R.I.P. Klaus Neckerauer
I heard this morning that Klaus Neckerauer had died. I’m taken aback by how strongly it’s making me feel.
My younger readers don’t know who he is, and even my older readers and long-time friends/customers may have to shake your heads to recall him.
Many many years ago when I was just starting out as an importer, I had the luxury of time to go prospecting. Long gone, those days. Does any young wine pilgrim have time to cold-call at wine estates today, or must we have been tipped off beforehand? I don’t remember any more who or what tipped me off to Weingut Neckerauer, but off I went on my detour to see what was up.
Back then the wines were good – very good. He still had a number of 1983s remaining along with older vintages (back to ’75 if memory serves) and the wines were classic burly Pfalz wines, chewy with extract and grip, and grown largely in a desert. Most soils were sandy and some were pure sand. Klaus himself was full-throttle and eager, and has to have been the most accommodating vintner I ever worked with. Whatever I asked for, I got. His prices were absurd given the low yields with which he had to contend.
Those were the days of dosage (a.k.a. “Süssreserve” in German) and most wines fermented as far as they were able, with final adjustments made before bottling. That would be anathema today, as it smacks of “manipulation” but back then there was more “sweet” Riesling in Germany and the practice of dosage had certain advantages over the other available methods – most prominently the interruption of fermentation by sulfur or filtration, each of which was merely another choice of manipulation. It also happened I was good at the work of blending, and many producers came to trust me as a colleague.
Neckerauer’s estate had a singular facet I have seen no other place; he made a little dosage from each wine he vinified, and kept a huge library of various dosages in demijohns in the cellar. I myself only infrequently favored the older ones. On one hand it was a kind of alchemy to work with them, but it smacked uncomfortably of “forming” the wines rather than letting them be. And not all of those old dosageswere healthy.
Yet it was easy to assemble a group of excellent, even thrilling wines, which I took to market proudly and which got the kudos they deserved from press and customers alike. For nearly twenty years this was a fine relationship. Then came trouble.
The wines slowly deteriorated. It was hard to know why. I ascribed it to bad luck and inopportune vintages, but when the decline persisted I had a hard choice to make. Let me clarify, I never selected or offered wines I felt were sub-standard, but I offered fewer and fewer wines as time passed. Sales of course suffered. Neckerauer’s son Arnd arrived at the winery, and I hoped he’d be the new broom that would sweep clean. Remember, the family had been nothing but generous and cooperative, we had sentiment and history, and so I hoped and hoped. I probably held on too long; that was a flaw of mine. But when the 2002 vintage came along it seemed to augur well for an uptick in quality. Alas, this was not sustained. We finally, regretfully had to part.
Some years later I got news that the estate had closed its doors. No one knew what Arnd was doing, but his parents were both in failing health and the whole thing was melancholy. But life pounds on, and I didn’t really think about Neckerauers except to have a “what a shame” moment if I happened to be driving nearby. The wines are long gone from my cellar.
But today’s news hit me with something that felt more than elegiac. Call it tenuous. Everything feels tenuous these days. The death of a man who to me was already half ghost was a message of the mystery of the years, all the years, our younger selves, and the surprising people we have become.
One year I arrived at Neckerauer pale and shaken. Klaus noticed it right away. “Are you all right?” he asked, concerned. “Yeah, I’m fine; I just hit a pheasant with my car on the way here.”
“Do you remember where it was?” Klaus demanded. “Yes, it was coming over the hill from Freinsheim, just as your village came into view.”
“Wait a few minutes,” he said.
Presently he returned, drying his hands. He had found the pheasant and brought it home to his kitchen. It would be dinner that night. No sense in wasting a perfectly good pheasant. And maybe you’ll think I’m just a sentimental softie – guilty as charged – but I think it was a way to honor the bird, to let it be sustenance instead of roadkill, to let nothing go to waste. So I bid you peace, my friend. It was good between us for a good long time. I know I held on too long. I know I don’t regret it.
Read the contemporary notes on Klaus in the 2001 German portfolio - page 82.