This has been a week of news about wine scandals. The San Francisco Chronicle ran a story about William Koch’s (yes, he of strong political views) federal law suit against several parties for selling him a half-million dollar’s worth of falsely labeled wine and Decanter Magazine reported on the “busting” in Los Angeles of Rudy Kurnuiawan for counterfeiting rare bottles of old Bordeaux and Burgundy wines.
To my knowledge, I have never been subject to such wine fraud — not much to be made from counterfeiting wines in my price range, but the stories did send me deep into my memory about a cognac of uncertain origin. In the late 1970s through the U.S. military exchange system in Europe, I obtained half a dozen bottles of what was called Rommel’s Cognac. I don’t remember the per-bottle price, but it wasn’t significant, probably twenty dollars or less. A coincidental discovery this week while surfing the Net showed me that a Mohawk Arms Miltaria Auction scheduled for June 5 is offering a single bottle of this cognac at a starting bid of $150. Why do I tie this cognac to the week’s stories about fraudulent wines?
First the story. According to notes attached to each bottle back then, this cognac had been part of a million-gallon cache of liquor “captured” by Rommel’s Afrika Corps as it swept across North Africa. The scotch, gin, rum, and cognac were in oak barrels. Some of it was consumed by his soldiers, but much of it was shipped to Italy as the war moved across the Mediterrenean. When the Allies took Anzio, they found some 250,000 gallons of the stuff still in barrels. After checking the liquor to assure it was safe for consumption, the Allies commissioned a local company — Delva — to bottle it. Toward the end of the war, Fifth Army Commander General Clark took control of the treasure, had the bottles labeled and packed in wooden cases.
I don’t recall details other than that as the U.S. Military moved into the Occupation of Austria, the liquor moved with it and was stored in the Linz city cellars. Shortly after the war, as assets transferred from the Military to the civilians, apparently the bottles went along and forgotten till the mid 1970s when local business leaders approached the U.S. Army about buying the lot for re-sale through what the Army called its Class VI Agency. As I recall, the Agency took on cognac and rum.
There was considerable publicity about the “Rommel” cognac when it was released for sale to members of the Military only. Along with the publicity came questions about its authenticity and quality. Army officials assured us that both their medical staffs and Austrian authorities declared the liquor “safe” for consumption and that the rum was really Jamaican and the cognac French.
I never tried the rum, but I found the cognac pleasing, a tad sweet but not fiery. I rather liked it. I carried it with me in my travels and let some of my French sommelier contacts sample it so I could get opinions from people who knew and used cognac. Each one recognized it as cognac, “old cognac.” None of them claimed it was of exceptional quality but all felt I had received good value. They were somewhat dubious as to whether it could have survived the ordeal of moving across the Sahara in barrels but agreed that the age characteristics matched the date.
Fraudulent? No, it really was cognac. But obtained via Rommel? No one knows for sure. But it made for a good story, and the Army was able to sell all it consigned. Not everyone liked it, but those who bought it loved to talk about it.
There is corrobative evidence to my recall in some Internet sites about Rommel’s Cognac, most notably under the title “Afrika Corps — Delva Bottles.” You can get a description of the soon-to-be-auctioned bottle at the Mohawk Army Militaria Auction website. I will not make a bid.