Rainer Zierock: Visionary Provocateur

Rainer Zierock, Photo Courtesy of Emilio Zierock

If Emilio Zierock finds it hard to talk about his controversial father, you can’t tell it by listening to him. He speaks with remarkable openness about the man. Rainer Zierock, who passed away in 2009, was a brilliant visionary, but also in all likelihood the grandest provocateur in post-war German and Italian viticulture. The powerfully eloquent and often choleric Zierock was considered an eccentric of note, and one who went after everyone. More than a few people also consider him a misunderstood genius, far ahead of his time. His influence on the young wine generation, and particularly the natural wine scene, is enormous. “Many of the things he was championing are only now being appreciated. His foremost goal was the preservation of creation, giving respect to nature, not exploiting it. That’s more modern than ever,” says Emilio Zierock, one of three children from the marriage between Rainer Zierock and Italian winemaker Elisabetta Foradori. The 34 year old is himself responsible for producing wines at the well-known Azienda Agricola Foradori in Mezzolombardo in northern Trentino.

Dr. Rainer Herbert Paul Zierock, born in 1949 and later to become a professor of agricultural sciences, originally hailed from the Swabian town of Marbach and studied in Hohenheim. There he joined the left-wing Spartakus group, which maintained contacts in the Soviet Union and even to Mikhail Gorbachev. “He was a little Mao,” explains Jürgen Ellwanger, himself a Swabian wine pioneer, who worked closely with Zierock as part of a vintner’s group called H.A.D.E.S., founded in 1986. Zierock called for the H.A.D.E.S. winegrowers to raise their wines in new barrique casks, a practice then frowned upon in Germany. At the time, wood tones were rejected as wine faults. 

Zierock was the mastermind behind the rebellious cell, championing loud, attention-getting gimmicks. “He knew how to provoke and draw attention better than anyone. But his incitations also brought movement into a scene that had become calcified,” says Michael Graf Adelmann of Weingut Graf Adelmann, one of the “rebels” alongside Ellwanger willing to raise the reputation of barrique in Württemberg and beyond. While the cooperatives loaded up their cellars with sparkling clean stainless steel, the unruly Swabians rallied around ringleader Zierock, drove to France, and bought their first oak barrels: “We were the ‘wood worms’ and were considered crazy,” says Ellwanger, now 82. “But a new world arose for us, and we came to understand that most grand wines come from barrique.” H.A.D.E.S., a name formed from the initials of the member winegrowers, became a model for the entire nation – despite resistance from established wine institutions.

Zierock was intensely fascinated with ancient
Greek culture and an early experimenter in sustainable viticulture

Zierock, who was intensely fascinated with ancient Greek culture, was an early experimenter in sustainable viticulture, recommending that Swabian vintners acquire rootstock from France and undertake extremely dense planting and single-stake training in their vineyards, not to mention cultivation of Greek grape varieties. “But he only rarely ever saw something through,” Ellwanger says. The Greek vines ended up “getting ripped out. It simply didn’t work for us in the Remstal.” The winegrowers did have to get used to one thing: The mercurial Zierock would disappear for long periods, then suddenly show up at the door, determined to pursue his latest ideas. 

Rainer Zierock moved to Italy in 1984, where he worked as a researcher at the well-known wine academy Instituto Agrario di San Michele all’Adige and taught German. It was there that he met young Elisabetta Foradori. The couple married in May 1988. Ellwanger saved the invitation, as well as various placards, pamphlets, and wildly illustrated letters from Zierock, who often ended with the exclamation: “May Zeus come!” Zierock and Foradori worked intensely with Teroldego, an indigenous grape variety that was then considered almost extinct. They produced their first wine from the grape, “Granato,” in 1987. The marriage was already over by 1992 when Zierock, a polymath who spoke seven languages, began eking out a living as a consultant, working primarily with estates in Italy and Switzerland. “He was an extremely difficult person and was constantly in conflict with everyone. No collaboration lasted more than two years,” Emilio Zierock remembers.

