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Letter from Vienna

Vienna, 4th September 2020

Hello Kelby, 

being here for the first time in a couple of years has made me do a lot of thinking. So far Vienna has weathered the Covid-19 storm better than most big Western cities I’ve either seen or read extensive reports from, however, even before the virus arrived a lot of stores and some bars I used to frequent either closed or changed dramatically. So, I’m very glad that shortly after my last visit you were able to come here and got to experience the city when it was still on top form, complete with its own special arrogance.

I’m even more glad that it was possible to show you my Berlin and my London before they experienced much more major upheavals than Vienna. Although I never set out to show you my New York in the same way, and you know that city well enough yourself, I was also able to do the same thing with NYC to some extent. I’m so glad all this was possible and that you found interesting not only because of these cities intrinsic interest, but also because they shaped the way I think and how I see the world. I don’t want to beam myself back to the “good old days”, but in all of these cities some things that are important to me have been lost and others will go by the time the Covid-19 pandemic is over.

However, that’s not why I’m writing today. It’s to fill you in on what I do when I return to “my” cities, either alone or in company. At first here’s always an element of nostalgia, plus some curiosity to see if and how familiar places have changed, but this is only “foreplay”. As I wander around though I’m also looking for stuff that I lost or forgot. It’s rather like going to a favorite bookshop in the hope that serendipity will lead you to a great book you didn’t realize existed when you walked in the door, except that when the book’s “in my hand” I recognize it as a long lost friend. The interesting thing about this is that it only happens if I manage to become completely absorbed by the city and my mind is totally emptied of all the everyday trivialities. That feeling of recognition is delicious, because of the conviction that this thing has rediscovered me and that it is a thread that if I follow it will lead me somewhere surprising I could have gone a long time ago, but for some reason didn’t.

Vienna is a very old city, not only in the strict historical sense, but also in terms of the widespread awareness of its past amongst the citizens and without that I don’t think that I would have discovered Hauenstein back at the end of the 1990s when I spent a lot of time in Vienna, or that I would remembered him today, more than twenty years later. He has an extremely rare combination of mutations that mean he ages very slowly and is now much older than anyone else you or I know. Alternatively, he may be suffering from a delusion coupled with extraordinary historical knowledge and a great acting ability that enable him to persuade highly intelligent people he really was there when major historic events occurred.

When I get home I’ll dig out his story and read it through again. I would send it to you, but it’s in German It’s one of many writing projects that got left at the wayside because other work that brought in money became pressing for various reasons (sometimes I desperately needed the money!) Loose ends, frayed edges and a lingering feeling that time is now getting short. At the same time the pressing knowledge distances that for most of my life were no more than short hops are now like the great voids between the planets and will probably remainso for a long time to come.

Thanks again for the chance to give you an introduction to “my cities” as I experienced them and how they make me see the world. That was a very special pleasure!

Best,

Stuart

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In Denial in America Now

There’s a very apt American expression for the current position in the USA: IN DENIAL. This means not just denying one or two true facts on certain occasions, but living in a state of denial about a situation of some significance for your own life and those of others. The Germans have a great word for this that says exactly what it is: Lebenslüge or life-lie, i.e. a life based upon a lie that infects every part that life. However, we’re now learning about a form of being in denial that goes even further than that, in fact, one that takes it as far as you possibly can. I’m not talking about those mild cases who are simply continuing as before as if nothing had changed. It’s plain that some of them know all they’re doing is keeping up appearances; an activity that helps maintain the popular delusion they recognize for what it is. Their collusion in this process is the thing they’re really in denial about. However, for the hardcore cases it’s a completely different ball game, because their gripe is not with certain real world events, but with the real world, period. Their goal is a wholesale substitution of “alternative facts” for reality. I’m not comparing them morally with the most extreme 20th century authoritarian regimes – left or right – that attempted this trick, but I am pointing out that some of the same psychological mechanisms are involved (see Losing Reality by Robert Jay Lifton for more on this). It’s hard to imagine how they could succeed in their project for any length of time or to any great extent, but so many people are involved in this thing and it’s hard to imagine them all accepting – at some point – that the game is finally up. Surely, in-denial-groups will continue to reject the real world out of hand and clinging together if only not to feel alone in the face of reality. In a virtual space of their own they could realize their goal in a kind of parallel universe and a lost world far removed enough from reality to be inviolable. I’m not sure that I like that idea, but it would be preferable to the present situation.

For another take on this battle between the people of the United States of Fantasy and the American Reality Based Community see this brilliant story by Bruno Macaes in the New York Times of 12th November 2020:

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/12/opinion/donald-trump-reality.html

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SPECIAL FX: What F.X. Pichler’s Resignation from the Vinea Wachau Means

At 10:29am this morning it became clear that the story I was planning to post here will have to wait for another day. That’s when the Wine + Partners press release announcing the resignation of Weingut F.X.Pichler in Oberloiben from the Vinea Wachau wine producers association they co-founded in 1983 landed in my email and the shit hit the fan.

The determination of winemaker Lucas Pichler (pictured above with his wife Johanna) to focus on place of origin and the character deriving from it, aka terroir, as the defining feature of his wines lead to a fundamental disagreement with Vinea Wachau and this radical step. The situation demands immediate explanation, because I think it represents a change of direction for the region no less important than that of 1983.

37 years ago the Wachau producers acted to protect the integrity and reputation of their region. There was also the pressing need to give consumers clear orientation to increase their confidence in the wines’ authenticity. For all these reasons three patented designations for exclusive use by Vinea Wachau’s members were introduced: Steinfeder (light-bodied dry wines); Federspiel (medium-bodied dry wines); Smaragd (full-bodied dry wines). Since then, those names have been learned by sommeliers and wine lovers right around Planet Wine.

