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  • March 15, 2019
  • The Real Mosel Winegrowers

  • by Lars Carlberg

Konstantin Weiser and Alexandra Künstler.

Winegrower (Winzer, in German) is a different category from estate owner (Gutsbesitzer). The latter often pose on social media and in glossy magazines as if working in their vineyards, but it seldom appears as though they are the ones who are getting their hands dirty, especially when those vineyard shots show them wearing a perfectly clean and ironed button-down shirt. Many of these folks don't exactly look as though they would be in shape for such hard physical labor, especially on the steep slopes.

The list of real hands-on Mosel winegrowers among the top producers is very small, many of whom have expanded their holdings and spend most of their time in the office, on the road, or at tasting events, even though they might have apprenticed as a winegrower and studied at Geisenheim.

There's a similar phenomenon among certain well-known sommeliers who are referred to (often by themselves) as winemakers or even winegrowers. Do they really make the wines, much less grow the grapes?

A true wine grower is in his or her vineyards working not posing. It's seldom the case today, even among those who actually do "make" the wines, such as the skilled vintner Gernot Kollmann of Immich-Batterieberg. He is both an employee and part-owner, along with the two main investors from Hamburg, and has so many other important duties, like selling the wines, that he needs someone to manage the steep-slope vineyards when he is traveling on business. This is understandable. The estate now owns 7.5 ha but purchases additional high-quality Riesling grapes from top sites for Detonation and its entry-level wine known by the initials C.A.I.

Many estates have both a vineyard manager and cellarmaster. It can be the same person—operations manager (Betriebsleiter) is then the job title, as is the case with Stefan Kraml at the 34-ha Maximin Grünhaus. Today, Kraml reports to Dr. Carl von Schubert's eldest son, Maximin, who studied business not viticulture and took charge of this famous estate after they rejoined the VDP. He seems keen on emphazing the status of Grünhaus Riesling as a luxury brand and has already launched a new website, after having made changes to the bottles, capsules, and labels.

To be fair, most estate owners ("growers" is simply the wrong term) have a product to sell and, at a certain size, as at Maximin Grünhaus, need to delegate their tasks. There's nothing wrong with this. But, still, it's a lifestyle choice. Does the owner really want to toil in his vineyard? Probably not.

One major exception among proprietors of large estates—and none on the Mosel is larger than his—is Markus Molitor. He is the winemaker, but he is not a winegrower. A grower works in his vineyards. Over the years, Molitor has had different managers who take care of his now 100 ha of vineyard stretching from Traben-Trarbach to Serrig. His friend Roman ("Niewo") Niewodniczanski, the owner of the 80-ha Van Volxem estate, is active in promoting his wines worldwide, but has the very competent Dominik Völk to manage his Saar estate and make the wines at the new facility in Schoden. Roman would be the first to acknowledge this. Nik Weis, a close colleague of Niewo and Molitor, owns the 34-ha St. Urbans-Hof, in Leiwen, and has two cellarmasters and a vineyard manager at his winery, which, like that of Molitor, has recently expanded its holdings on the Saar.

On the Middle Mosel, the leading estates of Schloss Lieser, Selbach-Oster, and Joh. Jos. Prüm have each expanded to over 20 ha of vineyard in the last several years. They have various employees. While I have little doubt that Thomas Haag of Schloss Lieser is capable of doing the work in the cellar and vineyard, he has Philipp Veser as his right-hand man. At Selbach-Oster, Johannes Selbach, who also acts as a middleman at the VDP and Bernkasteler Ring auctions, has two key employees to assist him: Frank Prüm, a winegrower from Brauneberg, tends to the vines, and, more recently, Christian Vogt—formerly the cellarmaster and later the manager at the Karthäuserhof—makes the wines. The Prüms have a large staff for both their office and production. The roughly 20 ha that today comprise the traditional Max Ferd. Richter estate, in Mülheim, actually reflects a recent downsizing. Although Dirk and Constantin Richter are actively involved at their property, the father-and-son duo has both a vineyard manager and cellarmaster. In other words, the Richters are not toiling up a steep vineyard.

