Wine, you would think, is the common theme for a wine trip. At least that's what I thought when a few weeks ago I set out on a press trip to the German wine region west of Mainz. Yet while there was wine, and plenty of it, I soon realised that there was another theme to this trip. It was about family, about death, destiny and the dreams of winemakers - and there was a bit about rock 'n' roll and obsession too.
German winemaking is very much about family. Not only have many wineries been in the same family for generations, they also tend to be small enough so that a family can run them without a lot of staff. Whatever happens in the family has real impact on the whole business. A serious argument, the only child turning their back on winemaking or a father dying unexpectedly - such events can be make or brake for an estate. This means that German winemaking is also a story about family. A story about love and death, a story about children following tradition or breaking with it, a story about getting old and growing up. In the end, winemaking is a story about life.
Often that means it begins with death. Take the Gaul family, for instance. The Gauls have been making wine for many generations, and, as is not unusual in Germany, vineyards were split and the family branched so that there are now four Gaul wineries around Grünstadt. Weingut Karl-Heinz Gaul was born in 1993 when two brothers split the family vineyards between them. In 2008 though, Karl-Heinz Gaul suddenly fell ill and later died. And so at the age of 24 and 22, it was time for his daughters, Karoline and Dorothee, to come home and look after the vineyards.
This was something they were preparing to do anyway as both had already decided that their future was in winemaking. I have often wondered about this - is it a burden being born into a winemaking family? The expectation to continue a family business can, after all, feel like a burden. It appears that this was not the case with the Gaul sisters. Karoline told us that when her father was still alive he gave them a small vineyard to make their own wine, in the style they wanted - this is how the KD line of wine was born (Karoline and Dorothee). More important than what she said was the way how Karoline told this story. It was one of fulfilment, of being given a chance to do what she wanted to do anyway.
Despite the sisters working on developing their own style, the story of Karoline and Dorothee (supported quietly but it seemed to me very efficiently by their mother) so far appears to be one of continuity, of following their family tradition. While we tasted the wines and were fed home made brioche, the words "my father used to" came up a few times, and they seemed happy with that.
A man we met later during our trip would never say that. Well, Martin Tesch actually did use these words, but for him they meant the opposite. Like the Gaul sisters, Martin comes from a family that has centuries of winemaking tradition. However, the 15 year old Martin, a "problem child", had left home wanting to do everything but winemaking. 15 years later though, by now a trained microbiologist, Martin returned home to settle down with his wife and found a winery that was mostly dormant - for his father it was just a part-time business. Martin decided to change everything.
To reduce cost and simplify the organisation, he tore out rows and rows of vines, Silvaner, Müller-Thurgau, Gewürztraminer ("I hate Gewürztraminer."), they all had to go. Now Martin grows 90% Riesling and 5% each Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc - and specialises in dry wine. He changed the labelling, he changed the brand, he changed the closure, he simplified and modernised the names of the wines. Basically, he changed everything there was.
To perhaps oversimplify things, Martin became a winemaker for the MTV generation, his signature wine labelled "Riesling Unplugged". He publishes photo books and distributes t-shirts about wine, he provides wine for Gibbson Guitars and one of his wines proudly bears the name of a popular German punk rock band. What struck me most when listening to Martin, apart from his manic laughter, is how aware he is of marketing. For instance, he never spoke about customers. "The average age of my accounts is 25 years younger" than those of the competition, he said. That is partly because his new approach drew in many new, younger customers. However, it is also because many of his family's old clients did not appreciate his new winemaking world nor, presumably, being called "accounts". So they left - and before Martin won enough new "accounts" he almost went bankrupt.
What his dad thought of all this Martin did not say directly, nor what it did to their relationship. He only made one comment when we got to the part of the story where Martin is now selling way over 150.000 bottles a year, being celebrated by MTV and supplying wine backstage to Germany's biggest rock festivals (on the wall is a photo of him with KISS, amongst others). "Now," Martin said with an emphasis on the now, "my dad loves it."
Earlier on the same day we had met another man who also departed from his father's ways and is now following his own dream of how wine should be made. Michael Teschke's family too has a winemaking tradition, but it is much younger and different from the one I found at Gaul or Tesch. Having lost their home in East Prussia after the Second World War, the Teschkes settled in Rheinhessen as farmers and wine growers. It was only in the early eighties that Michael's dad started bottling wine. That is more unusual than it may sound, after all winemaking was neither his dream nor his passion. He lived a beer drinker, "made wine like a beer drinker" and in 1998 died, presumably still a beer drinker.