Simultaneously, chaptalization – the addition of sugar to must and/or fermenting wine to increase the alcoholic content – was banned for all wines bearing these designations. Here, I must point out that back in the Wachau of the 1980s it often wasn’t possible to pick grapes with 13% potential alcohol, in fact, in some vintages even 12% natural alcohol was rare!

These principals, along with the leading producers’ uncompromising pursuit of quality, were the foundations upon which the modern reputation of the Wachau was built.

No less important a date for me was my first visit to Weingut F.X. Pichler on the 23rd November 1988, because this was my personal Wachau revelation. Later, in the Wachau & Krems chapter of the German-language book Wein Spricht Deutsch (2007, Scherz Verlag), I described this experience:

Not so long ago in a vine-clothed river valley not so far away, when the steep and rocky hillsides were dusted with snow, a wonder occurred. In a narrow alley in an ancient village close to the river bank the wooden gateway to house Nr. 27 opened and I entered the simple courtyard.

“The Heurigen is closed today,” the wiry winegrower said to me dryly and I wondered if I would get the chance to taste his wines. Then he invited me to follow him down a steep stone staircase. In the dim light of the cellar between large old wooden barrels his deeply furrowed face spoke of enormous determination. With a glass pipette, the form of which spoke of an earlier century, he carefully drew a sample of white wine from one of the barrels, then presented me with some of the wine in a tall-stemmed wine glass.

“Riesling Ried Steinertal” he said in a professional tone. The wine had an incredibly subtle bouquet and tasted as clear as a bell; an image of ferns surrounding a waterfall popped into my mind. “Riesling Ried Oberhauser” quickly followed, and this second wine was much richer with a seductive apricot aroma.

 “Riesling Ried Kellerberg” rang out and I stretched out my glass for some of the wine. The Kellerberg totally amazed me with its immense power and every bit as much finesse – tension like that in the spring of a fully-wound chronometer!

As you can see from this true fairy tale, terroir and the striving for truly exceptional quality were the twin obsessions of Franz Xaver Pichler. The wines he made during those years redefined what dry Riesling could be and established new benchmarks for those wines. It was really exciting to follow all that during my frequent visits to the region and I often purchased small quantities of wine for my cellar. I still have bottles of Kellerberg Riesling from F.X.Pichler going back to 1994. Of course, I wasn’t the only one who was excited, and their reputation grew during those years in leaps and bounds. Sometimes there was literally a queue outside that gate waiting to buy wine!

By the time the 1994 Kellerberg Riesling was released every wine expert, along with everyone who thought they were a wine expert, had an opinion about the F.X. Pichler wines. Some preferred the Steinertal Riesling or the Loibenberg to the Kellerberg, while others were obsessed with one or other of their Grüner Veltliners. This was understandable because they all tasted so strikingly different, and wine drinkers’ personal preferences differ too. However, it wasn’t difficult to find naysayers who would tell you the F.X. Pichler wines were totally overrated. Franz Xaver and his wife Rudolfine relished the controversy, knowing that it only made them better known.

During the late 1990s Lucas Pichler became ever more closely involved in the family estate and it wasn’t long before he had to suffer those determined to tell the story of how the son wasn’t as great a winemaker as his father. It was all bullshit and many fans rushed to Lucas’ defense. Roughly ten years later the situation repeated itself when the modernistic new F.X. Pichler cellar was built. Now, Lucas really is in the spotlight.

The root of the current situation lies in the painful truth that the world has changed. The new climatic situation means there’s no longer any problem harvesting grapes with 13% or more potential alcohol in the Wachau. You just wait a bit longer before picking. Additionally, within the German-speaking wine world the focus has shifted completely away from grape sugar content as the defining principal of wine quality to place of origin. This is also usually divided into three categories: region; village; single-vineyard.

Here I’m thinking particularly of the German designation GG or Großes Gewächs for dry single-vineyard wines at the top of the VDP classification, and the Austrian equivalents EL or Erste Lage for dry single-vineyard wines at the pinnacle of the Österreichische Traditionsweingüter classification. Both are translations of the French Grand Cru and function as such in the marketplace; a hard fact that can’t be ignored without peril.

The introduction in the Wachau of the DAC regulations with the 2020 vintage – Austria’s version of France’s appellation d’origine contrôlée laws that focus on “classic” grape varieties and place of origin – brought things to a head. For Lucas Pichler, “the introduction of the DAC designations would have been the right moment for a modernization of the Vinea Wachau regulations, for example, by limiting the Smaragd designation to the top sites, or doing away with the three Wahau categories that climate change has made obsolete.” None of this happened, and with the support and his wife and parents, Lucas has taken the decision to stick his neck out. I suggest the sensational quality of his dry single-vineyard dry wines from the 2019 vintage is a strong argument in favor of his decision.

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Why is Germany the Wrong Side of the Wine Tracks?

To find out who the wine princess pictured above is read on:

Trink is a new online magazine about German-speaking wines founded by American writer duo Paula Redes Sidore and Valerie Kathawala. At their invitation I took part in the second of their #TrinkTalks on Zoom recently. So did London-based writer on german-speaking wine subjects Anne Kebiehl MW and New York Times wine critic Eric Asmiov. The latter asserted that the reason German wines don’t have a better image in the US is the widespread perception of Riesling – Germany’s signature wine grape – as a sweet wine, though today the great majority of German wines are dry. He prescribed education as the cure, but I’m convinced there’s an additional problem that’s yet more fundamental. Let me explain:

None of the experts dispute that the best dry whites from Germany are world class wines, yet, with a small number of exceptions, they continue to struggle for recognition in America. Why?

