Category Archives: Pass the Bottle

Wine news from Sabrina Small

Heart of Foam

I remember when I was a child I loved the show Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. It was a show hosted by an eccentric British man named Robin Leach, who occupied a place in American culture not so dissimilar to the one Stuart Pigott occupies here in Germany. He was an interloper who bridged two worlds—the luxurious ones of the rich and famous, and the normal boring ones that the people at home watching led. At the end of each episode Robin Leach would end with his catchphrase: “Champagne wishes and caviar dreams.”

Champagne, that insubstantial effervescent stuff, and caviar—those delicate little eggs—are two of the most overpriced foodstuffs in the world. We need only a name: Cristal, or a place: Iran, and we are ready to plunk down buckets of cash to experience the heights of gastronomy. Most of us purchase these items only on special occasions and imbue them with so many superlatives that we can hardly taste them at all. A high price should be indicative of a standard of quality, but often, the price stands in for the quality. After all, if you open a bottle of €200 Cristal you don’t want it to taste like a cheap Prosecco.

Funnily enough, when a mix of 15 wine experts and heavy users got together this past monday at Hammers Weinkostbar to blind taste 26 sparkling wines, that is exactly what happened. Our mission was to price these bottles on taste alone. With each swish and spit we had to ask ourselves, “What does this taste like it’s worth?” It was a challenging assignment, to say the least. For one thing, 26 bottles is a rough load on the taste-buds and nose. Sparkling wines are especially difficult because after awhile those little bubbles feel like they are sandblasting your tongue.

On a more theoretical level, the pricing of these wines by taste, began to feel on many levels, like a personality test. I began fretting over what it would say about me if I underpriced everything, like some sort of coupon clipping housewife who refuses to buy the good mustard because it’s not on sale. On the other hand, I worried about overpricing everything and coming off as a novice amidst the wine experts gathered at this event. In the end though, the pricing average for most of the bottles was widely varied.

All of us were aware that the wines had a price difference of factor 50, with the most expensive wine costing around €200, or 50 times more than the cheapest one, but none of us could recognize this bottle on taste alone. The bottle in question was a 2004 Roederer „Cristal“ Brut. In my tasting notes, I have written, “yeast, soft bubbles, pinot; a bit one note—would price between €8 and €20.” In the end I gave it the top price in that spectrum. I didn’t want to undervalue my own assessment. I never would have guessed that what tasted like a 20 euro bottle actually cost €179. Another participant wrote succinctly, “I get no kick from this champagne.” Stuart, it should be noted, priced the bottle at a mere €7.

But not every bottle had a heart of foam. Some of these sparklers were valued higher than their actual price. The 2008 Weingut Klostermühle „Monfort Brut“ was valued at € 23,40 but only costs € 12,50 at Hammers. Another hero of the tasting was the 2009 Winzerhof Stahl „Prickelnd Secco“ which was valued on average at €9,53 but cost a mere € 6,50 at Hof. Amazingly, the bottle that I brought along had a great showing as well. The 2008 Weingut Bamberger „Pinot Cuvée“ was valued on average at € 16,93 (I valued it at €40 in my tasting notes) and only costs € 14,50 at Vin Aqua Vin.

If the purpose of this tasting was to weed out the high priced crap that is sold on name alone and bring to the surface ingenious newcomers who are using methods like Co2 injection to bring their bottles to life, then it was a rousing success. The third most highly rated bottle from the tasting, the NV Weingut Kirsten „Pinot Rosé Brut“ retails for €12 at Hof and it’s bottles like these that make it possible for all of us to have “Champagne wishes and caviar dreams.”

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I Saw Jancis Robinson Spit!

It was just another wine-tasting event, and then she walked in. I recognized her immediately, even before I saw her. I heard her say, in her crisp British accent, that she was planning on taking tasting notes on her laptop, and when I turned she was really there!

I took her in, scanning her, from the signature ice-blond bob to her artfully deconstructed beige blazer, to the rather wildly abstract and colorful shift dress underneath, ending finally at her feet, encased in sensible butter-yellow loafers. It was Jancis Robinson. My first wine hero. Before me. In the flesh.

I downed my sample of 2008 FX Pichler Gruner Vetliner, as my nervousness mounted. I certainly planned to talk to her, but somehow I ended up watching her for the better part of an hour. She was perched at a high table, about 6 glasses lined before her, taking notes on her laptop as she sniffed, sipped, and spit.

There are artists who dream of watching John Currin paint, or Prince compose, or Peter Jackson direct. I can tell you that I felt the exact same level of devotion and awe watching Mrs. Robinson spit.

