“Shamelessly” because, you know, reminiscences. Let me show you my vacation pictures! Here’s a totes cute thing my cat did!
I have a little pile of pictures. Actual pictures, on paper. I set about rummaging, in search of a picture of my wife in a particular dress she ROCKED and which I thought she could wear to my son’s wedding. I didn’t find the pic, but I landed on all these old shots of my friends amongst the growers, many of whom I saw a couple months ago looking as handsomely gnarled as we geezers assume ourselves to appear. I thumbed through the photos, sitting in my little Wayback Machine (itself an antique reference, albeit Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoons do not actually age).
The FIRST PICTURE is of Hans-Günter Schwarz. I’ve told you about him. I remember exactly when this shot was taken – in the early Spring of 2000, tasting a tank-sample of his first “serious” Pinot Noir. I love this image; he looks so hale and glowing. I remember him that way. He was truly the vine-whisperer, and it was clear he was fueled by being out in nature, among growing things. He was the first I ever heard say “Maximilism in the vineyard, minimalism in the cellar,” which has now become something between a trope and a truism. Back then it was revolutionary. Hans-Günter would sometimes say “The smartest thing a cellarmaster can know is the right time….to do nothing.” That has morphed into a slogan – Konzentrierter nichts-tun, or deliberately choosing not to act. They all say it now. You’d be surprised to hear anything different.
Everyone who met Hans-Günter came away with an impression of something a little otherworldly, not in the mystic sense, but instead some gleam of the beatific. After years of singing his praises to the Selbachs (who handled exports for the wines), Hans and Sigrid drove down one year to meet him. Hans discovered a soul brother, and Sigrid remarked “There is something, I don’t know, rather angelic about him…” and yet he wasn’t at all ethereal. Just the opposite! Hans-Günter was a grounded and unpretentious Pfälzer who liked simple food and cozy wine bars and good jokes. My own impression was of a man entirely integrated and purposeful, doing exactly the work he was born to do. One evening, after we’d made big enough pals for me to get a dinner invitation to his (and Gisela’s) home, we sat in the garden and he gathered some strawberries growing in the grass. He presented a few to me in a cupped hand, and I took them. Of course they were sublime; I mean, plants bent towards this guy as he walked around. Seeing my delighted face (what really is better than a perfect strawberry?) he said “They taste best from the hand of a friend.”
I saw him during my trip to Germany in May. Things had been clouded for him since those glory days. Life had some daggers hidden away, and also some blessings – you know, that pesky life with all its ambivalences. I’ve said that we get our actual faces eventually, after all the superficial accretions of life wash away, and the face my old friend showed me was one of struggle and a sweetness he simply cannot subdue. We shared a lovely dinner with the Von Winning folks (there is a family connection among them) and when I said to Hans-Günter “Not exactly an In-&-Out burger,” he laughed at the recollection of an American trip he took in which my colleagues sought to expose him to the real America.
His wines were psychedelic implosions of complexity and intricacy. I thought they were the best in all of Germany, and haven’t changed my mind in the interim. In my book Reading Between The Wines I told a story of trying to cope with a surfeit of beauty, such as I’d feel when tasting his new vintage. In the early days at the great Chicago restaurant Alinea they kept a scrapbook of pictures of peoples’ faces as they tasted the food. It was the same gorgeous violence, the same certainty that you were unworthy, the same surrender – because so what if you weren’t worthy? It’s happening, so you’d better cope. It isn’t floating on an angelic cloud while sylphs play melodies – no sir; you are wracked. You are body-slammed into gratitude, and you are not in your own control. But Hans-Günter only seemed like a wizard shooting sparks from his fingertips. What he really was, was a giver of strawberries.
I love this picture of Willi Schaefer, picture NUMBER TWO. Coincidentally, Willi and Hans-Günter were roommates when they were both judges in the Federal Wine Competition. One might have predicted they’d get along!
