This past week, the words "Je suis Charlie" ("I am Charlie") have traveled the world in sympathy with the victims of the deadly jihadist terrorist attack on the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, for which Al Qaeda in Yemen is now claiming responsibility.
Among the slain were five of France's most celebrated cartoonists. Three of them were also among the country's most outrageous wine label designers.
"They were my friends," explains Bordeaux winemaker Gérard Descrambe, 65. For more than 40 years, Descrambe commissioned Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and others to make eye-catching labels that varied from drunken to suggestive to sexually explicit humor. "Their spirit was to laugh at everything and expose the biggest bullshit in the world. And they were killed by the biggest act of bullshit."
The cartoonists' careers as label designers began in the early 1970s, when Descrambe and his brother, Christian, took over from their father at Château Barrail des Graves, in the St.-Emilion appellation.
Descrambe was then a young communications graduate; he had never planned on a career in wine—until his father's health failed. Bordeaux was in crisis, and he looked for ways to distinguish the family's estate, in the town of St. Sulpice de Faleyrens, where his father had cultivated the land organically since 1954.
"It was the early 1970s, and no one was into organic. Organic was nothing," Descrambe says.
"The only people I knew who were into the ecology were at Charlie Hebdo," continues Descrambe. So he penned a letter to one of Charlie's founders, Georges Bernier ("Le Professeur Choron"), in which he proposed that if Bernier placed an order for wine, he (Descrambe) would post the order in the winery latrine.
Bernier placed the order.
"And that," says Descrambe without irony, "was the start of a beautiful love story."
One after another over the years, Charlie Hebdo contributors joined the ranks of a total of 18 French cartoonists who helped create more than 50 bawdy Rabelaisian labels.
Descrambe has used a selection of the labels every year for about half the bottles he produces. (The other half feature traditional Bordeaux labels.)
"It was always my philosophy to have fun with wine," Descrambe says. "There are too many people in Bordeaux who don't know how to have fun with wine. They make it too serious. Like a rite."
In 2008, Descrambe sold his St.-Emilion vineyards, but he and his son, Olivier, still produce about 3,300 cases per year of Bordeaux appellation wine under his Château Renaissance label (also featuring cartoons). His wines are exported within Europe and to Japan but not to the United States. ("Too complicated," Descrambe sighs.)
On Jan. 7, Descrambe was at home when he received a text message from his son that read "Gunfire at Charlie Hebdo."
"I knew immediately what happened," Descrambe says. "They had had death threats for seven or eight years" from Islamic militants.
Three of the friends who had designed labels for him—Charlie Hebdo's editor-in-chief, Stéphane Charbonnier (pen-name Charb), Georges Wolinski and Bernard Verlhac (Tignous)—were among the 12 killed by the terrorists.
Reflecting on the carnage, Descrambe says, "I hope their deaths will change something."
Charlie Hebdo continues to publish, encouraged and financed by international support. For Jan. 14, seven days after the attack, the paper printed 3 million copies (it normally sells about 60,000 copies) with a cover depicting the prophet Muhammad, with a tear running down his cheek, holding a "Je suis Charlie" sign under the headline "Tout est pardonné" (All is forgiven"). After many retail locations sold out immediately today, the publisher upped its print run to 5 million.
Descrambe will continue to use their artwork on his wine bottles. "Humor is indispensable—it's what makes despair disappear," he says. "It is people who don't digest well who become constipated. That is why they can't smile."
Wine Label Gallery
Below are five examples of the humorous, outrageous and risqué labels that Charlie Hebdo cartoonists created. Click each image for a larger label view.