Ξ November 3rd, 2010 | → 5 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, Wine & Politics, Wine History, Wineries, Young Winemakers |
I was to meet Gerhard Kracher of Kracher Winery for lunch at the Plachutta Wozelle. As an earlier post recounted, I had met Dr. Rudolf Kracher, Alois Kracher’s brother, at Parliament in Vienna a previous afternoon. It was Dr. Kracher who put me immediately in touch with Alois’ son, Gerhard. Of course I arrived half an hour before lunch to explore the restaurant’s immediate neighborhood. I had seen two pictures of the gentleman while preparing for our talk, and so sat on a park bench near the restaurant to see whether I could identify him among the Viennese strolling by this brisk Sunday. You can tell a lot about a man by the way he walks. But as the hour drew near I saw no one resembling him pass. I began to worry the interview might not occur. Into the Plachutta I went, and was immediately greeted by the nattily dressed maître’d. “Mr. Kracher is waiting for you.”
Gerhard Kracher has been the winemaker at Kracher since 2007, assuming full responsibilities at the tender age of 26. The passing of his father, known for a year to be approaching, helped with the transition. As did the years of work Gerhard had already put in at the winery where he worked since he was 18. I shall let Gerhard explain the circumstances in the interview below. It is sufficient at this point to say that there remains some sensitivity to the idea Gerhard needs to prove himself the skilled winemaker. For it is true Kracher is no ordinary winery. Its sweet botrytis wines are among the most celebrated and sought after in the world. Can Gerhard sustain its reputation? Yet it is also true that Alois was himself initially eyed with suspicion.
By all accounts, Gerhard’s father Alois (Luis) Kracher remains a beloved figure in the Austrian wine world and beyond. Having taken over the Kracher Winery from his father in 1981, Alois worked diligently for his brief life to promote and establish the international reputation of a winery built by his father out of the ashes of World War 2. From the impoverished village of Illmitz near the Austrian-Hungarian border to the salons of Paris and skyscrapers of New York, it was a long, hard journey. Kracher founder and patriarch, also named Alois, was, at 17, forced into the army to fight against the invading Russians during the closing weeks of the War. A slight, thin man, he was given a uniform far to large for his frame. When finally captured by the American Army, he was singled out and sent home because, as an American soldier put it, “We don’t shoot children”. Soon after arriving back in Illmitz, elder Alois begins his adult life with the planting of a vineyard.
This is one of the stories Gerhard tells during our 2 1/2 hour lunch conversation. And many more details of the early days of the Kracher Winery will emerge with the additional parts to come. Gerhard is a warm man, and quite funny. But also cautious. I am certain Dr. Rudolf Kacher’s introduction, while trusted, was not without its peculiar, fantastic gaps. Just who really is this American wine writer guy? Good question. But after time spent talking, with my recorder frequently turned off for the sake of shared, relaxed moments, I think he came to feel sufficiently comfortable to speak freely.
Let me hasten to add that I shall in later posts provide background information about the winery. For now: Enjoy.
Admin I was at the MAK last night, not too far from here. Most of the conference participants were there.
Gerhard Kracher So you had a long night?
No, I didn’t. I have to work. I arrived last Saturday. My time in Vienna is nearly gone.
GK So you have already been to the Badeschiff, the ship on the Danube?
Yes, that was Thursday, an informal gathering. Quite a charming location.
The maître’d steps up to our table.
GK Would you like the typical Viennese tafelspitz?
Yes. [Of course, I really didn't know what it was.]
GK Something of a starter? I’ll have the beef tartare.
Maître’d Welcome to Plachutta. You are lunching with one of the most famous men in all of Austria! (laughter) We specialize in Viennese cuisine, many dishes of beef, sir. On the menu you can see all of the cuts we use. We prepare the cuts in a very special way; we serve it in a copper pot. We use the bone marrow, too. That means, first of all, that the beef broth is very strong, then you have the meat. And on the side we serve horseradish and other things. And Mr. Kracher always uses the bone marrow because we found out that the bone marrow is very good for the man power! (laughter)
Well…I’ve one night left in Vienna, so maybe I’ll find out tonight!
The maître’d leaves us to choose from the menu.
GK He’s fantastic!
Do you come here often?
GK Quite often, yes. Not so much in the summertime, but in the wintertime it is fantastic.
Of the most amusing experiences of being a wine writer are the odd relationships you make. I walked in off the street into Parliament, and I asked if I could speak to someone about the contemporary state of Austrian wine. They searched through the membership of various bureaus and departments wondering who that could possibly be. And lo and behold, who should appear but Rudolf Kracher, a delightful fellow.
