It was either an article about the Pfalz which included Müller-Catoir, or it was an article exclusively about Catoir, but in either case it struck me, because almost no English-speaking wine writers were covering that estate since its legendary cellarmaster (Hans-Günter Schwarz) retired in 2002. A pity, as the wines under cellarmaster Martin Franzen’s guidance are differently brilliant, and the estate deserves more attention in the English language wine press. Anyway, I looked at the byline and hadn’t heard of the writer, but I remembered her name because it sounded Finnish (it isn’t, in fact; it’s Gujarati, as her father-in-law hails from Mumbai).
Sometime afterwards I saw a really excellent interview/feature about Bernhard Ott, also by this Valerie Kathawala person, and it so impressed me that I wrote to her asking if I could quote from it in my next catalogue. Kathawala – hereafter Valerie,with her permission – had “gotten” Bernhard, and I know what that entails, and it’s a gift more sparsely distributed than you might think. I myself have been interviewed plenty of times and only once or twice did I feel like I was engaging with someone who spoke a common language, and who could get me to excavate. Valerie seemed to be that kind of person, and I’ve been pleased to follow her work ever since.
Lately she started an online magazine along with Paula Redes Sidore, called TRINK, dedicated to what one might call umlaut-bearing wines. You can read it here - and I strongly suggest that you do. The magazine will quickly become a locus for coverage of wines perennially neglected elsewhere, and notwithstanding my “umlaut-bearing” riff, (get the hots for the double-dots!) the editors’ intent is to assert a cultural link among the wines they’ll cover – so Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Alto Adige. The first issue appeared in late October, and the next is slated for mid December. (Yes, “slated” was deliberate, hee hee hee….) and one feasts upon this news with no small delight and relief.
All of which still compels the question, who is Valerie Kathawala and how did she show up all of a sudden? I done asked her…..
TT: First, for me you sort of came out of nowhere; suddenly there were remarkably interesting articles bearing your byline. Obviously you did notemerge from the ethers fully formed as a wine writer, but without it seeming like I’m inspecting your CV, please tell me how you came to be Valerie Kathawala writing probing pieces about umlaut-bearing wines.
VK: You are right, Terry: For years, I was just quietly observing, trying to unpick wines in the privacy of my mind. But my whole life, I’ve been utterly obsessed with German and Austrian history, culture, language. My paternal grandfather emigrated from Württemberg in 1933 -- he was an economic rather than a political or religious refugee. But from his last name to his accent there was no question where he’d come from, and I sense he carried a lifelong sense of shame about his origins. (My father was born in New York in 1938 and I think this kind of haunted him.) But my grandfather died when I was 9 and my father when I was 14. So I guess my way of figuring out those complicated issues of identity was to plunge into German studies myself.
TT: I think that’s kind of beautiful.
VK: I chose to live in Germany and Austria on and off through my late teens and twenties. I wrote part-time about German culture for a magazine; my day-job was editing documents for a big German bank. When I returned to New York City, I was a writer/ editor/ translator for the German government at their consulate and mission to the UN. My husband, Rene, is half-German. You see the red thread, as the Germans say?
TT: I see a whole skein of threads.
VK: But then we had kids - three of them - and being a mama became my top priority. When my youngest started school, I saw my chance to braid together three long-held loves: German, writing and wine. Through luck and the encouragement of a number influential people -- foremost Rene, and my mom, in the form of a lot of child care -- as well as some very kind and generous wine professionals, I was on my way faster than I ever would have expected. I will say that from the start I have greedily taken every opportunity to deepen my understanding of wine, and there are SO many. Not least your books and catalogs, Terry, which are touchstones for me. From there, I realized almost instantly that I wanted to specialize in German-speaking wines because they fit so perfectly with my skills, passions, and palate.
TT: You strike me as a fine interviewer. You know what to ask, and even more, you know how to recognize jewels embedded in the answers you receive. Insofar as this question can be answered at all, what do you approach an interview looking for? When are you satisfied with the result? Do you hate me for asking compound questions? (I would!)
