Category Archives: Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right

New York Riesling Diary: Day 9 – Remembering Hiroshima and Facing the Truth about Hiroshima (George Orwell Part 3)

There is a theory which has not been accurately formulated or given a name, but which is very widely accepted and is brought forward whenever it is necessary to justify some action which conflicts with the decency of the average human being. It might be called, until some better name is found, the Theory of Catastrophic Gradualism. According to this theory, nothing is ever achieved without bloodshed, lies, tyranny and injustice, but on the other hand no considerable change for the better is to be expected as the result of even the greatest upheaval. History necessarily proceeds by calamities…

George Orwell wrote those words lines for the in November 1945, and in spite of the timing he was not thinking particularly of the atomic bombings of Japan just three months before. However, his words also well describe that situation. I took the above photograph of the Atomic Dome in Hiroshima, Japan on April 15th, 2007 during the month I spent researching wine, sake and Japanese culture. It was the only one of my photographs that didn’t turn these ruins into just another historical landmark, but showed them as one of few surviving reminders of the almost five square miles of complete destruction caused by the atomic bomb dropped by the USAAF on the city 70 years ago today.

On August 6th, 1945 about 70,000 of the city’s 340,000 citizens were killed by the direct effects of the bomb’s explosion, a figure which had doubled by the end of the year mainly due to radiation sickness; more than 40% of the entire population! The great majority of the dead were civilians, and in Nagasaki (the target of the second atomic bombing three days later) where the corresponding figures were almost 40,000 dead on the day of the atomic bombing and close to 80,000 by the end of the year more than 99% of the victims were civilians. But what do numbers really tell us? They are necessary to give a sense of scale to the most terrible events from the atomic bombings of Japan to the Holocaust, but they also mask the identities of the individual victims. For a detailed description of what those number meant in terms of human suffering I recommend John Hersey’s book Hiroshima first published in the August 31st, 1946 issue of The New Yorker, which it almost entirely filled. It describes in a matter of fact way what 6 survivors experienced, but I warn you that in spite of that and the distance in time it’s not an easy read.

Of course, it is important not to forget the wider contexts of the Pacific War and the Second World War as a whole. Almost all of Japan’s major cities were destroyed by USAAF firebombing during the last six months of the Second World War, most terribly in the raid on residential Tokyo of March 9th, 1945 that killed about 100,000 civilians. Of course, the Japanese also conducted air raids on urban centers in China and committed many other war crimes, of which the Nanking massacre was the worst. And then there are the 6 million Jews and 5 million Slavic people murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators in Europe, plus smaller (but still very large numbers) of European civilians of many nationalities killed by all sides in that conflict. This isn’t the place to try and catalogue all the genocidal horrors of the global conflagration. Professional historians are better equipped for this task. There is extensive literature about all of these events for anyone who is interested. I just read Elie Wiesel’s Night, his autobiographical description of the Holocaust, which spells out what that enormous genocidal crime meant for the victims. It only confirmed my feeling of compassion for all victims of war and genocide.

The first reason for covering this subject is my personal connection to Hiroshima, where in 2007 the Yoshinaga family, including one Hibakusha (survivor of the A bomb), showed me great hospitality and generosity. Then there are the results of my research over almost a decade that leads me to the conclusion that the first atomic bombing was unquestionably a deliberate attack on a civilian target and no warning was given precisely in order to better study the effects upon the, “Hiroshima urban industrial area”. Already that wording in Order Nr. 13 of August 2nd, 1945 signed by Acting Chief of Staff General Thomas T. Hardy make the non-military nature of the bombing’s target rather clear.

I first saw a facsimile of that order in the Peace Memorial Museum of Hiroshima, but it was not at the beginning of the exhibit as you might have expected. Instead the museum began by telling the history of Japanese militarism and Hiroshima’s role in that. There was no attempt there to, much less deny, the wider context of the Second World War, or the wars that preceded it. This is did not align with how the international media portray Japan as nation of revisionists determined to play down the crimes of the past, and it is a lesson from which we could learn. For example, although the Manhattan Project was American controlled, it was actually British-American joint venture that enjoyed considerable material support from Canada. The Quebec Agreement of July 1943 gave British Prime Minister Winston Churchill a veto over the use of the atomic bomb. Instead, he approved its use against Japan and consulting with none of his cabinet before taking that decision. Which Churchill biography tells you that though? As George Orwell also wrote in November 1945:

There are always the most excellent, high-minded reasons for concealing the truth, and these reasons are brought forward in almost the same words by supporters of the most diverse causes…So often it seems a positive duty to suppress or color the facts! And yet genuine progress can only happen through increasing enlightenment, which means the continuous destruction of myths.

