Berlin Riesling Diary: Day 4 – In Memory of Peter Klann of the Soluna Bakery in Berlin

I was planning to write something completely different yesterday, but as John Lennon famously said “life is what happens while you’re making plans.” I’d just made early morning tea and my thoughts were slowly turning to that story, when the telephone rang. The caller was Miriam Alvarenga-Klann in Rio de Janeiro and she was ringing to say that her husband Peter Klann of the Soluna Bakery in Berlin had just died in a hospital in the German province of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, and she would be on the first flight to Germany which she could get on. Like an earthquake, it was followed by a series of aftershocks which haven’t ceased, and they’ll surely continue for some time. Death don’t have no mercy in this land!

I am very grateful to have known Peter Klann, because he wasn’t just a good baker who rejected all the modern chemistry and tricks which sacrifice the flavor and texture of bread on the twin-altars of time-saving and profit maximization, and who baked a range of bread drawing on the traditions of cultures as diverse as Germany, France, Brazil and Tibet. He was a soul-baker who’s first principle was, “die Balance zwischen Liebe und Essen,” the balance between love and food. Pictured above is his pain obscure, Soluna Bakery’s current version of the petit pain obscure, which was the first bread from Peter Klann I encountered. Back in the spring of 2004 it convinced me that the taste of bread could be every bit as complex and fascinating as that of wine. But which wine growers are interested in the balance between love and drink?

It’s not necessary for me to tell Peter’s life story, because others will do that far better than I can. The only points that are essential to know is that he was the son of a baker, rejected that profession and worked as a roadie for rock bands until about 20 years ago he came to Berlin to train as a baker under Heinz Weichardt. Even then the path to founding his own bakery was neither straight nor short. But then Peter was not a linear guy, nor was he ever in a hurry.

In the West most people are anxious to segregate spirituality off from the rest of life and make it the exclusive preserve of churches and ashrams, priests and gurus, either because they’re afraid of it, or because they want to idealize it. Bread, the product of fermented and baked flour (sometimes with other ingredients added as flavorings), seems about as banal and material to us as anything could possibly be. If you look at the prices of the cheapest junk bread in supermarkets you’ll see just how little we value it as a society. Peter showed me how wrong all of this is. “You have to give yourself up to the dough when you are kneading it, rather than try to dominate it. You have to work upon it with your soul, then you get back a piece of yourself in the bread,” he once told me. That’s obviously esoteric, but Soluna bread tasted different from any other bread you could buy. Sure, it was (and is) expensive in comparison to that junk bread in the supermarket, but it was satisfying in a way that made most other bread isn’t, and this aspect of it was as hard to put into words as the experience of great wine is. Once in an interview I was asked which single food I would choose if I had to give up everything else, and the answer shot out of my mouth, “bread from the Soluna bakery!”

Then Peter Klann began a tortuous battle with cancer that lasted several years. Finally in the summer 2012 he seemed to be on the mend, as the photograph of him above shows, and some of my most inspiring memories of him are from that time. But on Thursday evening the combination of a serious heart problem that wasn’t properly treated and his already weakened state proved too much. Now he is gone, the staff of Soluna are in a state of severe shock and the bakery in the Gneisenaustrasse only opened today because the team had already finished baking when the news of his death reached them, so the bread had to be sold. Peter would have wanted it this way. I extend my deepest condolences to his wife, family, friends and colleagues.

For more about Peter Klann and Soluna Bakery see the following New York Times article:


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Berlin Riesling Diary: Day 1 – Strange-Familiar Territory

Being back in the Wine Metropolis (WM) Berlin after several weeks in New York Wine City (NYWC) feels mighty strange and all too familiar at once. The brief interval between NYWC and WM Berlin was filled by a couple of nights in Cologne practicing British humor with my old school friend Richard Aczel, then the mind-boggling, palate-numbing turbulence of the ProWein trade fair in Düsseldorf. The photo shows one of the few really stimulating moments at ProWein 2013 which had nothing directly to do with wine tasting. It shows Boris from Microsoft (left) and Mr. Dry Riesling Martin Tesch of the eponymous wine estate in Langenlonsheim/Nahe presenting their joint creation, a wine app that makes every other wine app I encountered look dead in the water in comparison. It will surely became a model for others around Planet Wine, but as Tesch said, “first we have to see who  uses it, who uploads photos and comments – our existing customers or people from Brazil and other distant places?”  Seldom in its history was the future of Planet Wine so totally unpredictable, as this bizarre combination of a wine producer with just 4 full-time employees and one of the world’s biggest corporations (but not a wine corporation in any sense of that term). Given the creativity Tesch demonstrated since 2001, for which I named him “Winzer des Jahres”, winegrower of the year, in Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung in the December 9th issue last year, I feel sure that he has a bunch more surprises in store for us!

