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  • December 3, 2012
  • Human-Nature on the Middle Mosel

  • by Kevin Goldberg

Renowned German historian Karl Lamprecht, writing around 1900, lamented the meagerness that still plagued much of the German countryside. Recognizing, however, that rural life was not as destitute in certain winegrowing areas, Lamprecht commented that all German villages should be as fortunate as “Rüdesheim,” “Zeltingen,” and “Oberemmel.” The fact that these three villages were—and remain—bustling centers of winegrowing hardly needs explanation in this forum. While the price of most agricultural land generally remained stagnant in this era of late industrialization, prices for well-known vineyards attained unprecedented heights. In 1900, a parcel of the famous Erbacher Marcobrunn vineyard sold for about 160,000 Goldmarks per hectare (about $1,000,000 today), or in Lamprecht’s words, “it was about as expensive as a piece of the Kurfürstendamm,” Berlin’s ritzy shopping district.

Although a great many German winegrowers were spared the hand-to-mouth existence of other specialized farmers, the dazzling success at the top of the wine trade in the 1890s brought its own peculiar problems. For growers on the famed Middle Mosel, sustaining a modest lifestyle proved difficult when the lure of fortune was so close at hand.

The draw of extraordinary wealth—by 1890 visible to all of Germany’s growers—pitted region against region, and even neighbor against neighbor. Boundaries mattered, and every stone wall, each row of vines, and any cadastral evidence over naming rights of a vineyard could make the difference between middle-class comfort and all-out lavishness. To be sure, most of the beautiful mansions which today line the Middle Mosel’s banks were built during this period. But the accumulation of wealth in Germany’s wine regions occurred unevenly. When neighbors went to court over vineyard boundaries, as they often did, the outcome always implied unevenness, having and not having, and was a reminder of capital’s capacity to disrupt in the narrowest of places. Being on the wrong side of the boundary could mean devaluation, and it frequently led to dispossession.

Many growers had everything to gain from protecting and promoting vineyard values while warding off threats to place-specific devaluations. The potential for depreciation, whether because of vine disease, partible inheritance, mistrust brought about by an adulteration scandal, legal objections against the monopolistic use of a vineyard name, or failing to keep sales strategies current, was an imminent threat. Securing a spot amongst the privileged growers involved great risks, and sometimes required a neighbor’s demise. Peasant vintners were often forced into selling their grapes to more powerful landowners or merchants at distressed prices, prompting the Social Democratic mouthpiece, Vorwärts,to write in 1904, “Those who see the richly blessed landscape of the Mosel Valley rarely notice the grievances hidden beneath.”

Recent research has shown that among the various premia influencing a consumer’s decision about which wine to purchase, “place” carries far greater weight than minimal price shifts and producer name. Among California wines today, the relatively large geographical zones of Napa and Sonoma provide just the right amount of information for the average wine buyer. An imperative faced by winegrowers and merchants in Imperial Germany (1871–1918) was providing consumers with as much place specificity as possible while running the risk of over-saturating the buyer with too much detail. The geographic indicator “Mosel” steered too close to associations of adulteration (an old bugger-bear which has fortunately been overcome) and lip-stinging acidity. For the increasingly important export market, Middle Mosel winegrowers and merchants learned to educate buyers about their product specifically, not the Mosel wine being grown down or upstream. Part of this education involved trumpeting the inimitable traits of the only thing they could; their micro parcels of vines.

Coinciding with a price surge in Middle Mosel wines, particularly at the natural-wine auctions of the 1890s, was a growing belief in the primacy of place in shaping the taste of a wine. Vintners and estate owners learned how to create auras around their vineyards. The marketing phenomenon of single-vineyard wines, in which grapes for a particular wine come from an apparently contiguous and unique source of vines, resulted from the ambiguities surrounding the Wine Laws of 1892 and 1901, and the 1894 Law for the Protection of Brand Names, none of which went very far in protecting village or vineyard names from broad and free use by growers and merchants. Under these laws, names referencing winegrowing or wine merchant villages, such as Niersteinerand Trabener, were considered to be indicators of an abstract sense of price and quality rather than an actual place. To say that this led to fallout in the wine trade is probably redundant.