The second reason for devoting a long posting to a subject so far from this blog’s core theme is to make the observation that if atomic weapons are ever used in anger again, many of them will undoubtedly be dropped on civilian targets. For my entire lifetime this was the genocidal threat of the nuclear arsenals on both sides of the Cold War, and as a child and young person I felt this in a visceral way, particularly in 1983, the second terrifying high point of the Cold War after the so-called Cuba Crisis of 1962. (It was about Russian nuclear missiles on Cuba, but also about American nuclear missiles in Turkey, Italy and Britain). My parents told me all about their fears in October 1962, and I relived them 21 years later.

The thousands of nuclear weapons retained to this day continue this intimidation, even if the chances of them being used have thankfully reduced since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. That doesn’t alter the fact that in August 1945 the principal was established that the use of atomic weapons against cities is legitimate, even if the number of victims is enormous. This was an extension of the legitimacy the Allies gave to their firebombing of entire cities in Germany and Japan, but achieved more quickly and economically. Of course, we were lucky that deterrence worked, and it is worth nothing that no Soviet leader or American President ever seriously considered starting a nuclear conflict, although some generals on both sides were in favor of this at several points.

On my last morning in Hiroshima I went for a run, passing the Hypocenter, the point above which the bomb exploded, the brown stone obelisk next to the apartment building) picture above. As I was returned to my hotel I had to wait for a traffic light to cross the road. Suddenly, on the other side of the busy street from me I saw one of those large clocks decorated with flowering plants that you see in public parks around the world. It had been sponsored by the Japanese watch manufacturer CITIZEN, and at that moment it said the time was 8:15 am. This was exactly the time the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6th 1945, and one of the most potent symbols of that day are watches and clocks stopped forever at the moment of the explosion. Of course, it was the citizens of Hiroshima who paid the price for this act the American and British governments still have not properly acknowledged for what it was. The claim that the atomic bombings ended the War in the Pacific has been well refuted by professional historians, so this argument is spurious. Anyone who thinks it is possible to deny such acts with impunity is directed to Hiroshima in America by Robert Jay Lifton & Greg Mitchell who describe the psychological consequences of being in denial for decades.

This blog posting does not seek to assign blame though, rather it promotes facing the past, so that we aren’t doomed to repeat it. For if we do repeat it there will be no pleasure in wine, or a thousand other beautiful things we take for granted. With the next posting this blog returns to its core subject: the beauty of wine.

 

 

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Singapore Riesling Diary: Day 2 – Under the Swan, the Lion and the Unicorn (Part 4) – In Memory of Philip Eyres

“Those who deny history are condemned to repeat it,” George Santanaya

This is the fourth and final installment of the talk on my Life and Riesling I gave at the Riesling Fellowship evening on Thursday, January 29th at Vintners Hall in the City of London. My apologies that a mere 15 minutes had to be broken up into four chunks, but I was anxious not to overwhelm readers with too much uncomfortable truth in one go. I think this is all much more difficult to take when read on the computer screen than when spoken. Some will say that by publicizing this I have done myself a disservice, but I owe a debt to wine merchant Philip Eyres (1926 – 2012) and continue pursuing what we discussed and corresponded about at the end of his life. It was he who helped me onto the Riesling trail that I’ve followed for more than 30 years.

I have to start by reading you a short section of Philip Eyres’ letter to me of 16th January 2012, written just a few months before his death: “On the subject of bombing during the last war, I always felt moral repulsion of the way that civilians in Japan and Germany were targeted and the fact that this was largely concealed from public knowledge… While “Bomber” Harris is generally assumed to be the architect of the attempt to win the war by killing civilians, Churchill must take the blame.”

