How Natural Wine Made Me Confront My German Problem

Original papercut illustration by Anna Brones

For a Jewish baby boomer like me, the Holocaust was always part of my DNA. Yet, I was not the child of survivors. My Polish grandparents were safely in the United States by the 1920s. The family they left behind were mostly killed. In yeshiva, where I spent a dozen years splitting my curriculum between religious and secular studies, we were frequently subjected to footage of emaciated bodies, piled up for burning or disposal. Teachers didn’t hide the numbers tattooed on their arms. But the personal horror stories my cousins told of Polish concentration camps and ghettos were the images I held closest. So when I later had the temerity to buy a very cute, powder-blue, used VW bug, my mother gasped, “A German car?”

This German boycott thing officially started in 1933, in response to Jewish persecution. Post-Holocaust, avoiding German goods was an unofficial but trenchant practice in most Jewish households around the world. But this had mostly turned to dust by the time I started to write about wine in 1990. Obviously, my mother’s overblown reaction showed that the boycott shadow-effect lingered, even if I wasn’t realizing it. So, those long-lived, petrol-ish Rieslings? I ignored them as long as I could professionally get away with it. The crazy thing is that I never once thought my resistance had anything to do with my early tutelage to shun products that spoke German. Which extended to the much-heralded renaissance of Austrian wines. My stated excuse? Their viticulture was too chemical, their sulfur usage too high, their use of packaged yeast too prevalent.

“There’s no natural wine.”

It was the same justification I gave for ignoring Chile or Australia back in their pre-natural days.

But in 2005, my time was up. At a friend’s urging, I joined her on a trip to Germany and, to make it work for me, decided to write about it for the Time Magazine column I had then. We would first travel to Frankfurt, where she had an assignment, then continue on to the Mosel for mine.

All was going just fine: we ate as much Spargel as we could, visited a restaurant where guests dined on beds, and appreciated the masses of rose geraniums and quaint architecture. We made a couple of visits in the Rheingau, then went on to Bernkastel, a Hansel-and-Gretel-ish spot on the Mosel with gabled, timber-frame houses. Although the town never had a huge Jewish population, in 1938, the 59 Jews they did have were apparently too many. On Kristallnacht, the synagogue was torched. My friend and I tried to put that out of mind as we sat down to lunch with the jovial Ernie Loosen, who was known to shoot off an anti-Nazi statement on occasion. The man was delightful, the wines, not my thing: no native yeast, too much sulfur.

We said goodbye and, on the way to our next appointment, browsed a market near the bridge. While looking at fountain pens, a passion of mine, a burly man sitting behind the glass case asked, in English, “Where are you from?” My friend said, “New York.” Then he sneered and said, “Jews. Fucking Jews.”

I dropped the pen. We fled to our car. My friend slunk down in the passenger seat.

I drove us to J.J. Prüm. All along the river, green vines stood like obedient soldiers against the gray day. We arrived at the Prüm house, still shaken, recuperating. Our visit with the new generation, Katharina, was polite. There and everywhere else we visited, when we were in homes, living rooms and our imaginations could run wild, we wondered, “What did you do, what did your father do, what did your grandfather do, what did your village do during World War II? And what happened to the Jews in the wine trade here?” When winemakers mentioned the purity of their wines, I felt my stomach dropWhen the winemaker at our last visit on that side of the Mosel started to display his father’s war medals, we made a quick excuse and got out of there.

That week the rain fluctuated between mist and drench. We walked steep slopes, our feet slipping on and massacring countless fat, brown, gelatinous slugs.

Five years later, I went to Austria with an importer, his way of thanking me for helping him find an agent and get his book published. With some hesitation, I accepted. It behooved me to go in the spirit of exchange and education, but I found little that interested me. Back then it seemed as if everyone used the same wine yeast, there was little difference between Grüner and Riesling, and the sulfurs made me sneeze. The ghosts here were also familiar. As was my reflex of fear when hearing a German accent. I visualized my people, running for their lives, in every forest I drove past. But I still focused all my discomfort on the wines: too technical, I insisted. 

“When I first tasted an unadorned Riesling from the Mosel, silver water littered with rose petals and faint sun rays, my hardened heart softened.”   

By 2011, the natural wine revolution had taken root in that part of Europe. Here in New York, when I first tasted an unadorned Riesling from the Mosel unlike any I had ever had, silver water littered with rose petals and faint sun rays,  my hardened heart softened. The call of natural sounded. 

I made friends with an Austrian on the wine board who happened to be Jewish and urged me to give Austria another shot. “You have to see Styria,” he said. I went and discovered the biodynamic winemakers joined together under the banner of Schmecke das Leben. There was undeniable soul in the wines. Each grower had a reverence and respect for the land that was inextricable from their wines. These were what I had been looking for and I was hooked.

Meanwhile, I watched natural growers take hold in Germany — the Mosel, Franken. 

A few years later, winemakers from around the world were in town for a natural wine fair and for many the night of the Clinton-Trump election was their last night before flying home. I was pacing in my apartment, revolted by the prospect of an anti-Semitic fascist becoming president, when Austrian winemaker Christian Tschida texted to ask if I’d join him and his friends at a wine bar. I grabbed my jacket and sprinted over. If there was ever a night I needed support, this was it.

I sailed into the thrum of the Lower East Side’s Wild Air and found Christian. I hadn’t known who else would be there, but to my absolute delight I saw that he was joined by Rudolf Trossen of the Mosel, and Sepp Muster and Franz Strohmeier from Styria, all draining a decanter of wine. They pushed a glass my way. We drank. We ate. We talked. Everyone skirted politics.

We segued from one pét-nat to another. Then to a white. Then to a magnum of Christian’s Felsen 1 2011, with its powerful sumac exotica and turmeric life. Rudolf poured his Pur’us.

Sepp noticed me glancing at Twitter and broke the taboo: “How could Trump win?” 

“He can’t,” I said, “But he will.”

Christian agreed with me: “This would not just be a tragedy for America. It would be one for the world.”

There we were, three Austrians, a German, and a Jew in a bar. I believe we all shared the same realization without a word passing between us.

There we were, three Austrians, a German, and a Jew in a bar. I believe we all shared the same realization without a word — in English or German — passing between us: Europe’s tragedy could happen in America, too. Eighty years earlier, we might have been having a similar exchange. The irony escaped none of us.

Some things ping the brain, others are sensed in the blood. In that moment, under Trump’s shadow, I felt the truth of my long resistance. No country or community is safe from doing harm.  It’s the natural cycle. My shunning of German-accented wine had less to do with quality or alliance with my philosophy and everything to do with prejudice and mourning. This was a doctrine that took me too long to question. How long would my negation have gone on if natural wine hadn’t made it imperative for me to not forget, but to move on?

As 11 pm approached and state after state succumbed to Trump, I kissed each of those men, freed myself of my past, and went home. I’d never stop wondering, “What did your father do in the war?” But I would no longer be afraid to hear the answer.

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