When I was entering the intimidating world of wine journalism at the Elizabeth Bishop wine school, held at Boston University, Jancis Robinson was my guide. Through countless boyfriends, diets, apartments, and exams, she was my close companion. Opening The Oxford Companion to Wine, no matter how lousy my day had been, always managed to calm me down. Maybe it was her tone, equal parts Marry Poppins and Julia Childs, that gave me this sense that order and dignity were possible without forsaking spirit.

Naturally, our face to face meeting didn’t go exactly as I’d planned. I had to really concentrate on getting the words out and probably came off slightly autistic because of that. But, there was one moment at the end where she asked me again what my name was (I had mumbled it inaudibly the first time) and when I told her, she said: “Sabrina Small is a good name for a writer.”

If that’s not a cosmic pat on the back–an indication that I am on the right path—then I don’t know what is!

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Vin Aqua Vin

Jan Kreuzinger may only be 31, but he possesses just the right mix of arrogance and drinker’s belly to survive in the Berlin weinladen market. I stopped into his recently opened Neukölln shop, Vin Aqua Vin, on a warm Saturday this August, lured by the giant rough-hewn wood table that can be seen from the street, laden with wine and glasses, as if it were suggesting to potential customers the casual and rustic qualities of wine itself.

Kreuzinger truly believes that wine is no big deal and a very big deal at the same time. Born in Cologne and raised by a solidly middle-class family that encouraged their children to really enjoy food and wine, Jan moved to Berlin 7 years ago with stars in his eyes and very expensive knives in his knife-fold. He worked as a chef and consultant at Kirk Royal, taught cooking classes at Goldhahn und Sampson, and continues to organize small dinners at the Private Roof Club in Mitte. But, as many would-be Berlin chefs quickly come to realize, the potential for creating a culinary atmosphere that embodies the elegance of fine-dining with a price tag that suits most of Berlin’s residents, is actually really hard. Restaurants are usually owned by uptight assholes that want to preserve very old notions of class, and young chefs, like Kreuzinger, are constantly being told to adhere to the status quo.

So Kreuzinger changed tracks and began working full-time at die Weinerei, Berlin’s famous ‘honor-system’ wine-bar, where really good bottles are drunk thoughtlessly by Australian tourists itching to get as drunk as possible for as little as possible. It was there that Kreuzinger learned some very valuable lessons about wine and how to sell it to a younger demographic. Kreuzinger sees the distinction between what to invest in and what people will understand as an essential element of his trade. “You don’t want to convince people to drink something. You want to begin in agreement with them and allow them to experiment on their own.”

Kreuzinger understands that for most Berliners, especially young ones, the switch from beer to wine is experiment enough. But he purposefully stocks his shop with wines made by the next wave of German winemakers who are using grape varieties like Silvaner, Muscatel, and hybrids like Pinot-Riesling, pushing them toward weird and wonderful places hitherto unknown.

Kreuzinger understands that the labels themselves play a big role in helping younger clientele envision themselves as regular wine drinkers. In this respect, Fritz Müller‘s light and fruity sekt-like Muller Thurgau’s makes a lot of sense.  The bottles are screw capped, under 6 €, and sport bold jail-striped labels.

For bottles that don’t announce themselves in quite the same way, Kreuzinger offers hyperbolic endorsements–as the photo above suggests. Calling a winemaker like Holger Koch your boyfriend when you are clearly a young heterosexual man, is exactly the sort of antic to get people interested and in the door. Once they’re in, the wine speaks for itself.

Vin Aqua Vin Weinladen
Jan Kreuzinger
Weserstr. 207
12047 Berlin

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Observations from the Hillside: Harlan Estate

I am the only person on earth who has actually read this book cover to cover. I did so because I know that it looks like a book and is supposed to evoke book-like qualities, but I wanted to know if you could in fact read it. Having struggled through it I can honestly say this is nothing but a vanity project—a luscious, painstakingly detailed mock up of a book for the coffee table of elite Harlan buyers. Who else would buy this thing? The subject is so narrow and yet so expansive in its narrowness. Reading it is like being stuck in an elevator with a pompous know-it-all with inexhaustible breath and time to kill. I felt years being shaved off my life as I forced myself to sit for 30 minute intervals, indulging the writers, whose essays seem like they were cobbled together from California tourism guides, the Territory Ahead catalog, and various presidential Biographies.