At the 46-ha Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt estate—with major holdings in the Middle Mosel, Saar, and Ruwer (where it's based)—the late Annegret Reh-Gartner arranged that her employees would stay in place at Schloss Marienlay. Mona Loch is the chief executive. The cellarmaster is Wolfgang Mertes, who has his own estate on the Ruwer, and the vineyard manager is Michael Weber, who also has an estate with his brother called Weber Brüder in Wiltingen.

At the Scharzhof, close to Wiltingen, the vineyard manager at the 16.7-ha Egon Müller estate is Heiner Bollig, who seems to have also taken over the winemaking responsibilities from cellarmaster Stefan Fobian (see "A 2017 Kabinett Tasting at Schloss Monaise" for more on this). It will be interesting to see whether Bollig can maintain the high quality of this renowned Saar estate.

In Oberemmel, Max von Kunow, the owner of Weingut von Hövel, has had several different cellarmasters and vineyard managers since taking over from his father, Eberhard, in the 2010 vintage. That's a lot of turnover, plus von Hövel has doubled in size from 10 to 20 ha, after leasing vineyards from Schmitt-Reuter in Krettnach in 2014. In Saarburg, at the 13-ha Forstmeister Geltz Zilliken, the owner and winemaker Hanno Zilliken handed over the reigns to his daughter, Dorothee, a few years ago. Hanno is still actively involved as the cellarmaster, and Dorothee and her husband, Philipp, work with him and an experienced employee in the cellar and vineyards.*

Many VDP estates purchase grapes (occasionally even wine) from grape-growers or other producers to vinify and bottle under their own or a conspicuously similar label—albeit minus the VDP imprimatur, initials, and eagle emblem. One hears grumblings from some VDP members about their organization's tolerance for such négociant activities. Several prominent non-VDP members, notably Max Ferd. Richter and Selbach-Oster, engage in high-volume shipper wines, the latter under the name "J. & H. Selbach," but neither of them utilizes labels that could be mistaken for those of their estate-bottled wines. Likewise, Ernie Loosen of Dr. Loosen, who is a VDP member, offers his popular non-estate Dr. L Rieslings under a different label. (The German label term for estate-bottling is Gutsabfüllung, whereas "bottling" is Abfüllung.) It should be noted, however, that the globe-trotting Ernie Loosen and Johannes Selbach—like Dirk Richter—have been two of the Mosel's great ambassadors over the last thirty years.

In Kanzem, von Othegraven's owner, Günther Jauch, a popular TV host and VDP member, has Andreas Barth of Lubentiushof as his estate manager and winemaker, plus Swen Klinger, who lives at the 16.5-ha property and manages the vineyards and cellar. Jauch kept the entire team in tact when he took over the estate from the late Dr. Heidi Kegel, but he now produces a bulk wine for the German discount supermarket chain Aldi that is bottled under his name.

In the VDP Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, or Grosser Ring, you can count on one hand the number of estate owners who do a major share of the vineyard and cellar work at their estates—and I'm not just talking about during the harvest. Christoph Schaefer of the 4.2-ha Weingut Willi Schaefer does it all, though he has help from his wife, Andrea, and his father, Willi, as well as a group of pickers during the harvest. Clemens Busch, Florian Lauer, and Matthias Knebel are also VDP-Mosel members who do much of the grunt work, albeit with important employees and family members to help them.

Outside the VDP, true grower-proprietors can be found at the following Mosel wine estates: A.J. Adam, Julian Haart, Später-Veit, Günther Steinmetz, Martin Müllen, Vollenweider, Weiser-Künstler, Melsheimer, and Stein, among others. It's no coincidence that these are some the best producers in the region today. All of these grower-proprietors work in the vineyard and stay relatively small to do most of the work themselves, even if they have some help during the growing season and harvest.

The winemaker Ulli Stein likes the hard-to-work steep slopes and has a couple of skilled Polish workers to help him out and, most recently, a protégé, Philip Lardot, who also makes his own wines. Stein not only knows what he is doing but he genuinely likes doing the donkeywork, too. At most top producers, the seasonal workers from Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and other countries—many of whom represent the second or even the third generation in their family to labor at the same estate—are the unsung heroes of German wine production. Without their often highly experienced help, there would be no wine at most estates (see "Andreas, Vineyard Worker").

