Wine in Tennessee just got a major jolt. We've been anticipating the moment for more than six months, waiting and hoping it would all come together as planned. And now, with the arrival of the vom Boden portfolio, our German swagger just got swerve.
Stephen Bitterolf started vom Boden after years working in various leadership roles at Crush Wine & Spirits in Manhattan. Before that he studied art history, with a focus on post-war German art. That passion and cultural knowledge helped segue Stephen into a love of German wines.
Now he represents a smattering of producers from the greater Mosel-Saar-Ruwer region. The wines he brings us are grown with meticulous care and respect for the natural processes of the vineyard. They are hand made with a light touch. And they are -unequivocally - exceptional.
I recently emailed with Stephen about his company, his vision, and the persistently wack ideas about riesling in America. Here's what he had to say.
WOODLAND WINE MERCHANT: You started vom Boden with four producers, importing and distributing the wines yourself in New York, where you had contacts. Since then you've expanded quite a bit (10 producers, numerous states). Congrats! Do you still get to spend as much time with the growers as you used to? How has that part of the work changed?
STEPHEN BITTEROLF: Yeah - in a lil less than three years we've expanded into 17 states - so the growth has been pretty solid. These are definitely harried times (which I'm thankful to have!), but honestly I see the growers as much now as I ever did - normally two or three times a year. I have two young children, so I'm doing a lot less traveling than I should given the number of markets the company is in, but the company growth has been handled by hiring - not by me just working 28 hours a day.
WWM: I feel like I take so much for granted when it comes to wine getting from the vine into my glass. Like language and cultural barriers, for example. How have you approached the small, basic difficulties of communication in your relationships with growers?
SB: My father was born in Vienna and I speak enough German to get by, so honestly that's never been much of an issue. At this point, most of the young German growers speak better English than I do. Driving around Germany, visiting my growers and scoping out new ones - I often think of how hard this must have been 50-100 years ago. No Internet, no Google, no Google maps - the ease at which one can access information is just mind-boggling.
WWM: What two things would you say to someone who is interested in but unfamiliar with German wine?
SB: First, the most important thing is to try, as hard as it is, to drink the wines without any preconceived notion - try and ignore the easy clichés. It's a common joke among German wine fans, but pour someone a German wine blind and they will nearly always freak out - "this is awesome!" conversely, pour them a German wine (even one that is bone bone dry with more acid than a lemon) and they will say - "hmmmm... This is too sweet." Riesling, as a grape, has more acidity than nearly any other grape out there and it can out-refresh, out-zing, out-crisp just about any other more popular category including sauvignon blanc and chardonnay.
Second, think of the Germany as a wine region on the edge. Germany represents the boundary of where grape growing, and therefore winemaking, is no longer possible. The magic of these wines is intensity without weight - grandiosity in angelic, ethereal dimensions. All the things that people talk about today: history, site-specificity, clarity, low-alcohol, finesse... German wines not only have all these things, they have more of these things in a more potent form, than just about any other wines on earth.
Oh - and let me throw in a third - they are dirt cheap for the silly quality you get. It's almost a joke.
WWM: That's a great way to frame it: 'a region on the edge.' Can you say a little more about what makes that boundary?
SB: It's really a matter of latitude and all the implications that come with that (power of sunshine, hours of sunlight, heat, etc) - keep in mind we're at roughly the latitude of Winnipeg! Head not that much further north and you just can't get the damn grapes ripe enough!
WWM: Sometimes Upper Mosel seems like the pimply kid brother to Lower and Middle Mosel. What’s up with that? Is Upper Mosel less interesting or just misunderstood?
It's a completely different region - the terroirs change totally (slate in the Middle Mosel to limestone in the Upper Mosel) and so do the grapes (riesling in the Middle Mosel to elbling in the Upper Mosel). I think it's both easy and safe to say the heights achieved by the riesling in the Middle Mosel will nearly always overshadow elbling in the Upper Mosel. Riesling is just one of the most noble grapes in the world - not really fair to compare something to Beethoven's 9th, you know? At the same time, grandiosity is not what you always want - it's a Tuesday and it's 100 degrees and you just wanna kick back on the porch and have a drink. At this moment, elbling can be king.
WWM: You’ve likened the 2015 vintage in the Mosel to 2001 and 2008, and called it a “more technicolor, deeper and more forceful 2012.” You also dropped the * bomb. Is this some kind of super vintage?
SB: 2015 seems to have all the ingredients to make some real, real fine pie. From a purely analytical perspective, you have good ripeness and tremendous acidity, which is a bit rare. Normally, as ripeness increases, acidity decreases and the wines can lose a bit of finesse, a bit of energy. But 2015 was an anomaly, so you have these punchy, weighty wines with serious thrust. Is it a super vintage? Honestly, who knows. It's a bit like looking at a baby and taking a stab at the kid's SAT score. Sure, you can gauge how smart the parents are, what you think the kid's education will be like... But at the end of the day, it's all a big guess. That said, 2015 has some real promise and unlike the last two vintages, the harvest was easy and so you're going to have a pretty serious baseline for quality.
WWM: How do you balance your vested interest in having a star vintage and your purely aesthetic first impressions of, say, a tank sample?
SB: You gotta tell it like it is. It'd be very easy for me to just report one blockbuster vintage after another. But people can smell bullshit a mile away and that sort of nonsense, aside from being morally repugnant, just doesn't work long term anyway. Ideally, I try (and fail I'm sure) to get away from "great" and "not great" as the two categories that all things get dropped in. 2015 is a powerful vintage with incredible balance and there is a lot of very good wine that will come out of this. But read my 2013 vintage report. I actually love the 2013 vintage, and I tried to make my case that for my growers at least, this was a really serious vintage worth experiencing. But I also warned people that the wines will not be for everyone. It was a very high-acid, sharp, biting vintage - a style of wine I love - but decidedly not for everyone. I mean, Tom Waits is a bad ass, but my guess is he's not gonna please everyone.
WWM: What’s your cheap beer of choice?
SB: I like my beer like I like my wine - high acid and crisp. Bring me a pilsner and call it a day.