For his son, wine is a wholly different story - his destiny. At some point in his life, the young Michael must have fallen in love with vines, and after his father's death he worked hard to transform a struggling business into a prospering, loving relationship with his vines (many of which happen to be about his age). Michael used the word love several times - a very different approach to Teschke -, for instance when he said: "Only people who love their work can work my vineyards." The vines are at the heart of Michael's work, Silvaner vines especially, and he has developed his own philosophy on how to tender to them. Or, as he put it, how to "show the talents of the Sylvaner" - Michael prefers the older spelling of the grape variety he dedicates his life to.
Despite a focus on nature and harmony - Michael calls the water he uses for his vineyards "peaceful" - the philosophy is neither biodynamic nor organic, two ideologies Michael has issues with. How Michael's father would think about all of this we can only speculate as he had no chance to witness his son's elevation to being the "Sylvaner God", as German media refer to him.
After all these stories about death and conflict I was very pleased to find a winery where both father and son are still alive and even work together. However, it almost had not come to that had fate not intervened (or whoever looks after German winemaking these days). In 1984, Stefan Rumpf had taken over his parents winery, Weingut Kruger-Rumpf, and he clearly had decided to change things. Until then, the family mostly sold their wine in bulk, but Stefan focussed the business on bottling and selling their own wines, following the modern principles he had studied at the wine research institute in Geisenheim and in California. And studied very successfully, it seems, as less than 10 years later his success was acknowledged by an invitation to join the prestigious VDP association of winemakers. All looked well, but there was a problem. Stefan's son Georg had a dream of his own, and it was to become a dentist. That is, until his dad had an accident and Georg had to help out in the vineyard - and fell in love with it.
It was very interesting to hear Georg talk about winemaking across generations. The way winemaking was taught to his dad at university was about control, focussed on creating clean and fresh wine. It was, if you will, a modern approach, doing away with some of the less perfect old ways, an approach of controlled fermentation, cleanliness and stainless steel tanks. "With my father, everything had to be very straight", Georg repeated. When Georg got seriously interested in wine, he also followed new ideas that were meant to overcome some of the shortcomings of what now was the established way of doing business. It was, as Georg said, not so much about the straight way as more about the right way for each wine: experimenting with organic methods, running fermentation not just by the book and exploring a more sustainable style of wine making that is closer to nature.
Change over generations does not always happen without conflict, and Georg freely admitted that he and his father do not always agree on what the best way forward is. It seemed to me though there was an interesting dynamic that came out of those differences, and their different experiences also have their use. For instance, Georg was extremely happy that his dad was around to help him with the difficult 2010 vintage - a vintage with such high acidity as it had not been seen in Germany for many years. While other winemakers had to re-learn how to deal with it from scratch or hire consultants, Georg had his father's experience to rely on.
There also has to be a lot of wine knowledge in the DNA of the Guntrum family, after all they have been at it since at least 1648. Weingut Louis Guntrum, the first winery we visited on our trip, has been in the same family for eleven generations. We were shown around the winery and vineyards by the current Louis Guntrum, Louis Konstantin Guntrum, to be precise. Sadly, I did not enquire whether all eleven heads of the estate were called Louis Guntrum. Nor did I check the ancestral portrait gallery for an an uncanny resemblance suggesting that it is actually the same Louis Guntrum living through centuries of winemaking. In fact, I did not ask anything about family relations, at the time still thinking the theme of my story would be wine, not family.
Now, Louis told us a lot about his family's history, but his theme, his obsession if you will, was the piece of land all these generations grew their vines on. Talking to Louis was very much a lesson about terroir. To be specific, it was a lesson about Roter Hang, or Red Slope as the English translation would be. This is the name of an association of wine estates who grow their vines on the red soil of the hillsides surrounding the village of Nierstein dominated by red clay and sandstone. Louis walked us around some of the vineyards, told us their history and led us through a tasting of different vintages and vineyards to explain the sometimes obvious and sometimes more subtle differences. During the long tasting, there was pride and excitement about Roter Hang not only in his words but also in his body language.
While I don't know anything about the ten other Louis Guntrums, this excitement made it hard to believe that - no matter what their stories about death, family and obsession are - they did not see this piece of land as their family's destiny.
And the dog, you may ask? The dog guards the winery of Dirk Würtz, the last stop of our trip, in its own cute and wise style. The visit to Königsmühle is a different type of story though. It is about dreams and obsession and even more about rock 'n' roll, but the family we were introduced to there (apart from Dirk's lovely family) was the family of German wine bloggers - and for the moment at least I will leave them to write their own story.