This is an unpopular view even 50 years after the death of Winston Churchill. He is now the central figure in the mythical WWII in British minds and hearts, at once super-human and super-British, his weaknesses (for example, his well-documented white suprematism) are still rarely discussed, and then usually only superficially. The reason for this is the key part that he plays in the mythical WWII and in the larger myth of British history the purpose of which is to create a patriotic sense of national identity. That’s another subject though, that this blog posting can only touch upon. Let me give you a few quotes from Winston Churchill from 1940-41 that show how early he had set his mind upon the so-called “Area Bombing” (i.e. carpet bombing of residential urban areas) campaign against German civilian targets that began in 1942 and reach its climax during the spring of 1945.

“We will make Germany a desert, yes a desert!”

On the subject of Adolf Hitler: “But there is one thing that will bring him back, and bring him down, and that is an absolutely devastating, exterminating attack by very heavy bombers from this country upon the Nazi homeland.”

“There are less than 70 million malignant Huns, some of who are curable and others are killable.”

It is perhaps important to point out that it was clear to all the leading members of the British government and the Royal Air Force that the policy of bombing German civilians targets during WWII was in contravention of international law, specifically the 1907 Hague convention to which Britain was a signatory. It explicitly banned all attacks from the air on civilian population centers far from front lines. Of course, there is the argument that the Nazi atrocities, particularly the obscenity of the Holocaust, were so terrible that anything was acceptable in the struggle against them. I obviously don’t agree with that, for the simple reason, because it is based on the idea that a great wrong on one side justifies a smaller one on the other side, that an orgy of killing demands more killing a revenge for it.

Philip Eyres was very struck by the following quote from the physicist Freeman Dyson (born 1923). In it he describes his work in the office of Air Marshall Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris during the last years of WWII: I sat in my office until the end, carefully calculating how to murder most economically another 100,000 people. Dyson then turns to the organizers of the Holocaust and observes, They sat in their offices, writing memoranda and calculating how to murder people efficiently, just like me. The main difference was that they were sent to jail or hanged as war criminals, while I went free.

Today, the assumption is often made that WWII was fought by the Allies against the organizers of the Holocaust with the aim of stopping them. While it is true that when the Allies found out about the extermination of the Jews the British and American governments made important statements in parliament and congress condemning this they didn’t follow through after that. Those statements were made in December 1942, but as far as I can see no significant actions followed those fine words, in fact, no serious attempt was made to determine what military action would have been necessary to stop the Holocaust. Instead, the Allied leadership stood by while the Jews were exterminated by a rag-bag coalition of German Nazis and like-minded monsters belonging to many of the nations Germany had occupied.

What was the attitude of the British government to the fate of the Jews? In early 1943 the Bulgarian government requested that Britain allow part of its Jewish population to be transported to Palestine. Britain refused and those Jews were transported to Poland from where very few of them returned after the war. Shortly after this the British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden wrote in a memorandum: There is a possibility that the Germans or their satellites may change over the policy of extermination to one of extrusion, and aim as they did before the war at embarrassing other countries by flooding them with alien immigrants.I see no evidence that Churchill was of a different opinion to Anthony Eden at this time. For extrusion  read deportation, and for alien immigrants read Jews. The Bulgarian Jews, though sadly not those in Bulgarian occupied Thrace and Macedonia, were lucky to be saved by their government’s repeated refusal to follow the German instructions to deport them in the direction of the death camps.

My training as a cultural historian (Royal College of Art, 1984-86) taught me that the most fundamental question concerning history is what we choose to remember and what we choose to forget. Systematic forgetting is active denial, and it is possible to live for a long time in denial. Keeping the majority of the population in ignorance of the truth is a very effective method of preventing them breaking such a cycle of denial. Philip Eyres and I came to the conclusion that the British establishment has been very good at denying important chunks of its history, of which the bombing of Germany civilians during WWII is a prominent example. The problem is that, as the Spanish philosopher George Santanaya (1863 – 1952) famously wrote, those who deny history are condemned to repeat it.