VK: Thank you, Terry. Compound questions are fine -- I’m guilty of posing them as well. In short: I always ask the questions I imagine my readers would want to ask. Not following some sort of template, but looking very closely at the interview as a privilege, the chance to get to the heart of why a wine is coveted, or worthy of discovery, or a benchmark. Recently I had the opportunity to speak at length with [TT: Swiss superstars] Daniel and Martha Gantenbein, who make some of the most sought-after wines in the world. I wanted to get to the heart of what makes the three wines they offer worth close to $200 a bottle and almost impossible to find. Not just to throw fuel on that fire, but to ask super specific technical questions and also try to be open to other messages they might be conveying: like their love for each other and their joy and pride in working together toward a shared goal. Beyond that, I always transcribe my interviews by hand, which is horribly inefficient and in part explains my painful lack of productivity. But it also gives me time to absorb every word, pause, and inflection, and weigh what’s most important, line by line.
TT: That reminds me of a quip of Helmut Dönnhoff’s, when he saw me continuing to write my tasting notes in longhand while my colleagues were all using their laptops. Seeing my wistful glances in their directions – wistful because they were so much quicker than I was – he said “No Terry, it’s better that it takes more time for you; it gives the wine a chance to develop in the glass.” The old proverb Slow work takes time comes to mind.
VK: Yes, definitely. Another great weakness of my writing is my inability to let go of any detail I find relevant. As a result most of my work has to be filed under “very long reads” and who has time for that?
TT: We have to earn it from our readers, which I think you do, Valerie – but of course I arrive already interested in your subject matter. Which leads me to ask, other than the cultural and personal elements, looking strictly at flavor and the inherent natures of these wines - Why these particular wines? (Or kinds of wines?)
VK: “Umlaut wines”? They match my tastes. They answer my questions. They satisfy my curiosity. They talk to each other and to other times and places and people in a way I think you probably understand better than anyone. A Riesling from the Rheingau is in dialogue with a Riesling from the Vinschgau and the Wachau. Across lines of bishops, monasteries, coöps, families, individuals. Across centuries. Across borders that have shifted, where the victors and the vanquished each wrote their own stories in wine. One of my weirdest obsessions is with the 30 Years War and the Grimm Folk Tales. And I can’t drink a Heinrich Spindler Riesling without thinking of Markus’ ur-grandfather going out to buy vineyards just as that bleak, devastating, and endless period was kicking off. And yet, 400 years later, there he is, making gorgeous wines from the same iconic sites. That gives me a profound hope.
TT: Well said, and I’m impressed that you were able to say it at all. As a rule, my question was unanswerable, but you fulfilled it. So I’ll venture another: What do you find these kinds of wines have in common with one another?
VK: As above: They are in dialogue. Across borders, across time. They are like people expressing their common humanity but also telling the hyper-specific story of how they came to where they are now and what that means for them.
TT: I remember when it struck me that, with the addition of Champagne to my existing portfolio of Germany and Austria, I was working entirely with wines between about 48-50º N Latitude. I hadn’t planned to do it. I followed my preferences and that’s what happened. And when I sought to give words to what those families of wines had in common, I alighted on words like rigor, tensile energy, candor, brightness, brilliance. And even if climate change has allowed the wines to be somewhat less rigorous these days, there’s still something that distinguishes them from other kinds of wines that have an easier go of things. Can you approach the question from the vector of flavor?
VK: That discovery you made of the latitudinal line going through your choices is fascinating. And your descriptors ring true to me. Sensorially, I would say that the best of them are unafraid to show what Germans call the “Ecken und Kanten” (corners and edges), high acid, phenolic grip, deftly balanced sweetness, uncommon aromas and flavors in sometimes challenging, but always stirring combinations, energy, drive, and all of it in harmony.
TT: What undesirable attributes do these kinds of wines usually avoid?
VK: I’ve never thought of them in terms of their “lacks.” But that is a useful exercise. I would say they generally tend to avoid opulence and excess and obviousness. Even in a baroque white cuvee from Alto Adige, you can find its raison d’etre. It’s not grand and showy simply for the sake of being grand and showy. As long as it’s really the story of variety, climate, site and zeitgeist intermixing, it works. But if we dial this back to it’s opposite extreme, the linearity and precision and tension of a cool vintage Mosel Kabinett, for instance, gives us the perfect example of a wine that is telling one very particular story. It’s up to us to hear it. But I seriously feel like I’m just being you, clumsily, when I say this.