At the turn of the millennium, the difficult professor moved to the foot of the Ritten mountain ridge in Alto Adige-Südtirol, where owner and patron Dr. Margret Hubmann gave him a free hand: There on the high plateau above Bozen, he could realize his life concept, one that traced back to the core message from Greek philosopher Heraclitus: Panta rhei — “all things flow.” It affirms the transiency of the moment, and how nothing repeats: an appeal to enjoy every moment consciously and intensely. It was a premise Zierock pursued to excess. “He didn’t know half measures. My father lived very radically,” Emilio Zierock recounts. By age 40, Rainer Zierock had already had his first heart attack. 

Ever the eccentric, Rainer Zierock attended wine fairs in a toga where others were wearing suits.

Ever the eccentric, Rainer Zierock attended wine fairs in a toga where others were wearing suits. He arranged for the estate’s buildings to be renovated based on the principle of the Greek pentagon, a five-pointed symbol of life’s circular cycle, as well as the spirit and the four elements of earth, fire, air, and water. Peafowl paraded about his farm, and sometimes, Emilio Zierock recounts, his father bathed in a “giant jacuzzi filled with wine.” Michael Graf Adelmann visited Zierock in Alto Adige, as did Jürgen Ellwanger with his son Felix.     

Ritten was Zierock’s “experimental workshop,” where, as Adelmann remembers, natural and orange wines were being produced before either term existed. Zierock introduced varieties like Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc to Alto Adige, “he planted a lot of odd things,” says Emilio Zierock, especially a field blend of 150 Greek varieties. “On that point, he was totally obstinate.” 

Zierock planted his vines in extremely dense configurations at over 1,000 m.a.s.l.

Zierock headed to high elevations early, planting his vines in extremely dense configurations at over 1,000 m.a.s.l. — parameters that now, in the age of climate change, are widely recognized as important. For his own viticulture, Zierock implemented some of the ideas that he has sketched in his book “The Pentagon — An Exposé of Agro-Philosophical Understanding of Vine and Wine,” published in 1995. “The diversity of plants in an intact ecosystem and genetic diversity were always his foundation,” Emilio Zierock explains. Yet his father rejected biodynamics. “He hated Rudolf Steiner, whom he saw as removed from the practical. The scientific approach was always important to him.” When it came to an understanding of nature, Zierock was more likely to reference Goethe and Heraclitus. In the cellar, he worked with the most archaic means and methods possible: here too the guiding principle was panta rhei — all things flow, based on the gravitation principle, all working steps could be conducted using natural slopes. The grapes were milled in a stone hand press, while the must was spontaneously fermented on the lees in zigarillos — custom-developed 150L barrels of Zierock’s own design. His self-understanding as a winegrower was recorded in his exposé: “Long live those who dare to carry the power of the sun through wine into the hearts of humans.”

The results were revolutionary, but for most people also disconcerting. “He didn’t want to make a well-behaved, Alto Adige ‘soft drink’ of a wine,” Emilio Zierock claims. With his rigid uncompromising nature, Rainer Zierock also maneuvered himself increasingly out of bounds. It is said that he drank an extreme amount and suffered a bad case of alcoholism. That also influenced his temper. Even friends like esteemed winemaker Alois Lageder, who stuck by his friend despite many turbulent moments, was repeatedly antagonized by Zierock. As a free spirit and socialist, Zierock had no interest in marketing his wines, and he lost commercial control, “economically things were brutal and extremely problematic, numbers and money meant absolutely nothing to him.” Zierock hoarded his wine jealously and “never considered selling it.” Few were allowed even to taste a sip, and Zierock barricaded himself behind the estate’s massive wood gate, out in the isolation of the Ritten.

Rainer Zierock could also be enormously charismatic and enthusiastic, and he was very talented at bringing others around to his unusual ideas. Yet every peak was followed by a humbling valley; Zierock loudly tore down the things he had painstakingly built up: “He was very creative and achieved many things, but was also a destructive guy who in the next moment devastated everything. That’s the sad aspect of his work,” Emilio Zierock says. In 2005, his restless father was spending time in Greece with acquaintances on the Peloponnese peninsula when catastrophe struck: a fire caused serious burns on his right hand, an injury that he never really had properly treated and never healed: Zierock’s personal omen. No one knows precisely what happened that night on Peloponnes, Emilio Zierock explains. “He was alone in the house when the fire started. He lived with that terrible wound in his final years.”