I like this view of Willi because it shows both his raffish side and his sweetly modest side. His beard’s saltier now, as is my own, but his wit is no less salty than ever, and he always seems to be leading you into some giggly private joke you share with no one else.
But “modest” does not mean humble. If you compliment Willi (or his son Christoph these days) on the wines – and you will, trust me – they neither deflect the compliment, nor behave as if it’s their due. It’s good land, they do fine work, they’ve remained small enough to pay close attention, and yes, the wines are good. When you try to insist they’re not only or merely good, but good in a way that makes people love them….then they might get a little shy.
People have searched for (and written about) a unity of person and wine, such that each is enacted in the other, but the most I can say is it’s only sometimes true. It’s true here with this family, but I know of many times when there’s no coherence at all. (Eventually in my wine-merchant career I did a de-facto triage of the uncongenial from my portfolio, figuring there was enough good wine that I didn’t need to obtain it from people I didn’t like.) Still, when you know the grower, the wine ceases to be merely an object; it’s no longer Graacher Domprobst that-or-that – it’s Willi’s wine.
PICTURE THREE is a rare shot of Hans Schneider in what must have been a brief repose between speeches. Hans was (current proprietor) Jakob Schneider’s grandfather, and “speeches” doesn’t really do justice to this character. Hectoring perorations is more accurate, compelled by an irresistible need to kvetch, to anyone in earshot, about his many pet outrages. My early catalogues are full of anecdotes of Schneider – who was an absurdly fertile source of material – and I won’t repeat them here.
You can see he’s a little crooked. He was a big drinker, a bottle per day, which he insisted was salubrious provided it was Diabetiker Trocken (which I’m confident you understand), saying “My liver is in better shape than the doctors’!” I wonder if he was ever really sober. Here you can see him holding a half bottle, from which he’s about to pour me a sample.
Grandpa Schneider had a metal carrying contraption into which he could fit around 20 half bottles. All the wines for sampling were thus offered; I suppose he bottled them separately, and perhaps by hand. He wasn’t the kind of vintner who’d have considered the different ways wine behaved in smaller bottles, and he certainly wouldn’t let a drop of wine go to waste. (For the moment we can leave aside the uselessly small tasting glasses he used, or the little basket of pretzel sticks sitting on the table, which could well have been there since the Weimar Republic.) More often than I can count, he’d pour a sample from the final inch of wine in a half bottle that may have been open for weeks, and that was so miserably oxidized his sink-drain would have yelped in protest if he’d tried pouring it down. If the wine was basically interesting enough that I wanted to taste it in good condition, I’d ask for a fresh bottle. He didn’t so much “resist” the request as he was dumbfounded by it. It threw him off his stride. Eventually he’d dodder off and return muttering disconsolately to himself but with a fresh bottle in hand.
The wines have modernized since then, of course. They had a long way to travel, and even the two subsequent generations haven’t scrubbed away every verdigris trace of patina in these evocative wines – and I like that they haven’t. But back in grandpa’s time, these were really antique wines, even by the standards of those days.
So what was I doing there? A small part of it was sentimental; this was one of the very first estates I ever visited, back in May 1978. Part of it was me being a pilgrim of terroir. This was Niederhausen with its 120 soil types and its (then) unknown Grand Crus; it would be years before the Dönnhoffs of the world would come along to make this fine land famous. Schneider was (then) the largest owner in Hermannshöhle, and I wanted that wine. But as Hans got older and his grip on consensual reality faltered, the wines faltered too, and finally my own resolve started to dissolve, until Helmut Dönnhoff himself told me to stay the course, help was on the way in the form of (then) young Jakob, who would usher the venerable estate into the present age and do full justice to its legacy of great land.
As I write I’m remembering those few years when it took a truly pitiless triage to arrive at anything I could offer customers in good conscience. I might taste 25 wines and offer, at last, maybe three. Why did I persist? After all, I didn’t want my portfolio to become (as Michael Skurnik once put it) “a museum of wines that used to be good.” I agreed with that sentiment. So?
