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A VIRTUOSO OF FRIENDSHIP: TALKING WITH HEIDI SCHROECK

In 1993 when I was trying to establish a portfolio of Austrian wines, I knew the top names in the Wachau but I didn’t know anything else. I had some source material for researching – Giles MacDonogh’s (then) indispensible The Wines & Foods Of Austria, plus a few magazine articles – and from these I made a list of potential suppliers whose wines I wanted to pre-screen. I sought the help of the Austrian Wine Marketing Board, who contracted with a (then) freelancer, the man-without-whom (etc.) but more significantly the guy who’d become a dear, dear friend, Peter Schleimer, and Peter helped me paint in the larger contexts for the things I was tasting.

Because the Board set up my itinerary, I went along with a few things they included that I hadn’t asked for, and one of these things was “A tour of Rust with Heidi Schröck,” for which they had allowed about an hour. Put Heidi and me together now, and we get a huge kick out of regaling you with our origin-story, the how-we-met thing that couples do. Having been friends for all the twenty eight years since, we figure we don’t need to be a “couple” in order to tell you the story. Here’s my side.


I am appallingly shallow where history is concerned. This relates to a condition whereby I commence uncontrollable yawning within about twenty minutes of entering a museum. I’m not proud of this philistinism but neither can I hide from it. And so, as Heidi and I strolled around Rust – a place with a colorful and fascinating history as it happens – I found I was paying less attention to Heidi’s commentary and more attention to Heidi herself. If you’ve met her you know exactly what I mean. Heidi is by no means a studied charmeur, but she understands the force of charm better than almost anyone else I’ve ever known. Yet if you asked her about it, she’d shrug her shoulders and not really know what you mean. For Heidi it isn’t a “method,” but rather the spontaneous gesture of two powerful elements of her character: her inexhaustible interest in people, and her warm and halcyon nature.


It transpired she was also a vintner. I thought, “Yes Rust hmmm… all right but I really hope her wines are good, because I really really want to work with this person.” At that point I was barely interested in the Burgenland whites, neither the dry ones (which I presumed would be broad and flat) nor the sweet ones (which I presumed would be fat and creamy), and so, even as I was hopeful I was also wary.


Though Heidi’s wines have shape-shifted over the nearly three decades I have known them, there’s a through-line that anchors them all. They aren’t precise or digital like the GVs and Rieslings from Lower Austria; they are inferential, spherical and analog. They don’t point a line of flavor at you; they encompass you in a circle of inference and allusion. They are less like “text” and more like music. (Small wonder Heidi loves to sing…) There are spaces within these wines, and they seem to be wrapped in a fine cool gauze. They’re part way to food itself. As I tasted them that first time, I was aware that they weren’t putting on the particular show I’d gone to Austria looking for. They told a different story, or rather, sung a different song. What I found was an ineluctable and immutable bond between human and wine, and I understood that that would be the greater story, richer and subtler than the explicable flavors of individual wines.

So let’s kick off with a he-said she-said of that fateful first meeting! Heidi, how do you remember it?




HEIDI: It was in early summer of 1993 when the Marketing Board asked me to do a tour of the historic center of Rust for someone from the US. An importer who was interested in working with some Austrian wines in the future. And as they did not only want to show him wines I should show him some history! My English was "rusty". I l had learned English at school and practiced it during my 6-month adventure in South Africa in 1983. So I picked up Terry at the Wine Academy and started explaining about the baroque houses and churches and storks and town walls. After about 30 minutes I realized that my visitor became a little tired, he liked what I told him especially the stork stories but the "fire" did not really fly over to him. Maybe he had a hard day and maybe he was a little jetlagged. Honestly I did not know what jetlag was at that time, because I never flew into any country where I could be hit by a jetlag...

So I asked him if he would like to share a glass of water or wine with me in the courtyard of my old house. And he said yes. This was when Terry´s and my story with wine started. A happy story!


TERRY: It is very sweet of you, Heidi, not to tell us all what a dumb-ass I was. Though it’s true I was (and remain) fascinated by the storks. But let’s turn to your wines. I’ll have a few things of my own to say about them presently, but a question I have never asked you is, can you tell me a few wines of yours where you felt “Yes, this is exactly the way I want my wines to be, this is what I want to express,” and say why you feel that way?



