Home > History of Wine > “Hidden Wine Saves Life of Veteran”: A Brief and Modern Look at Newspaper Accounts of Hidden Wine

“Hidden Wine Saves Life of Veteran”: A Brief and Modern Look at Newspaper Accounts of Hidden Wine

My recent post on The Hidden Madeira of the South Carolina Jockey Club made me interested in other accounts of hidden wine.  In this post I take a brief look at the diverse accounts of hidden wine and cellars.  Beginning with South Carolina we know that bottles of precious Madeira were buried and hidden in advance of General Sherman troops.  The New York Times account from General Slocum reports that soldiers found the buried wine cellars “of the rich Charleston people” at Cheraw, South Carolina.[1] These soldiers drank wine “which must have been worth $25 per bottle” from old tin cups.

City of Charleston, South Carolina, looking across Cooper's River. Painted by G. Cooke ; engraved by W.J. Bennett. c 1838. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

City of Charleston, South Carolina, looking across Cooper’s River. Painted by G. Cooke ; engraved by W.J. Bennett. c 1838. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Accounts of hidden and buried wine continue to appear throughout wartime accounts.  One example appears in article The Deserted Villages of France published on November 28, 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War.[2]  It was reported that in advance of siege operations many houses were abandoned after the owners hid their wine.  A correspondent from the London Daily News met with a Prussian Jaeger “who has the reputation of smelling good wine through any depth of earth.”  His ability to find the likeliest spots “to contain a hidden wine-bin, is of immense value to his comrades.”  After drinking the wine they were careful to save the empty bottles so they could be filled again.  It was believed that “wine of deserted houses a fair prey” and that ‘If we do not, the next detachment will.’

It was reported by Hugh Gibson in an article subtitled Teutons Plundered Belgian Wine Cellars with Insatiable Thirst that a particular count and countess in Belgium had their “fine cellars” emptied by the first wave of invading German soldiers.[3]  When a second wave came through they were placed in front of a firing squad with the demand to reveal the location of their hidden wine.  As there was no wine left they were eventually released for items of fine clothing.  The practice of the German army had been to “clear out whole cellars at a time and load what was not drunk onto carts to be carried away.”  The article also relates how one man in Namur, hid all of his older wines in the ornamental pond near his chateau.  He left a few thousand bottles of new wine in his cellar.  Unfortunately, the labels from the submerged bottles peeled off to float on the surface.  The entire soaked lot was taken.  The following month the Oregonian published the article with a more salacious title Huns, Drunken and Ugly, Loot At Will.[4]

Not all wine were spoils of war.  During World War I, Lieutenant-Colonel Alvin Owsley of the 36th Division was invited by a “lovely French lady” for an Armistice Day dinner.[5]  With her own hands she had dug trenches in her garden where she “had buried some of her best wines and some champagne.”  At her request the soldiers grabbed picks and shovels to dig up “innumberable bottles” with which they “had a celebration.”

In 1944 the House of Hesse hid their jewels in a lead-lined casket along with 1,600 bottles of “rare vintage wine.”  They placed all of it in a sub-cellar of the family castle at Kronberg, near Frankfurt.[6]  American troops took over the castle in April 1945 and “quickly ‘liberated’ all the wine” that was readily available.  A continued search yielded the rare bottles.

On American soil, the recently elected congressman General Thomas Jefferson Clunie of California was described as,”active as a ferret and as snappy as a steal trap.”[7]  In 1890 he engaged in a business enterprise with Senator Hearst.  They filled a special train with California wine then sent it towards Washington, DC.  The plan was to distribute the wine to the members who supported his recently appropriated San Jose bill.  As the train was passing through Sierra Nevada it became trapped in 40 feet of snow and ice.

Workmen excavating at the corner of Anne Street and Park Row opposite the Herald Building in New York City cracked into a stone vault in September, 1893.[8]  It was believed to be the old wine cellar of Edward Windust’s restaurant.  According to a workman “Only those in Windust’s good graces were permitted to walk into that little cellar and sir around the little table” drinking wine and brandy.  Edward Windust was a famous restaurateur who opened up his basement restaurant at No. 5 – No. 11 Park Row in 1824.[9]  One of his advertisements from 1829 lists “Turtle Soup and Refreshments of the best kind will be in readiness, together with choice supplies of Wine and Liquors.”[10]  Apparently Mr. Windust enjoyed turtle soup because he advertised it six years earlier at the Phoenix Coffee House.  That advertisement noted “a fine Green Turtle will be cooked, in the Hoboken style, THIS DAY.”[11]

Calumet Castle, courtesy Thousand Islands Museum, obtained from nyheritage.org.

