“Wine and War: The French, The Nazis & The Battle for France’s Greatest Treasure” by Don and Petie Kladstrup is a remarkable book that illuminates the untold stories surrounding the wine community in France during WWII under the Nazi occupation.
In short, the German government restricted the sale of French wine to anywhere in the world, save for Germany. The economic impact this had on winemakers was devastating. Hitler wanted for himself all of France’s wine treasures and even appointed weinführers to oversee all of Bordeaux’s production (as well as other wine producing regions) just to ensure that the Third Reich would be well stocked with the best wines France had to offer. Enter: Eagle’s Nest.
The book focuses on Berchtesgaden (berkh-tuh s-gahd-n), a town in the German Bavarian Alps where Hitler lived, and where members of the Third Reich vacationed. Absolutely picturesque in every way, its beauty is contrasted by the ugly German inhabitants with which it is associated. The Kehlsteinhaus (a.k.a. Eagle’s Nest), was a chalet-style building built by the Nazis in the mountains near Berchtesgaden as an official 50th birthday present for Adolf Hitler. It was here, on May 4, 1945, that the French 5th Tactical Group along with the American 21st Army Corps discovered a caché of France’s greatest wine treasures. The French arrived on the scene first, and a twenty-three-year-old army sergeant from Champagne, was sent up the mountain to Eagle’s Nest some 6,017 feet above sea level. He was the first person to set eyes on the half million bottles of French wine, from the likes of Château Lafite-Rothschild, Mouton Rothschild, Latour, d’Yquem, Romanée-Conti, bottles of champagne including, Krug, Moët, Piper-Heidsieck, and Pommery, on and on.
During the war French Winemakers did what they could to keep as much of their prized wines hidden from the Nazis. They re-labeled plonk wines as the best wines, and poured their finest elixirs into plonk bottles. If ever there is confusion in counterfeit wines between the years of 1939 and 1945, it is a noble confusion, for much of what the Germans received was doctored “plonk.” These tactics did not always work, however, and many people lost their lives or were imprisoned for their efforts—the Germans certainly drank their fill of magnificent wines.
The other side of this story tells how the Resistance found shelter in the wine caves and cellars throughout France, and it was in these darkened places that the men, women, and children of France bravely stood up to the German occupation with determination and diligence even in the wake of utter collapse and ruin. If you have in your cellar any French wines from this era – especially 1945 – be sure to drink that wine with the advice in mind from Jean Hugel, a winemaker who resisted the occupation with all his might, who said, “These wines should only be tasted under the following circumstances: on their own, outside the context of a meal, with your best wine-loving friends, in a respectful atmosphere and without the slightest reference to their price. In such a way, you will do homage to the skill and honesty of the winegrower, and equally to Nature, without whom the production of such jewels would be impossible.”
“Wine and War” is available at all major book outlets and online.