“When you buy a given nation’s wine, you’re symbolically partaking in your vision of the sensual life of that nation.” So says famed importer and author Terry Theise. This, I am sorry to say, is perhaps the problem of German wine in America: Our incapacity to imagine a sensual life for a country synonymous with faultless engineering. There are real dangers of a perception of too much technical perfection. Just ask Elizabeth Warren. Or any number of German wine importers in the U.S. Which is what I did recently, to get their perspectives on how they and their predecessors have shaped the German wine landscape in America and influenced the way wine lovers in the U.S. feel about riesling and other German wines.
These questions come at the time of the biggest shakeup in German wine imports in more than a generation. And at an electrifying moment for wine in Germany. The combination means American wine lovers now have unprecedented access to a kaleidoscope of varieties and styles plus the country’s legendarily pixelated array of rieslings.
To see how we got here, let’s look at German wine in the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s. It was essentially one thing: cheap, sweet Blue Nun, a diluted travesty of what German wine can be. By the 1980s, this had settled into hardened cliché. Enter Rudi Wiest and Terry Theise.
German-born Wiest started importing wines from his native country to the U.S. in 1978. From the beginning, his focus was on the “great estates,” such as J.J. Prüm and Egon Müller — pricey and prestigious, the latter notable for making some of the costliest bottles of wine on earth.
Theise, an American who spent parts of his teens and twenties living in Germany and learning about its wines, came back to America and set up a small German import portfolio in 1985. He eventually expanded into Austria and cracked open the category of so-called grower Champagne, then connected with major distributor Skurnik Wines. But he remained most closely identified with Germany. His catalogs are legendary for their expansive emotionalism — and fidelity to Germany’s sweeter wines. His advocacy for producers from the heralded Nahe estate Dönnhoff to the Merkelbachs, a pair of ultra-traditionalist brothers who’ve worked a slice of Mosel vineyards for half a century made Theise’s portfolio more manifesto than sales sheet.
For the past several decades, Wiest and Theise defined German wine for American drinkers. Their portfolios reflected a sensibility in German wine determined by the country’s still shaky post-war self-perception, a climate that was then markedly cooler and better suited to sweeter rieslings, a reverence for technical precision, and the importers’ own personal perceptions of what German wine does best.
Recently, both of these figures stepped away from their decades-long roles. Wiest (83 years old) retired as his business collapsed into bankruptcy last fall. Theise (66 years old) is in transition after a 20-plus-year partnership with Skurnik. As Evan Spingarn, German portfolio manager of Bowler, notes: “We’re standing in the middle of a huge generational shift.” He sees it as an “historically important moment” for German wines in America. This moment comes as warmer growing seasons, vastly improved farming, and a new level of winemaking skill in Germany are transforming what types of wine are possible.
Over the past five years, a new guard emerged: younger and closely in touch with both the current German wine scene and the needs and wants of American customers. Collectively, they are building on the acceptance and recognition Wiest and Theise earned for German wine in the U.S., but also wriggling out from under their long shadows. They see their role as interpreters of German wine for a fresh audience that is unburdened by the knowledge of what German wine used to be. Both the portfolios and the way the importers talk about them are designed to change the conversation around German wine and redraw the landscape of what’s available in shops and restaurants.
“Sommeliers are not worshipping at the throne of Theise and Wiest the way they used to,” says Spingarn. “They’re looking for new and interesting things. A lot of them are looking for dry, inexpensive wines and a lot of them are looking for natural wines.”
“We’re standing in the middle of a huge generational shift.”
The new players shake out pretty neatly along a spectrum. Working our way from radical to neo-traditional, the arc looks something like this:
• Jennifer Green (32 years old), founder of the newish, naturalish SuperGlou, with a half-dozen German producers in her boutique book, sees her winemakers as “inhabitants of their own universes,” often working in such obscurity that their wines transcend national or even regional identity, in keeping with her belief that terroir is personal.
• Stephan Bitterolf (44 years old) of vom Boden has been shaking up German wine by inverting stereotypes, treating his producers like rock stars, and exploring the regions they come from the way a 15th-century navigator might, charting and reporting back with wonder on terra incognita.
• Spingarn (50 years old) has managed the German wine portfolio at Bowler for over a decade, working with wines that until 2018 included most of Wiest’s book, and now focus on the great names from Louis Dressner’s as well as a growing roster of natural-leaning newcomers.
• Kevin Pike (47 years old) of Schatzi Wines,* who worked under Theise at Skurnik before heading off on his own in 2014, brings a classicist’s faith in representing Germany through its regions and terroirs, but reintroduces these places to a fresh audience by focusing on young producers whose voices and interpretations reveal hidden facets of German wine.
• The neo-traditionalist who bookends the group is Jenna Fields (34 years old), who just this month relaunched much of Wiest’s portfolio as The German Wine Collection, with a firm commitment to a streamlined book of his classic producers and an emphasis on introducing varieties Americans are already familiar with from other countries, e.g. pinot noir, in their German context.
Of course, this transformation is not taking place in a vacuum. As several of these importers noted, around the world, winemakers are no longer reliant on being “discovered” by importers. They use social media to generate interest in their wines and travel to wine fairs to get them in the glasses of sommeliers, retailers, and the public. The importers, as Green says, “are now more like the translator, a vessel” for making the connection between winemaker and consumer. Pike notes that these new pathways have also made it easier for importers to find interesting producers — rather than “the old ways of reading foreign trade magazines and knocking on cellar doors.” It all “contributes to a more interactive world that relies less on the ‘authority’ of an importer and that importer’s taste,” he believes.