GK He wanted to be here but he has to be in Parliament for a budget discussion. He’s working.
Ah… So we had a very nice discussion about the situation of wine in Austria. He provided me with this article, the text of a talk your father gave some years ago. I was hoping you could talk a bit about this for my American readers who might not be familiar with your story, the sudden, enormous weight of responsibility that has fallen on your shoulders at your father’s passing. The transition was already going on…
GK When this happened I had already been working 8 years in the winery. I was very familiar with everything, every step of production. I was my father’s right hand for production… actually, for everything. It was not new to me. We knew one year before my father died of his likely fate. So, I had quite a long time to prepare everything. I wasn’t really kicked into something. I have to say that was very, very helpful that I’ve been working in the winery since I was 18. Because to be a winemaker cannot be learned in one year. It’s impossible. You have to have the feeling, you have to have the experience. It was quite tough, but I knew what would come.
The eyes of the world were watching you…
GK Yes. Which was helpful for me because if I have someone sitting at my back, then I am working more and harder! (laughs)
Yes. We have examples of such public transitions in the United States. When David Lett, an Oregon Pinot Noir pioneer, passed, his son, Jason took the reigns. Questions swirled about whether Jason, already an accomplished winemaker, could fill his father’s shoes. It is tough following a legend. But Jason has succeeded extremely well after the transition.
And you have managed to be named Sweet Winemaker of the Year in 2009 at the International Wine Challenge in London. What were the number of Austrian wines present at that event? And European sweet wines?
GK I don’t know exactly, but it was over a thousand. I sent twelve wines, and every single one was winning. I think it was four or five Golds, four Silver, and three Bronze.
Could you tell me something of the history of the Kracher estate, the property?
GK The history is not that long. My grandfather [also named Alois] started after World War Two.
What was his training in winemaking?
GK Nothing. He had zero training.
Did he have friends and neighbors who helped?
GK There was always wine in every house, but it was very simple. Very simple. And he had half a hectare of vineyards, and he had five hectares of [lake]land. He was a mixed farmer. He had chickens, horses, cows, food plants, nearly everything. It was a self-sufficient farm. Which was normal in our village. Our village [Illmitz] was very, very poor. It was the end of the road, actually, after World War Two. Beyond us there was Hungary. There was communism, so nobody wanted to go there, no one was interested. And no one knew what was happening there.
My grandfather always said that having the vineyards was always his dream. He loved to be in the vineyards; he loved to work in the cellar. The other land holdings were horrible for him. He didn’t like it. He started, step by step, to rebuild the estate, to make out of the lake land, vineyards. He worked at the butcher, saved all his money to invest in the estate. He always said that the first time he made wine like he envisioned it should be made was in 1959. This was the year my father was born. From that step on, he built some guest rooms because he didn’t know where to sell the wines! So with the guest rooms he could have visitors try them and maybe buy them. It was Germany, Switzerland, Austria, visitors from those countries. Then there were the restaurants that began taking our wines, like the Steirereck, Altwienerhof, the Schwarzen Kameel, Meinl am Graben… these were our first customers that took our wines into their restaurants.
My grandfather built up his vineyards in those days to 7.5 hectares of his own land plus another 5 hectares he rented. This was at that time quite big for our region, actually for our village. My father, Alois, took over winemaking in 1981. He was in the pharmaceutical industry with Baxter. He was in middle-management. He worked there because the estate wasn’t big enough to feed two families. My grandparents weren’t retired, so it was impossible to feed two families.
My father saw, as well as my grandfather, that we could sell botrytis wines. They saw that we could compete with the world immediately, because there are only four regions in the world where you can do that every vintage: Sauternes, the Mosel, Tokaji, and here. And that’s it! So it becomes very easy to compete with the world immediately. My father made the winery an international success. He went to VinExpo in Bordeaux; he went to London, he went to New York… to present the wine. The problem was never that the people didn’t like the wine. The problem always was to get people to taste the wine, because nobody was interested in Austria. Most didn’t know that there was real wine production in Austria.
Were there rules and regulations already in place governing Austrian wine production, considering its modest scale?
GK Yes. There was everything in place, but the wine was actually sold here in Austria. There was no real export.
This story summarizes Alois’ adventures in the United States where he went around the country and essentially hand-sold the wines. That’s quite a demanding way to finally get people to taste your wines.