One of the things every trade fair of this kind is about is the delightful surprise that comes with making new discoveries.  In their heart of hearts even the dullest realist and the most hard-core pessimist still cling to the hope of discovery, and this time Juliane Eller of Alsheim/Rheinhessen (below) fulfilled that hope for me. Not only because she’s a Jungwinzerin who just made her first solo wines, but also because I remember first drinking Rieslings from her neglected and almost unknown part of Rheinhessen back in the Mid 1980s. They were rather sweet and a bit tame, but Juliane Eller’s 2012 ‘Rüst’ Riesling is properly dry and mingles the wild with the wonderful, the fruity with the funky. Finally a really bright new star from the loess (soil type) terraces of Eastern Rheinhessen where Brüder Dr. Becker were long the only exciting Riesling (also Silvaner and Scheurebe) producer!

Of course, a wine trade fair is also a kind of zoo in which all kinds of wild, semi-tame and completely domesticated animals mingle with each other, and at night the mingling tends to be more direct than during the day. Sunday evening I saw a couple of friends from my two semesters as a guest student at the Geisenheim/Rheingau. Kathrin Engehausen now works for Germany’s most important organic wine merchant Peter Riegel at who’s chill out part we met up, also with Zoli Heimann (see below – more about his wines at a later date) of the Heimann estate in Szekszárd/Hungary. Trying too hard to pronounce this region’s name leads correctly many westerners make embarrassingly crass mistakes. As Zoli pointed out to us it’s actually quite easy. You just say SEX-HARD and you’re spot on! Zoli then insisted that a couple of my observations about the wine scene’s current state were spot on and quoted his father to say just how spot on I was, “as usual you have your finger on the pulse of the main artery of the penis of the times!” No doubt this lost a little of it’s poetry in translation from Hungarian to German, then English, but I think you get his drift. Of course, none of us were sober at that point…

And if your think that is all on the Outer Limits of the wine universe, then either you’ve never taken part in a trade fair of this kind or you were there the whole time in Düsseldorf with your eyes closed. I was seriously shocked to see how a bunch of really big wine companies had stolen the visual imagery and slogans from Germany’s Jungwinzer. As a result I confidently predict that next year’s ProWein  will see the first outing of German Altwinzer, self-confidently old winegrowers with a message of power to the silver-haired who are still alive, kicking and sexy. The untapped market for this is huge..

Everywhere I went at ProWein I discovered something more surprising or extreme than what I’d just seen, as the above picture proves. Probably part of my current disorientation is the result of my mind still chewing on weird stuff like this. Give me a couple of days and I promise something more coherent will emerge from the maelstrom in my head…I hope…


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New York Riesling Diary: Day 17 – On the Road

In less than one hour I dash to JFK for my flight back to Germany (the ProWein trade fair in Düsseldorf looms on the horizon), but a much more extraordinary journey, the ‘Riesling Road Trip’ sponsored by Wines of Germany, is in the works as the above picture from our last planning meeting at Terroir, E.Vil. in New York Wine City (NYWC) shows. On the map of the United States which I spread out on one of the wine lists one of the possible routes for the ‘Riesling Road Trip’ is marked. At present the only things which are certain are that I will be traveling coast-to-coast overland beginning in LA on June 19th and ending in NWYC on June 27th. For the first half of the journey I will be accompanied by an as-yet unnamed West Coast somm, and during the second half the double act will also feature Paul Grieco of Terroir and Restaurant Hearth. One of our vehicles will be mobile tasting room, details of which I am forbidden to reveal, except to say that it will look serious extraordinary.

The official goal of the ‘Riesling Road Trip’ is to promote German Riesling in major population centers and off the beaten track cities, but of course each of the participants will bring his/her own personal goals to the project. Mine will be to film the entire bizarre adventure for use in WATCH YOUR BACK (a Riesling movie) and to get to many parts of America I’ve never seen before within the space of a few days. For example, so far the only part of the Deep South I’ve been to was Shreveport/Louisiana, which was real interesting, but is only a small part of this vast and varied region. No doubt all kinds of unexpected stuff will happen along the way and that will all be a vital part of the Great Adventure. There’s certainly no shortage of literary role models for what we’re doing ranging from Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’ to Hunter S. Thompson’s ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’, plus older classics like Mark Twain’s exhaustive travel writings.

