Ξ November 17th, 2010 | → 4 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, Wine & Politics, Wine History, Winemakers, Young Winemakers |
Family, wine, politics, America, and China, these are but a very few of the topics touched on in this, part 2 of my luncheon interview with Gerhard Kracher of the Austrian wine house Kracher. Located on the banks of the Neusiedlersee in Austria’s Burgenland, the vineyards suffer under the divine abuse of Botrytis cinerea, one of only four such regions currently known. Kracher’s sweet wines are held by many to be the epitome of the style. Perhaps one day I shall taste one. In the interests of economy, I ask that folks interested in further reading about the region, please read this article by Austrian wine expert, Julia Sevenich. For a sense of the impact Kracher wines have made upon the international wine community, please read this marvel of economy (even if slightly out of date). And for an interesting overview, please read this.
A final note: Sharing lunch introduced a certain staccato quality into our conversation. I turned the recorder off more than once so that we might be free to enjoy our meal. I’ll end with the observation that Gerhard is not a showman. He is reflective, thoughtful. Thrust into the spotlight after his father’s, Alois Kracher, untimely death, he is eager to be his equal, and to build upon the legacy begun by his grandfather so many years ago, a legacy begun with the simplest of gestures: planting a vine. Without further ado…
Admin Governments can make it very difficult for winemakers to work. Though often historically based and needed, rules are sometimes quite numerous and seem just as often stifle innovation. Is the Austrian government sympathetic to the winegrower?
Gerhard Kracher Yes. Much more. When my grandfather started, it was people who came for holidays, actually. They were the ones who first started bringing wine into their countries. It was then mostly Swiss and German because he was in a German-speaking area. There was no thinking, no chance of going further away.
How did the visitors then hear about Kracher? Advertisement? Word of mouth?
GK Yes, word of mouth. The first people came by accident! (laughs) They were lost, and ended up sleeping in our house. They were tourists. And these people told other people.
Do you remember an occasion when your family name first appeared in a guidebook about Austria?
GK Actually, this was before my time so I don’t know exactly.
Of course. But how common was wine tourism then? Do you recall family stories of such?
GK At this time no one did it. We just had holiday visitors. We have this big lake near our village, so it was just tourists making their holiday.
Is the lake really only five feet deep?
Why is it only five feet deep? Is it a glacial remnant…?
GK Actually, the lake was five times the size it is now a couple of thousand years ago. And it’s just five feet deep because that’s what happened! (laughs)
That’s as good an explanation as any! So you’re not a Geologist!
GK For our place, where we are, we have the perfect micro-climate from that lake and all the other small lakes around our village and between our various vineyards. Some of them are just 30 to 50 centimeters deep. So we have a large quantity of water all around us which brings a lot of humidity. So that during September and October we have heavy fog in our vineyards every morning. We are totally flat, so during the day there is a little bit of wind which clears out the fog in the vineyards and leaves us with a clear, sunshiny day. And it is this combination that is perfect for botrytis.
Just how large is this Austrian region where the botrytis thrives?
GK It extends all around the lake. But there are places where is is more and less.
So there are other producers of sweet wines in the area? And did they come after your grandfather?
GK Sure, there are other producers. Sweet wine was always on the scene, but people didn’t know how to place it on the market. It is true that on the other side of the lake they were more successful because they were the richer, more educated people. They knew what they had. The other side was nearer the capitol of our region, and there was Esterházy. They had money. They had education. On our side of the lake there was nothing. No one was interested. In our village they always said our area was not good because nothing would grow. But is turns out to be perfect for wine.
Is it fair to say the government of the time would show a preference for Esterházy’s side of the lake? They would get the development monies but not your side?
GK Not exactly. I am speaking of the time when the Esterházys were, how do you say, the bosses. And from that time on they could develop. They knew about botrytis, they knew about how great these wines can be. On our side of the lake we did not know such things. Everyone then had to do anything to survive.
Tell me a little about your grandfather’s post-war experience. What was it like to return to the village?
GK My grandfather was in World War 2 for three or four days. He was a very tiny, very slim man. He was 17 or 18 when he had to go to defend Vienna from the Russians. When the Americans came they saw him, and because he was so small that they thought he was 13 or 14. They said they don’t shoot kids and they sent him home. At this time he took over the family estate.
Where were his parents?