GK Well, at this time, when you don’t have any money, and you have to get your wine to the customer, that is the only way to do it. And it was successful. (laughs) It wasn’t easy because, as I said, no one knew that Austria was producing wine. And sweet wine is the niche of the niche. So, in the first couple of years, when he went to Paris or VinExpo or VinItaly or the London Wine Fair, you can’t get people to taste wines very easily! Everyone is stressed. Everyone has a program. And then someone comes and says “Please taste my wine. It’s from Austria.” There is immediate skepticism. This was the problem. But when they tasted it, they were happy. It was a big success. But to get people there to taste our wines… this was the problem.
But then success happened very quickly…
GK Well, quickly… it took him years. It took him from 1982 until 1989 to be a small part of the wine world. In the first years no one wanted to taste the wine. The first VinExpos and wine fairs were absolutely not successful. Absolutely not. But as he got his foot in the door, as he got some people to taste the wine, then it became easier. He was becoming known; he knew the people, and people began to recommend my father. He was a very, very good connector. He knew how to use his contacts, the few contacts he was able to get.
The maître’d briefly returns to the table.
GK Do you want a glass of wine? I’m driving, so I can’t.
No thank you. I don’t want to drink alone. So what motivated Alois to choose the United States? Was it because of a perceived openness of the mind of the American sweet wine drinker? An opening in the market?
GK During these times we were actually at the point where we didn’t even try to build up Europe. The only export markets we had were Switzerland and Great Britain.
How much did you actually have inventoried to sell for export at that time? How much was available? Your production was not very large.
GK No. It was about 15,000-20,000 bottles a year. My father was in VinItaly. He had a stand, it was an Austrian stand. There were Americans who passed by. And one of them said to his friends, “Why don’t we taste the Austrian sweet wines? I’ve heard somewhere, somehow, about it, about Kracher”. And the boss of the company said, “Ah, come on. No Austrian sweet wine. We have so much to do!” But the other guy, his assistant said, “Let’s just taste it.” They walked up to my father and said they just wanted to have one wine. He gave them one wine, which was the Grand Cuvée, 1990. they tasted it and were blown away! They said, “OK! What else do you have.” They stayed there for a couple of hours talking and tasting. Two or three months later it was our first export to the United States.
Did it go to New York?
GK It went to Chicago. Most of the quantity eventually went to New York in the end. It was then that my father began to travel in the United States. The good thing for him, which he didn’t know exactly before, was that there were a lot of Austrian chefs, sommeliers, food and beverage managers working in the United States, especially in New York. New York is still our single biggest market in the United States.
When I was walking through Vienna I happened to pass by a group of perhaps 50 young people, all dressed in suits and ties. They were all taking a class break from a school specializing in the hospitality industry: restaurants, hotels, and so on. Their English was very good. They were preparing for positions in the international tourism, restaurant, and hotel industry. Austria seems to be quite aggressive in turning out young ambassadors, as it were.
GK They are very good. They have very good schools for that. Very, very good. They have training in food and wine, which ten years ago was non-existent. They treat the people very well. Actually, the treatment of food was always very good, for cooking, for being in the service; that’s why so many Austrians are in Gastronomy outside of Austria. We are in the United States, Asia; we’re on cruise-liners, for example. That’s because the schools here operate on a very high level.
And were the establishment of these schools sanctioned and encouraged by the government? It is an official position of Austrian foreign policy to produce such culinary ambassadors?
GK Well, it depends on the school. The school can decide by themselves how high to establish the level of expertise. There are some schools in Austria where, when you hear someone has passed the school, has graduated, you know exactly what that graduate’s skills are in food and wine.
So Alois learned all of his winemaking from his father? Or did he attend an Enology and Viticultural school?
GK No school. He learned the first steps by my grandfather’s side. And then he always went to Bordeaux. He was always fascinated by Bordeaux, and by Sauternes. When he went to Sauturnes, he didn’t speak any French, and only a tiny bit of English when he started. It was in the beginning of the 80’s. And Mr. Pierre Meslier, who was at this time the manager of Chateau d’Yquem [regisseur 1963-1989] — before he was a winemaker — he was approaching retirement. My father tried to visit him. After his second visit he was able to have the contacts to visit this guy. And Mr. Meslier was so fascinated by the enthusiasm of my father that he then showed him a lot of things. So from this time on, my father visited every holiday. Mr. Meslier was one of his, let’s say, masterminds. So he brought my father into thinking different ways about winemaking.
End of Part 1