Konstantin Weiser of Weiser-Künstler is a perfect example of a real winegrower, in the truest sense. He not only makes the wines in the cellar, but he wants to be in his vineyards. His wife, Alexandra, who also apprenticed as a winegrower, does much of the work with him. Most of their 4.6-ha holdings are certified organic and moving towards biodynamic, despite the difficulties of farming on steep slopes. On a small scale, they also buy grapes from growers for their basic Riesling.

At the 9-ha Hofgut Falkenstein, near Niedermennig, where I spend my days helping out the Weber family, Erich and Johannes Weber do all the vineyard and cellar work themselves. It starts with pruning but also includes replanting vines, as well as removing the unwanted shoots on each vine trunk—known as "suckers"—by hand. They don't consider themselves too good for doing this kind of laborious and backbreaking work. In fact, they see it as their fitness studio. Others have a crew to do this or spray an herbicide called Shark® that even kills off suckers.

Klaus Peter Keller of Florsheim-Dalsheim, in Rheinhessen, is the owner of arguably the leading estate in Germany, which was once over 20 ha and is now at about 16. He is hands-on in the vineyards, even if he has an accomplished employee and, as at most estates, seasonal help. He also makes the wines himself and has recently leased an ungrafted old-vine parcel in Piesporter Schubertslay, which was cultivated by his close friend Julian Haart, so we can add Keller's name to the list of real Mosel winegrowers, all of whom are family-owned and family-run properties. ♦

*Correction: I mistakenly wrote that the Zillikens buy grapes from a 3-ha grower in Niedermennig for certain entry-level bottlings. They actually have a lease-and-cultivation agreement with the grower, who, I didn't mention, farms organically as well.

Photograph courtesy of Al Drinkle of Metrovino.

  • marius fries says:

    Lars, great and balanced article on a topic rarely discussed.

    Is there a correlation between the role of the owner, the size of the estate and quality or style? I think so, even though it’s pretty obvious that small doesn’t necessarily equal higher quality and that a high quality can be achieved by employees or owner-winegrowers likewise. But in a difficult season, a smaller estate might be more flexible than a larger one to do necessary work the moment it needs to be done, even in the evening or at the weekend, to start or postpone harvest on short notice etc. Also, for commercial reasons they don’t have to rely on a „house style“, so their wines might be more individualistic sometimes. On the other hand, being able to hire the best employees, some of which come and go after a couple of years, means a constant stream of new ideas, excellent professional background etc. at the larger estates. And the larger estates (and their owners) often do a great job representing Mosel Riesling worldwide, something the smaller growers benefit from as well. Maybe it’s a bit like in the Champagne (larger houses vs smaller growers)?

    • Thanks, Marius.

      The second paragraph of my article makes the point that, among the top estates, there are only a few owners who spend the majority of their time working in the vineyards. I’m not saying that smaller is necessarily better. The Mosel has lots of small-scale winegrowers who get their hands dirty but make mediocre wines. Likewise, there are grape-growers who have only a couple of hectares of vineyard and have little regard for their vines and soil.

      As you point out, though, the small growers who make top-quality wines can be more efficient, especially during the harvest season.

  • Al Drinkle says:

    Great article, Lars. Quality aside, there’s something eminently endearing about small-scale operations where a limited number of talented individuals are responsible for virtually everything (and in this comment, I’m not necessarily limiting this thought to winegrowing).

    Obviously sales are paramount to the continued existence of estates of any size, but equally obvious is the fact that sizeable producers have much more wine that they have to worry about selling than their colleagues with modest operations. Even if “great” Mosel wine is made by producers of all sizes, I find that smaller and autonomously-operated producers in almost all winegrowing regions are responsible for the vast majority of distinctive and original wine – the goal of selling massive quantities is simply incongruous with stylistically intrepid vinous expressions. Of course there are exceptions to this, and it should be pointed out that among the large-scale producers that you mention, there’s a relatively high minimum standard and very few releases of blatantly poor wine. But it’s equally true that a lot of the region’s most exciting wine is coming from people whose daily activities engender an intimacy with their vineyards and the ability to participate in virtually every facet of the winegrowing and winemaking processes.