It seems ludicrous that the Harlan Estate team could believe that there was enough audience to warrant a book like this. Ask 10 people on the street how interested they are in the Harlan Estate wines from the Napa Valley and maybe one of them will dimly identify the name with the outrageously expensive California Bordeaux-style wines produced there. Now ask that person if they would be interested in reading about the geological history of the Harlan Estate, the history of Land Surveying in the region, the various techniques of forest management, and the transformation of land from forest to vineyard. Now wake them up, because just saying those words will act like a sedative for 99.9% of the population.

I could go on, by the way. Those subjects only cover pages 1-54 of a 200 page book and don’t even begin to comment on the incredibly self important introductory essay by Harry Eyres entitled Wine, Poetry and Divinity. His essay reads like a sedately ironic spoof of itself. Eyres describes wine as “bottled poetry” and references Horace, Homer, and Robert Louis Stevenson as if they all drink together in some elite gentleman’s club. Wine as “bottled poetry” begs the counter-question of whether poetry can be conceived of as textual wine, meaning, some of it’s very good but a lot of it is total crap and if you consume too much, you’ll feel sick the next morning.

I certainly began to feel sick as I rounded page 173, a photograph depicting the core Harlan estate team (read: rich white people) meeting in a stately yet rustic room with a prominent California State flag on the wall, and then turned the page to find the cellar and vineyard crew (read: not rich Mexicans) seated on a stone wall in work-boots and stained sweatshirts. It struck me that the Harlan Estate, like so many high-priced Napa Valley vineyards, was intent on conveying the longevity, cultural prominence, and quality of their wines at the expense of the workers who actually make the stuff.

Harlan is obsessed with its own daring to give the heritage of Bordeaux wines a run for their money but it has little interest in differentiating itself as a new-world wine. In an interview with H. William Harlan and Harry Eyres, Harlan mentions the fact that the land on which the vineyard dwells once belonged to Indians (we can discuss the complexities of that term versus “Native American” some other time) and that their arrowheads and grinding stones were still being unearthed on a daily basis. Eyres responds: “This is a wine that has a pretty good balance between the wild and the civilized. It’s not in any way a rough and rugged wine, but it still has something, a certain mystery.”

Ahh…mystery! What a marvelously meaningless word. Mystery can be adapted to suit all kinds of fantasies from the grim to the whimsical without ever showing its real face. I think the mystery of Harlan Estate has more to do with the Emperor’s New Clothes than it does with Indian arrowheads and bottled poetry.

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Manincor Newsletter # 10

Manincor is a biodynamic wine estate, and because biodynamic growing has an element of the absurd to it, the notes from the 2009 growing season also tend to sound a little….new age-y. After the first big storm hit in a year marked by close calls, the wine growing team at Manincor “confined themselves to tea treatments: chamomile to calm the vines, stinging nettle applied at full moon to stimulate vegetation, and horsetail during the waning moon phase to aid in closing wounds.” Sounds more like treatment for a middle age divorcée than a vineyard, but I for one am comforted by the idea that there weren’t copious amounts of chemicals dumped on the vines.

No matter how homeopathic their methods were, the process of making wine inevitably leads to certain key decisions and after a hail storm hit during the ripening phase in August, the winegrowers made a snap decision to harvest grapes from the most directly hit sites—10 hectares in just 3 days. The rest of the grapes ripened according to their own schedule, but except for the Cabarnet Savignon and the Petit Manseng, the character of much of the wine produced in 2009 was determined by the forced early harvest. Naturally, the wine team deems the young wines exceptional…multi layered, fruity, mineral in all the right ways. They credit their success with their decision to switch to biodynamic methods.

I understand that wine is not sold on taste alone. I get the need for flowery writing, superlative laden reviews from ultra cheesy German celebrity Thomas Gottschalk, and overwrought descriptions of idyllic landscapes:“The Manincor Sauvignon would fit perfectly in a scene painted by Manet.” Wine is, after all, a luxury good and as such has to indicate a leisurely beatific lifestyle. Still, having never tasted this wine, I feel like I am being snowed before the first sip ever reaches my lips. If the wines themselves are really good, why weren’t they described from the get go instead of relegated to the last page with microscopic text? Why do I have to strain my eyes to find out that the 2008 Lagrein Rubatsch has complex aromas of blackberry and bilberry (but no mention of price or alcohol levels) while the crafters of this brochure are more than happy to put information about “sheep providing natural manure and introducing their animal souls into the vineyards,” in large print?

In the end, I found all the talk of sheep, tea, and full moons detracted from my impression of the wine itself. I would, however, be more than happy to receive a couple of sample bottles from the Count’s estate and re-evaluate my opinion.

