Ten Questions for Germany’s Newest Master of Wine
By Valerie Kathawala
A fresh crop of Masters of Wine was announced late last month: Ten individuals who have grasped the holy grail of wine education. Among them is Moritz Nikolaus Lüke of Bonn — the tenth German to achieve the distinction. He joins an elite crew who have earned the title by passing legendarily rigorous blind tasting examinations and writing a series of theory papers as well as a research-based thesis. TRINK caught up with Lüke to find out what the experience was like, learn about his Covid-driven research paper — and get an answer to the question we’re all naturally most curious about: what he drank to celebrate the news.
Congratulations! How does it feel?
Perfect! I became a daddy in December and that's the most important of all. Then I signed a new contract as a managing director for German and Austrian wines with Wein Wolf in mid-January. And then, well, I got a great call just over a week ago. So I feel very fortunate right now.
How did you get the news?
In a phone call from Adrian Garforth MW, the executive director of the Institute of Masters of Wine. It appears that he had quite a telephone list that morning, calling everyone personally. He made a little chit-chat and then said, “Well, I'm delighted that you…” And then I knew: Okay, it's done. And that was just fantastic.
What did the road to becoming an MW look like for you?
I took my first MW seminar in 2014, in Rust, Austria. I deliberately took some breaks along the way. I sat the tasting exam and the essays in 2017 and passed both on my first attempt. That was when I thought: Okay, now you can get it.
But then I fell into a little bit of a hole. It was very tricky for me to get my head around writing a research paper — that was something I did once in university when I got my diploma at Geisenheim. But then it's natural, it’s part of your studies. Finally, I faced a deadline. I had to get my research paper proposal approved by the end of August 2020. So starting from last January, I was very nervous. Thankfully, the research paper topic was approved in June and then I knew I could write it and in case that goes wrong, I’d have another three years to work on a different topic!
The pandemic is probably the worst thing that ever happened in my life. But from the perspective of finishing the MW, it was perfect. First, I had the time to work on my thesis. Second, the German state was paying my furlough money. So that was just gorgeous.
Did you get support from other German MWs?
Yes, from MWs generally as well as German MWs. One of the virtues of the program for me was the networking. When you ask, you always get support. When you need someone, they are there for you, regardless of where they are — though it was cool that there is one other MW right in my area, Caro Maurer MW.
Especially in preparation for the tasting exam, I worked with a fellow student, Christophe Heynen MW, whom I got to know on a trip to Porto and who passed his MW last year. He was living in Belgium, about an hour-and-a-half’s drive from here. So basically, from the end of 2016 until the exam, every week one of us either drove to Germany or Belgium, and we always brought 12 bottles for the other to taste. That was extremely helpful.
As a member of the wine trade, what was it that propelled you to want to become an MW?
In the end, I think I was trying to challenge myself because when I started this I also started doing an MBA, though I did stop that after a year. There was a phase in my life when I really thought I needed more input. That was actually my main driver. And the input we in the MW program got was absolutely gorgeous, from A to Z. Some of the peers in that group were just so good. I remember the first year there were people like Jonas Röjermann MW and Sarah Heller MW. Sarah is probably the brain: She won everything — best tasting, best research paper. People like her and Jonas really challenged me in the most positive way.
What were some of the biggest challenges and surprises to come out of the process?
I think the hardest challenge was really organizing my life for that research paper because that was so different from everything else. When I was doing my paper, I put in eight, nine hours in the office and then would come home and have to use my brain again. That just broke me. And then of course the feedback of the Institute or the people who review the paper is quite particular sometimes. That felt so, so hard and I sort of blocked that away — for almost two years. Sometimes there were moments when I thought: I can’t do it or I’m afraid even to try.
I think the biggest surprise for me actually was how extremely good the people are out there. And the generosity. Working with fine wine we already live and work in the “cream on top of the milk”; it's a very blessed setting. And when you travel to places, be they Burgundy or Rioja or Alto Adige, as an MW student, the generosity you meet there is often a “wowzing” experience.
How will you use your MW to help others?
I hope I can help students first of all because I think that is where I've benefited the most and that's super important. I'm always happy to help any MW or any nice member of the trade. I think the network is king, especially in the world of wine where everything is quite small.
"I hope I can help students first of all because I think that is where I've benefited the most and that's super important."
What advice would you give a prospective MW candidate?
You always have to do more, more, and more.
You have to have your routine — especially with tasting. I think I've never tasted as well as before I did the exam in 2017. Christophe and I were both very, very ambitious, and we tasted so much. But then you're in a routine and that’s what you need.
You have to learn how to study and be resourceful and find the people who can answer your questions.
You have to want to travel and you have to want to invest time in that travel because when you're going with the IMW to Bordeaux or to Chile, of course, it's time and it's money.
You have to want to learn and to be open. You also have to be good at admitting failure, that you did something wrong or that you're weak in some spots. In the end, stay humble.
I know that you can't talk too much about your research paper until it's published as part of another publication. But can you share a general overview of what you covered in it?
Sure. The topic was “Arrived with Covid-19, Here to Stay? Experiences of German wineries with online wine tastings.”
Basically, when I started looking for topics, it was the hot phase of the pandemic: March, April, May 2020. I happen to be good friends with Felix Salm of Weingut Prinz Salm. He was a machine: he started doing videos and then jumped into online wine tastings. He was a pioneer and the reaction was phenomenal.
But, of course, there was no data on this whatsoever. Even though the technology for this has been available most likely for a decade now, no one was even thinking about it. So I looked at the challenges of organizing and conducting online wine tastings, the financial implications, investment costs, return on investment, pitfalls. I also explored how online tastings can be an entirely new sales and marketing tool for wineries.
"The most important lesson is that this is a tool that popped up due to a crisis, but it's never been thought through without a crisis."
The most important lesson is that this is a tool that popped up due to a crisis, but it's never been thought through without a crisis. Just like with online shopping, in the beginning, everyone said, “No, I want to try my shoes on in the store, I need to feel, I need to look.” It was the same with wineries. But now there are a lot of clients who, for whatever reason, can't or won’t go to wineries. Yet they still enjoy the personal touch, they still want to be part of events, and they are online.
We see wineries’ programs are getting more and more diverse. And the second lockdown, at least here in Germany, was sort of like a second-stage booster rocket. Now wineries send four-course menus with pre-cooked duck to your home for you to enjoy as you taste with the winemaker.
So wineries have a new product in their portfolios now. They have more possibilities to interact with private clients. And they have a tool to save time and gain reach: If you’re a German winemaker, it’s now relatively easy to have a group from New Zealand come “visit.”
When Covid is (hopefully) gone one day, this will 100% remain a part of the market — and it will be steadily growing, just like the number of people who are starting to shop for wine online. But there's no data on the perception of online wine tastings. So all this scientific work is just starting. It’s going to be very interesting to see over the next two, three, four years what data is going to come out of that.
"When Covid is (hopefully) gone one day, online tastings will 100% remain a part of the market."
Last question: What did you drink on the night you got the big news?
I drank a very, very nice magnum of Riesling from Theresa Breuer in the Rheingau, a Berg Schlossberg 2005. I started my wine career with Theresa's father, Bernhard. Back then he was the one who gave me, a guy from Berlin, the chance to work for half a year as an intern at his winery. And he helped me a lot in getting other possibilities to move to other wineries all around the world. So I'm very, very grateful to him and to all those people over the years who supported me from day one — that is what’s gorgeous in our business.
*This conversation was edited for clarity and concision.