It had to do with immersion in a culture, which would occur (and never ceased to occur) as the days went by on a tasting trip, and I began to register not only individual wines but also the broader cultural context in which they lay. Then when I tasted Schneider I saw them as citizens of a bygone world, a glimpse into a mentality long departed, a way of seeing how wine used to be when it wasn’t ruled by aesthetics but rather awash in a sort of folk umami. It was no accident that Schneiders also had a farm in those days, and I understood that one grew both food and also the wine that one drank with that food, and there was no distinction between the comestibles. And remember, I could buy whatever I wanted, and I tried to grab the best.
It made perfect sense to me even after I got home; it made sense as I wrote the catalogue and it kept making sense until I’d see the wines at trade tasting, observing the bemused perplexity on the faces of the tasters. And then it stopped making sense. After all, these wines weren’t part of a syllabus in a graduate seminar on Varieties Of Riesling Relics From An Earlier Time. They were, now, “products” I had to convince people to buy. Busy people, professional wine people, and whatever anthropological benefits might accrue to them by including these curios of wine were, let’s say, dubious. It was clear to me that I couldn’t be two people at once. I had to toggle between them. One of me was engaged by the greater meaning of a Schneider wine, while his counterpart in the “real” world had to make a case for why my customer should buy it.
It was uncommon to be thus bifurcated, but by no means impossible, and I wonder if other small importers had similar moments. I’ll bet they did. Because there was really no bridge between the two realities, and no person could possibly span a conceptual crevasse that wide. It was especially acute when I considered the ancillary work my idealism entailed. Colleagues had to do all the compliance and all the set up and pricing and all for wines that barely sold, and yet I insisted.
Would I still? Yes, because somebody has to. I’d apologize fervently to everyone whose workload I piled onto, but the alternative is to make it easier for those wine stories to die. I understand, that is an intangible good versus a real-life pain in the neck, and yet that good is greater, and it needs to be preserved.
I was with Jakob and Laura Schneider a couple months ago. How could I go to Germany and not visit them? Jakob was busy with a huge construction project across the street from the house (and cellar), where the farm used to be. Where Hans took me once to preen over his ratty old tractors and beam approvingly at his pigs (and where I wondered what his hallucinating dog was barking at) and now it was all concrete and machines and hammerings and Jakob popping over all sweaty to say hi and see how my visit was going. Laura and I tasted and schmoozed, and in the next room, a little group of private customers was visiting, and being guided through their tasting by Hans’ widow, known as Oma Lisel, and even though she’s a little bent over she’s still a total pistol, and my favorite picture that ever appeared in my catalogues was one of Oma Lisel chasing her toddler granddaughter around the parlor, and you know, I’ll tell you what: My career doesn’t need to mean anything more than that. Not one single thing.
I’ll be brief on PICTURES FOUR AND FIVE.
Number 4 shows Michael “Michi” Moosbrugger with his wife Eva and baby daughter Anna, their first child, born in 2001. The picture comes from a Spring afternoon not long after they arrived at Schloss Gobelsburg. Michi has become quite the mover and shaker in the years between, but here he’s just a dad in the sunlight with his small new family. It is poignant to contrast the simple love (and loving simplicity) of this moment with the personage Michi has since become. As a visionary and theoretician he is spearheading Austria’s emergence into the community of Europe’s most important wines and terroirs. Even more important, he is an impeccable caretaker of the 850-year old domain with which he’s been entrusted. He’ll leave it, and leave the world, better than he found them.
Meanwhile here is a moment when all he does is glow. A few years (and another child) later, he and I were together in the estate’s tasting room as we ran through the new vintage on a cool May morning. The windows were open, and Michi’s girls were playing somewhere in earshot below. I was the Big Deal American Importer and Michi was the Big Deal Superstar Producer , but at one especially giggly moment we both chuckled, and Michi went to peer out the window. I had in my glass a wine from a domain over eight centuries old, and I considered it along with the cheerful music of two small kids playing, and I looked from the glass to the figure at the window, who was just a dad again.