I’m pretty sure that today RAF Tornados took off from air bases in Cyprus to bomb targets in Iraq. It is a little-known fact that the first RAF raids against targets in Iraq were in 1922 as part of a policy called “air policing”. The attack on Samawah in Iraq of November 30th/December 1st 1923 left the town in ruins with an unknown death toll. This happened 14 years before the destruction of Guernica by the German Lufwaffe during the Spanish Civil War. The architect of the “air policing” policy was Winston Churchill during his short period as Colonial Secretary 1921-22. A certain Arthur Harris was one of the RAF squadron leaders in Iraq.

It was Philip Eyres and German Riesling that lead me to these painful conclusions. And I told their story under the swan, the lion and the unicorn.

POSTSCRIPT

How did I succeed in upsetting some of my countrymen with the above words?

In ‚A Room of One’s Own’ Virginia Woolf (1928) talks about how male self-confidence and self-assurance are generated through “looking-glass” games involving women who accept looking smaller than the men they “reflect” in order that the latter can feel bigger, that is more important. Of course, the smallness of women’s in such games is no less illusory than the magnification of the men whom they serve.

Racism and nationalism do much the same. By thinking down and talking down the natives of a distant land or the inhabitants of a nearby country the members of the dominant group build themselves up in their own minds. And there’s no reason why such games can’t be played retrospectively.

I think that the myth of Britain’s absolute moral victory over Germany in WWII that many of my countrymen frequently replay in their minds is just such a retrospective game. Like the sexist looking-glass games it too depends upon  selective cognition, in this case the quiet ignorance or the forceful denial of much historical fact.

 

 

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Berlin Riesling Diary: Day 2 – Under the Swan, the Lion and the Unicorn (Part 3) – In Memory of Philip Eyres

This is the third installment of the talk I gave at the Riesling Fellowship evening on Thursday, January 29th at Vintners Hall in the City of London. I was invited to speak for 15 minutes about my life and Riesling while a wine I had selected was served. The wine was the 2012 Kupfergrube GG, one of the most racy and exciting dry Rieslings of that vintage in Germany. Please read the first two installments of this story before moving onto this one if you aren’t already familiar with them. My discussions and correspondence with wine merchant Philip Eyres (1926 – 2012) during the last years of his life left me with an intense feeling of obligation to tell this story as straight as I could. I have added a few lines where it strikes me that I skimmed over an important point due to the time limit that evening. My talk was very controversial, and these blog postings will be too, but all of the following is true and for me as a trained historian that is an argument which it is very hard to reject.

The photograph above shows the new exhibit about the RAF “Area Bombing” campaign of 1942-45 in the Imperial War Museum, which uses the example of the raids on Hamburg. The stick-like objects top right are 4 lb incendiary bombs (manufactured by ICI), the main weapon used to make that city burn like no city had ever burnt before; it was the first man-made firestorm. Seeing the ruins left by this raid while he was an officer of the Scotts Guards in the army of occupation in 1946 inspired Philip Eyres’ commitment to the Rieslings of Germany as much as his love of their smell and taste. 

When, in 2005, I realized why Philip Eyers had taken so much trouble to help me connect with the leading Riesling producers of the Mosel, Nahe and Pfalz I felt there was lost time to make up, so I got back in touch with him. I found that he was still working as an independent wine merchant, although he was 80 years old! We began tandem research into the air war against Germany, each adopting a different approach, but regularly exchanging our discoveries. Philip Eyres focused very directly upon the events of 1942-45 and on the perception of them in Britain today, while I explored both the backstory to those events, and what the consequences of not facing up to them after the end of WWII were for Britain and the rest of the world. Both of us experienced intellectual excitement when we were able to follow how one historical development lead to another, combined with horror at what had been considered acceptable by a country that perceived, and continues to perceive itself as fair and humane. There was no element of “Britain bashing” about this alternative history of our own country we pieced together, but we both certainly felt intense regret for every mass slaughter of civilians during WWII regardless of nationality, race or religion.

What did we discover? Firstly, that Pit Falkenstein was far from being the only German civilian refugee that had been deliberately strafed by British fighter pilots. For German refugees in the last months of the war that was a common experience. Tiefflieger was their word for those Allied fighter planes that were flying so low for only one reason. Certainly German pilots also strafed civilians during WWII, but I suggest that two wrongs don’t make a right.