One well-known case is that of Bernkasteler Doctor. The Doctor vineyard was transformed from virtual obscurity into an internationally recognized and extremely profitable premium brand by the early decades of the 20th century. In fact, the sale of a small parcel of the Doctor vineyard in 1900 was touted as one of the most expensive land transactions (per hectare) in German history; a feat all the more remarkable considering the vineyard was culled from a near non-existence only a short time before. Karl Graff, in his 1821 volume on the healing qualities of Mosel wine, referred to the wines of Bernkastel as having no outstanding characteristics. Other prominent wine writers of the 19th century, including Johann Philipp Bronner and Cyrus Redding, hardly seemed aware of the Doctor vineyard’s existence at all. In fact, it was not until the entrance into Bernkastel of the Deinhard Wine Firm, a producer and global merchant with a penchant for modern forms of advertising, that the Doctorbrand was catapulted to prominence.

With the rapid and dizzying international success of Bernkasteler Doctor, a bevy of imitators—including C.F. Eccardt’s Kreuznacher Doktorberg and Friedrich Seyler’s Pfälzer Doktor—attempted to exploit the same functionality. The courts of southwestern Germany were inundated with lawsuits pitting vintners and merchants against one another, with claimants and defendants making appeals to the cadastre, family documents, and local mythology in order to stake their claims. While the Berlin and Frankfurt Chambers of Commerce had weighed in by trying to make the Doctor brand name available for any wine of “comparable quality,” the Koblenz and Trier Chambers—the ones with a real stake in this case—were ultimately successful in preventing most growers outside of Bernkastel from using the Doctor name. In the wake of the so-called Doctorfrage,allegations of impropriety surfaced against Julius Wegeler, a prominent member of the Koblenz Chamber of Commerce and, perhaps coincidentally, Managing Director of the Deinhard Wine Firm.

The Doctorfrage turned even more fractious with the passing of the German Wine Law of 7 April 1909. The new law, amending previous bills, asserted that neighboring or adjoining vineyard parcels could use local names interchangeably, as long as the wine was of at least equal quality. While this clause helped eliminate the exploitation of the Doctor brand outside of Bernkastel, it opened the door to greater struggle within village limits. Not only did this permit the widow Thanisch to use the more profitable Doctor name for her neighboring parcels in the Graben and Badstube vineyards, it also gave three other estates with adjoining parcels, including Erben Herr Anton Thanisch (relatives of Widow Dr. Hugo Thanisch), the opportunity to profit from Deinhard’s international success in cultivating the Doctorbrand. By mid-1910, Deinhard and the estate of Herr Anton Thanisch were locked up in a lawsuit. An agreement was finally reached that included Deinhard’s outright purchase of Anton Thanisch’s parcels. In an unexpected twist, Deinhard succeeded in branding wine from its newly-acquired vines as Doctor wine; the very same vines which Deinhard had recently fought to exclude from the brand on the grounds of incomparability of taste!

The case of Bernkasteler Doctor, though high profile, only scratches the surface. Continuing uncertainty over “fantasy-names” (Phantasienamen) and undefined vineyard borders cast a shadow along the entire Middle Mosel. Mayor Bergweiler of the village of Lieser addressed the fallout from the 1909 Law by asking his fellow Middle Mosel mayors to contact the Minister of the Interior in Berlin to protest the advancements made by unscrupulous wine merchants in taking advantage of privately owned vineyard names. The stunning success of Middle Mosel wines domestically and abroad had made them more susceptible to forgeries and imitations, and the existing laws proved weak in protecting the sanctity of place-names. Action was needed immediately to fend off the dilution of a vineyard’s reputation. The task, then, was to prove that a particular vineyard was fundamental to producing a particular taste, thus smashing previous assertions that taste was an abstract category.

