When Luke was working at the Whole Foods in Venice, CA, his punny boss would often say, “This Riesling has Pfalz.” At the time, working a vintage in Germany was nothing more than reverie. Now it seems only natural that Deutschland was our destination for the 2012 Northern Hemisphere Harvest; especially after living, working & befriending many Germans in New Zealand whom all seemingly bleed Riesling.
Initially, our plan was to work only in the Mosel with former roomie Johannes Busch at his father’s eponymous winery, Clemens Busch. Realizing vintage would be starting later than anticipated, we contacted our other roomie Stephen Schwerdt asking if his family could use two pairs of extra hands for a few weeks. To our pleasant surprise, they had a bed free and were willing to put us to work in their vineyards until the Mosel vintage began. With this news, we sadly left the lovely ladies of Zimmerlin in Bötzingen and boarded a train bound for the town Bad Dürkheim.
Leaving the beautiful Kaiserstuhl was made much easier when we arrived in Bad Durkheim and were greeted by Stephan. The closest friendships seem to disregard distance and time. Seeing him there at the train station brought us back to many good memories in New Zealand. We knew his home town would be the source of many more. Stephan drove us back to the Schwerdt compound after giving us a quick tour of the town. Bags were placed in our room, a general overview of the facilities was given and then Petra, the Schwerdt matriarch and one of the fearless leaders of the family winery wanted to enjoy the famous Pfalz sun with us. She invited us out to share a bottle of their 2011 Chardonnay and the same vintage of their single vineyard Riesling, Herrenmorgen, in the garden. We didn’t need to spend much time with Petra before we connected the genetic dots and figured out where Stephan got his famous laughter. Both are infectious. Soaking in the sunshine of a beautiful fall afternoon, we Hipsters knew we made the right decision by coming to the Pfalz. This was going to be good.
The very next day, we started work in the vineyards of Hanewald-Schwerdt. Stephan put Jesse in the passenger seat of one of the Volkswagen utility vans while Luke sat in a picking pin occupying the back. He then hurtled through villages headed for their vineyards outside of Liestadt where the winery is located. We were greeted in the vineyard by the rest of vineyard crew: three Polish guys, Lishik, Zicko and Hendric.
Our first task was picking a row of Portugeiser that was nested against a retaining wall making it impossible to pick by machine. Next, we all went to a nearby Riesling vineyard to cut botrysized clusters & thin leaves. Tasks like this are instant reminders that winemaking isn’t a romantic job. Hands and wrists sticky with juice, mud caking to the bottoms of boots and endless tedium await in row after row. We’ll be honest, there was a bit of Botrytis. The word, “Catastrophe!” (pronounced like Stroganoff) was exclaimed with great regularity from our Polish companions. It wasn’t the worst we’ve seen and after our hard work of clearing it out, they still had plenty of healthy fruit left to ripen for an additional few weeks. Riesling makes lovely wines but it takes work in the vineyards to make them work in the cellar.
Bird pick is also often a problem for late ripening grapes like Riesling. In many other places, gas powered cannons fire a loud blast into the vineyards to scare birds away or portable speaker systems replay threat calls ad nauseum. Some of our crew in New Zealand even drove around on ATVs and dispatched the winged trespassers with shotguns. Here in the Pfalz, they have a much more entertaining method of scaring off these pesky grape predators: Grandpa. Now that he has handed over the viticulture work to his progeny, Grandpa rides through the vineyard roads and paths on an antique Hercules moped and fires what we now know to be a combination between a starter gun and a rocket launcher over the vines. One might think firing explosive projectiles over your vines is a fine method of scaring off birds, but Grandpa also likes to scare his vineyard crews. By the time we left, the sound of his approaching scooter allowed us a moment to prepare our nerves for the expected explosion but we never could give up the feeling that hitting the deck was the best way to stay safe.
Another part of our job was doing ride alongs with Stephan to check on their bigger reds that were still out on the vine. We would go vineyard to vineyard tasting grapes like limburger, dornfelder, cabernet cubin, etc. and measure the sugars with a spectrometer. Since we had just worked a vintage in Australia working with Bordeaux varietals, Stephan was eager to see what we thought of the Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot that they are growing.
If you feel like you misread that, YES, Hanewald-Schwerdt is producing bad ass cab blends in the Pfalz and YES we are still talking about Germany. We knew that Germans were producing excellent Pinot in the Ahr Valley, Kaiserstuhl and Pfalz but have very little experience with anything else. Much to our surprise, the flagship wine that this winery produces is a Cab/Merlot blend named Zweihänder. (You’ll read more about it later.)
Well, that’s enough for now. Stay tuned for another Pfalz update and then the Mosel. Also, big things are in the wind for us, so get ready for a party of some sort!