One day, Rainer Zierock appeared at Weingut Ellwanger in Winterbach “in a terrible state” and nested for a period in the apprentice’s quarters. “He arrived in a junky car with a barrel of white wine that we then bottled here,” Felix Ellwanger remembers. When Ellwanger recently opened one of the final bottles, bearing a label designed by Zierock himself, the wine inside was confident, vital, and left a lasting impression. Rainer Zierock managed to make “wines that were 100 percent clean, although it shouldn’t have worked according to the classic view,” Ellwanger says. “Back to the origin, that was his idea, for everything.” The anarchist fermented ripe, semi-ripe, and unripe grapes from the field blend for months, seemingly uncontrolled on the solids. “Sometimes the wine was green or brown, but he knew precisely that in a few days everything would be OK. His cellar was a witch’s kitchen in which he could test many different fermentation processes, but remained his secret. You’d be tasting Zierock’s wines in your mouth days later,” says Felix Ellwanger. “I’ve never experienced anything like that since.”

Zierock’s influence remains unbroken in Württemberg and Baden, and he is an important inspiration today for many young winemakers, Ellwanger says: “With his extreme methods, he was already doing many things that have become common today. Rainer Zierock would be a modern god of the orange and natural wine scene.” The Ellwangers now work with zigarillos, based on his model. 

At Weingut Alois Lageder, wines created with a particular sense of risk and exploration are called Kometen (Comets). The first vintage was presented in 2017, but the line’s origins stretch back to the 1980s, when Alois Lageder and Rainer Zierock began their first field trials with varieties from warm winegrowing regions.

Weingut Foradori also once again draws on the legacy of the rebellious winemaker — even if Elisabetta Foradori long bucked against the idea: “Many impulses came from him, and he laid the intellectual basis for our viticulture,” Emilio Zierock notes. The team at Azienda Agricola Foradori have come to peace with their difficult family member, and their labels now include quotes from him, an archive was created with his writings, and his book “The Pentagon” has been republished in many languages. “For a work of the 1990s, it’s fundamental,” Emilio Zierock judges. “It flows today into our biodynamic practice.” His father also established the foundation for genetic diversity in the Foradori vineyards, which benefits the Teroldego in particular.  

“He made fantastic, lively wines, but worked fully unsystematically, which led to total chaos.”

People like to say that Rainer Zierock strove to create the perfect wine. “That’s absolute nonsense,” Emilio Zierock protests. “He made fantastic, lively wines, but worked fully unsystematically, which led to total chaos.” Because he couldn’t find space in his cellar, some wine barrels lay for months out in the garden, covered in snow. Zierock also buried barrels and only fetched them back to daylight years later. “He left wine to nature,” his son says. He left hundreds of bottles lying around the cellar without labels. “I can’t understand that at all because the appreciation for the individual bottles wasn’t there.” 

Many myths surround the desperado, a man who lived in isolation and poverty on the Ritten with a piano, horse, and barrels of his highly unusual wine. Rainer Zierock remains in memory as a radical anachronist who rejected and despised industrial viticulture. But also as an eccentric who drank from the cup of hemlock, as a sick man with a terrible wound that refused to heal. “Many of the things people say about him are true,” says Emilio Zierock, who several times experienced how his father would play the provocateur at events until the police were called. He never bent to rules and laws: After his German and then Italian driver’s licenses were revoked, Rainer Zierock ultimately drove on a Thai license — and local authorities allowed it, a bit of a jester’s freedom. 

The visionary died in 2009, and H.A.D.E.S. winegrower Jürgen Ellwanger traveled to Bozen for the funeral. Michael Graf Adelmann thinks often about Zierock, an uncomfortable companion, and his influence. He frames his thoughts with the words of Irish author George Bernard Shaw: “We want a few mad people now. See where the sane ones have landed us!”

Translated by Weinstory.de

Similar Posts