now, Charles understood that wine production was best left to the experts who knew their terroirs inside-out. So what he did was he devoted his attention to proper wine storage, aging his wines in chalk wine cellars that dated back to the 11th century. With a painstaking attention to detail, he created unique and delightful Champagnes that were a veritable reflection of his own refined but thoroughly ambitious personality. The Champagnes were a success. His decision to name his bottles after himself brought both intrigue and attention to his vintage and non-vintage cuvées. But his real success came with his venture into the New World.
Champagne Charlie: The Toast of America
Suffused with wanderlust, Charles decided to take his business to America in 1852. Armed with his namesake Champagnes, he began touring the New York state and the general New England area. He started an importing firm in New York and partnered up with a local sales agent. At this time, the United States had heard little about the effervescent tipple. But in his gut, Charles knew the massive potential of his wines in the American market.
Within months, he was the toast of the New World. Night after night, lavish banquets were held in his honor. He received extensive newspaper coverage, from New York to Louisiana. It was then that he earned the nickname, “Champagne Charlie,” – a persona that he lived up to with aplomb. Even after he returned to Europe to successfully introduce his wine to the English and Belgian markets, his wine continued to sell extremely well in America.
By the time he went back to the United States in 1857, his brand had met unprecedented success—achieving record sales in such a short amount of time. Champagne Charlie had also become a member of New York’s elite. “Could I have a bottle of Charles, please?” Became a common request for socialites indulging in the wine lifestyle. By 1861, reported sales had soared past 300,000 bottles. But Charles’s immense success was short-lived. What he didn’t know was that his brand was about to become a casualty to the most devastating war in American history—the American Civil War.
The New Orleans’ Cotton Disaster
Charles was in Reims when he received news of the ongoing war. With half of his brand’s assets tied to the New York firm’s debt, he was desperate to recoup whatever finances he could to avoid bankruptcy. In 1861, he immediately left France for the United States. When he finally contacted his local sales agent, he was informed that the Congress had allegedly passed a new law that absolved the agent from paying the unpaid accounts.
Seeking compensation directly from the Champagne merchants in New Orleans, he traveled to the South. In an attempt to circumvent the Union forces, he traveled as far as Kansas just to get to New Orleans. When he reached his destination in 1862, he discovered that the entire city was near bankrupt. The Battles of St. Philip and Fort Jackson were raging on, and the only repayment he could find was an offer from a merchant that had a warehouse full of cotton. As cotton was in high demand in Europe at this time, Charles decided to reduce his losses by taking this form of ‘payment.’
To avoid the Union Blockade, he arranged to have the cotton smuggled to Europe, with the ships taking different routes. Unfortunately for Charles, both ships were intercepted and sunk. Realizing that he needed to get out of America stat, he contacted the French consul and asked for help chartering a boat from Cuba or Mexico. The consul handed him a diplomatic pouch to take to the New Orleans consulate.
The ‘Heidsieck Incident”: Charles Heidsieck’s Imprisonment
By the time he returned to New Orleans on May 5, 1862, the city was under Union rule. The pouch was immediately seized, and opened. Upon discovery of its contents—which according to General Benjamin Butler’s accounts, included Belgian, French, Prussian, and Swiss consul letters with contraband intelligence—Charles was arrested as a Confederate spy. Despite his pleas of innocence and ignorance over the pouch’s contents, General Butler had Charles imprisoned in Fort Jackson.
The French consul immediately leapt into action, requesting Charles’s immediate release. The issue of his imprisonment quickly became a diplomatic issue between France and the United States. The French Emperor of that time, Napoleon III, wrote personally to President Abraham Lincoln, asking that Heidsieck be set free. He was finally released on November 16, 1862. By this time, Charles was bankrupt and in failing health. His wife, Amélie, was already pawning off family properties to help pay for their debt. Charles returned to France broke and a broken man.
Charles Heidsieck’s Rebound and Later Success
In the early months of 1863, Charles Heidsieck’s retribution came in the form of an American missionary carrying a parcel of documents for Champagne Charlie’s perusal. The documents contained a letter from his New York agent’s brother. According to his former agent’s brother, his family was ashamed of the agent’s deceit. As a means of repayment, he offered Charles a stack of deeds to land in Denver, Colorado. The deeds added up to a third of Denver’s land area.
During this period, Colorado was in on the silver mining craze. And once the small village of Denver became a stop in the Transcontinental Railroad, it instantly became one of the richest cities in the West. Within a few years, Charles was able to repay his debts after selling the land. He also found himself with more than enough capital to relaunch his firm, Charles Heidsieck. And just like that, Charles Heidsieck quickly reestablished its position as one of the top Champagne houses in France. By the time Charles passed away in 1893, his business was once again at the top of its game.
Today, Charles Heidsieck remains one of the most sought-after Champagne brands in the industry. Now owned by EPI, the French luxury goods group, you can find a growing number of the firm’s wines on the international market. Charles Heidsieck’s Champagnes, particularly its iconic Brut Réserve and Blanc des Millénaires, rank high in our wine vault favorites. So the next time you find a bottle from Charles Heidsieck, don’t let it go. Take it to your wine cellar—and when it’s time to savor this Champagne, offer a toast to the firm’s founder, the incredible Charles Heidsieck.