Today I was going to give you a glimpse of the stories I’ll be posting here after I deliver the manuscript for my new Riesling book ‘BWWOE’ to my publisher, Abrams in New York City November 1st, but I just read Eric Asimov’s report on dry German Riesling in the New York Times of August 22nd. There’s nothing about Eric Asimov’s story -‘Germany’s Rieslings on the Tip of the Tongue’ – which I wish to argue with, and the results of the panel’s blind tasting reflect how the wines showed that day and in that situation; of course!
My problem is with a quote from Terry Theise, since decades one of the leading importers of German wines in America, and I must thank Asimov for putting it in there so it can be discussed. What Terry Theise said or wrote was, “the omnipresence of dry wines within Germany is a dubious example of this country’s temptation to do things in large, implacable blocks”. That’s not just a sweeping statement, but also has an accusing tone. It suggests that the Germans have (with few exceptions) collectively changed direction like a herd that recently charged in the wrong direction. That this isn’t really the case is revealed by a quick glance at the statistics for Germany wine production and consumption, but I fear that in spite of that Terry Theise is totally convinced he’s right.
Sure, if you spend some time in Germany’s winegrowing regions, or even big cosmopolitan cities like Cologne and Berlin, and you judge the wine market solely on the wine lists of restaurants there you could get that impression. However, that way you only get to see one side of the German wine market. Also, isn’t it only logical that in regions like Rhienhessen, the Pfalz and Baden where the climate (accentuated by climate change) and other factors (holy terroir!) create better conditions for dry wine production than sweet winemakers concentrate on the dry style? Of course, there are other regions where the production of sweet wines is much larger, because conditions are ideal for it. Maybe Terry Theise realizes all that (although it doesn’t sound like it from that quote), but he clearly hasn’t experienced the open-mindedness of young Germans for wines of all styles. Their, “if it tastes good I’ll drink it!” pragmatism reminds me of many young American consumers.
That is disappointing, but what really upsets me is something Terry Theise left unsaid, but which his words strongly imply. The most obvious large, implacable block in modern German history is the slightly more than 12 years of Nazi dictatorship and all the heinous crimes committed under it, of which the Holocaust is the largest. As a long-term resident of Germany I’ve closely followed the (usually) very serious attempts by the Germans to come to terms with their past. The all-encompasing sense of moral obligation behind this, has sometimes made them tend towards black and white thinking about all manner of things. However, I use the past tense, because what has changed in Germany more dramatically than anything else since I started observing the country from close up in my mid-teens (1975 -76) is the recent waning of that tendency.
It wasn’t without good reason that during his coverage of Germany during the FIFA soccer World Cup staged in Germany in the summer of 2006 that New York Times columnist Roger Cohen christened the nation’s young people “Flexi-Germans”. I’m not a soccer fan, but I was swept along by it all too. It was clearly a turning point for Germany, and not only because journalists like Cohen saw Germany for how it was without projecting the past onto it. It was also the moment the majority of Germans realized how fundamentally their country had changed. People from all over the world filled the Germany’s major cities and a celebratory mood that was free from any hint of strident nationalism, much less violence, was omnipresent. Flags were everywhere, German flags, Brazilian flags (!), French flags, and dozens of others. It was utterly different from those pictures of the Berlin Olympics of 1936 when the city was swathed in swastika flags.
It took me a while to realize what this all meant for those Germans of my generation (I’m 53) who’d had a sense of shame for the nation’s Nazi past inculcated in them during their youth. For them the 2006 soccer World Cup clearly brought not only high spirits, but also a feeling of relief. I could see it in their faces. This was the time when the realization spread among them that they need feel no guilt for what was done during those 12 years long before they were born. That too has changed Germany. Most Germans of my generation no longer feel the same obligation to do the “right thing” in order to demonstrate their moral correctness that they used to. Yes, even wine was long a vehicle for that purpose!
Today Germans of all generations feel more confident about saying that they prefer sweet wines to dry ones, or the other way around, than they did a decade ago. All of this is surely positive. All of it is so far removed from what Terry Theise describes. Sorry, Terry, but you missed something important!
PS Here is Terry Theise’s reply. If he’s right, then I’m far too optimistic and Germany is headed in the wrong direction big time. I hope that he’s not as right as he thinks he is:
Stuart describes the world he sees, and I describe the world I see. I would be a much happier man if his description were truer than mine. But among my growers and the stories they tell me (and what I myself observe) the picture is radically at odds with that which Stuart paints. I sincerely hope to be proven wrong.
Re. “implacable blocs” please don’t read-in. My unsaid words did not “strongly imply” anything, but only spoke to a peculiar adherence to one particular wine style, as though everyone had the same taste in cars, or shirts, or lawn ornaments – which of course they don’t. But – as I observe it – they all seem to have identical tastes in wine: It must be Trocken. If the bloc is in fact less implacable than my observations suggest, i.e, if Stuart’s sample is wider or more current than mine, I look very much forward to observing that evidence myself. I’m not invested in being irked.
Stuart has a copy of my current catalogue, in which there’s a short essay on this subject, and it is recommended to anyone who wishes to read my thoughts on this question, with greater detail and nuance than can be conveyed in a brief quote to a wine journalist.
Here is the link to that essay about the “invasive species” – dry wines in Germany – in Terry Theises German catalogue (see page 8):