TT: I don’t think that. I do think that these kinds of wines actually form the way we apprehend wine, and how we eventually come to approach it. A wine’s identity isn’t something we read in or spin fantasies about; it is tangibly there – at least in the kinds of wines we like. We become habituated to story-telling wines, wines with both melody and narrative, and when we sense those things missing it’s like there’s no salt in the soup. So rather than paraphrasing me, you’re actually experiencing what I myself have, not because I did and wrote about it, but because it is there. But lest we get too refined here, let me ask ifyou have any guilty pleasures among wines? That is, wines you think you don’t “approve” of but actually (shamefully!) like to drink?
VK: Ha! I love this question. My first instinct was to say absolutely not. I mean, if someone wants to cast aspersions on Riesling Feinherb or Schiava or Dornfelder, they can go right ahead. I drink these styles/wines with absolute pleasure when they are well grown/made by someone who cares.
But then I remembered Retsina. Under the right circumstances, I will drink the coarsest, cheapest Retsina with the greatest joy. We’ll go to a fancy midtown Manhattan Greek restaurant with a glorious list of treasures I know I would love and should explore. But all I really want is a $5 glass of the house pine wine. I should add that I recently encountered a beautifully made, organic, skin-fermented Retsina (from Assyrtiko) that blew my mind. It also gave me hope that I might be able to come out of the closet on this. And I guess, well, here I am.
TT: Sorry, I can’t be your friend any more.
VK: (pouts, virtually)
TT: OK, I changed my mind. We can be friends if you don’t mind that I sometimes watch pro wrestling.
VK: Oof, I guess that’s fair.
Let’s say you are drinking a great bottle of wine. (Lucky you!). What is the ideal circumstance? Alone? With one other precious person, with a small group of friends, with a bunch of people? At home, or in a restaurant?
VK: Lucky me indeed. Even though I love sharing a terrific wine with my husband, (and I know I’m very lucky that he loves wine too), and along with family and friends, I’ll say that at least at some point while there is wine left in the bottle, my ideal circumstance is to sneak off to be alone with it, at least for a few minutes. I know that is horribly anti-social. But if I am really into a wine, I just want to be totally open to it, which I can’t be if I’m also holding up my end of a conversation, being a good host, moderating a sibling squabble, even taking in the view or enjoying the ambience of a restaurant. I know you’ve written exactly to this point so I don’t have to explain to you, Terry. If I can carve out 15 to 20 minutes from the early evening to sit alone with a wine, then bring it to the dinner table or a gathering to share it with people who care , I suppose that is the ideal.
TT: I know you know how well I understand this. I find lately there’s a point of tension between the social/sentimental communion of wine and the intimate communion of wine between the glass and the self – the solitary self. Each is a precious experience but they are precious in mutually exclusive ways. Do you write tasting notes for the wines you drink privately? If not, why not?
VK: Yes, that’s the word. Tension. I hope I learn how to resolve it. And yes, absolutely, I write notes for everything. Remember, I only came seriously to wine in my 40s. I have to learn from every sip. Even 1L samples from anonymous producers have something to teach me. And I love the discipline of writing notes for every wine. Finding a way into a wine from another area of life -- art, music, literature, nature, even politics -- and trying to make it relatable in that way. I develop and share some of these notes on my Instagram feed. I treasure the community of winemakers, journalists, critics, and consumers who converge there. I always learn something from the exchanges that ensue, they keep me on my toes and honest, but also encourage me to dig deeper.
TT: Draw me some image-lines between these wines and music, weather, landscape, animals, or anything your mind sends up…. Grüner Veltliner. Loire Chenin (of the type characterized by Boudignon and/or Jackie Blot). Baden Pinot Noir. Mosel Riesling. Pfalz Riesling. Lagrein. Styrian Gelber Muskateller.
VK: Whoa. I’d really need to pause and think about this one. I guess without a specific wine in mind for each of these varieties (save Jackie Blot), my mind doesn’t send up image lines. As much as I wish it did! I know you are the master of this, and admire this talent.