Let’s take two bottles of a top dry German wine, for example, the Morstein GG  (German for Grand Cru) from Wittmann in Westhofen/ Rheinhessen; one of the new wine classics of Germany (typically under $100 retail). We decant one of the Morsteins into an empty Burgundy bottle, say, the delicious Corton Charlemagne Grand Cru from Coche-Dury (around $4,000 retail if you can find it). Experience of many such comparisons tells me that most American wine lovers will prefer the Morstein in the bottle with the French label to the one in the original flute bottle, so the fundamental problem for the wines of Germany is not taste, but their national identity.

The image problem of German wine is rooted in the perception of Germany as a wrong wine location by a majority of Americans regardless of the facts regarding climate, soils, the winemaker’s ability and commitment and all other factors that actually determine wine character and quality.

It’s often supposed national and other stereotype must be frequently and clearly expressed to have a serious effect on the way people think and behavior, but my training as a cultural historian taught me that stereotypes beneath the waterline of easy audibility and visibility can still exert a pervasive influence upon the way we think about people and things.

The widespread belief that the Germans are excellent engineers, efficient technicians and excellent bureaucrats, but humorless people lacking in sensuality makes it hard for most Americans to imagine that they could make great wines. This stereotype is neither the product of experience nor the result of rational enquiry, yet it is rarely doubted, much less challenged.

The reality of modern Germany is physically and experientially far removed from the majority of Americans, even well-educated Americans, and therefore cannot disturb or disrupt the deeply rooted Groupthink that shaped this stereotype over decades and continues to shape it.

For most Americans France is romantic Paris, Christian Dior, Coco Channel, Paul Bocuse, cheese, truffles and wine. That’s a massive contrast to the automobiles, engineering, punctuality, order, sausages and beer association with Germany. There’s no hint of romance anywhere in there!

For those Americans who watch TV Germany is the mythical home of the Ultimate Driving Machine, because that’s been the slogan of BMW’s TV ads for many years. How could the creators of the automotive equivalent of the Terminator possibly be hedonistic, funny or sexy?

German supermodels like Claudia Schiffer and Heidi Klum might seem to contradict this image, but they became famous through association with non-Germanic cultures. Young Claudia Schiffer reminded everybody of the French Brigitte Bardot back in 1987 when she had her breakthrough in Elle Magazine and she still does. Heidi Klum’s already looked like an All American Girl in her breakthrough photos in Sports Illustrated Magazine in 1998, since when she became ever more Americanized in appearance.

The tendency for German immigrants to integrate in America in a way that de-Germanizes them goes back to shortly before 1917 when the US entered WW! and grew enormously from 1941 when the US entered WWII. It would be possible to write a substantial work of history about this largely undocumented aspect of American culture.

Of course, Americans sometimes encounter exceptions to their stereotype of the Germans, but this rarely results their expectations changing, because the stereotype is so deeply ingrained. Only direct experience of Germany, for example of the New Berlin, seems to do that.

Recent events have begun to shift perceptions of Germany in America and some American journalists have gone out of their way to try and tell the truth about contemporary Germany, yet wider public perception continues to lag far behind the reality.

Let us imagine a transgender woman winemaker in Germany who is funny, sensual and emotional, and that her wines wonderfully reflect her personality. In liberal and cosmopolitan New York City she ought to have a great chance of becoming the talk of the town. However, I fear there would be one obstacle to that and it would be neither her gender nor her sexual orientation. It would be the fact she’s German. If she were French or Italian, then she would have it so much easier! By the way, she exists and her name is Simona Maier and she lives in Mühlhausen/Baden close to Hiedelberg.

Why should all this occur to me? I lived in New York City for 4 years from the fall of 2012 and before that I’d spent at least another year traveling in the US. During that time my interest in German wines and culture frequently surprised many of the Americans I met and sometimes caused consternation. As a trained cultural historian I did a lot of thinking about all this and investigated the history of how Germany, the Germans and their wines were perceived in the US. I lived in Germany for 20 years before that, and live there again now. I have spent almost my entire adult life with one foot in one culture and one foot in another. As a result this kind of reflection come naturally to me. These observation are not moral judgments of any kind.

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I return to JamesSuckling.com for a One Off Tasting Report to Ensure Continued Coverage of German Wines

Tasting for JamesSuckling.com is demanding work, but often a lot of fun too!

The cancellation of major trade events such as ProWein Dusseldorf in March, the largest annual trade fair on Planet Wine, then Vinitaly and the Mainzer Weinbörse in April created huge problems for the wine trade and media this year. Even Bordeaux’s 2019s have had to work extra hard to win the attention they deserve. Unable to travel to Bordeaux to taste the 2019 vintage from barrel as he’d normally do, James Suckling had cask samples air-freighted to him in Hong Kong and was able to taste more than 1,000 wines for his comprehensive 2019 Bordeaux report. Check out those reports for some of the most extensive coverage:

BORDEAUX 2019: ALL SCORES AND NOTES

HAUT-BRION MAKES THE PERFECT 2019

TOP 10 BEST VALUE WINES IN 2019 BORDEAUX EN PRIMEUR

James Suckling with one of his collection of Cuban art at his home in Tuscany

Even domestically Germany’s exciting 2019 vintage received scant media attention. This is a great shame, because on the basis of the small number of 2019 Rieslings I’ve tasted so far, the new vintage has everything I look for in great German wines: impressive ripeness and concentration, racy brilliance, minerality and subtlety. There may be a few overblown wines out there due to the unusual harvest weather – a very warm southerly wind in mid-October 2019 pushed both ripeness and the development of noble rot – but so far, I haven’t encountered them. With the current economic crisis nobody in Germany is going to increase prices, so this looks like a great buying opportunity.  