Calumet Castle c.1900, courtesy Thousand Islands Museum, obtained from nyheritage.org.

A case of wine was found buried in an old cellar of a building located in Port St. Joseph, Florida in 1920.[12]  The building had been abandoned in 1840 due to a yellow fever epidemic.  It was estimated the wine was buried before 1820.  Another wine cellar was discovered in 1950 at Calumet Castle in the Thousand Islands.[13]  A group of workers were fixing the basement wiring when they discovered “several hundred cases of imported wines” dated between 1895 and 1900.  The bottles were hidden in a cave dug in solid rock.  Of the first lot 500 bottles were judged good with 1,000 bottles deemed, “unfit for use.”  There were an estimated 1,500 bottles remaining in the cave that had not been investigated.  Upon tasting a bottle the spokesman declared, ’It’s the kind that will make you talk.’

In England one correspondent in 1895 wrote how “People scarcely realize how large an amount of fine, rare wine and spirits lie in old country hostelries.”[14] These parcels of wine were left untouched because outside of London “few people care for any but sweet wines”.  Thus there were “clarets and dry champagne of great age and fine flavor.”  At one particular small hotel near New Forest was the “finest claret” where “A connoisseur would have taken up his abode there for good, and would have been well rewarded.”

Two decades later in July 1917, an article describes police sweeping through resorts where they Confiscate Rivers of Fire Water.[15]  Detectives entered the home of Sola Zanocco of Kilburn Avenue where they “knocked out a false partitions” and found a hidden wine cellar.  Apparently they did not find any wine but there was 15 gallons of brandy and “fancy liquors were unearthed.”  A much larger find resulted from a New York City police raid in February, 1921.  Police entered the hotel of Gondolo Amberko at 402 East 106th Street where they found an additional 250 barrels of California claret.[16]  The police had already found 400 barrels making a reported total of 33,800 gallons of California claret seized. Mr. Amberko was a wine merchant prior to becoming a hotel operator.

Sometimes hidden wine could not be found.  One man in Woodbine, Iowa enlisted his friends to help him find “some jugs of fermented wine he had buried in his fields” because he could not remember where he hid them.[17]  With a promise to equally split whatever was found his friends plowed his field searching for the wine.  They never found the wine.  In 1976 workers were leveling the land of Marvin Schwartz in Texas.[18]  They unearthed “several old bottles of wine” but all but two bottles had the tops sheared off.  They speculated “the wine was buried to keep it cool in the 1920s.”

While wine was often times hidden in at least one case where items were hidden in the wine.  George Pollock alleged in December 1913, that Marcel de Pinsonet received a case of wine the previous month from the steamer Honduras in New Orleans.[19]  Mr. Pollock state that diamonds, pearls, and rubies were hidden in the wine.

John Prandi of Iron River, Michigan returned to his hometown in Italy during 1931 after years in “dry America”.[20]  There he had buried 50 quart bottles of wine in 1909.  In France, a 10 gallon demijohn of wine had been buried in 1811 by Major Leclerc, an officer in Napoleon’s army.[21]  The wine was originally buried in honor of the birth of Napoleon’s son and was to not be touched until the wedding of his youngest daughter.  Both his daughters died unmarried and the property was left to his adopted son.  Some 117 years later a document describing the location of the wine was found.  The demijohn was located beneath five feet of earth.  The wicker and stop had decayed but the wine was still protected by the oil in the neck.  The wine was poured into glasses where it was “a rich ruby color.”  The glasses were tasted “then hurriedly set down: the wine had turned to vinegar.”

Walter Reed General Hospital. 1918-1928.  LC-F82-2477.  National Photo Company Collection (Library of Congress)

Walter Reed General Hospital. 1918-1928. LC-F82-2477. National Photo Company Collection (Library of Congress)

My favorite newspaper account was published in December, 1919.  The story has local ties as well as attests to medicinal value of wine.  I present the transcription.