So I leave New York with high expectations for all that will happen after my return on May 21st. A later date would be impossible, because a bunch of video material must be shot in preparation for ‘Riesling Road Trip’ and needs to get through post production in good time to publicize the whole mad caper. That kind of material needs more planing than the photos and video interviews we shot at Terroir the other day. And earlier than May 21st wouldn’t have worked for me because of all the commitments I have in Germany. As usual I’m juggling one more ball than I really know how to keep in the air, but that’s what makes my life so exciting. I will sleep deeply on the flight and forget all of that as I sail across the Atlantic back to the Riesling Fatherland. Thanks you everyone in NYWC who made this such a productive and stimulating stay! I WILL RETURN!!!


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New York Riesling Diary: Day 16 (Part 2) – Snowflakes

“These things are like snowflakes“, Austrian-American Kurt Gutenbrunner of the KG-NY Restaurant Group said of the dishes, beers and wines which are essential to the culinary cultures of Austria and Germany. It sounded so right, not just because each snowflake is at once intricate and unique in form (though every one of them has a basic hexagonal form), but also because snowflakes are so fragile, so easily destroyed by a small rise in temperature or by pressure, such as feet compacting them to ice. In all these respects, but also because snow is such a regular feature of winter conditions in both Germany and Austria, the snowflake is an ideal metaphor for German-American and Austrian-American culinary culture. They both suffered so much and for so long from lack of interest and lack of respect, but are now enjoying a dramatic resurgence. As Gutenbrunner said of the Biergarten at the Standard Hotel in New York for which he consults, “I never saw so many young ladies drinking beer…it’s cool to drink German wine and it wasn’t for a long time. There’s a real change in culture!”

It was just one of many remarkable moments during ‘The New Little Germany: New York revisits the German Table’ last night at the Tenement Museum on Orchard Street in the city’s Lower East Side. It was one of their ‘Culinary Conversations’ events curated by food historian Jane Ziegelman, who explained at the beginning that for much of the 19th century this district of town was Kleindeutschland and home to 200,000 people of German origin; a quarter of the city’s population. The triad of German music, beer and food was the bedrock of this community, also when much of it decamped to Yorkville during the late 19th century and other immigrant groups came to dominate the Lower East Side. The Tenement Museum is an important vehicle through which the memory of this culture is communicated and I strongly recommend their fascinating ‘Shop Life’ tour.

Much less well known, even to me was the history of the Germanic culinary traditions in New York during the last decades of the 20th century about which food critic and journalist Mimi Sheraton (left in the above photo) had so much to report. How many New York foodies know that during the 1980s ‘Vienna 79′ received four (of five possible) stars from the New York Times? Or that Peter Luger’s famous restaurant in Williamsburg is actually a German steak house? As she said, “A lot of what Americans eat is German in origin, and not just the obvious things like hot dogs and hamburgers. Often the seasonings in other dishes are German,” but in recent decades awareness of this in much of America has been low to nonexistent.

A tasting menu which began with an ‘Aufschnittplatte’, or plate of charcuterie, from Schaller & Weber at 1654 2nd Avenue at East 86th Street in Yorkville illustrated the discussion. Jeremy Schaller is clearly a man of our times rather than a clone of his grandfather who co-founded the family business 76 years ago, yet like Gutenbrunner he stressed the importance of traditional recipes and preparations as the essential foundations of distinctive Germanic cuisines. This rang many bells with me, for it is exactly the approach of the new generation of Riesling producers in Germany and Austria. For them the right genetic material (variety and clone/selection) for the vineyard location, along with the use of winemaking methods refined over many generations are no less essential to the wines they make.

What does that have to do with contemporary America? Well these same winemaking traditions have been exported to the US and Canada, where winemakers have adapted them to the special conditions in their regions. For example, Riesling has been grown in California for about 170 years and in New York State for 50 years. Many of those winemakers are not of German extraction, but just as many American chefs who are not of Italian extraction are fascinated by Italian cuisine, so they are attracted to the Germanic wine traditions. Now that German and Austrian food in America are so clearly in the ascendent again I have no doubt that these food and wine traditions have already become mutually reinforcing and this will enable them to decisively overcome the remaining prejudices against them in America (fatty food / sweet wine – note the parallel there!) Jane Ziegelman concluded with a quote from German food writer Ursula Heinzelmann in which she describes how the new movers and shakers of Germanic cooking trust their own cultural identity as the previous generation rarely did, and this makes it possible for them to join the culinary chorus of New York City.

Anyone who doubts that the German-American tradition is important to the entire country’s melting pot (the melting pot was of course also a cooking pot!) origins should click on the link below to see a graphic showing the dominant cultural make up of American county by county as determined by the 2000 national census. It says everything.