There’s a limit to how much wine a single critic can taste, so James Suckling has asked me to cover this year’s new releases in Germany. I was a member of the JamesSuckling.com tasting team from September 2016 through March 2019 and was a Senior Editor at the end of that period. As well as leading coverage of the wines of Germany and Austria, I also tasted with James in France, Spain, Italy, Chile, Argentina, and California and reported on the wines from the US states east of the West Coast. I left the company to work as a consultant for the Gut Hermannsberg (GHB) estate, one of the leading producers in the Nahe region of Germany. Of course, there’s a conflict of interest there, so James will taste the GHB wines for the report. I will also take a month’s unpaid leave from GHB during August, when I will undertake the tastings and visits necessary for the report.   

With James Suckling at Nick Stock in Beijing, November 2018

Before making this announcement, I spoke with a number of leading producers in Germany and all of them were supportive. They’re delighted that James is determined to cover Germany in the same depth as the other leading wine regions of the world. Continuity is vital to building interest in Germany’s distinctive wines. That applies as much to the stunning 2018 reds (most notably to the Spätburgunder/Pinot Noirs) as it does to the 2019 whites.

I’ve tasted the young wines of each vintage on the German Rhine and Mosel since the 1983 vintage and was recently awarded the Professor Muller-Thurgau prize for lifetime achievement by the famous Geisenheim Wine University in the Rheingau. Since 2015 Germany has had a run of very good to excellent vintages. My goal is not only to find the most exciting new wines for the readers of JamesSuckling.com, but also to figure out if 2019 really is the best of these vintages, as it currently appears to be.  

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THE NEW BIG BROTHERS

For a writer it can be shocking to realize out how few of your own strongest associations aren’t shared by the majority of your readers. However, almost everybody who reads this will know who the original Big Brother was. The events of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: A Novel (1949) take place in the year of the title in Airstrip One, the former Great Britain is now just a province of Oceania, one of the three totalitarian empires that rule the world. Big Brother is the personification of the ruling party of Oceania and the party’s most important slogan is Big Brother Is Watching You.

The hero of the novel, Winston Smith, finds out just how closely he is being watched, not only by every telescreen – in 1984 each television is also fitted with an eye-like camera – but by further hidden cameras. He lives in a world where the Newspeak language is the tool of the all-powerful party’s policy of doublethink. All opposition is deemed to begin with thoughtcrime and is ruthlessly crushed, if necessary with the ultimate weapon Room 101, usually before the potential rebel even acts. Who doesn’t find this vision of totalitarianism combined with 24/7 surveillance frightening? There’s even a word for anything that reminds us of this scenario: Orwellian.

In spite of this, with extremely few exceptions, each of us is carrying a mini telescreen around with us and that doesn’t even seem to worry us. Of course, our mobile/cell phones or whatever else we call them are extremely useful and often serve our needs and wishes. That’s why we carry them around with us and why we push the thought that somebody might be using them to spy on us to the backs of our minds. Occasionally, a media report jolts some of us out of that state of complacency, but we still carry the thing around with us.

The Big Brother reality TV shows are something else entirely, since the TV audience “spies” on a group of paid volunteers who live together in a sealed container. It’s a competition and the winner is the last person left in this cramped luxury prison. They were developed by the Endemol production company, and the first of them aired on the 16th September 1999 in the Netherlands. There are now 54 Big Brother franchises around the world, and this ubiquity combined with the trivial and voyeuristic nature of the show has helped make Orwell’s vision seem much less threatening. The show also pushed the reality TV category into the big league. But recent events have changed this whole situation in an entirely unexpected way.

It was a very strange moment recently when Romana, one of the contestants in the German SAT1 station’s Big Brother TV show, was released from the container. Less than three weeks earlier the show’s producers broke with normal practice and told the contestants what was going on outside the container, that is all about the global Covid-19 pandemic. It led to shock and tears.

The odd thing about that situation is how it must have slowly dawned on the contestants that they weren’t exceptional any longer, because exactly that very day the great majority of Germans began living in a few rooms sealed off from the outside world except for brief shopping trips. If I’d been one of the contestants I’d have thought, “Shit! Now nobody will want to watch us any more!” However, the Big Brother contestants remained different form the rest of us, because they started isolating long before we all did and they did so of their own free will. That was enough to keep them watchable.

The moment when Romana stepped out of the container into “freedom” was even more bizarre though, because not only was she suddenly confronted with the uncomfortable reality that were all struggling to cope with, but she was merely transferring from the isolation of the Big Brother container to the more extreme isolation of her own home where she had even less people to talk to or do things together with than in the container! That remained me of one of the slogans of Oceania’s ruling party in 1984: Freedom is Slavery.

All this made it plain how reality TV is only “real” for the participants (but never the audience) as long they’re inside the container and they don’t really know what’s happening in the outside world. As soon as they step out of the container the TV reality collapses like a bursting bubble and is revealed to have been a form of self-delusion. From an outside world perspective the Big Brother container is an alternative reality with its own alternative facts.