    • Well said. Thanks so much, Al.

      My naming names made it more pointed. Perhaps I should have avoided this. One estate owner felt insulted, but I have nothing against him.

      • Al Drinkle says:

        Lars, I don’t think that there’s a reason for anyone to feel insulted. There are simply certain realities that one must face if one is a proprietor of an estate that’s a certain size or bigger, first amongst these being the fact that it’s impossible to accomplish the amount of work requisite for success, if not quality (unfortunately these two achievements don’t always diverge) with a tiny team.

        After all, what’s wrong with being the “boss” of a substantial estate? If daily activities consist of administration, sales, travelling, hosting, etc. instead of tending vines and guiding ferments (and it’s probable that the job is comprised of managing all of these things and more), considerable skill is still required. Personally I’m envious of people with an exceptional talent for management and delegation and no large estate is going to thrive under someone who lacks this.

        Perhaps the proprietor in question thought you were being derisive to them because your article celebrates a more interesting story than theirs… but the true hands-on winegrowers are usually also underdogs and they shouldn’t be denied a rare advantage – in this case, having somebody like you to tell their story and commend the work that they do.

        • Thanks again, Al.

          One of the main problems with my exposing who is and isn’t in their vineyards is that I work at Hofgut Falkenstein, even if the Webers didn’t know about my article at the time. Only David Schildknecht knew about it. But I felt it was important to talk about this topic (like herbicides or vineyard classification), as the trend is clear, more and more of the top producers of German Riesling, many of which are family-owned estates, are at or above 20 ha, and the estate owner has to be a manager in most cases. If not, he or she needs to hire someone to manage the estate.

          On the inside cover of my first Mosel Wine Merchant catalogue from 2007, I even quoted the following lines from the track “Justice Aversion.” It’s on the album Dongs of Sevotion by Smog (Bill Callahan): “I route [sic] for the underdog / No matter who they are / Like the bankrobber / In the getaway car.”

  • David Schildknecht says:

    As you point out, Marius, size does not have to be a deterrent to quality, merely a challenge to hire outstanding staff, be organized yet flexible – and of course, be fanatical about quality in the first place.

    But your reference to prompt and detailed attention is important, and cashes out in at least two significant ways:

    Once surface area reaches a certain level, especially if it is on steep slopes and spread over numerous wine-growing communes, it becomes increasingly challenging for the person ultimately in charge to keep careful track of circumstances in the vineyard and for the winery as a whole to rapidly react. Under the sign of climate change, violent storms and risk of spring frost seem to be increasing, and the window for optimum harvest to be narrowing as well as increasingly subjected to pressures of rot or over-ripeness, all of which renders rapid reaction that much more critical. And in this respect, as Lars intimates in his article, there is probably no more important factor than the experience, motivation and time required for mustering of one’s picking crew. In instances where enormous estates that once enjoyed justifiably stellar reputations have fallen far-off from the lead pack – and, with no disrespect meant either to this region or to the people involved, the Rheingau offers especially glaring examples – that is generally due in significant part to an inability to muster a sufficiently experienced as well as large crew and yet to pick with surgical precision, turning on a dime if necessary. Estate’s small and or prestigious enough to be able to rely on family, friends and wine freaks for most of their crew needs have an advantage, as do those many estates – including no few large ones – where the same pickers return year after year, and often generation after generation.

    If you talk to some of the many German wine growers who are at pains to, as they would put it, “keep the estate small enough for a family to personally farm,” they will frequently adduce the advantages of having the person in whom ultimate responsibility is vested in intimate, almost daily contact with his or her vines, and thus able to read the signals those vines are sending without these having to arrive delayed and second-hand. But it can be argued that a well-organized estate in which the owner-director delegates viticultural and cellar duties will be able to compensate for any purported lack of routine personal intimacy with his or her vines, and results clearly demonstrate this. Being small enough to remain intimate with your vines won’t substitute for having enough hands to treat all of them more or less simultaneously should need arise.