When it came to Hamburg the facts were very clear. On the night of 27th/28th July 1943 a massive force of 787 British bombers, mostly Lancasters, dropped an enormous quantity of bombs, most of which were 4 Lb incendiaries, upon Hamburg. The weather was hot and had been so for a while, so everything was tinder-dry. This raid was codenamed Operation Gomorrah, which says almost everything. Let me quote the official Bomber Command Diary, which is part of the British National Archives: The concentrated bombing caused a large number of fires in the densely-built up working-class districts of Hammerbrook, Hamm and Borgfelde…The firestorm raged for 3 hours. The burnt out area was almost entirely residential. There were few survivors from the firestorm area…40,000 people died.

What these lines also don’t tell you is that the firestorm generated winds of up to 170mph that sucked people into the firestorm where they spontaneously combusted. Although some sources give other figures for the death toll (not all of which are lower), none gives a more precise figure than the one above, and I find that inexactitude also telling. You can count the bodies of asphyxiated victims, but how do you count the dead when all that is left of them are incinerated body parts, or small heaps of ash? For comparison, 40,000 is the number of British civilians who died during the entire Blitz, a period of 267 days. I mention this not to diminish in any way the suffering of Londoners during 1940-41.

Philip Eyres and I found that this scale of death and destruction was not collateral damage, much less a mistake or an accident. The bombs had hit their target and this was the intended result. Internally, RAF Bomber Command celebrated Operation Gamorrah as their greatest success to date. Soon it was no longer an exception, rather just one in a long series of massive raids that targeted the urban civilian population of Germany, their homes and much of the cultural fabric of that country. “Dresden” is the name most British people give to their misgivings about what was done in WWII. The Dresden raid became infamous because the American newspapers reported it, unlike many others before it (e.g. Hamburg) or after it (e.g. Pforzheim). There is no exact figure for the number of victims of the RAF “Area Bombing” campaign against Germany. 600,000 is the best estimate that Philip Eyres and I could find. Of course, this far less than the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust – mostly in an industrial manner that continues to disgust anyone with a sense of compassion  – or the roughly 5 million Slavs killed in a less organized, but no less brutal manner during the same years. However, it’s still an awful lot of dead civilians to sweep under the carpet, and this is what was done by the british Establishment for a long time. The past cannot be changed, but Philip and I believed that it is far better to be honest about it, than to live in denial.

In Riesling there is peace and that’s one reason I’m glad to have Riesling in my glass!

TO BE CONTINUED VERY SOON!

    

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Berlin Riesling Diary: Day 1 – Under the Swan, the Lion and the Unicorn (Part 2) – In memory of Philip Eyres

This is the second installment of the talk I gave at the Riesling Fellowship evening in the Vintners Hall in London on January 29th. To fully grasp the context of the below it would help to read my previous posting (Part 1) before this one. Philip Eyres (1926 – 2012) was not only a great wine merchant, he was also a man with a strong sense of justice and great compassion. I spoke about these things the last time I saw him, and I promised him that I wouldn’t let the subject of this talk drop. Whether the Vintners Hall was the right place to say these things is debatable  It seemed to be so to me, because it is the home of the Establishment of the British wine trade.

Then something Philip Eyres did 10 years ago changed everything. Harry Eyres describes this so well in his Slow Lane column in the (London) Financial Times of March 12th/13th 2005 (pictured above) that I will read the first half of his column (I pick up newspaper clipping and begin to read).

HUMANITY’S VEIL OF DARKNESS

On the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Dresden last month my father quietly brought out a black and white photograph. It showed a long street reduced to rubble, with no building standing higher than the first story, and most completely flattened. As he made no comment, my sister remarked that it looked like Hiroshima. No, it wasn’t Hiroshima, my father informed us, it was Hamburg in 1946. He had taken the photograph while serving in the Allied army of occupation. The RAF bombing raids on Hamburg in July 1943 practically demolished Germany’s second-largest city. More than 40,000 people died (probably more than were killed in Dresden) during the three nights in July 1943 when the firestorms reached 1,000 degrees centigrade. Three years later the city was still a wasteland.