HEIDI: Wines that are exactly the way I want them to be, they show what I want to express. I have to write that sentence to get some time, to think about it. What do I want to express? The land.... the terroir ...... the time in which I live......the grapes.......my very personal and own history.......YES, all of that but first the surrounding stories and emotions. 

Let me start with Blaufränkisch from our old Kulm vineyard. The vines were planted in 1955 by my three grand-aunts Emma, Irma and Milli. Those 3 ladies ran the estate from 1926 to 1969. A tough time for ladies in agriculture, a war, a house full of people they felt responsible for, no male brother, husband, partner around. It’s a kind of tribute to my 3 aunts when I work these vines and make this wine.

When I put my nose into a glass of Kulm, of Blaufränkisch my mental cinema starts: I see an old castle, really an old one from early medieval times with rough stone walls with flickering torches. I see knights sitting on a raw wooden table eating with their fingers a roasted pig. They drink out of tin cups their red wine, and this is Blaufränkisch. I would like to be a maid in this castle refilling their cups......


TERRY: I’d rather you were acknowledged as the woman who had made the wine, or even that you and a few of the knights knew that secret. But please continue.


HEIDI: Another example, dear Terry? Ruster Ausbruch. Completely other feelings than the previous wine. You tasted many vintages with me, Terry. Starting with the 1995.This vintage showed me that 50% of a harvest could be noble sweet wine. But style changed. We became more strict and radical by selecting the most beautiful botrytis berries in the years to follow. Maybe the shift was in 1999. A vintage with again a lot of botrytised grapes. One of these wines - we made 5 different ones (!) - got 98 “Parker-points.” 1999 Ruster Ausbruchs were very sweet, almost 300 grams per liter residual sugar. Sweetness alone is not enough, we tried to look for more elegance and balance. Was it in 2002, Terry, when we achieved this goal? When this balance of sweetness, acidity, flavors were in the right place? This was also the year when I heard our priest speaking psalm 139. “If I take wings of the morning dawn and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea....” What a wonderful mental cinema started!!! Travelling, meeting new people, learning something new....

So Ruster Ausbruch is my expression of constant learning, of adventure, of exploring, of bringing out my adventurous soul.


[TERRY – Of course these are things that cannot be tasted discretely, yet how impoverished wine would be without them! I am aware there are readers whose eyes glaze over when you try feeding them “meaning” in a sort of gavrage, to which I can only say, you don’t have to experience meaning where I want you to see it, but I hope you’re finding it somewhere. Let’s just be happy that Heidi knows she is bringing her whole being to her wines, and is happy to talk about it.]


TERRY: What do you most want to hear from a customer about your wines? In other words, what is the impression you wish to evoke? Why they “liked” the wines, how the wines made them feel….anything.


HEIDI: Of course it is nice to hear from people when they call me after a dinner, (sometimes even during a dinner!) when they had a perfect match with one of my wines. When Furmint matched some fish or Muskateller made a perfect match with some Prosciutto and Tuscan olives. But you know Terry what is the nicest thing one could say? When they shared a bottle with someone they haven´t seen for a long time, or with someone they had a quarrel and could solve this over a bottle of Grauburgunder, or if they spent some nice hours with the most precious person - themself- and could reflect the time and make plans for the future and be just happy with everything.


[TERRY – Sorry I keep jumping in! But Heidi’s saying something rare and lovely. Notice she never did the deconstruct-flavor thing, she didn’t imagine someone saying “I loved the acidity in your XXX…” but rather that she hoped the wine was therapeutic, that it delivered repose, or solace, that it helped make peace. I’m not sure there’s as much as a particle of space between soul and wine here.]


TERRY: Since I have never known you to see your wines only as “objects,” it stands to reason that you’re one of the few vintners I have ever known who truly lets the wine lead the way. Are customers ever irritated that a certain wine “didn’t taste like last year?”