This new paradigm should give Americans a more accurate, objective lens onto what is happening in German wine. But does it?
For Spingarn, it’s important that Americans know what the Germans themselves are drinking. “I want them to know that German wine has changed drastically in the last 10 years and Americans, except a little bit in the big cities, have not caught up. I still see these pathetic German shelves with nothing but cheap, sweet wine on them.” Meanwhile, 70 percent of the wine made in Germany is dry (officially designated as trocken) and about 90 percent of what Germans drink is dry. There’s a huge divide, Spingarn notes, between the American perception of sweet German wines and the dry reality.
“Many importers cling to the sweet style that was popular in the 1970s and beyond,” says Pike. “It wasn’t that long ago that importers of German wine were asking producers to add süssreserve to their wines [to sweeten them]. Likely because that importer believed that’s what the American market wanted. German wineries likely went along with the practice because they wanted to export their wines to the U.S. and relied upon the importer’s guidance for stylistic choices.”
In Pike’s view, the crucial change is that “as German winemakers have become more confident and gain unprecedented international training and experience, these practices are being rebuffed. As they should.”
Fields built her career under Wiest. In March, with her former boss’s blessing, she launched The German Wine Collection to “continue his legacy and keep his growers together” in a pruned-down portfolio of 18 winemakers. She says even Wiest recognized “it’s going to take another generation to be able to say these wines are mainstream whatsoever. What we’re really setting out to do is to help people understand the full range of what Germany has to offer while keeping the tradition of sweeter rieslings alive.”
At Bowler, Spingarn encourages younger producers to pursue what he calls “a more natural winemaking philosophy.” Steering producers based on “because that’s what sells in America” opens the question of whether this is so very different than the previous generation who encouraged producers to bring up the sweetness levels. But it’s also a way of exerting a positive influence. Spingarn works with two notable riesling producers whom he has successfully encouraged to adopt organic farming. Spingarn believes that not only have the wines improved markedly, but these two converts now advocate for the same kinds of changes among their peers.
70 percent of the wine made in Germany is dry and about 90 percent of what Germans drink is dry. There’s a huge divide between the American perception of sweet German wines and the dry reality.
Bitterolf revels in bringing out the eccentric geniuses of German wine. In 2013, he took over an existing small German portfolio, one that included bluechip names like Klaus-Peter Keller, but also individualists like J.B. Becker and Ulrich Stein, and expanded this to include rebels like Jochen Beurer and a few obscure upstarts of the sort Green champions. He believes German wine importers have necessarily played a greater role in shaping Americans’ views on German wine because of its notorious complexity. “In general, humans want simpler stories!” Bitterolf gleefully delivers, through playful narratives about his producers and by toying with unfashionability, like dubbing the month of February “Felbling” to promote the nearly vanished old German variety Elbling and rebaptizing the clunky-sounding region of Württemberg as “Alto Swabia.” These inventions are meant to bring consumers closer to something that usually gets lost among all the classifications and umlauted syllables.
So, what is the through line of German wine for these importers? What can German wine do best and how do they represent this in their portfolios?
Acidity is “the cornerstone of German wines,” according to Bitterolf. “Even the most voluptuous of German wines should, for me at least, have an edge,” he says. “I am interested in balance, as is any good importer, but I think as compared to the average drinker’s palate, my book likely falls pretty far left of center on the acidity scale.”
Pike feels the best way to convey “Germany” is to bring in producers who farm responsibly, work historically important vineyards, and are representative of their respective regions. “I want a Pfalz wine to taste like it’s from the Pfalz,” he says, for instance. But he’s also looking for what he calls “Something else: innovation, personality, and more, such as a commitment to reclaiming abandoned vineyards, a singular focus on terroir expression, even the producer’s view on wine and culture.”
Green’s take for SuperGlou is the most radical: “I picked my producers for who they are and what they do — not necessarily because I was looking for a German cohort in my book.” The whole idea of dividing wines into regions and countries “is not very logical to me, knowing that so much of the terroir of a wine is the person making it,” she says. In other words, a new way into German wine that ignores its “Germanness” — which speaks to a new generation of globalized wine drinkers. The approach works for Green since she champions tiny, not-yet-established winemakers, who often work in isolation from both their neighbors and broader expectations of what a region or grape should be.
Acidity is “the cornerstone of German wines,” according to Bitterolf. “Even the most voluptuous of German wines should, for me at least, have an edge.”
All of this leads us inevitably back to Theise, whose luxuriantly descriptive wine catalogs (which have recently vanished from the Internet, but still circulate in printed form) in many ways defined German wine for his generation. From his perch of experience, he has watched climate change transform what is possible — and what is “authentic” — in German wines. He has seen American tastes shift away from sweetness despite his conviction that the capacity for sweetness in German wine should be “celebrated.”
“The millennial generation is coming up without a frame of reference for sweet wines,” Theise says. “They didn’t get to know dry rieslings back when they had a tendency to thinness and sharpness that we just don’t see very much anymore. My past, inveighing against trocken riesling, was always based on empirical reality when most of them were terrible. Now, many of the wines are fantastically good.” In the end, Theise remains on the fence about how much influence importers truly exude on the marketplace. “We move the needle on the stylistic particularities,” he says. “But not a lot.”
The role of this new generation of German wine importers is to help us move past a monolithic view of German wine, to understand, then embrace its diversity of regions, varieties, and individual producers. As far as a vision of sensuality? That remains to be seen.
*The author contributes producer profiles to Schatzi Wines.