New York Riesling Diary: Day 16 (Part I)

Yesterday was full of surprises, of which the first was stepping into the 10th anniversary tasting of David Bowler Wine and bumping into Gernot Kollmann of the Immich Batterieberg estate in Enkirch/Mosel. He was one of the very first winemaking students in Germany from a non-wine background, a trail-blazer for the new generation of young German winemakers. However, Gernot and I go back  even further to 1991-2 when he worked for the Dr. Loosen estate in Bernkastel/Mosel and we shared an apartment. Gernot almost became famous a decade ago when he was the winemaker for the Van Volxem estate during the years following it’s take over by Roman Niewodniczanski with the 2000 vintage. Then Gernot went solo as a consultant winemaker and became semi-invisible for several years. The last three vintages from immich-Batterieberg have changed all that though, the dry and medium-dry Rieslings he’s made there being some of the most strikingly original modern Mosel wines. Instead of going for fruity charm he emphasizes the herbal-spicy-mineral aspect of the wines though a combination of low yields, “wild” yeast fermentation and long aging on the lees. The dry 2011 Batterieberg Riesling is a near-perfect example of this style and can age for decades, just as the best Rieslings which Georg Immich made at this estate during the 1970s and ’80s did.

It started to get really strange when half an hour later I bumped into Jeffrey and Ellie Patterson of Mount Eden Vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California who I visit several times around twenty years ago. How did we lose touch? I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but it was during the 1993-2000 period when I was unable to travel to America because I lacked the funds. The wines I tasted with them showed a direct line of development from what I remember tasting and drinking in the early 1990s, though their new wines are even more elegant. The 2010 Mount Eden Chardonnay is still very young and is as lean and wiry as a marathon runner, and the aromatic subtlety is as far away from the average California Chardonnay as it’s possible to imagine!  The 2009 Mount Eden Cabernet Sauvignon is somewhat more open, but is also a sleek and subtle wine lacking any hint of the monolithic bombast of so many Cult California Cabernets! Those New York somms reject California wine out of hand with arguments like, “it’s all so alcoholic” or “it all tastes so sweet”, need to taste these wines!

Then there was a new wine which greatly surprised me, the 2011 ‘Brooks Vineyard’ Riesling from Ransom in the Eola Hills of Oregon. I see a great future for Oregon Riesling if the state’s winemakers can get away from the idea that their Riesling wines have to be bone dry and seek a balance that harmonizes their often high acidity content, but leaves them dry enough to drink with savory food. That balancing act is what Tad Seestedt has mastered and his wine also has a wonderful orange blossom nose. His Pinot Noirs also impressed me, the 2010 Cattrall Vineyard bottling being every bit as distinctive (spicy-earth and muscular) as his Riesling. Hats off to you Tad for leaving the path of convention and finding his own path with both grapes!

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New York Riesling Diary: Day 14 – When the going get’s weird, the weird turn pro

The last 24 hours were a helper skelter of activity, ideas, surprises. Above is the film team and some of the real-life stars of WATCH YOUR BACK (a Riesling movie) at the end of the second day of shooting at a secret location in Brooklyn. From left to right are sound man Spencer, cameraman Marcarthur Baralla of Defendshee Productions, Ex-Mosel Wine Merchant Dan Melia (currently studying to be a high school teacher at Harvard), Carla Rzeszewski wine director of The Breslin, John Dory Oyster Bar and the Spotted Pig in Manhattan, yours truly, Karl Storchmann economics professor at New York University and the Managing Editor of the Journal of Wine Economics and Clemens Busch of the eponymous wine estate in Pünderich/Mosel. We all look so happy, because we just finished shooting the two interview sequences which are the core of the movie’s first act (there are four depending on how you count ‘em).  Unfortunately Aldo Sohm, sommelier of Le Bernardin in Manhattan, had already left, but he seemed to enjoy the whole bizarre procedure every bit as much as we did. THANK YOU ALL!

During the evening we drank a bunch of interesting and exciting wines (Clemens Busch über Alles!) Most surprising of them was this Dry Riesling from the Oyster River Wine Co. in Maine. I had no idea anybody was making Riesling in Maine (though the grapes come from New York State – would Riesling ripen anywhere in Maine???), and it really had a very distinctive style. The green (apple, gooseberry and dill) aromas are what I expect from Rieslings which grew in very cool conditions, but normally a Riesling which smells this green tastes tart, rough,  edgy and this wine was none of those things in site of its bracing acidity content. Blind I guessed it was an obscure Spanish cool climate dry white, because I couldn’t square that combination of characteristics with Riesling. When the bottle was unveiled I was seriously amazed!

Today I jolted awake “too early” at the ‘Hotel of Hope’ in East 7th Street, which turned out to be a good thing, because there was so much to do today. By the time I stepped out of the house and headed to the ‘NY drinks NY’ Tasting at Astor Centre just before noon I had a slew of work behind me. There was a lot of good and some great Riesling at this tasting, but the biggest surprise was the 2011 Grüner Veltliner from Dr. Konstantin Frank in the Finger Lakes. Once again, I had no idea anyone was growing this grape in that region. Due to the difficult vintage it was a shade on the light side, but had good balance (moderate acidity) and a very authentic white pepper and sweet vegetal Grüner character. On this showing my guess is that this will become an important grape variety for the finger Lakes within 10 years.

