A New Book Probes the Heart of German Wine

A stack of German wine books with Vom Boden: Ten Years of Hocks & Moselles on top
Photo Credit: Valerie Kathawala

Has it ever felt more futile to try to write a book about German wine? The pace and breadth of change are so profound, even experts grasp for a steadying rail. 

Fortunately, Stephen Bitterolf understands this. He came to German wine first as a buyer in New York, then as an importer. For more than a decade, he’s scoured Germany for the small growers he treasures and helped build a market thirsty for their wines. 

Bitterolf’s first book, Vom Boden: Ten Years of Hocks & Moselles, is both a vividly drawn memoir of these experiences and an insightful, zeitgeist-y guide to the German wines of right now.

The Central Concern of German Wine

Working in the genre of wine-route adventurers Frank Schoonmaker, Kermit Lynch, and Terry Theise, Bitterolf invites us along on his ride. As he crisscrosses Germany, again and again, he asks “What is this place about, really?” Again and again, he finds his answers in the growers. (Yes, mostly those he imports.) 

Schoonmaker’s Wines of Germany is a touchstone. (It’s also among a fistful of books bearing that title, which supplies a running joke in Ten Years). Written not long after World War II, Schoonmaker’s book offered a desperately needed orientation to a much-diminished world of German wine. 

Stephen BItterolf, author of "Vom Boden: Ten Years of Hocks & Moselles"
Stephen Bitterolf, author of “Vom Boden: Ten Years of Hocks & Moselles”; Photo Credit Vom Boden

Bitterolf supplies a similarly necessary reintroduction, though for exactly the opposite reason. German wine has likely never been more diverse or delicious. He explains this as a happy convergence of rising temperatures, rising talent, and rising exchange. Beyond that, a return to the vineyard, to craft, to reimagining — and to soul.

Although Bitterolf is clearly an expert in his subject, in Ten Years he approaches it with a beginner’s mind. He avoids the technical in favor of the felt. He resists the lecture in favor of a probing, rejoicing curiosity. His conclusions ring with truth. “Acidity is the central concern of German wine”: Eight words that sum up German wine’s 20th-century struggles and its 21st-century triumphs. 

The book does not bog us down in the intricacies of ampelography, wine laws, or classifications. Instead, there are light-touch maps, sprinklings of reliable facts and figures, and just enough history for context and appreciation. This is an excellent way to win new audiences for German wine: Fall in love with the growers and wines first, then cement that affection with understanding.

Of Hocks & Moselles

Over a rollicking, color-photo-studded 182 pages, Bitterolf leads us through his personal landscape of German wine. He tells the origin story of his import company, Vom Boden. He lets us in on his criteria selection for growers — “Make the most soulful and honest fucking wine you can make; be ruthlessly honest to both yourself and the site; make me cry” — and his philosophy that the grower is more important than the wine. Wine “is simply the access point, the introduction. But it’s the human who completes the circle; it is the grower who holds it all together.”

Bitterolf champions the individuality, energy, tenacity, and joy his growers bring to their work. His brief profiles of those who work the unglamorous margins reveal as much about this moment in German wine as his justifiably shimmering homages to the modern icons behind Germany’s most sought-after bottles.

He asks if “Maybe, in fact, terroir should not be thought of as something external to us, something ‘out there’ that we observe aloof and indifferent, but something within us as well. Aren’t we a part of this landscape?”

He is at his best orienting the reader to this landscape. I found his insights into Baden, Franken, the Nahe, and Rheinhessen to be particularly on point. He deftly traces the vaulting arc of villages and producers who’ve gone from obscure to iconic in a single generation, their stories encapsulating German wine’s larger recent narrative.

He has some fun, but also scores some serious points, with comparisons. The Mosel, he posits, is Germany’s Burgundy. Before we dismiss this with an “isn’t everywhere some country’s Burgundy?,” hear him out: The two share monastic heritage, a proud tradition of mostly small growers who have until recently worked in relative isolation on tiny parcels, with the focus of generations riveted on one, at most two, varieties.

Map of the Mosel
The Mosel according to Stephen Bitterolf, Photo Credit: Vom Boden

By contrast, he sees the Rheingau as Bordeaux: once a thought leader, now somewhat sunk in great estate complacency. The Pfalz is — wait for it — Germany’s Napa. The “multiple narratives” of big commercial interests and luxury brands jostling with “small growers digging deeper into the true soul.” 

Bitterolf stretches this to an extreme in equating Württemberg with the Northern Rhone, a comparison he justifies by putting Swabia’s “sinewy, nervy reds perfumed of game and flower” in the same league as Cornas. He will happily scamper out on any limb if it will bring even one fresh convert to German wine. 

Regrettably, for a book so much about place, Ten Years omits five of Germany’s 13 wine regions: the tiny but inarguably important Pinot Noir paradise of the Ahr, the developing eastern districts of Saale-Unstrut and Sachsen, the yet-to-catch-fire Mittelrhein and Hessische Bergstrasse. Bitterolf states his reasons: he has little experience (and just one grower) there. 

Still, this narrowed focus serves the book, allowing for a focus on the finest features that might otherwise have been subsumed into broad strokes. Before Bitterolf was a wine importer, he was a painter. An early artistic obsession was to copy German Renaissance master Albrecht Dürer’s Hase — over and over. It is a work of exquisite detail and realism. It is also quite small, a watercolor with gouache. Bitterolf rendered it in acrylic and ink on large canvases, faithfully but audaciously magnifying Dürer’s meticulousness.

In Ten Years, Bitterolf achieves a similar effect for German wine. As with Dürer’s hare, Ten Years allows you to feel the fine, light bones and tensed muscles beneath the skin, the depth and texture of a rich surface, the poised energy and rapid heartbeat of German wine, captured momentarily at rest — perhaps before another bounding leap.

Vom Boden: Ten Years of Hocks & Moselles
Stephen Bitterolf

Paperback, $34.99
Vom Boden Verlag, 2023 

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