Washington, Dec, 11. – A wounded soldier in Walter Reed Hospital, who collapsed following the amputation of his leg, was saved after the Red Cross had been notified that champagne was required to keep up the man’s vitality.  A member of the exclusive Chevy Chase Club donated some wine he had been savings for Christmas, and the patient began to rally after a few spoonsful had ben administered.[22]

In more recent decades hidden wine cellars became advertised features of houses.  One so called Maxi-Ranch of San Diego, California was listed in 1975 as having “charm galore” with a hidden wine cellar and “every woman’s dream kit[chen].”[23]  That same year in Portland one could purchase a “unique dalite ranch style” home with a hidden wine cellar.[24]  Recreation was in the form of “picnics to quaint old ferry boat rides.”  While these cellars were a selling point in the 1970s they received bad press in the 1950s in the article Sally Forrest Saved From Hidden Wine Cellar.[25]  Sally Forrest and her husband Milo Frank had recently purchased the house of Jean Harlow in Benedict Canyon.  Sally Forrest decided to explore the concealed bar in the library.  Inside that bar was a door to a hidden wine cellar.  Unfortunately it “snapped shut” and there was no inside knob.  She “screamed and yelled for 40 minutes” until her husband and brother found her.

[1] “From Atlanta To the Sea”,  The New York Times. December 7, 1890
[2] Date: Monday, November 28, 1870               Paper: Providence Evening Press (Providence, RI)   Volume: XXIV   Issue: 64   Page: 1
[3] Date: Thursday, November 29, 1917              Paper: Boston Herald (Boston, MA)   Page:
[4] 8 Date: Friday, December 28, 1917                Paper: Oregonian (Portland, OR)   Page: 5
[5] Date: Sunday, November 12, 1939                 Paper: Richmond Times Dispatch (Richmond, VA)   Page: 45
[6] Date: Saturday, June 8, 1946           Paper: Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, WA)   Page: 2
[7] Date: Thursday, May 15, 1890         Paper: Charleston News and Courier (Charleston, SC)   Page: 5
[8] Date: Friday, September 8, 1893   Paper: New York Herald (New York, NY)   Issue: 251   Page: 11
[9] Date: Monday, March 19, 1877       Paper: New York Herald (New York, NY)   Volume: XLII   Issue: 78   Page: 6
[10] Date: Friday, May 8, 1829               Paper: American (New York, NY)   Volume: X   Issue: 2880   Page: 3
[11] Date: Friday, June 20, 1823            Paper: National Advocate (New York, NY)   Volume: XI   Issue: 2979   Page: 3
[12] Date: Saturday, December 4, 1920               Paper: Evening Post (Charleston, SC)   Page: 13
[13] Date: Sunday, July 30, 1950            Paper: Omaha World Herald (Omaha, NE)   Page: 20
[14] Date: Wednesday, August 7, 1895                Paper: Worcester Daily Spy (Worcester, MA)   Page: 7
[15] Date: Sunday, July 29, 1917            Paper: Morning Star (Rockford, IL)   Page: 2
[16] “Find 250 Gallons More Hidden Wine”,  The New York Times. February 11, 1921.
[17] Date: Thursday, December 16, 1920            Paper: Kansas City Star (Kansas City, MO)   Volume: 41   Issue: 90   Page: 1
[18] Date: Wednesday, February 25, 1976          Paper: Dallas Morning News (Dallas, TX)   Section: B   Page: 9
[19] Date: Wednesday, December 17, 1913       Paper: New Orleans Item (New Orleans, LA)   Page: 7
[20] Date: Wednesday, May 20, 1931                   Paper: Repository (Canton, OH)   Page: 16
[21] “Finds Wine In Earth Since Napoleon’s Day”, The New York Times. March 25, 1928
[22] Date: Thursday, December 11, 1919            Paper: Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader (Wilkes-barre, PA)   Section: Second   Page: 24
[23] Date: Sunday, January 19, 1975     Paper: San Diego Union (San Diego, CA)   Page: 20
[24] Date: Wednesday, May 14, 1975                   Paper: Oregonian (Portland, OR)   Page: 72
[25] Date: Thursday, June 23, 1955       Paper: Boston Daily Record (Boston, MA)   Page: 30
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