HEIDI: Really no, nobody complained so far about the wines being not repeatable. I think and some told me that they estimate that the wines show the vintage, the year. More rain, more sun, less sun. Furmint is maybe the wine which is so, so different from year to year. Last year at one point we showed 3 different vintages in our tasting room. I liked to pour all three in their own glasses to let people taste. 2016: like a monk living in an old monastery in the Pyrenées. Living quite a simple life with some bread, olive oil and tomatoes and sea salt. Good food from good soil but no luxury, and the days are filled with prayers and hikes. That´s it. 2017: a beautiful soul in a beautiful body. I called it our Barack Obama, or George Clooney. 2017 showed the beauty of this old grape in full bloom. The Riesling of the East, as it is called:  Der Riesling des Ostens. 2018: a wild animal. Furmint Aromas but so woven in due to the concentration of this wine, of the vintage. 


TERRY: I have the impression that, with your Rosé Biscaya, you can express a certain wildness in your nature that is otherwise not often seen. Am I crazy?  (Of course I’m crazy, this we know, but am I wrong about that opinion?)


HEIDI: Oh Terry, you know how and why Rosé Biscaya came into existence! I planted this great land on top of the Rust Hill with red grapes. Blaufränkisch and Zweigelt as the main varieties and in between Lagrein, Teroldego, Petit Verdot, Syrah, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. The goal was a red wine typical for me, unique, with grapes I share a story with. Lagrein from my friends in Südtirol, Teroldego from Elisabetta Foradori, etc..  Well, this Red Blend did not work out in the way I wanted it to be.... So we tried a Rosé! I made it in the way my father did in the 60s and 70s. A direct press Rosé and not the fruitier version like a Saignée. So it is full of spices and herbs and reminds us a bit on the wild Flora of the South of France. And ja, its a little wild too! 


TERRY: Could a wine be so beautiful that, if you were drinking it alone, you wouldn’t miss having another person there but instead feel  “this is complete, and perfect, and I am happy to drink it with Heidi?” I admit I am recently preoccupied with what I think is the neglected pleasure of drinking something lovely in solitude.

HEIDI: I love to share a bottle of a special wine with some special friends whom I know will appreciate the wine, its story, where it comes from. But I also like to share a bottle of wine with myself only. And maybe save a bit for my sons the next day!


(TERRY: For those who don’t know, Heidi has twin boys, all grown up now, who are back at the winery after respective “wanderjahren” and who have at various times been bakers and heavy metal musicians.)


TERRY: You and I have drunk pretty widely in all our times together, but as you’re such a wholehearted appreciator of wines, I’ve never thought to probe into your deepest favorites. Thinking now of red wines, tell me one or two of the ones you love the most?


HEIDI: One would be Nossa Calcaro Baga 2017 by Filipa Pato & William Wouters, Portugal, Bairrada. And another is for sure Pinotage 2008, Scali, Willie & Tanja de Waal, Paarl, Republic of South Africa.


TERRY: How much has “Burgenland” influenced your vision of the cellar? Not just being in Burgenland, but the larger atmospheres of this particular place? Do you think you’d make wines differently if you were in the Wachau? And if so, in what ways?


HEIDI: Burgenland has always influenced my work. Burgenland as my home country. By its special geographic situation it has always been a country “in-between.” A border country a bit like Alsace. In this case Austria and Hungary. The Hapsburg empire and the Turkish Empire. Lots of different influences had a chance to grow. Foodwise it’s Hungarian, Croatian, Slovakian, Czech and Jewish influences. Three official languages are still spoken today. And all these cultural things influenced my thinking, feeling and way of work.

Physically It is a wide country. When I am working in our vineyards I cannot see the horizon in the East. And all those traditional varieties like Furmint, Muskateller, Harslevelü.... 

Are we maybe a border country without borders/ limits??? In this gorgeous climate many wines are possible. From the dry minerally white wines up to the luscious noble sweet Ruster Ausbruch.

I do not know how I would have behaved as a winemaker in the Wachau valley, dear Terry....


TERRY: Yet I know how familiar you are with those wines and how much you love them. But I’m actually glad you can’t answer that question….

Here are some others.

When are you happiest in the work?


HEIDI: picking grapes. 

Sharing the snack break with my picking colleagues at the end of the rows for lunch.

Watching and tasting the transitions of the juice to wine over the fermentation process.

Canopy work on an early sunny crisp summer morning.

Showing our wines at tastings. 

Tasting wines. 

Travelling.