Seeing the almost unimaginable destruction wrought on Hamburg as a young man of 20 had a profound effect upon my father. He is no supporter (unlike many British people of his generation I have spoken to) of Air Marshall Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris. He does not agree with the sentiment expressed by the present British ambassador to Germany that in the context of the war the raids on German cities were justified. Nothing, for him and for Slaughterhouse Five author Kurt Vonnegut, can “justify” dropping incendiary bombs on people and turning them to sticks of carbon, a view I share.

One good thing that came out of my father’s posting in Germany at the end of the war was an enduring love of German wines. Later, as a wine merchant, my father made a specialty of the beautiful, delicate Riesling wines of the Mosel, Saar, Ruwer, and Nahe rivers. For a number of years I used to go out with him, in the cool Rhineland-Palatinate spring, to taste the young wines at estates such as Maximin Grünhaus on the Ruwer, the Friedrich Wilhelm Gymnasium in Trier (Karl Marx’s old school, which has a priceless dowry of vineyards) and the State Wine Domain at Niedershausen on the Nahe. I share his affection for these green-glinting wines, for the valleys with their gravity-defying vineyards and for the German wine growers and makes who approach their craft with the unselfish devotion of orchestral musicians. But I also realized that for my father were not simply about wine. They were a kind of reparation, a way of restoring Anglo-German amity through a cultural exchange based on the shared pleasure of wine.   

Suddenly, I realized that for 20 years I had unknowingly been involved in Philip Eyres personal campaign of reconciliation, and his work of reparation. I was immediately reminded of a conversation with a German wine journalist colleague, Pit Falkenstein, back in the summer of 1998. I had already known Pit for some years, but knew little about his life. On a walk through the vineyards of Assmannshausen in the Rheingau he told me his life story. (I put down newspaper clipping and pick up an email). Pit was born in Berlin in 1935. After the family home bas bombed out during the war they moved to a safe place, the Salzkammergut area of the Austrian Alps. Pit was sent to Stift Admont, a monastic boarding school. At Easter 1945 the food ran out and the monks sent the younger children home. Here is the story in his words:

There were many groups of four or five boys. A 13 year old lead our group…The trains were not running any more. I therefore marched the 60 kilometers to the Salzkammergut with my group in two and a half days. The two sandwiches each we were given at Admont were quickly eaten, because we were hungry. We slept in barns on hay and friendly farmers gave us plenty to eat. On the second day as we had almost made it to Tauplitz we were surprised in open fields by Spitfires. We were making our way up a hillside meadow between large rocks. We tried to reach the nearest piece of woodland, but didn’t make it. The British pilots shot mercilessly at us with their machineguns. We lay flat on the ground and were very lucky. Almost nothing happened to us. One friend of mine was grazed by a bullet on his right shoulder. The heel of my right shoe was blown off. Only some minutes later did I realize that my left hand was bleeding. A tiny piece of shrapnel from a bullet that had hit one of the rocks next to me and flown into my middle finger. To this day I carry this “trophy” around with me.

Stuart, why did those pilots do that?

I was very shocked by that story when Pit Falkenstein told it to me, but I also felt terribly confused. What did it have to do with me? I was born in 1960 and my parents were children during the Second World War. Only much later did I realize that my maternal grandfather had been an electrician in the RAF and worked on fighter planes. Quite possibly, he had serviced the planes that shot at Pit Falkenstein and his school chums.

TO BE CONTINUED VERY SOON!

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Berlin Riesling Diary: Day 0 – Under the Swan, the Lion and the Unicorn (Part 1) – In memory of Philip Eyres

