Ahr to Lodi: Spotlight on German Wine
German wines show up in the damnedest places — and I am not just talking Riesling.
While visiting Lodi, California this month, I had the opportunity to meet Bob and Mary Lou Koth of Mokelumne Glen Vineyards, who, with their daughter and son, own a small family vineyard specializing in German and Austrian grape varieties.
Bob and Mary Lou
Bob’s a Lodi native of German heritage. Two trips to Germany to visit daughter Ann-Marie who was studying on a Fulbright scholarship there introduced Bob to German wine and grape varieties. Bob and Mary Lou already grew Tokay and Zinfandel, but on his second trip to Germany he had an epiphany.
“I was in Mainz,” Bob says, “and went to a German restaurant. I ordered a Riesling, and thought the spicy food would blow the wine away.” Bob says after just one sip, he decided to plant German grapes in Lodi. The Lodi folks thought he was crazy, he says.
Bob’s affable and humble. We sit at picnic tables under a big shade tree, while he tells us about his grapes: Blau Frankisch/Lemberger, Dornfelder and Zweigelt are reds he grows in larger quantities to sell. Whites sold commercially include Bacchus, Gewürztraminer, Kerner, Rieslander, Riesling Clone 90, Schonburger and Wiesserburgunder (Weißburgunder in German). He has another 36 varieties (including 7 other Riesling clones) in his trial plot, with 6 to 8 vines of each. They keep four old Tokay vines up near the house for sentimental value. He has a waiting list for his commercial fruit.
Coming down the hill strides a blond in sunglasses. “You’re late,” says Bob. “I was waiting at the top of the hill to greet them,” comes the reply. “I thought they would pass by.” We had come in through the back gate from our visit to with Markus and Liz Bokisch who produce Spanish varieties — but that’s another story for another day.
“Shhhsh! Are you Nuts?”
The blond is Swiss-born Markus Niggli, winemaker at Borra Vineyards with a “subventure” he calls Markus Wine Co. he started last year.
“I was excited to find German grapes in Lodi,” he says of Mokelumne Glen Vineyards, “Kerner, especially.” He pours us his “nativo” a wine he says he made to showcase the vineyard, the only source of the Kerner grape in all of California. It’s a slightly off-dry white.
“I like to focus on high acid and low Brix,” he says. Wine geek-speak for crisp and dry, not sweet. The Nativo is 75% Kerner, 19% Riesling and 6% Bacchus.
Markus reminds me of both Skarsgård brothers’ and the actors’ characters (yes, I know they’re Swedes, not Swiss) — a bit of Alex as Eric Northman (True Blood) and Gustaf as Floki (Vikings). Markus “shushes” one of our group as the guy attempts to ask a rather silly question — who was not hearing Bob speaking softly in the background — pure Eric. His second wine is called Nimmo, a blend of 69% Kerner, 11% Gewurztraminer, 10% Riesling and 10% Bacchus all from Mokelumne Glen vineyards, that has spent 9 months in 60% new French and American Oak.
German wines are usually aged in only concrete or stainless steel tanks — oak is a bit rogue. “I like working with wood,” offers Markus, “but everybody says to me, ‘Are you nuts?'” (There’s Floki)
Markus’ break with tradition has won his Borra oak-aged wines praise from consumers and critics alike. His Markus line will do the same.
Germany by-way-of Dallas
Justin Bryan and Jessica Bryan are a wee bit younger than Bob and Mary Lou Koth, but are equally passionate about German Wine. I met Justin through the American Bar Association’s “ABA Wine,” where we serve as co-chairs for the State of Texas. Justin and his wife lived in Germany when he was a lawyer for the U.S. Air Force, where Justin says he felt a bit like “Christopher Columbus in reverse.”
“We were asking ourselves ‘how did we not know about this?’ and ‘why isn’t there more German wine like this in the U.S.?'” says Justin.