Of course, the other people in our world creating alternative realities out of alternative facts are the new generation of populist leaders. They are simultaneously like the Big Brother contestants and the show’s producers, since each of them is forming the alternative reality within the “container” of their administration and also believing totally in all their own alternative facts. Perhaps this is the reason several of them seem convinced they can’t catch Covid-19, a trap at least one of them fell into.

What is it that makes these people enter those “containers” of their own free will? That’s a question for psychologists, but my guess is that just as we had to be persuaded and prodded into our present/recent confinement, some part of each of them had to be pushed reluctantly in there by another part that was much stronger and more demanding.

Let’s face it though, a great many of us are members of of cliques or associations that demand a degree of agreement with the other members regarding whatever’s the focus of the group, be it skateboarding, flower arranging or socialism. Who doesn’t sometimes tow the party line in such a group in order to fit in? Psychologists have a horrible Orwellian term for this phenomenon that turns groups into bubbles: Groupthink. It causes everyone inside a bubble to see the world differently to how everyone outside their bubble does and that distortion alters their members judgement and behavior. So, a lot of us were already in a limited form of self-isolation in a kind of invisible container – a social bubble – before Covi-19 came along!

Of course, mainstream reality has been shaped not by populist leaders, but by the untold millions of people in various degrees of self-isolation and those people unlucky enough to be in the more frightening isolation of hospitals. Our huge number makes the basic facts of our everyday lives overwhelmingly objective. Now it is the populist leaders who look to be the most isolated people of all in their totally subjective bubbles.

Shut inside their alternative realities they’re desperately trying to spin the unfolding catastrophe as a story of their own heroism, although the reality of the outside world frequently contradicts their narratives. The real cause of their isolation though is not some physical barriers or the guards who man them though, rather it is the way they turn away from the enormous suffering they are surrounded by. Although they all have that in common I think they fall into two distinct groups, the first of those being the leaders who are genuinely hungry for power and control. These Big Brothers are still watching us, that is watching for any sign of dissent or opposition from among the populations of the countries they rule in order to crush it.

The other group of leaders isn’t interested in power for its own sake, but because it makes them the center of attention. They are obsessed with having vast numbers of people watching and listening to them, with being at the top of the TV ratings, filling the newspaper and magazine front covers. These New Big Brothers don’t feel any empathy for us, nor even curiosity and therefore are uninterested in watch us except in order to measure how much we are watching them!

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“DIESMAL SITZEN WIR ALLE IN DEN TWIN TOWERS” / “THIS TIME WE’RE ALL IN THE TWIN TOWERS”: Nachrichten aus NYC von /News from NYC by Jürgen Fränznick

Im “Hotel of Hope” bei dem deutschen TV-Journalist Jürgen Fränznick (oben) habe ich Herbst 2012 bis Sommer 2013 in East Village von New York City gewohnt. Gerade habe ich diese bewegende Nachrichten von Ihn erhalten. Die Fotos sind auch von Jürgen und (mit Ausnahme des Letztens) sehr aktuell Hiermit der Link zum erwähnten TV-Beitrag mit Christiane Meier (ARD New York Korrespondentin):

https://www.tagesschau.de/multimedia/sendung/tt-7425.html

I lived in the German TV journalist Jürgen Fränznick’s “Hotel of Hope” in the East Village of New York City from the fall of 2012 through summer of 2013. I just received this moving news from him. The photos, including that of the author above are his. All of them very fresh except for the last one.

NOW the shit hits the fan! 

Now the shit hits the fan!

Bis gestern strahlte das Wetter wie in jenen Frühjahrstagen 1986, als der Reaktor in Tschernobyl geschmolzen war. Und das Datum springt nochmal: “9/11 – we never forget” – doch diesmal sitzen wir alle in den Twin Towers. Aber auf welchem Stockwerk und wie weit zum Treppenhaus?

Until yesterdaythe weather was beautiful like in those spring days of 1986 when the Chernobyl reactor melted down. And that date comes to mind again: “9/11 – we never forget” – however, this time we’re all in the Twin Towers. But on which floor and how far from the stairs?

Und ganz schlimm: diese brutale Ruhe – in Grand Central Station (ohne Verkehr zum schönsten Shelter der Stadt mutiert) kannst Du die Obdachlosen atmen hören. 

And really terrible: the brutal silence – in Grand Central Station (without traffic converted into the most beautiful shelter in the city) you can hear the breathing of the homeless.

Kein Flugzeug am Himmel. Mehr Corona als in China. Die Stimmung kippelt. “Help me make it through the night” (Kris Kristofferson) .

No airplanes in the sky. More Corona than in China. Moral collapses. “Help me make it through the night (Kris Kristofferson).

Seit der Nacht zum Donnerstag – wir waren dabei, die “Tagesschau 20 Uhr/26.03.2020“ vorzubereiten – unser Studio-Kameramann Peter war da bereits unter Verdacht isoliert, aber noch wussten wir alle nicht, dass Peter am Morgen des Donnerstages positiv getestet sein würde – kriecht jetzt doch Sorge hoch in mir: das mobile Leichenschau-Zelt hinter dem “Bellevue Hospital” Downtown Manhattan ist groß genug, um mich zu erschüttern; und die Bilder vom “Elmhurst Hospital“ in (meinem) Queens machen mir – nein keine Angst, aber machen mir klar: Hilfe hier wird schwerlich zu finden sein.

