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A LIFE, A DEPARTURE, A FAMILY MINUS ONE

The Germans have a word – sympathisch – which doesn’t mean “sympathetic” but is one of those words that resists direct translation. “Someone with whom one sympathizes” isn’t quite right, and while “A person who evokes sympathy” comes closer, it’s not close enough. “Agreeable” doesn’t go far enough. “Loveable” is nearer though it feels a little too intimate.


These musings are prompted by the death of one of the most angelic men I have known in my life. Let me tell you a little about Willi Schaefer, a vintner in Graach on the Mosel. Many of you know him through his wines, and some of you may have met him, and if you did, you wouldn’t forget.

Forty five years ago I had become obsessed with wine. I lived in Germany back then, and set about exploring in the wine lands closest to me. I read a book about the “best” German vineyards and so that’s what I was looking for. Graach had the Domprobst and the Himmelreich, so I parked at one end of the village and made my way along, knocking on the many doors of small growers who sold their wines to visitors. Most of what I tasted was good, and some of it was very good, and some of it was mediocre. I was learning that good land was no guarantee of great wine, just as I learned later on that great wine rarely existed without good land behind it.





Reaching the far end of the village, I came to the home of one Weingut Willi Schaefer. I rang, and was soon greeted by a welcoming gentleman, a little sweet and a little rakish, barely over 30 years old – hell, I was a mere 25 myself that year – who invited me in and poured a few wines for me to taste. I stayed less than an hour, bought a few bottles, and bid my goodbyes.


It was clear these wines were exceptional. (Quality will show, even to a beginner, if (s)he pays enough attention.) And so I made a mental note; next time I was in Graach, go back to Willi Schaefer.

This I did, eighteen months later, and I was amazed that Willi remembered me, after my brief visit a year and a half ago. This time we had a longer visit. It wasn’t only the wines. Willi was “good people,” easy company, plenty of fun, and serious when called for. He was – and remained over all his life – both retiring and yet eager to joke around. I don’t think I’ve known a person both as raffish as Willi could be, yet also as dear. His wines told me everything I needed to know (and wanted to drink) about Graach, and he became “a stop” along my rounds.


Years later, when I’d returned to the States and wanted to create a portfolio of small German growers, I went to see the friends I’d made. Willi wasn’t terribly eager to sell wine to me, but only because he had so little to sell. I told him that didn’t matter. I wanted to be associated with him, and I wanted my (theoretical) customers to taste those wines. I did ask Willi – apropos of the idea of tiny volumes – if he could suggest anyone else from whom I might buy. “Give me a day, let me think about it, and I’ll call you.”


The next day he called – Willi was a guy who did what he said he’d do – and suggested the winery Alfred Merkelbach. That proved fruitful, to say the very least.


Eventually I got more wine from Willi, but never very much. And that was fine. Early in my Skurnik years I visited the estate with Michael and Harmon and at one point we were in the cellar, and Harmon emerged from around some corner and asked Willi “Where’s the rest of the cellar?” And Willi said “This is it, all of it.”  He never wanted to grow, though he easily could have. Many people asked him why, and he always answered “I like the size as it is. I can do the work myself, it supports the family, and it’s comfortable.” If I was present I was tempted to add (and often did add) that it shows in the wines. There’s such a thing as an intimacy of accord when someone can pay close, deliberate attention to the pieces and the sum of his work. “Artisan” is the word we use, but that poor word’s been debased from overuse and is now apt to be pretentious. Not in Willi’s case.


After we tasted the new vintage, out would come the 3-part forms in which I’d log the wines I wanted to offer (in Willi’s case usually all of them…) and he would tell me what quantities he could spare. This was punctuated with much apology and sometimes Willi would wince so shamefully – he wished he could offer me more! – that I’d ask “Are you sure you can spare it?”  I hated watching him suffer!

Many years passed. Willi’s son and daughter-in-law Christoph and Andrea carried on the work, maintaining not only the quality of the wines but also, crucially and beautifully, the very nature of the domain. My heart is knotted up and howling for what they must be going through right now.


My friend Willi had a kind of randy growl when he was being mischievous and wanted to start joking around, but as the years passed he grew even more sentimental and loving. A few years ago, we both grew aware that it would be 40 years since our first meeting, and Willi promised an observance. But when the day arrived, he was confined to a medical clinic, and the party was postponed. His health was vastly more important than whatever raucousness we might have engendered. As we dined with Christoph and Andrea and Willi’s wife Esther, I felt his absence keenly and was consoled by the warmth of that family, and the long-steeped friendship we had made. At one point in the evening, Esther came to tell me, sotto-voce, that I should step outside for a moment. I feared bad news. A car was parked outside the little winery, and in a moment a back door opened and Willi stepped out. You never saw a man so bereft. He was terribly sure he’d let me down, and we couldn’t have the party we had planned. I told him Of COURSE not; the only thing that mattered was his health….feeling entirely inadequate and wishing there was something I could do, some heroic standing-in-the-rain gesture I could make to tell him he was my friend and the party didn’t matter.


But of course it wasn’t “the party.” Forty years was no small thing. Willi stole away from the clinic (and I do believe he was definitely AWOL) because some manner of observance should be made. Even now I am more moved than I can say. I should have insisted on visiting HIM, why hadn’t I thought of that? But this was Willi.


He wouldn’t come inside. He wanted to see me. It was just him and me out there. Willi was a tall man, and when I hugged him, the top of my head was the height of his breastbone. I couldn’t come up any higher. We said a wet-eyed goodbye, and he went back away into the night.


I did see Willi again after that. His health had improved and we had our reunions. I am also greatly eased by having so much footage of Willi and Christoph in my film. At least there’s that.

You know the old trope about people and their dogs resembling each other eventually? In Willi Schaefer and his wines, there is a unity so complete that human and wine have become each other, so that when you drink one you think “Who else but Willi could have made this?”  Objectively, of course, you can taste all the elements that show the sum of Mosel essence. But there’s a modesty and a kindliness and also a doggedness to ensure that everything is transparently available to you. Christoph and Andrea seem to have continued this by osmosis, and this is why these wines are not only admired, but also loved.


But oh, Willi….I think you must have known how I felt. We didn’t “talk about feelings,” but I think we knew. I never met a sweeter man than you. What a fine life you led. You honored the things that mattered. You were the best company. It is awful that you are gone, but what joy it is to have known you. Sleep well, friend.

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My condolences on your loss, Terry. I had the privilege of visiting him once, and a more generous host I could not imagine. His loss is a great one.

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