The 2011 Rieslings from Anthony Road, Dr. Frank, Lamoreaux Landing, Red Newt and Sheldrake Point hammered home just how proficient the leading Finger Lakes producers have become during the last years, good vintage or not. The best wine of the day was the 2010 “Art Series” Riesling from Anthony Road, which winemaker Johannes Reinhardt (below) fermented with “wild” yeast, but managed to get fully dry and keep completely clean (i.e. no funny micro-biological nonsense or unwanted oxidation). It smelt of honeysuckle,  rose hips and white peach, was very elegant; a tightly wound spring which is just beginning to slowly uncoil. I hope my health doesn’t suffer during the coming year’s work on the movie and a new book, because I want to meet this wine again when it’s had the time to relax longer in the bottle. Relax, don’t do it, when you want to…

The new movie and book projects are very exciting, and both will send me right across America during the coming months. Next time I will reveal some of those plans and I promise you that after reading about them you will wonder if I’m entirely sane!


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New York Riesling Diary: Day 12 – Terroir or not Terroir? That is the Question!

I’ve written plenty about Paul Grieco, about Restaurant Hearth which he opened at 403 East 12th Street (at First Avenue) in New York’s East Village with Marco Canora back in 2003, and about his Terroir wine bar at 413 East 12th Street few yards down the street which opened in 2008. „My sandbox, my rules, imposed not only upon that 24 seat wine bar, but also on the people in it,“ is his description of what it. That freedom enabled him to begin the Summer of Riesling that first year and begin transforming New York Wine City (NYWC), a process that’s now extending right around Planet Wine. It’s Big Stuff befitting a Big Wine Guy, though some of that stuff actually just happened. Terroir is now a group of 5 wine bars in NYWC, some people say it’s already a small chain, others wonder if it’s the beginning of a much bigger chain and a nationwide brand. Don’t forget how small and anti-establishment the Rolling Stones stared and how big and establishment they became just a few years later.

There are far more people to Terroir than just Grieco though, as I wrote in my profile of graphic designer and ideas man Steven Solomon (see my first New York Riesling Diary: Day 21) already made clear. So early yesterday evening my camera and I hit the Terroir wine bar in Murray Hill/Manhattan to meet the smart young woman who has manager since its opening in late September 2010, Rienne Martinez. I first met Rienne back in October last year, when we spent an evening in Berlin’s Weinstein wine bar (that city’s equivalent of Terroir) at the beginning of three months she spent in the Riesling Fatherland.

My gonzo approach to wine journalism means getting as close as I can to my subjects, and of course if I like my subjects then retaining a critical distance in my mind  is quite a challenge. But on the other hand, if I don’t get close to them then I’m looking at them through a telephoto lens, or maybe its a telescope the wrong way around. My camera – literally and metaphorically – zooms in and out from wide-angle to macro and everything in between. At least that’s the theory.

“You probably want to taste things you don’t know,” she said as she put a kaleidoscopic row of wine bottles on the table in front of me and I expressed enthusiasm for the 2010 ‘Gneis’ Muscadet from Domaine de L’Ecu in the Loire/France, then she instantly removed it. The final row ranged from the 2010 Aligoté from Domaine Pierre Morey in Meursault/France to the 2010 Niepoort-Arazos dry white from Jerez/Spain (a dry white made from the Palamino grape, not a sherry) and the red 2001 Bourgeuil from Domaine Stephane Guion in the Loire. It was a Riesling free zone, perhaps because I put her through a dry Riesling Boot Camp when we met in Berlin.

Then we got talking about farming, because when Rienne grew up in Seattle her mother was growing organic tomatoes and selling them at an organic Farmers market. “There’s no other product in the world in which you find everything which happened during the whole year put in a time capsule, and that’s very cool. In the end it’s farming fruit. It comes from the dirt” she said of wine. “Said”? It flowed out of her like a wave and I was the beach on which it broke. What does that mean? Although I don’t have a background in agriculture like Rienne, frequent childhood visits to my maternal grandparents in rural Devon/England encouraged an appreciation for farming and gardening, animal husbandry and tending the soil. So those words about vines, grapes and dirt resonated with me.

