Champagne Charlie: The shrewd champagne merchant

Charles Camille Heidsieck, Nicknamed Champagne Charlie, was born in 1822 in France.[1]

When he turned 29 in 1851, he established his Champagne house alongside the other prominent houses owned by his family members. Later, Piper-Heidsieck and Heidsieck & Co Monopole occupied the residence. This gamble paid off, and the house quickly got the attention of wine experts across England and Belgium.

With this early success in Europe, he took an even greater risk and took his business to the open market in the United States. He faced financial and personal hardships due to the American Civil War but finally established the globally applauded and savored champagne that we know today.

The film Champagne Charlie depicts the tale of Charles Heidsieck, a dashing young Frenchman who famously became known as Champagne Charlie and introduced champagne to hard-drinking Americans in the middle of the nineteenth century.

The initial massive success

Barely a year after starting his business in 1852, the young Heidsieck set sail for New York to introduce Americans to the fine taste of champagne. Recording an exponential demand for champagne, he successfully set up an exportation firm in New York with the help of a local sales agent.

After that, he traveled throughout America to market his new brand and build an extensive business network. His efforts paid off as he was soon recognized as a familiar face in the high societies. American high society was impressed with the charisma of the master promoter and loved the new drink. [2]

Charles was followed by the Champagne brand, which even travelled to the East Coast. In the district of New Orleans with a French influence, he annually sold thousands of bottles. He even enjoyed great success in southern areas like Louisiana despite the nation’s rising tensions.

After making a name for himself and being celebrated back at home (France) and in the greater parts of New Orleans, he expanded his young business into the United States.

Charles Camille Heidsieck

Charles Camile Heidseck

In no time, his massive imports and sales attracted public attention. He made newspaper headlines and received extensive media coverage. By 1861, sales in the north were already hitting 300,000 bottles and growing exponentially. “Champagne Charlie” became his nick name as a result of his acceptance and success in the US.

The sad turn of events during the American civil war

In an attempt to gather whatever was left of his business in the U.S, he managed to make his way through the crisis to New Orleans to reach clients and agents who had received Champagne shipments. However, when he saw that things were not going as planned, he decided to travel in secrecy to the south (which meant traveling as far as Kansas) to recoup debts from the merchants.

He made the trip without being detected by the Union Army. When he finally arrived in New Orleans in 1862, most of the clients were financially devastated and unable to repay the debt. However, a merchant had a warehouse full of cotton — a commodity in high demand in Europe because of blockades.

With no options left for him, Charlie accepted the cotton as payment. Getting the goods outside the union blockade posed another hurdle. He decided to smuggle the cotton out through the Mobile port. Despite his efforts to send both ships in different directions to at least get one ship through the blockade, the ships were intercepted, destroyed, and sunk by the Union battleships.[4]

It was now time to head back home

After losing all his assets in the United States, Charles decided to return home. The French consul handed him a diplomatic pouch to make his passage easy and avoid mishaps on the journey. The pouch was supposed to see him to the French consulate in New Orleans. He planned to charter a boat to Mexico or Cuba and then travel to France.

Unfortunately, the diplomatic sealed pouch contained documents detailing how French textile firms would aid the production of confederate army uniforms. When he arrived in New Orleans, the pouch was seized and opened by General Benjamin Butler. Charles was imprisoned at Fort Jackson after being accused of being a confederate spy.[5]

The French consul in New Orleans urged Charlie’s release because to his popularity as Champagne in France and the United States. The government in Washington intervened and stopped his hanging after his conviction for being a spy. This event is now known as the Heidsieck incident.

The French government continued to lobby for Charles’s release, and the emperor of France, Napoleon III, wrote to Lincoln on Camille’s (Charles’ wife’s) behalf. He was finally released from Fort Jackson, Louisiana and traveled to France in November 1862, broke and broken.

Denver — The Light at the end of the tunnel

A few years later, his New York sales agent’s brother sent a messenger to locate Charles. His agent’s brother had sent a package in the form of land deeds to repay the debt. But unfortunately, the land was located in a small village (Denver) in Colorado and wasn’t worth much at the time.

After the civil war, the Colorado region saw a boom in silver mining. The mining operation attracted people from all over the states and was soon connected by the transcontinental railroad. In no time, what seemed like a worthless deed became valuable. Charles sold it and used the proceeds to reestablish his Champagne business. 

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On this day

12 April 1861 — The American civil war started in 1861.It was fought between the United States and eleven southern states that broke away from the Union in 1860 and were referred as as the Confederate States of America. The conflict caused the free fall of Charlie Champagne’s business and the start of his financial ordeal. He was accused of being a Confederate spy and was almost hanged.

November 1862 — Charles Heidsieck was released from Fort Jackson, Louisiana, after being imprisoned for spying. He was bankrupt until the brother of his deceased agent’s brother gave him deeds to land in Denver in 1863 as payment for unpaid debts. Charles later sold the land at a profit and used the money to restart the Charles Heidsieck brand.

Want to read more? Try these books!

Champagne- How the World's Most Glamorous Wine Triumphed Over War and Hard Times Champagne Charlie- The Frenchman Who Taught Americans to Love Champagne


  1. Eric Glatre, Jacqueline Roubinet, Charles Heidsieck, Un pionnier et un homme d’honneur ed Stock
  2. D. & P. Kladstrup Champagne pg 85-86 Harper Collins Publisher ISBN 0-06-073792-1
  3. D. & P. Kladstrup Champagne pg 88 Harper Collins Publisher ISBN 0-06-073792-1
  4. D. & P. Kladstrup Champagne pg 89 Harper Collins Publisher ISBN 0-06-073792-1
  5. Malin, Joshua. 2022. “The Price Of Wine In The PIIGS Since The Great Recession.” Vinepair.
Categories: Champagne, This Day in Wine History | ArticlesTags: , , By Published On: June 13, 2022Last Updated: February 22, 2024

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