TT: Aw shucks. But like all talents, it was given to me, I didn’t earn it and it’s not a virtue, it’s just something I can do. I’m not sure it can be a learned skill, but I’m not sure it can’t be. I think you may be better at it than you think. But here’s an even more difficult question!
You’re going to say “It is both,” but I’m not going to let you. Ready? Is wine, in essence for you, intimate or convivial? Bear in mind these aren’t mutually exclusive, but for all of us, I think, we enter wine through one of those doorways and not the other, though the other may later appear.
VK: Intimate. I want it to be communal and occasionally it is. For instance, this summer I received some extraordinary Franconian Silvaners -- Keller’s Feuervogel (Rheinhessen of course), Weltner’s Echterberg, and Oestreicher’s Augustbaum -- and over three glorious summer evenings, my husband and I drank them together, in pure, almost speechless joy and appreciation. I knew they moved him as much as they moved me, and we didn’t need words to make that clear. So that, for me is the ideal: intimate conviviality, if you will.
TT: What’s your taste in music? (Vague question I know; be as terse or expansive as you wish.)
VK: Predominantly classical, from early polyphony to late Romantic. The essentials:
Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine: that magificent cathedral of sound
Mozart’s later chamber works
Beethoven’s late quartets
Dvorak’s Piano Quintet No. 2
But above all: Richard Strauss’s Im Abendrot. I can’t get really into the ultra-reverberant recordings, but I love a take by the Copenhagen Philharmonic with Elisabeth Meyer Topsoe. It avoids the excess and opulence, and gets straight to the pure, shimmering, polychrome Alpenglow of this piece. It’s all acceptance and glory and peace. If it were a wine? I don’t know. Tscheppe’s Gelber Muskateller? And aged Trossen Riesling from his Madonna vineyard? All the tonalities are there. All I know is that in the music and in the wines, this is music I want to hear again and again. For eternity.
TT: Both “for” and of eternity in cases like that. Funny, your taste and mine span several centuries, because with classical music I pick up where you leave off, i.e., late Romanticism to pre-Impressionism (Fauré is my very favorite composer) and along through post-Impressionism until the music got silly and dissonant. But my tastes are rangy, like yours are. The last things I heard were a self-made mix of (jazz vocalists) Norma Winstone and Viktoria Tolstoy, along with (jazz guitarist) Sylvain Luc, and finally some snippets from the soundtrack to The Great Beauty. Next up I have a mix of Robert Fripp’s Music For Quiet Moments, along with bits of Niels Frahm and Olafur Arnalds, and I also have a metal mix called “Bang Your Filthy Maggot Head” cued up for that easy-listening appetite.
VK: You’ve just given me quite a list to cue up. Thank you! I have never had the patience for Fauré. But you encourage me to try again. Do you have a favorite piece?
TT: Maybe a good place to start is with the two piano quartets. I have a good version by the Ames Quartet. At times I hear this music and think there’s nothing more I could ever ask from music. But this is sublime, and we need to return to the ridiculous.
VK: Gladly! On the other end of my spectrum, there’s RADIO FIP. The most eclectic and ear-opening range of music. It adheres to no algorithms. There’s something inherently human in its eccentricity. I need this “tap” into current and global music culture as much as I need my grounding classical pieces. Recently playlists put together by German wine collector Robert Dentice have been a huge source of expansive inspiration. I do listen to music when I write, and especially when I edit, to drive my work forward. Do you, Terry?
TT: For that I use ambient, some Tim Story (who provided music for my documentary) and people like Kit Watkins and Rudy Adrian. It’s sort of sonic wallpaper, and really conducive to immersion into writing and editing, as you say.
Back to wine, another question: Do you think it is accurate to call the wines of the Trentino/Alto Adige “cool climate” wines? What about the Valais?
VK: Not really. Unless you get up, up ,up to --what?-- 700, 800, 1000 meters? But I do think it is fair to call them Alpine wines, though the Alps are changing and the wines change with them, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. I think growers in both regions are fully aware that they have to change varieties and/or take their vines higher into the hills if they want to maintain the Alpine character of their wines. Here I would also say attentive, intuitive farming playing a critical role. Look at the wines of Nusserhof down in Bozen. That place gets hotter than Palermo in summer. But Heinrich Mayr’s Lagreins are tempered, moderate, fresh. Same for the Valais (a region I admit I know far less well and have not yet visited). I have been drinking my way through the Gamays and Pinot Noirs of Domaine La Colombe. They are not shy on alcohol. But they are tempered, balanced and fresh in the way of what we call “cool climate.” To me, that’s the farming talking. What do you think, Terry?