Since the night of Wednesday to Thursday – we were preparing the 8pm news for the 26.03.2020; our studio cameraman Peter was already in isolation with a suspected infection, but we didn’t know that on the Thursday morning he would test positive – the worry grows in me: the mobile tent morgue behind the “Bellevue Hospital” Downtown Manhattan is large enough to shock even me; and the pictures from “Elmhurst Hospital” in (my) Queens don’t frighten me, but they make it clear: help would be hard to find here.  

Heute  meine Sorge wächst… aber ich kann über mich meine Verfassung noch spotten: Sicherheitshalber übe ich schon mal der Text zum letzten Lied der Bordkapelle auf der Titanic ein: “Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!” (Lowell Mason) … 

Today my worry grows…but I can still poke fun at my condition: to play safe I practice the last song of the ship choir on the Titanic: “Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!” (Lowell Mason)…

Und natürlich geht “stay home“ ab five o’clock leichter vonstatten: Dann darf der “Moon over Bourbon Street” (Sting) aufgehen. Glasweise. Und wenn das nicht hilft, dann geht’s in den Arm von “Sister Morphine” (Rolling Stones). Die “liquor stores“ in Manhattan gelten als “substantial business” und bleiben offen. Klar, New York ohne Drogen geht gar nicht – es gibt noch Verlässlichkeiten in dieser Welt im neuerlichen Stresstest. 25 minutes to go 🙂 

And, of course, from five o’clock “stay home” is easier: then the “Moon over Bourbon Street” (Sting) can rise. By the glass. And when that doesn’t help, then there’s the arm of “Sister Morphine” (Rolling Stones). The “liquor stores” in Manhattan qualify as “substantial business” and remain open. Of course, New York dan’t function without drugs – there are still certainties in this world undergoing a new stress test. 25 minutes to to 🙂

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Der Wein spricht / The Wine Speaks

Listening to my old friend the 1983 Hermannsberg Riesling Eiswein at GHB

If “in vino veritas” and “the truth will out” also apply to wine, then maybe some wines have something to say to us that’s worth listening to? I’ve been thinking about this idea for years and those ideas just came to fruition. Scroll down for the English language version of this story about wines that speak to you. Like these lines it is in italics.

Wenn „in vino veritas“ und „the truth will out“, die Wahrheit wird aus eigener Kraft ans Tageslicht kommen, auch beim Wein zutreffen, dann haben vielleicht manche Weine uns etwas wertvolles zu erzählen? Darüber mache ich mir seit Jahren Gedanken und diese Gedanken tragen jetzt Früchte. 

Was macht eine Reihe von neuen Wein-Probierpaketen im Netz so interessant? Gut Hermannsberg (GHB) gehört zu einer wachsenden Gruppe führender deutschen Weingüter, deren Antwort auf die Caronavirus-Krisenzeit solche Sonderangebote sind. Versandkostenfrei ab 6 oder 12 Flaschen (bei GHB ist es ab 6 Flaschen) ist ein essentieller Teil von dieser Strategie; es ist der Treibstoff für den Online-Versandgeschäft-Motor. Leider wird das Kernprinzip von dieser Strategie häufig als rasender Ausverkauf falsch verstanden.

Trotz der attraktiven Preise ist das Ziel davon keinesfalls gute und großartige Weine zu verschleudern nur um irgendwie Geld in die Kasse zu führen. Sondern es heißt während der Krisenzeit  den Verkauf und Konsum am Leben zu halten. Dabei versucht man auch neue Konsumenten für unterschätzte Produkte zu gewinnen. Wenn das sehr gut funktioniert, könnte es sogar zu einem Imagegewinn für das Weingut führen. Die Erfahrungen aus vorherigen Wirtschaftskrisen lehrt, dass übertriebene Preisnachlässe zum umgekehrten Phänomen führen können, nämlich „Brand-Suicide“, bzw. Marken-Selbstmord!

Nicht nur Weinerzeuger haben diesen Fehler mehrmals gemacht, sondern auch ein paar große Luxusgütefirmen, die davor stapelweise Millionen in den Aufbau ihrer Marken gesteckt hatten. Das kann in einer Spirale die nach unten zieht enden, wenn nach ein oder zwei schlechten Jahren nicht genug Geld in der Kasse ist, um das gewohnte Qualitätsniveau weiter zu gewehrleisten. Dann ziehen schwache Produkte den Ruf der Marke immer weiter nach unten. Davon ist hier nicht die Rede!

Ich bin persönlich für den Aspekt der GHB-Kampagne verantwortlich, der es anders als die Üblichen macht und es ist mir klar, dass es umstritten ist und in manchen Kreisen belächelt wird: in den Werbetexten sprechen die Weine des führenden Nahe-Weinguts direkt mit den Konsumenten. Das klingt vielleicht etwas kindisch, aber was sie erzählen ist sachlich und gänzlich Quatsch-frei. Dazu gibt es keinen Hauch des Schulmeistertons, sondern auch die edelsten GGs reden auf Augenhöhe mit den Konsumenten. Schließlich, wenn man davon redet, dass jeder Weine eine eigene Persönlichkeit hat, wie ich es häufig getan habe, ist das die logische Konsequenz.

Aber lasst mich ganz ehrlich sein, diese Idee habe ich geklaut. Als ich Ende der 1980er Jahre meine erste Kiste Pinot Noir Rotwein vom damaligen Garagenweingut Williams Selyem in Sonoma County/Kalifornien kaufte fand ich beim öffnen der Kiste ein erstaunliches Blatt. Der Text darauf erklärte, „nachdem Schock des Transports brauchen wir ein paar Wochen Ruhe in einem kühlen Raum um uns wieder in bester Form präsentieren zu können.“ Die Weine haben mit mir geredet und alles was sie sagten hat gestimmt!