Here is the first installment of the talk I gave at the Riesling Fellowship yesterday (Thursday, January 29th) evening at Vintners Hall in the City of London. Along with Hew Blair and Sebastian Thomas I was made a Riesling Fellow by Wines of Germany, which is kind of them, but not necessary as I don’t do this thing in order to wine prizes. I was also invited to give a 15 minute talk about my life and Riesling while a wine I’d selected was served. I followed Jancis Robinson, David Motion and Hugh Johnson, and what I said caused quite a stink, but that didn’t surprise me. What I said was all true, and I believe it’s far more important to speak an uncomfortable truth that has been swept under the carpet, than to be polite in return for polite applause. These are my opening remarks and they might seem uncontroversial, but were the foundation for all that followed. I think it’s worth noting that three symbols were to be seen all over Vintners Hall. The swan, which an anthropologist would call the totem of the vintners tribe, was almost as ubiquitous as the lion and the unicorn. The latter are of course part of the coat of arms of the House of Windsor (the British royal family), and are essential symbols of the British Establishment. To this episode, like those that follow, I’ve added a few extra words to those I actually said, because I forgot one or two important details.

This evening each of us is telling reminiscences, but mine will be very different from the others. I have to show you my new book (I held up my book),  even though I’m not going to read anything from it, because in it the labels of the first wines – including the first Riesling – I ever drank with pleasure are reproduced.

Call from the audience: “is it in English?”

Yes, it is in English, and I think you should all be able to read the cover. The title, BEST WHITE WINE ON EARTH – The Riesling Story, and it’s in English, American English.

In the book I also tell how I came to drink those wines. (I put down my book). It was April 1975, I was 15 years old and on a language exchange to Germany. I didn’t get on with my exchange partner at all, but that didn’t matter because I got on so well with his family. They lived in a bungalow in a suburb of Ludwigshafen and when I arrived they showed me around. Last stop was the kitchen where the father of the family swung open the refrigerator revealing rows of beer and wine bottles. Then, he said a magical word, “Selbstbedienung”, or self-service. I did so frequently during my stay, enjoyed what I drank and was rarely more than slightly hung-over.

The wine that’s just being poured for you is the 2012 Kupfergrube dry Riesling GG from Gut Hermannsberg, to which I’ll come in a moment. It might seem a banal thing to say, but wine connects us. Most obviously, this wine now connects us all, because we are tasting and drinking it together. Of course, this is the same kind of connection as between a group of people at a dinner table or in a bar who share a bottle. However, beyond that banal level the wine in the glass connects us in a more subtle way with the place where it grew and the people who made it.

In this case, it connects us with Dr. Christine Dinse and Jens Reidel who purchased the ex-Nahe State Domaine in 2009, and with Karsten Peter, the young winemaker from the Pfalz they hired. Of course, he has a team under him and it also links us to them, to the Nahe wine region and to Germany as a whole (both can be found on the label). Beyond that it connects us with the convict laborers who in 1902 started clearing the scrub  around a disused copper mine to build the terraces of this now famous vineyard site and plant it as part of the Prussian Wine Domaine of Niederhausen-Schlossböckelheim, and with those responsible for the first ever vintage of dry Kupfergrube Riesling in 1912. When we choose to drink a wine, we also choose to make those connections, although few people take the trouble to follow them in the kind of detail I just have. Of course, you can also choose not to drink a wine, and that means not to make those connection, for example with Germany.

My direct personal connection with this wine goes back to a sunny day in May 1984 when I first visited the Nahe State Domaine for the first time with British wine merchant Philip Eyres (pictured above, right). He had invited me to join him, his wife Jennifer and his son Harry (pictured above, left) for a week on one of his regular wine buying trips to the Mosel, Nahe and Pfalz. During that trip this tasting which made the greatest impression upon me, and it was the dry and sweet Rieslings from the Kupfergrube vineyard site that etched themselves into my memory.

If there was a single moment that I started on my present course, then that was it. Over the last days I was in the Mosel, Nahe and Rheinhessen visiting wine producers and tasting their wines, much as I did during that week. For more than 20 years I kept on that course in a rather thoughtless way. By this I certainly don’t mean that I didn’t think while I was tasting German wines and talking to the winemakers responsible for them, rather that I didn’t think about why I was doing it. During this time I think it’s fair to say that the success of my articles and books – I mean of each individual work – ranged from negligible to modest. However, there was a cumulative success, without which I wouldn’t be standing here in front of you today. Surely, it masks sense to look back with a critical frame of mind, rather than to idealize the past and in that way to misrepresent it?

TO BE CONTINUED VERY SOON!

 

 

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