TERRY: Since you sang in a chorus for so many years, I want to try linking wine with music. Tell me, if Weissburgunder were music, what would it be? (This can be anything from classical to jazz to pop songs to heavy metal!) And Furmint? And Pinot Gris? And finally, Blaufränkisch?


HEIDI:


Weissburgunder - Kantate BWV 170 Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust

Furmint- I wonder…maybe I want to hear the piece of Sixto Rodriguez which is called: I Wonder!

(lyrics: I wonder how many times you´ve been had

And I wonder how many plans have gone bad

I wonder how many times you had sex

I wonder do you know who´ll be next ...)

Pinot Gris- Chants from the Cistercian Monks of Heiligenkreuz

Blaufränkisch-Boulevard of Broken dreams, Green Day

Ruster Ausbruch - Hoochie Coochie Man Muddy Waters


TERRY: I am struggling manfully to try not to write essays about each of those associations….So I need to distract myself with a truly weird question. A few years ago, you lost a lot of weight. In my catalogue that year I wrote, “If you’ve seen Heidi recently you’ll notice she is slowly disappearing.” I was shamefully jealous of you. My question is, when you lost the weight, did it change in any way your relationship with your wines? I ask because sometimes, the feeling of living in a “new” body can leak into other areas of your life. Perhaps one dresses differently, or ones tastes change in other ways.


HEIDI: For about one year I did not drink any wine.




TERRY: Except to taste, right?



HEIDI: Of course I have always tasted wine by spitting. I think I have always loved wine throughout my whole life. And it is never reduced to my/our wines or the wines of Rust. I love to taste wines from my friends and colleagues all over the world. From Texas Hill Country to New Zealand, from South Styria to Slovakia and so on....


TERRY: What would you do if you had all the time in the world?



HEIDI: Road trips, Terry! There are various destinations I would love to visit. Italy from North to South and Sicily. France, especially the Bretagne. Norway, Sweden. crossing Australia from Adelaide to Alice Springs. Southern Africa.

I also wouldn’t mind finishing War & Peace.


And I’d love to write.




To conclude, at various times over the years when I visited Heidi I met, among other always-interesting people, a couple from her girlhood days in South Africa whom she hadn’t seen since then, as well as the descendent of the Hungarian Count Almaszy (remember The English Patient? That one.) in his gorgeously brooding castle. One year we took a road trip to a place in Mittelburgenland that’s famous for its gigantic Wiener Schnitzel. This was after the borders were opened, and we cut through a corner of Hungary and the town of Sopron, and Heidi explained to me that the striking number of roadside billboards advertising dentists’ services were because dentistry is much less expensive in Hungary than in Austria, and many Austrians cross the border to get their cleanings and other work done.

Heidi is known all over the wine world, and she seems to make friends with everyone. She is indeed a virtuoso of friendship, not only because she is warm, curious, engaged and funny, but because she always seems to know what you need. For many years my visits entailed a certain number of jolly jaunts, but after a period when Heidi was dealing with various life struggles (which bunched together as these things seem to do) and I was dealing with trying not to starve my inner introvert to death, we started staying home. It was quieter and we could talk.


Connecting isn’t something one “does;” it is something one desires, and that desire is a kind of bat-signal for others who share it. Sometimes for people who weren’t aware they wanted it too. When you’ve spent some time with Heidi you start to understand she is ready for life in some basic way, and then you start realizing how this quality is missing or obscured for many people. At my trade tastings I’d sometimes glance back at Heidi’s table and she was deeply in her element, smiling, kibitzing, explaining earnestly when anyone asked her a question; there’d be everything and everyone else in the room – you know what a crash-and-bang those things are – and there in the corner was this person gleaming and glowing, as though she was standing in a shiny nimbus of kindness she’d brought with her. It seems to entail no great effort, or she makes it look easy, and it is easy inasmuch as it comes naturally. But it isn’t easy, not ever, and my friend Heidi has paid some dues.

My book is called What Makes A Wine Worth Drinking, and one of the answers, maybe the truest one, is connectedness. Heidi Schröck is connected to her world, through curiosity, elan vital and a grateful affection she possesses with admirable ease. Wine isn’t something she “does” or “works at;” it is as much a part of her as her very skin, and I love my friend for showing me, time after time, what really makes a wine worth drinking.


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