By our second glass, we were making connections. A doctoral student of medieval wine-making to our right put us in touch with Lars Carlberg, a wiry German American raised in the States who’d done time in the wine department at Christie’s in New York City. Carlberg checked out of the rat race a few years back to commune with his German roots and pick grapes at the Mosel winery Knebel, and ended up as an exporter of under-the-radar bottlings, working from a laptop in a rented garret. He invited us to meet him at a party at a client’s winery, and so later that night we motored through a downpour to a mountaintop in a village called Alf. We arrived to find Wolfgang Niedecken of BAP, Germany’s biggest pop band—essentially the country’s Bruce Springsteen—rocking out to a standing-room-only crowd of stylishly shaggy German boomers in a large parlor. Carlberg introduced us to the owner of the winery, the long-haired iconoclast Ulli Stein—by no means a youngster but a revolutionary in his fiery advocacy of sustainable, back-to-basics wine making—who was celebrating his victory in a nine-year battle with German authorities to legalize “straw wine,” a sweet wine made by sun-drying grapes on straw mats. His niece Dana, who had completed internships at wineries and is next in line to make wine at the property, sat on the terrace nursing a glass and nuzzling a terrier, slightly aloof from the older crowd partying in the living room.
The following day, we drove south of Trier to the valley of the Saar River, a tributary of the Mosel, where Florian Lauer, the Puma-shod twentysomething winemaker at Weingut Peter Lauer, led us through a tasting of his family’s wares and gave us our first insight into the Riesling renaissance from a local’s perspective. After years of living in denial about the merits of their culture—“There are more Italian restaurants here than German ones!” he grumbled—Germans have recently begun to see their own food and wine as valid, and to take pride in them. It took non-Germans loving Riesling to make the grape hip here again.
“The good news out of the U.S., the points from Robert Parker, winning international wine awards—that’s when Germans realized other countries were drinking more of our wine than we were, and were better educated about it,” Lauer said.
It took years of hard work by family-owned wineries, Lauer noted, to overcome the stigma that bulk Riesling producers (who make plonk using shortcuts and additives) had wrought. “At those wineries, nobody is responsible because the owner’s name is nowhere on the bottle,” he said. “My name is on my label, so if my wine is bad, I’m definitely not happy.”
We found a similar pride—not to mention spectacular old-school German food—on display that evening back in Trier, just beyond the Kookai and Esprit outlets, at Zur Glocke, our dream Wursthaus and this city’s answer to Joe Allen or the Ivy. Under a heavy timbered ceiling, tables of smartly dressed locals toasted important occasions with rounds of schnapps, and we had the crispest and best schnitzel of our lives, smothered in creamed chanterelles. The sauerbraten—beef braised in vinegar, wine, and super-rich beef stock—the waiter told us, we wouldn’t find anywhere else. We followed the example of the Germans around us and drank not wine, but rather stein after stein of König Pilsener.
The next morning we left Trier behind, heading out of town on a hectic, traffic-choked autobahn. Just a half-hour outside the city, however, we dropped south and almost instantly were tracing the broad river as it bent, in lazy S-curves, through the vineyards. The slopes rose precipitously from the riverbank and stone walls braced the hillsides in some spots. Tending vines in this landscape is difficult, time-consuming, and done entirely by hand, and yet these sites are by far the most coveted in the Mosel because the steepest, south-facing rows of vines closest to the river soak up direct sun throughout the day, as well as an additional dose from the rays reflecting off the river. At this latitude, every sunbeam counts.