The next picture, speaking of dads, is Leo Alzinger senior, our Leo’s father, with whom I tasted and conducted business while young Leo was still a boy. Now he is Le Patron or rather, he and his wife Katherina are equal partners in the still small domain. I like this picture of dad. I’d been burned by a defection of the “popular-kids” coterie of the Wachau from mine to a competing importer’s portfolio and I wanted to work with someone who didn’t play those games. Leo senior was shy, perhaps introverted, and in the beginning he didn’t talk much. That changed as the years passed and we grew comfortable with each other (and I had a few accidental triumphs in blind-identification of some of the old wines he poured for me), but looking at this photo now I am struck by a metaphor I didn’t see before. The man is vertical (as can be inferred even though he is seated), craggy and calm – as are his wines, as is the Wachau itself. His cheekbones remind me of the crags and spires of the volcanic remnants above Dürnstein, while the fixity of his gaze recalls the determined length of the wines. It happens less often than you might think, where the gestalt of person and wine is so seamless.
PICTURE NUMBER SIX was taken in March of 1982 and shows a then-43-year-old Helmut Dönnhoff looking atypically melancholy. These days he is quite the kibitzer and loves to tease and chuckle. Back then he wasn’t (yet) the star he would become. He looks like he’d belong in a Werner Herzog film like The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser or some such from that period. He had hair in those days, but then so did I. Today he is so animated that I’m a little shocked at the repose we see here. Maybe I’d just said something stupid and he was thinking “How long until this clown goes away?”
The hauntingly beautiful child has become a resplendently beautiful adult whom some of you have met. It is Hannah Selbach, around three years old, with that wondering and slightly sad face that little kids can show. It’s in the eyes. If you know Hannah’s mother Barbara, here is mother’s face with the clock wound back a few decades, the dewy little bud that would become the faces of mother and child alike.
Hannah still knows me as “Uncle Terry,” which is just fine, though to me she is simply a friend.
I write about the Selbachs a lot, because of the many things they embody, some tangible and some not, but all of them have snaked their filaments around my life in the thirty six years we have known one another. The couple in the final picture, shining with love and beauty, are Hans and Sigrid Selbach, Johannes’ parents and Hannah’s grandparents. On the back the photographer (the late Bill Mayer) has written “The Mosel’s First-Couple,” which is what all of us thought.
Look, I know how marriages are. It is never as easy as it looks, and a lot of the time it hardly looks easy at all. I saw this couple together when they were exasperated with each other, but I never saw them when they were less than a partnership built on love and trust and shared effort and mutual risk. But I am not here to romanticize them, though it is hard to resist. I miss them both, but I do not see them through a nostalgic haze. What I do see, is a structure on which the wines are based.
Hans’ wines were the opposite of preening or show-offy, and Johannes is his father’s son. Today’s wines are perhaps more overtly “excellent” but they never seem to perform for you. They just recite their truths. As I look at Hans and Sigrid it makes a kind of sense that is easily cheapened by mawkishness, but just as easily distorted by a desperate effort to avoid sentimentality. I also worry that describing how it all works could siphon the blood from it. But it means something to me, so here goes.
What strikes me about Selbachs and their wines is their setting-course towards a north-star of that which abides. What is a person throughout his life, regardless of what “stage” he may be in? What is her essence, and what is their essence as mates? Children ask that question constantly, though never in words, and never our loud. “What can we be sure of?” Here in Zeltingen this unuttered question is answered ceaselessly, and you can taste that answer in every single wine this family offers. A lot of wines – too many poor wines – let you taste the Show, but how many let you taste the truth?
I look at Sigrid and Hans and remember the times I was with them, and my own love feels paltry somehow. Maybe it shouldn’t, but it does. Am I holding firm to my end of the rope? Their two faces are so entirely exposed; they are so proud of each other! I really should try to be better at being a person.