Justin went on to study at Deutsche Wein- und Sommelierschule (German Wine and Sommelier School) to learn more. He and Jessica then joined forces with German wine professional Paul Steinbach to create Traubenhaus Fine Wines. “Traubenhaus” means a house with lots of grapes and their logo is meant to create an impression of the historic half-timbered houses that populate German wine villages. The goal behind the company is to help educate Americans and import wine “Germans actually drink,” Justin says.
That statement piqued my interest, so I asked our German friend Stefan Schwytz, lawyer, BACcantus wine journalist and photographer extraordinaire, about the Traubenhaus Fine Wines offering.
“Some of the wineries I know quite well… especially Weegmüller,” says Stefan. “I love Stephanie Weegmüller and her wines from Neustadt, Pfalz so much!”
Stefan says the estate “Weingut Weegmüller, next door to famous Müller-Catoir, is one of the oldest in the area, going back more than 325 years. “They win prizes for their wines,” says Stefan. “The Weingut Weegmüller, Scheurebe trocken (dry) 2014 just won 17 Points out of 20 in a big tasting of this variety in the Vinum Magazine,” he says.
Stefan says its easy to see that Traubenhaus imports wines not sold “everywhere,” so I asked Justin how he selects his imports.
“I am proud to have been instrumental in identifying two producers we import, but Paul is the real key to our concept,” says Justin. “Paul is a resident German wine professional which allows us to be very picky.” Traubenhaus evaluates wineries before they evaluate the wines, he says.
“We base our concept on building relationships with the men and women who produce the wine before the specific wine,” Justin continues. “Once Paul determines a winery works in harmony with nature throughout the entire year, consistently produces high quality wines, and is run by good men and women, then we establish a relationship with the winery and really can’t go wrong when it comes to selecting the wines.”
Justin tells us that Paul has been working with and tasting German wine for almost 40 years. “His palate is attuned to the German tradition and culture and so he is the ultimate key for our concept of characteristic German wine.”
Burgundy = Pinot Noir = Spätburgunder
While in Lodi at Mokelumne Glen Vineyards we lament the challenges facing producers of German wines and German varietals in the U.S. Often sommeliers and distributors say no one will order a wine he cannot pronounce. But is it really the American consumer who has the problem?
Americans can pronounce ‘Barack’ and Beyonce’ years after they filled theaters to watch a Terminator by the name of Schwarzenegger. We know how to say Charlize Theron, Chloë Sevigny and Martin Scorsese, as well as McConaughey, Sade, Shakira and Shia Labeouf. Americans have no trouble pronouncing ‘foreign’ sounding words as long as someone thinks it is important enough to teach them. The same should apply to German wine! Maybe we just need some motivation.
German Wine 101 at Memorial Wine Cellar
Houston wine lovers have a chance to both learn how to pronounce the names as well as taste some German wines this week!
This coming Saturday, June 20th, Justin Bryan from Traubenhaus will be in Houston for to conduct a German Wine Class at Memorial Wine Cellar from 6:00 to 7:30 p.m. Participants have an opportunity to taste six wines from the regions of Mittelrhein, Ahr Valley and Pfalz, Germany. Cost is $49 plus tax per person, and include small appetizers. Wines to be tasted will include:
– Mittelrhein Bopparder Hamm Riesling Trocken
– Mittelrhein Rheindiabas Riesling Suess
– Ahr Mayschosser Spatburgunder Trocken
– Ahr Fruhburgunder Trocken
– Pfalz Scheurebe Trocken
– Pfalz Pfarrwingert Chardonnay Trocken
Memorial Wine Cellar, voted of one Houston’s Top 10 Wines Bars of 2013 in The Houston Press, is a family owned wine shop and tasting room created by Dwayne and Mary Harrison. It is located at 7951 Katy Freeway, Ste. B, Houston, TX 77024 (between Chimney Rock and Antoine) The class is limited. To purchase tickets call (713)680-9772 or purchase on-line at EventBrite here.