The designation Erdener Treppchen was perhaps the most disputed of all Mosel vineyards following the passing of the 1909 Law. Wines from the Middle Mosel village of Erden had a long history of being forged on the broader market, but the 1909 Wine Law, just as it had done with Bernkasteler Doctor, had brought the ferocity back home. A 1909 dispute entangled the Traben-Trarbach-based Mosel Wine Merchants Association, the Trier Bischöfliches Priesterseminar, owner of a number of vineyards in Erden, and the family estates of Eymael, Raueiser, and Loosen, in a clash over the use of the Treppchen name. The Priesterseminarhad justified its exclusive use by claiming it had built the “little stairway” which had lent the vineyard its name. Eymael acknowledged that Treppchen was no fantasy-name, but claimed that his grandfather had been the one who built the stairs through the vineyard. Loosen, on the other hand, staked his claim to the profitable Treppchen name by revealing that the Priesterseminar had recently tried to purchase his adjoining parcel, and thus it was only fair that he be able to market his wines as Treppchen. Not having access to the Treppchen name meant immediate devaluation, while too much Treppchen wine on the market might have led to the same fate. Consumers remained unaware that the Treppchen vineyard, prized so much for its unique wines, was as indefinable as it was desirable.

An even more telling case is the 1911 dispute over Zeltinger Sonnenuhr. In accordance with the 1909 Law’s position on neighboring parcels, the city of Zeltingen-Rachtig had sued the estate of Sebastion Alois (S.A.) Prüm in order to liquidate his registration of the Zeltinger Sonnenuhr name at the Imperial Patent Office. Prüm rejected this demand, and the case soon found its way to the highest patent court in Berlin. The plaintiffs had argued that the 1909 Law gave other vintners the right to sell wines under the Zeltinger Sonnenuhrname and that Prüm’s monopoly on the brand was now illegal. F.C. Glaser, attorney in Berlin and legal representative for Prüm, advised the Imperial Patent Office in no uncertain terms of the primacy of vineyard quality in the post-1909 environment. Glaser focused on the inequities of artificially extending the boundaries of the Sonnenuhr vineyard in view of the fact that the Prüm family had more or less invented and cultivated the brand (including building the sundial which lent the vineyard its name).

As it did with the Treppchen and Doctor vineyards, the focus here remained on the apparent quality of Prüm’s Sonnenuhr parcel compared to neighboring plots. Glaser was concerned that the inferior wines from neighboring parcels would not only dilute the value of Prüm’s parcel but would also confuse buyers. In words very much in line with the terroir-driven verbiage of today, Glaser argued that “wine quality depends on its site or location. Even vineyards that back up to each other have a wide disparity in quality, depending on their proximity to sun, wind, etc.” It was clear, according to Glaser, that the “small vintners of Zeltingen, as owners of lesser sites, would like to sell their wines under famous names in the hope that they can double their price.” Prüm’s way of protecting his brand—just as was the case with Deinhard and the Priesterseminar—was to demonstrate the uniqueness of his particular parcel and to highlight its historical singularity and irreproducibility, especially compared to nearby plots.

The fascination we have for objects, according to French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, does not depend on their innate virtues or ascribed use values, but is the result of a dense field of ideological labor. Older understandings of wine quality were made ineffective as technology, disease, social dislocation, and a hyper legal culture disrupted the trade after 1870. To a far greater degree than ever before (or anywhere else), German vineyards around 1900 were turned into conduits of information; cultivated, sold, and consumed just like wine. In spite of terroir’sapparent emphasis on nature, the phenomenon actually masks our ideological transition of nature. As the Trier-born Karl Marx put it, we have transformed nature from a “power in itself” to one “purely an object for humankind, purely a matter of utility.” ♦

Photograph courtesy of Sofia Thanisch of Wwe. Dr. H. Thanisch - Erben Thanisch.

Kevin D. Goldberg is an instructor of history at Kennesaw State University. From 2011–2013, he was a postdoctoral fellow at Brown University. He is currently working on a book, The Fermentation of Modern Taste: German Wine from Napoleon to the Great War.