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Riesling People Vol. 1

People knock around this notion that wine has a soul, and that wine-makers are heroic figures for bringing that soul forward. The photograph of the ruggedly tan vineyard owner with his hands outstretched toward the camera, offering up a bunch of dusty grapes, is so cliché by now, that I can even picture the loyal golden retriever at his feet.

Given this over-exposure of wine enthusiasts to a particular image of wine-making, one wonders what’s left to say or show about the process of growing, drinking and selling wine. How does a wine-maker tell his or her story without seeming pompous, trite, or cookie-cutter?

For the past 2 decades, wine-maker Martin Tesch has been following the tune of his own guitar, quite literally, when it comes to his business model. At a time when German Riesling was being sold in respectable bottles, with respectable labels, at punishing prices, Tesch decided to sell screw cap bottles, using a series of quirky black-and-white photos for the labels, and he sold them for half the price of his competitors. The backlash from those decisions were immediately felt. Wine shops all over Germany and Austria stopped carrying his product, and even wrote threatening letters to Tesch, insinuating that he was some sort of hooligan school-boy and certainly not a serious wine-maker. But Tesch was blasé about these setbacks. He knew his wine was too good to become extinct, and so he stuck to his guns.

“If you don’t get, you don’t get it,” is perhaps a good summation of Tesch’s wine-making style, and if this seems like the sort of line that you’d expect a rock star to throw out, then you are not far off. What do you call a man who loves nothing more than wine and Gibson guitars, if not a rock star? With his new book, Riesling People Vol. 1, Tesch has added to his rock star persona by delivering a document that is more reminiscent of a Rolling Stones tour diary, than a series of wine tastings. With no introduction, forward, or really any writing at all, Tesch cryptically constructs a recent montage of his Rolling Riesling Show. These events, in which guests were treated to a live concert (using only Gibson guitars, of course), along with a tasting of the five latest Rieslings from the Tesch Estate, took place in locations all over Germany. The book captures countless moments of real enjoyment and candid fun. Even the photos of the bottles themselves look fresh and unguarded. It’s as if they are relieved not to have to stand in their usual stoic position next to a perfectly poured glass, capturing the wine in just the right light. These wines, and the people who drink them, have finally been given permission to relax. Although there aren’t any descriptions of the terroir, and very few photos of the vineyard itself, I believe that looking through this book is a fairly accurate visual interpretation of Tesch’s wine making style. His wines are playful, unpretentious, but most of all….Soulful.

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Dear Readers,

You might find it odd that the venerable Stuart Pigott would allow a fledgling journalist from Los Angeles the opportunity to editorialize on his website, and you’d be right. Somehow, a few weeks after I fell into Berlin, I was lucky enough to become a regular fixture at Mr. Pigott’s table. I was hungry for knowledge about real German gastronomy and viticulture. I had only tasted a few of the overwrought Rieslings available in the US, and my experience of German cuisine extended no further than Bratwurst, usually prepared in the style of an American hot-dog, with plenty of relish, mustard and ketchup slathered over it.

Under the careful tutelage of Mr. Pigott, I have discovered the incredible breadth and depth of German wine. I remember the first Spatburgunder I had that really knocked my socks off– the 2005 Kastanienbusch from Weingut, Dr. Wehrheim. I also remember vividly the day that I discovered the incredible heights the varietal Blaufrankisch could reach. But aside from all these magical wine epiphanies, I remain a fairly cheap drunk.

I live in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district in a one bedroom apartment overlooking a bar and a bus-stop. Last night, in a fit of lunacy, I actually split a €2.50 bottle of the cheapest Vodka available in northern Europe. It tasted like toilet cleaner, but it was delightful to pass the tiny bottle between friends before heading into a club for a night of raucous dancing.

In less hedonistic moments, I usually find myself splitting a 5 to 10 buck bottle of Grauburgunder, Silvaner, or Müller-Thurgau with my husband over a big bowl of cheap and filling fuel; Spaghetti Carbonara, Tabouleh, Pork-Chops with oven roasted root vegetables. I was a professional cook for 5 years and I learned a few tricks before realizing how psychotic you’d have to be to really chose that as a career. Nowadays, I write about wine and food for a variety of publications within Germany and the US. I also keep a blog dedicated to my observations on food, film, and life as an Ex-Pat. I look forward to sharing some of my discoveries with you here at Stuart Pigott’s Planet Wine.

Thanks and please forgive my hangover,

Sabrina Small

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