I liked the Aligoté for its textural qualities, though it has little fruit and is not the kind of wine I’d ever order. (I admit that I also have a problem with Burgundy after so many disappointing expensive bottles). I was really excited by Niepoort-Arazos, which was intensely herbal and very dry, but I hated the 2011 Bourgeuil. “Pyrazines, I mean the green bell pepper aroma you also get in Sauvignon Blanc,” I mumbled. Rienne wanted to know more about those aroma molecules, but that didn’t dent her enthusiasm for this rather dry, tart red a jot. Moments later very different reds were on the table for me to try, of which the 2009 Izbrani Teran from Stoka in Slovenia lit my fire. Those fresh berries, herbs, cocoa powder (one of my favourite red wine aromas) and “powdery” dry tannins all at just 12.3% alcohol. It’s an inspiring wine that doesn’t fit neatly into any established category and very Rienne!

“What about Heavy Metal Monday?” I threw out wanting to know how the hell this young woman who is smart (she could have had a more high-brow career), passionate (about wine and food) and sensitive (for people and history) could throw together wine and heavy metal music and make it work. She explained it had been the idea of a co-worker nicknamed Chaos Kate just over a year ago. Grieco asks every new employee what their favorite movie and their favorite band is in order to get a feeling for their personality, and Kate’s answer to the second question sowed the seed that was to become a bizarre new NYWC cult.

“The anniversary party on the 25th February was the funniest slash most fun evening with people drinking draft Garnacha and Riesling from flasks,” Rienne enthused,  “there were lots of leather jackets, tattoos, and coloring books with heavy metal figures. We only have them on Mondays.” Obviously I really missed something, but by this point conversation was becoming a more difficult place, because the place was filling up, the Friday after work buzz was cranking up, and Rienne had to get busy.

As I was getting ready to split she gave me an important idea: in spite of the power of the major corporations America is moving away from industrial agriculture and highly-processed food to a more cautious and less crudely manipulative stewardship of the dirt, the crops growing in it, and the food which they provide. It’s a them I will return to with the inevitable Riesling twist.

Terroir Murray Hill is open Mon. thru Sat. 5pm – 2am, Sun. 5pm thru Midnight

439 3rd Avenue (between 30th and 31st Streets)

Tel.: 212 481 1920

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New York Riesling Diary: Day 11 – The Truth in Wine, Wire, the iPad, GPS and Jet Airliners

The photograph above shows me on the first day of the 2012 harvest at Weingut Klosterhof Töplitz close to Potsdam in Brandenburg/Germany. Note the poles and wires supporting the vines, also that the vines are planted in neat rows.

One of the purposes of this blog is to seriously stir up the shit, an American expression whose directness excites me, challenges me and drives me to action. By “seriously” I mean not only substantially, but also with serious intent and serious determination. In England, where I grew up we say that the truth will out, but anyone with even a superficial knowledge of history (American history, English history, any history) knows that sometimes it can take a long time for the truth to work its way to the surface unaided. So, it often needs the help of people like myself – some others do it better than I – in order that the shit can hit the fan.

Today I’m writing about the association of the word natural and idea of naturalness with wine, and much else besides. Of course, I’m talking about so called “natural wines” and here I think it’s worth noting that even that great champion of this category of wine in New York Wine City (NYWC) Alice Feiring points out in her book ‘Naked Wine’ (2011, Cambridge/MA, Da Capo Press) that the word “natural” is loaded with associations and therefore problematic.  She’s quite right about that, but the problems this word causes go way beyond this category of wine that has been so fashionable and controversial the last years, as I will try  to show.

Sometimes practical examples are the best way to get down to untangle linguistic and philosophical knots like this. So let me tell the story of a young German couple who’s small start up winery has made some very good Pinot Noir red wines in the Baden region for about a decade. Recently a young woman with a company specialized in organic and natural wines started importing their Pinot Noirs into her Far Eastern homeland. Unusually for this blog, I’m giving her the benefit of anonymity, because I’ve neither me her, nor could I read anything she’s written due to the language problem. I’m sure that she’s very serious and also means what’s she does well, but that’s not the point of this story.

Recently the young Far Eastern wine importer visited the young  German Pinot Noir producers for the first time, and was very enthusiastic – particularly about their wines – until they took her on a vineyard tour. As they walked into the first vineyard she stopped in her tracks and said, “oh no…wire”, then mumbled something about how wire in vineyards disrupts the flow of some kind of ethereal energy field though them. Vineyards with vines planted in rows and supported by wires stretched between poles at the row ends (technical name espalier) has been the norm on Planet Wine since at least half a century, and was introduced to some winegrowing regions much earlier than that. The only reasonably common alternative to this system is bush vines with minimal support from wooden stakes (almost always in warm, dry regions) and more rarely you find steep and/or terraced where each vine is trained up its own pole (e.g. some places in the Mosel and Rhône valleys). The young German Pinot Noir producers were dumbfounded and didn’t know what to say, but later asked themselves what the alternative would be for them.