  • John Ritchie says:

    Thanks, Kevin. What a fascinating piece, filled with intriguing stories featuring familiar names and places. Do you or Lars know of any sources in English that discuss the various laws of 1892, 1894 and 1901?

    Your thoughts on how the influence of wealth shaped the relationships between the various estates and growers are very interesting, and the after-effects of this peculiar period in Mosel wine history still resonate loudly today.

    • Kevin Goldberg says:

      Hi John,
      Thanks for your kind comment. As a fan and consumer of Mosel wine, I have become interested in this notion that vineyards are multi-purpose; that is to say, they define the property owner and potentially the consumer as much as they lend a wine its terroir. Consequently, it should come as no surprise that a vineyard’s identity and its boundary were so hotly contested. I think there is far, far more work to be done in terms of understanding how we think about vineyards, as growers, sellers, and drinkers.

      I cannot immediately think of an English-language source for the historical German wine laws. I had thought about translating them, but because they are so rooted in disputes which are no longer relevant, translating without a lengthy contextualization would have been futile. For any German readers, I would recommend a new book by Ulrike Bernhardt, Geschichte des Weinrechts im Deutschen Kaiserreich (Peter Lang, 2012). Some time ago, I had come across translated excerpts of the old laws in various American documents, including from the California wine trade circa 1900, but nothing complete. If I come across something (and I will be looking for these and other things), I will ask Lars to post it here.

      • Kevin’s article is of importance even today. The VDP classification model is a hot-button issue with its Grosse Lage and Erste Lage, and the new EU wine regulations have opened a can of worms with g.U., or Protected Designation of Origin (PDO). In addition, some people believe that they can rank the Mosel’s vineyards. In my opinion, it’s a little presumptuous.

        I also don’t know of a source in English about the German Wine Laws of 1892, 1901, 1909, and 1930. At the city library of Trier, I’ve glanced over some original documents and thought about writing an overview of the different laws. Kevin, however, has more insight about the laws than I do.

  • Per Linder says:

    Thanks Kevin for this interesting piece. I thought that the fantasy names were limited to Königsmosel and Perle der Mosel.

    Do you know if anything has been written about viticulture under French rule between 1794-1815?

    • Kevin Goldberg says:

      Thanks Per. I enjoyed your article on Mosel wine in Sweden very much.

      The amount of vineyard and wine brand patents filed after 1894 is truly staggering…it would not surprise me if it reached into the 1000s. Fritz Goldschmidt, who I believe was involved with the family that edited the “Deutsche Wein-Zeitung,” published something in the 1910s or 1920s which listed all of the then recorded vineyards.

      There are definitely some good books…in German…on the period of French occupation on the Mosel. Michael Mueller’s “Saekularisation und Grundbesitz: Zur Sozialgeschichte des Saar-Mosel-Raumes, 1794-1813” (Boppard, 1980) is a great place to start. Its index lists all of the vineyard auctions of the Napoleonic period, and gives a great sense of how wine shifted from a matter of church and nobility into the hands of the commercial/middle class. Though, I tend to think this shift can easily be exaggerated. Another good one is Annette Winter-Tarvainen’s “Weinbaukrise und Preussische Zoll- und Steuerpolitik…” (Trier, 1992). Its main focus is post-1815, but it still grapples with the period of French occupation. I hope these suggestions are useful.
      Hjartliga Halsningar,

  • Per Linder says:

    Hej Kevin, it would be interesting to catalogue the fantasy names on the Mosel.

    As to the French era, I looked into Michael Müller’s book (which ships at two yearly subscriptions of at Google books and he seems to focus on the transition of land and estate ownership. I am curious to find out if anything has been written about the Mosel wine during this period.

    On Google books you can read Albrecht Friedrich Ludolf Lasius: Der französische Kaiser-Staat unter der Regierung des Kaisers Napoleon des Großen im Jahre 1812. He mentions that Bernkastel has good winemaking. Grevenmacher, on the Obermosel (today in Luxembourg) has excellent (vortrefflicher) wine. Regards Per

  • David Schildknecht says:

    I shared a very small bit of research with Kevin regarding the Bernkasteler Doctor, because I thought he might slighly misleadingly have created the impression that its rise to fame took place solely in the waning 19th and early 20th century and in connection with the owners and litigants he discusses above.