TT: I sort of infamously have a “thing” against wines north of 14% alcohol, regardless of where they come from, and that can be bothersome for me with too many Alpine wines. It’s one thing when a wine is truly hot-climate, because then you get an amplitude and capaciousness into which the alcohol is absorbed. But with more northerly wines, the high alcohol seems to struggle clumsily against a fundamentally more tensile bone structure. I agree with you – the basic struggle will be to obtain the flavors associated with phenolic ripeness without the corresponding excess of alcohol, and to do it without intervening technologically.
VK: That is such an excellent point: the struggle between the fine bone structure of Alpine varieties and terroir against that southern generosity probably is exactly where some of these wines lose their way.
TT: As a wine lover, do you have a baseline of acceptability for any given wine? That is, what attributes would you always find objectionable?
VK: Excess, imbalance, conformity.
TT: Amen. What am I neglecting to ask you?
VK: I guess the same question I ask myself: Why does anyone care about my opinion or perspective on wine? I’m not an MW, a trained journalist, or an especially gifted taster. And, especially now, in our fraught moment in human existence, why should any of us devote so much time to wine when there are so many other pressing, existential concerns? This is the question I ask myself all the time. I don’t have a satisfying answer. But I will say that wine is a place where I have found connection and purpose. I hope I’ll find ways to make this more transformative and powerful. I admit there is also a small element of escapism also. My husband, in his job as a pro bono lawyer, fights every day for the protection of basic human rights, protecting seekers of political asylum, victims of domestic abuse. My 15-year-old daughter is on every environmental committee a high-schooler can be on. She has already shouldered the burden of changing the world so it can continue to exist. My mom marches for gun control outside her congressman’s office and takes refugees in to her home to give them a start in this country. I admire them all so much for that lived advocacy and activism. Sometimes, just holing up at my desk with a book on the history of the Rhine as a waterway, or learning about the state of the world when Steiner was promulgating his spiritual interpretation of farming practicing, and understanding how his lessons resonate so powerfully….it all takes me away from the dangers and fears of today and gives perspective on the ebbs and flows of history and time. That said, I hope that in some tiny way I can contribute by drawing attention to farming and connection with nature and a philosophy that sees humanity as intrinsic to nature, not separate from it. But there is no way to equate that to the work my husband, daughter, and mom are doing.
TT: That is a valid concern, really, for anyone who isn’t directly performing work that helps people. It’s the old trope, “How can I write symphonies when people are starving?” If you apply your moral sense onto a sort of grid of usefulness, there’s always something more you could be doing, and other people doing more than you do. That’s true for everyone, right? The researcher looking for a drug to cure ALS may wonder why she isn’t at the soup kitchen, and the man at the soup kitchen may wonder why he’s not strapped to a tree to prevent the loggers from cutting it down. We do what we’re made to do, and if you’re drawn to write about wine in such a way as to bring people to an understanding of our tenderest place in nature, that is not to be despised.
Finally (for now at least), are there wines you might describe using these (or similar) words, and what wines are they? Elegiac. Chipper! Sprightly. Inferential. Overwhelming. Mysterious. Strict. Forgiving. Consoling. Indirect. Candid. Secretive. And, if a wine is exquisite, is it more likely to be a sad-feeling wine, or a happy-feeling one?
VK: Exquisite wines for me are always joyful. This can be a quiet, inner joy, but I never experience a wine as sad unless it’s, you know, the Gallo Gallon. Now that’s sad. (No offense, mom, I know you love it!) A wine I revisited very recently, a Colombera & Garella Bramaterra 2012, well I suppose that is both joyful and elegiac. It summons all the loss and despair of the Alto Piemonte in the bitter 20thcentury.. But it also signals the restoration of hope and the commitment to hard work that wine, at its best, always represents. But in general, I don’t think I tend to ascribe personality to wine.