The next day they accompanied her to her appointments in Alsace, because they were really interested to find out how the organic and natural wines there tasted. You see, they aren’t against this approach, rather they’d like to find a way to further reduce the use of sulfur in their wines without compromising their ageing potential. The young Far Eastern wine merchant did the navigating, and that’s when it suddenly hit the young German Pinot Noir producers. She was navigating with her ipad using the GPS system, and, of course, she had flown to Germany from her homeland in a modern jet airliner! All of these technologies are way more advanced than the wire in vineyards. Furthermore, each of them – computer, satellite communications and jet engines – was originally developed for military purposes! And all of this is supposed not to disrupt the flow of ethereal energy fields?!

I feel a lot of sympathy for the young Far Eastern wine merchant, because this kind of inconsistency is endemic to the contemporary world, and I’m sometimes guilty of it too. However, that doesn’t alter the fact that no other idea has more woefully afflicted by our inability to think logically and consistently than natural/naturalness, though what we do to the ideas of democracy, freedom and the free market and what their twisted forms can do to us is sometimes every bit as bad.

Our fixation with the idea of Holy Nature goes back to the French-Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) who was obsessed by the idea of the natural man, writing in Part 2 of his ‘Discourse on the Origins of Inequality’ (1754) that, “nothing is so gentle as man in his primitive state, when placed by nature at an equal distance from the stupidity of the brutes and the fatal enlightenment of civil man”.

Rousseau’s assertion of the fundamental goodness of nature was picked up by the Romantic poets, painters and thinkers, some of whom (for example the poet Wordsworth) pushed it even further than Rousseau thereby turning it to a pervasive aspect of Western Culture. During the following centuries it was cross-pollinated with ideas from Far Eastern religions, then disseminated throughout the whole world.

The vine strikes us an inherently good plant, because we conceive of it as being natural. In doing so we forget that the modern grape varieties are all the result of selection processes stretching over untold generations (though accident also played a role). We also forget that planting vines in rows, even planting vines at all is not natural. Fermentation – a form of microbial spoilage – is natural, but the way we have influenced and adapted this process to bake leavened bread, make beer, wine and other alcoholic beverages is also not natural. These are obviously important aspects of human cultural activity, because you find them in many different cultures.

Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not arguing in favor of more processing of wine, rather for a realistic view of what winegrowing and winemaking are actually about, and for a pragmatic approach to the beverage. As Francois Mitjavile of Tertre-Roteboeuf and Roc des Cambes in Bordeaux once said of wine, “if there’s too much human influence then wine tastes boring, but if there’s only nature then the result is vinegar. Where is the right point between these extremes? It is not easy to find”. No less important for me are the words of Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat in Santa Maria/California, “wine is the product of the spoilage of fresh grapes under controlled conditions. A winemaker who doesn’t try to influence those conditions has abrogated his fundamental responsibility”.


New York Riesling Diary: Day 10 – The Pleasure Pinciple

What do you do when you’re very passionate about Austrian wines, you want to expand the market for them in North America, but have almost no marketing budget. You do what Toni Silver (pictured above) of Monika Caha Selections did, which is to create cool new brands featuring the most widely-planted white and red grapes grown in Austria and make yourself the face of the brand. The above picture shows Toni Silver in the same pose in which her cartoon likeness appears on the label of the ‘Grooner’ brand of dry white Grüner Veltliner and the ‘Zvy-gelt’ brand of red Zweigelt (my favorite of the pair). These are fun-fun-fun-in-the-USA wines made by a surprisingly serious guy called Meinhard Forstreiter of the eponymous estate in the Kremstal region.

This is all going through my mind, because yesterday I met Toni Silver, Monika Caha, Meinhard Forstreiter and a bunch of other interesting people at New York importer Frederick Wildman’s tasting of Austrian, German and Alsace wines at Restaurant Aquavit on East 55th Street. Back home in Austria Forstreiter is one of the nation’s most underappreciated winemakers, but the three contrasting Grüners he showed today demonstrated that he’s a talented winemaker of the minimalist, hands-off school. My favorite was the 2011 Grüner Veltliner Schiefer (the vineyard name) with its delicate nutty aroma and unusually sleek, fresh flavor profile for this grape. Though the wines were very different in style, the dry whites from Weingut Stadlmann of the Thermenregion were every bit as impressive. Here the most striking wine was the Riesling-like 2010 Zierfandler from the Mandel-Höh vineyard, with its bouquet of jackfruit (really!) and a very discrete yet intense flavor in which dried peach was intertwined with salty (i.e. real) minerality; a great wine with a long life ahead of it. They all have friendly prices, but the Austrian wine bargain of the day was the 2011 Gemischte Satz, or mixed planting (based on 20% Riesling and 20% Scheurebe) from Neumeister in Southeast Styria with its fruit cocktail aromas and very straight, pure, dry style.