Der neulich verstorbene Burt Williams und sein Geschäftspartner Ed Selyem waren weder ausgebildete Önologen, noch erfahrene Werbeprofis, doch auf Beiden Felder waren sie stark. Von den beiden Autodidakten habe ich viel gelernt, ganz und vor allem, dass „Regular Guys: World Class Wines“, normale Kerle: Weltklasse-Weine (danke Wine Spectator Magazin für diese tolle Schlagzeile!) möglich ist, wenn man unbeirrt eine bestimmt Weinstilistik konsequent perfektioniert. Inspiriert davon ging ich ins GHB Flaschenlager und habe zugehört. Mit abertausenden geballten Stimmen haben die Weine gerufen, „sollen wir ausgerechnet jetzt mucksmäuschenstill bleiben?“

A wine’s eye view of me while I listen to what it’s saying

What makes a bunch of new mixed cases from a wine estate on the Internet so interesting? Gut Hermannsberg (GHB) in the Nahe region belongs to a growing group of German wine estates whose answer to the Caronacrisis is special offers like this. Free delivery from 6 or 12 bottles (at GHB it’s from 6 bottles) is an essential part of this strategy: the oil that keeps the online mail-delivery motor running. However, the core principle of this strategy is often misunderstood as panicky discounting.

In spite of the attractive prices, the special offers many leading producers are currently making aren’t about emptying their cellars through rock bottom pricing, rather they’re all about keeping sales and consumption alive through this challenging period and along the way winning new customers for underexposed and underrated products. When that works really well, then it could even end up enhancing the image of those wineries.

The experience of previous economic crises teaches us that too drastic discounting can result in the opposite phenomenon: brand suicide. Not only wine producers made this mistake, also large luxury goods companies who’d spent a stack of millions on building the image of their brands during the previous years. That ends in a downward spiral when there isn’t the money to maintain quality standards any longer, leading to sub-standard products that pull down the image ever further. That’s certainly not the idea behind these German wineries current strategy!

I’m personally responsible for the thing that makes GHB’s current campaign a bit different from the others you’ll find in the Internet, the thing that will make it rather controversial and make some people laugh at it: in the promotional texts the wines talk directly with the customers. Maybe that sounds a bit childish, but what they have to say for themselves is (volcanic and slate) rock-solid and BS-free. Additionally, they don’t talk in a schoolmasterly tone, rather even the top GGs speak with you on equal terms. And, having often talked about how each wine in the GHB range has its own personality this is the logical conclusion of that.

But let me be completely honest with you, I stole the idea! When at the end of the 1980s I opened the first case of Pinot Noir red wine I purchased from the then garage winery Williams Selyem in Sonoma County/California I found an extraordinary piece of paper in the case. The text printed on it said, “after the shock of transport to you we need a few weeks of peace and quiet before we can give our best to you.” The wines spoke to me, and everything they said was true!

The recently deceased Burt Williams and his business partner Ed Selyem were neither trained winemakers nor marketing experts, but I learned a great deal from the two autodidacts, most importantly that “regular guys – world class wines” (thank you Wine Spectator magazine for that great headline!) is possible if you apply yourself to the perfecting of a particular wine style and its promotion. Inspired by them I went into the GHB bottled wine store to listen. Suddenly, thousands of voices called out to me, “should we really stay as quiet as church mice at this critical moment?

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The Strange and Wonderful Story of Gut Hermannsberg’s 10th Anniversary Book – Part 2

There’s so much I learnt from working on Gut Hermannsberg’s 10th anniversary book, like the Salvador Dali quote on the inside of the front cover: “Whoever drinks with real enjoyment doesn’t drink just wine, they drink secrets.” Our designer and printer Steffen Fickinger found those words that so perfectly fit the estate’s wines.

For many people writing and editing a book sounds like a lot of fun, but the truth is that it’s also a strict discipline driven by technical processes and deadlines. If you can adapt to that discipline, as I did long ago, then each book becomes a journey of discovery that takes you places you didn’t realize were there; a special and addictive form of excitement.

Research literally means looking again and for any serious book project you have to do that many times. Then, when writing, you have to ask yourself again and again if this is really the right selection of facts, stories and observations. And is the sequence right, or is your text actually just a row of anecdotes that don’t add up to anything? Hard questions! My new book was no exception.    

10 years of passion for RIESLING & TERROIR / 10 Jahre RIESLING & TERROIR aus Leidenschaft is the hot off the press story of the last decade at the Gut Hermannsberg (GHB) wine estate in the Nahe. It may only be 32 pages long, but it has an unusual over-sized format with a sophisticated interplay of image and text, and it’s available in both English and German language editions.

On the purely technical side, there was the challenge of finding photographs good enough that they would take been blown up to 28 cm/11 inches wide and still look great. 300 dpi is the publishing industry standard for the sharpness of photos, but as GHB director Jasper Reidel and I quickly discovered, it’s woefully inadequate for this format. Those huge double-page spreads really make the photographs we picked shine, but as we also discovered without enough text those wide-screen pages look empty. However, writing stuff just to fill empty space was no solution either.   

It helped a lot that we had a good story to tell with a really interesting cast of characters, and that some of them spoke for themselves in a way that reads very differently from the material I wrote. The contributions of GHB’s owners Jens Reidel & Christine Dines, winemaker Karsten Peter and of our neighbor and colleague Helmut Dönnhoff of the Dönnhoff estate in Oberhausen, are all compelling. Their texts alone make the book worth reading!