    (As an only tangentially-related but interesting aside, I find that in family estates, even when two or three generations are working-together smoothly, one family member is nearly always explicitly given final authority. That explains why a big deal is usually made of the point at which a generational change takes place, with a mom or dad conferring head responsibility on a daughter or son, then transitioning into the self-described role of “advisor.” And that goes even for the numerous instances where a member of one generation largely calls the shots in the vineyards and a member of another generation in the cellar. Being an “old-timer” myself nowadays, I frequently meet to taste with a member of my generation, but if that person’s daughter or son is now the official Betriebsleiter this fact is regularly and deferentially mentioned, no matter how big a reputation my interlocutor may enjoy.)

    An important way to look at Lars’ piece is, I think, to reflect on how wine estates – like any business, but, I suspect, more-so than most – struggle (whether explicitly or merely implicitly) with the question: “What is a stable, potentially-successful size and configuration?” I am not the only person – many estate owners express this view – to be convinced that, irrespective of the individuals involved, certain combinations of size and structure promote stability, whereas it’s easy for a wine estate owner to find him- or herself in a position where it seems “either we need to expand a bit more, or else downsize.” I really don’t think this is a startling or sophisticated observation. Consider even relatively prosaic decisions like whether to take on a full-time employee or whether to purchase one’s own bottling line. Each involves an appeal to scale. But the real-life implications of the aforementioned observation can be agonizing and frustrating for even the most quality-conscious grower, often taking many years to work themselves out.

    And here’s one last message to take away from Lars’ observations, one I am sure he would like to see directed at those of us who practice wine journalism. Where the results on display in the glass are a product of teamwork among several experts such as a vineyard manager, a cellarmaster and a Betriebsleiter, it’s regrettably easy for some of the important team members – who may well be self-effacing by nature – to remain anonymous rather than being, where the results merit this, singled-out by name for praise.

    • Yesterday, after work, I toured the Mosel with a few friends and visited A.J. Adam, Willi Schaefer, and Weiser-Künstler to taste their 2018s. (None of them were at ProWein, which concludes today.) All three had outstanding collections and all three pointed out how important it was to start picking by mid-September, whereas many of the other top producers—large and small—waited too long, because they either didn’t have their harvest team yet or felt that it was too early. Julian Haart said the same thing when I tasted his excellent 2018 collection at his home on February 18. The key was picking earlier (not to mention a gentler pressing and fractioning) to keep acidity.

      A couple of the growers whom I visited yesterday said that I had to name names, and David brings up several important points that one of them felt was missing in my piece, even if I hinted at a lack of efficiency and flexibility during the harvest season in an earlier reply to Marius.

      There’s nothing wrong with delegating tasks. It’s unavoidable, especially at a certain size.

  • Per Linder says:

    Thank you Lars for sharing your detailed knowledge on the Mosel wine producers.

    I have one aspect and a question I would like to throw in:

    The role of history. Many of the producers, who work in the vineyards, are first or second generation wine growers, while many of the estate owners have been in winegrowing for many generations.

    How does the track record look like? Our best proxy to measure this, in my estimation, would be to look at ratings from serious and independent critics. Have the real wine growers outperformed the estate owners over time?

    • You’re welcome, Per. You bring up an excellent point. Yes, many of the top producers who work full-time in their vineyards (I chose the term “grower-proprietors”) are first or second generation, with a few notable exceptions, such as Willi Schaefer. It’s true, too, that many of the long-established estates have grown over several generations and can now afford to have help in the vineyards and cellar. But some of these estates always had employees and delegated tasks.

      As I point out in my piece, certain “real winegrowers” are making some of the best wines on the Mosel today.

  • In my article, I didn’t want to upset anyone. It seems, however, to be a hot-button issue on the Mosel. In other regions, like the Northern Rhône, it’s no problem to differentiate between small growers and large estates, both can be of high quality. I sense that some estate owners on the Mosel feel insulted.
    That said, I don’t want to be unfair to anyone and make it seem like they don’t do any of the hands-on work in the cellar or vineyards, even if they have employees or seasonal help. It’s also hard work to manage an estate.

  • N.B.: My article doesn’t imply that quality is based on an owner working in his or her vineyard. I merely point out that among the top producers some owners, dubbed “grower-proprietors” or “real winegrowers,” are more involved than others with the actual vineyard and cellar work.

  • One more point. I wasn’t prodded by the Webers to write this article. They knew nothing about it.

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