    We have some good reason (notably its absence for lists of top sites) to believe that through at least the first two decades of the 19th century, neither the Doctor nor other vineyards within the commune of Bernkastel were considered among the Mosel elite. I can appreciate the force of Kevin’s argument that the best evidence for this neglect is absence of any mention of Doctor by the seemingly scrupulous and savvy Johann Bronner in his 1830 compendium (or by Graf in 1821). Yet, the alleged fame of and legend associated with the site is discussed in detail by von Stramberg in his 1837 Das Moselthal zwischen Zell und Conz (pp. 253-254); and by 1870 at the latest an impression of legendary excellence (via the legend of curative powers) is routinely conveyed in the wine literature. So it seems to me worth trying to investigate the efforts apparently made in the mid-19th century to as it were “put Bernkastel on the map” of great Riesling. This, like the later labors on which Kevin focuses, may itself have represented a case of successful branding based on considerable imaginative recreation of Bernkastel wine history.

    But I certainly appreciate Kevin’s insistence that (to use his formulation from our e-mail exchange) “the point that I want to drive home [is that] the success of Doctor (whether due to Deinhard, Thanisch, or even Kunz or Cetto), cannot be separted from the wealth, charisma, and expertise of the vine owners.”

    I have some aversion to the use or notion of “terroir” with which Kevin operates. Not that one can’t use this term as one wishes – and admittedly many common uses are very elastic and/or vague – but I insist that the fact at least be recognized and respected that any given site offers distinct advantages and limitations to producing wine from (in this instance) Riesling; or, put another way, the fact that location has a lot to do with vinous excellence. What’s more, I think (and have argued in many places but won’t drag anyone reading this to them) that “potential advantages and limitations ascribable to site” is a pretty clean, useful conceptual candidate for the term “terroir.” This sense of “terroir” has many advantages, one relevant to the present discussion being that it allows us to pose the question whether the terroir of Bernkastel was over-rated from the mid-19th century on. And if it was not – i.e. if this site possesses since-proven terrific and unique potential – then one must look elsewhere for an explanation of its apparent (relative) neglect in the literature prior to the mid-19th century.

    To be sure, over long periods of time and for various reasons – but most notably climate change – the advantages and limitations of a site for growing Riesling can change. But I would submit that if the Doctor was a great site for that purpose in 1900, its potential was probably no less in 1800, whether or not realized or even recognized. Historical work like Kevin’s is hugely insightful as well as entertaining to Riesling lovers, but I trust he will forgive us collectively (or at least me) for being first and foremost interested in the question of Doctor’s (or any other vineyard’s) potential for excellence, taking it for granted that for a multitude or reasons (of the sorts Kevin adumbrates) some sites get unjustly neglected or under-rated while others get hyped.

    • Kevin Goldberg says:

      Thanks for your comment, David. There is no question that the history of Bernkasteler Doctor deserves further exploration. You are absolutely right to point out that Stramberg identifies the vineyard in the 1830s, and that the “healing” legend, with which the vineyard is intimately tied, begins to pop up around mid-century. There is no evidence that I am aware of, however, which would indicate that Doctor wines were in great demand before the latter part of the nineteenth century, when the commercial machine of Deinhard went into full effect. This is also when prices for the wine attained unprecedented levels. That being said, Doctor wine happens to be among my favorites (especially Thanisch), and I would not be surprised should evidence surface indicating the vineyard’s success at a much earlier period!

      Based on our exchanges elsewhere, I don’t think our understandings of terroir are very far off. My seemingly under-privileging of actual site-based factors in articulating my definition of terroir is, in part, a necessary consequence of my desire to elevate its social/human factors. I don’t think these factors are as much taken for granted, as you indicate, but are rather, unfortunately, intentionally left or written out.

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