So, you are probably asking yourselves, what exactly did I discover through the months of work on this project, apart from the fact that the number of pages doesn’t begin to tell you how substantial a book’s content is? Most importantly, although the book’s focus is on what happened at GHB between summer 2009 and autumn 2019, again and again I bumped into the long shadow of the estate’s Prussian founders. Only a couple of short guest commentaries failed to mention them directly or indirectly, and these were from the writers farthest removed from our history.

The fact is, GHB’s Prussian founders continue to exert a major influence on the estate. Their combination of perfectionism and the determination to implement that regardless of the effort required remains our guiding spirit. The first products of that spirit are still clearly visible to every visitor. The establishment of GHB’s core vineyard sites in 1902 was an engineering feat comparable with the construction of the Eifel Tower and they still look much as they do in the oldest photographs.

Our unique winery architecture followed in 1910, and when these buildings were carefully renovated by the Reidels in 2010-11 (creating our guest house) they augmented them with a single new element. The copper cladding of the new press house entrance with the massive terraces of the Kupfergrube GG/”Grand Cru” site behind it is now the defining image of GHB. That’s why we put it on the cover.

The other thing I discovered through this book is how the chasm between current events and the kind of unique terroir and tradition wines we strive to make at GHB becomes ever wider. Karsten Peter is in the process of refining a winemaking style inspired by our special history that has nothing to do with mainstream wine fashion, what just went viral on the social media or other 21st century fluff that will all be forgotten tomorrow. In an increasingly rootless world GHB’s wines have very deep roots indeed!

10 years of passion for RIESLING & TERROIR / 10 Jahre RIESLING & TERROIR aus Leidenschaft is available in both English and German language editions through https://gut-hermannsberg.de/product/32?&jahrgang= for €9,95 including packing and postage.

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The Strange and Wonderful Story of Gut Hermannsberg’s 10th Anniversary Book – Part 1

The publication by Gut Hermannsberg (GHB) of 10 years of passion for RIESLING & TERROIR / 10 Jahre RIESLING & TERROIR aus Leidenschaft gives me both strange and wonderful feelings.  For the author it’s always wonderful completing a project as complex as this: 14 interlocking texts in both the German and English language editions describing from multiple perspectives the first 10 years & vintages since Jens Reidel and his wife Christine Dinse bought GHB back in August 2009. It also felt rather strange, because in spite of only 32 pages plus the cover for me this really is a new and innovative wine book.

Behind that feeling of strangeness stood a painful realization. Although my last published book Best White Wine on Earth (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, New York, 2014), in German Planet Riesling (Tre Torri Verlag, 2015), sold quite well it left me with the gut feeling that wine books would soon be finished for good. True, since then a couple of successful wine books were published. I strongly recommend Cork Dork (Penguin, New York, 2017)by Bianca Bosker, which recently appeared in German translation as Das Große Weinmaleins (Piper, 2019). However, these are all half-wine book and half something else. More importantly, my conversations with various publishers made it clear that not even a TV/movie tie-in would set the presses rolling again!

When I began work on GHB’s 10th anniversary publication it seemed too small to count as a wine book, and the purpose of documenting the last 10 years at the Nahe wine estate where I’ve workes as a consultant for exactly one year felt quite limited in scope. However, after GHB’s co-director Jasper Reidel pushed me to dig deeper and see wider connections I realized the last decade at GHB had the potential to make a really good wine story. It’s all about the vision of the Reidels and winemaker Karsten Peter together with their team to take what was one of Germany’s greatest wineries back to the top where it stood for the first 85 plus years since its foundation in 1902.

That might sound quite straightforward, but beginning the task of climbing back to the top after almost 20 years of underperformance makes it a huge challenge. That’s long enough for any wine producer to be forgotten by consumers and the trade alike, and it makes the back-to-the-roots policy of the Reidels and Karsten Peter pursued much harder to implement too. Making wines like half a century ago sounds great, but is much more difficult than it sounds because all the equipment has changed. And how do you know exactly how everything was done back in the Good Old Days, or how those wines tasted when they were young?

But it was and remains tougher than that. In spite of some claims to the contrary, the words “Riesling” and “German wine” are not great selling points except on the domestic market and a handful of smaller export markets. Then, come the effects of the little talked about global over-production of good and great wines, plus the growing political and economic conflicts of the 21st century. No wine producer is immune to them, but they’re certainly greater obstacles for those climbing up towards the top, than for those with well-established reputations. Here are the fundamental tensions driving the GHB story, to which you must add the weather roller-coaster ride in the age of global warming. For example, the catastrophic frost damage in spring 2017 was followed in 2018 by the warmest growing season ever recorded in Germany!

Seen from the inside, it is clear to us that during the last couple of years GHB took several decisive steps along the steep upward path. For me, the current range of wines from GHB’s 7 terroirs, or GG/”Grand Cru” sites, is the strongest since my first visit to the estate on the 26th April, 1984. However, that doesn’t mean everyone sees it like that. So, although the story in the book ends with the high notes of GHB’s 10th anniversary celebration and the exciting climax to the 2019 harvest, enough tension remains.

There’s no helicopter service to the summit of Mount Everest. Instead, you have to climb every step of the way up. One thing makes that huge task easier: the top is already in sight!

10 years of passion for RIESLING & TERROIR / 10 Jahre RIESLING & TERROIR aus Leidenschaft is available in both English and German language editions through https://gut-hermannsberg.de/product/32?&jahrgang=for €9.95 including packing and postage.

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