LET ME AT ‘EM! Let me taste those 2011 Scharzhofberger Rieslings from Weingut Egon Müller-Scharzhof!! Let me through to those bottles!!! And yes, after a short wait, I did get through the crush around the table Egon Müller’s Rieslings from the Saar and Slovakia shared with those from Weingut Wittmann in Rheinhessen and it was well worth being patient. Anyone who finds most dry Rieslings too lean and acidic is strongly recommended the Egon Müller vinified 2011 Château Béla Riesling from Slovakia with its ripe mirabelle aroma and full, round body. In comparison, the 2011 Scharzhofberger Riesling Kabinett is an Egon Müller masterpiece of floral and white peach delicacy with white wedding filigree; the perfect wine for a sophisticated lady or cosmopolitan man about town. I hope that I qualify!

Let me now nail my flag to the mast, in case you haven’t already figured this out for yourselves. I believe in both the beauty of wine and personal pleasure, the latter following from the fact that beauty is (famously) in the eye of the beholder. These are Old Ideas, but as with all other ideas that keep coming back it’s always possible to give them a new twist. And right now I think that New York Wine City is giving these Old Ideas a radical new twist. That’s why I’m here. Dare I suggest that you…enjoy!

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New York Wine Diary: Day 8 – Divine Madness in NYWC

It’s almost too obvious to need pointing out, but New York Wine City (NYWC) is often a crazy place. Never more so than on a day like today when one big tasting (A.I. Selections) and another huge one (Michael Skurnik Wines) suck the entire wine and restaurant scene into confined downtown spaces. For a moment I wondered if the term “bull market” might apply to the sheer mass of highly energized people often gesticulating excitedly, but since prices aren’t rising except for a few very sought-after collectible/ investment wines I don’t think it really applies. Actually, I find this almost blinding intensity of interest in good wine a wonderful thing, even if I can only take a few hours of it at a go.

Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon, pictured above the Michael Skurnik Wines tasting, certainly seems to have more stamina for this form of divine NYWC madness than I do, but then he has a long history of “working the market” and has developed his own inimitable way of coping with that. I think he has a much bigger problem with the American wine media and feels that they have never really taken him seriously. Certainly all five of the wines under the “Le Cigare” brand (regular and reserve white and red plus Vin Gris rosé) he showed me were expertly made, strikingly individual and would undoubtedly blow a slew of supposedly cool 90+ wines off the table. However, the really good thing about NYWC today is that exactly this kind of comparison is becoming unnecessary as much of the wine scene follows trail blazers like Paul Grieco of the Terroir wine bars and Restaurant Hearth who have struck out in a completely different direction called personal pleasure.

Although Riesling is a major part of this new NYWC, but until recently it was a bit disappointing to see how few of the new German and Austrian Rieslings (or for that matter other wines from those countries) were making it over to the US. That’s why someone like Volker Donabaum of A.I. Selections is an important new development. Stephen Bitterolf of Vom Boden is another smart new importer  sticking his neck out and taking risks on wines some of the big well-established importers didn’t pick up during the last couple of years when they were still there for the grabbing. The Riesling ‘Proidl spright deutsch’, Proidl speaks German, from the Proidl estate in Senftenberg/Kremstal in Austria is a perfect example of this. Proidl’s other white wines – Riesling, Grüner Veltliner and Traminer – are powerful dry wines that still manage to have a certain elegance thanks to the stony gneiss soil and careful winemaking. In contrast, this wine has high natural sweetness and high acidity, making it seem less obviously Austrian and rather more like a Gold Cap German Auslese. Hence the name.

And the most exciting wine of the day? For me it was the 2011 Gottessfuß Riesling from Roman Niewodniczanski of the Van Volxem estate in Wiltingen/Saar at the A.I. Selections tasting. It was incredibly powerful, yet had wonderfully light touch and very complex fruit aromas (everything from perfectly ripe apricots to forest berries and mandarine). But actually that description is way too prosaic for this wine, which was a piece of Riesling Heaven in NYWC!

PS Don’t tell anybody, but I also found a couple of Chardonnays (at the Michael Skurnik Wines tasting) which I really loved. The dangerously fresh and vivid 2008 Stony Hill from Napa Valley was completely unloaded with oak and malolactic baggage, and the 2009 Ritchie Vineyard from David Ramey in Sonoma County. It had a beautiful lemon curd aroma, great ripeness and concentration, yet stung at the finish like an electric eel; the complete opposite of Bullshit California Chardonnay!

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