GK His parents were also in Illmitz. There were eight kids. Everyone got his part. My grandfather got his small part. But actually, he got essentially nothing; he was poor, too. So he started to build it up. He rented some land, he bought land when he could, so it was step by step. He knew exactly what he wanted to be: a winemaker. But at this time he did not yet have a chance. You need a lot of money to plant vineyards, you need a cellar and barrels…
Where did he eventually acquire his rootstock? And what grapes did he initially plant?
GK He planted traditional varieties from the region. The most successful grape of the time was Welschriesling. And there was Pinot Gris, Muscat Ottonel, Traminer, Zweigelt, that’s it. And Chardonnay. Chardonnay was brought by the monks 300 years ago. These were known. There was a family in Illmitz at this time who dealt in rootstock, and another in the next village; there he got his plants.
In your climate is it three years until a first harvest?
GK To produce, it’s three years. But real quality, what we say here is real quality, we say seven or eight years, because if the vines are young you can’t leave the grapes that long on the stock, it is too much stress for the young vines.
When did your grandfather start a family? Like your father, he must have been quite young.
GK He was married when he was 17 or 18, right after he came back from the war. My father was married when he was 22.
Now people frequently get married when they are 30. It takes men longer to grow up these days!
GK That’s true! (laughs) At this time 22 was quite old to be getting married. Most got married when they were 18 or 19.
And how many children did your father have? What is your mother’s role in the family business?
GK Just me. My mother is the boss of the office. She takes care of all the exports, all the administration.
When I spoke with Rudolf he told me of three episodes in recent Austrian history that have had a sever effect on Austrian wine exports. Not only did he mention the wine scandal of 1984-85, but he gave near equal weight to political developments, especially concerning the rise of the far right. He referred to Jörg Haider, for example. He caused an international stir, shall we say. Now, here in Vienna you recently had elections. You came very close to having the Freedom Party’s leader as the city’s mayor. How do understand these political developments in Austria?
GK The vote was 27%. Very close. Well, the first thing is that the Freedom Party has great marketing. They simply have. Their politicians are educated in the ways of marketing very, very well. They know exactly how to deliver a speech in front of the camera. The second thing is that is very easy to get people to feel uncomfortable. Very easy. You just have to tell them “We could be better”. (laughs)
We have a similar problem in America…We have Sarah Palin.
GK Yes. How can it happen you get George W. Bush two times for President? (laughs) It’s crazy. Sarah Palin isn’t even educated. So, yes, people are feeling uncomfortable. And yes, we have some problems. It’s absolutely true. But I think that a lot of people voted for the Freedom Party to give a kick to the Social Democratic Party, to get them to wake up. So, I think it is a matter of time, maybe at the next elections, that the Freedom Party will never again get 27%.
Now, does that 27% give them additional policy-making power? I mean, will people be able to see the consequences of their vote?
GK Yes. They have more seats in the Vienna government. There will be some consequences. But the Social Democratic Party will work with the Green Party so that the results will not be so terrible. The coalition might also include the Conservative Party, which has a different meaning than in the US. They are not on the right wing.
In America we no longer have moderate Republicans. It is shocking to reasonable Americans.
GK And that is very, very bad. To me what was most shocking was when George Bush was elected a second time. I just couldn’t imagine people would vote for him again. There was no reason for it.
Turning to more pleasant topics, tell me more about Kracher as a business.
GK We also have an import business. We import and distribute wines from all over the world; a lot from California. American wines were always selling well. After George W. Bush was President? No chance. He was very, very unpopular.
There you go! Exactly my point about Austria’s vulnerability. That’s funny. Were you stuck with large inventories?
GK It wasn’t really that bad. Our success was that we had wineries where we don’t have to worry about selling them; for example, Sine Qua Non’s Manfred Krankl, he’s Austrian, so he wasn’t treated as an American. There were others, but New World wines became very unpopular during this time. Not on the level of Ridge or Sine Qua Non, but on the middle level.
Is there much of a wine collecting culture in Vienna? Do a lot of people have cellars?
GK Quite a lot, yes. Nearly every house has a cellar. And not just in Vienna. But most of the people don’t really know it, but there are huge, fantastic cellars. It is not that extreme as in Switzerland. The Swiss are crazy for wine. That is a fantastic market for us.
So when the architectural plans are drawn up for a house do they include a cellar?
GK Yes. In our region every house has a cellar. This is normal because in our region nearly every house has some vineyards. Even to this day I don’t believe there are houses built without cellars. Maybe a few but… As a matter of fact, if you go up the street a ways there is the Palais Colburg. They have one of the best wine cellars in Europe, or, actually, in the world. They have a collection of 100 vintages of Lafite. They have everything, actually.
Is it principally a French collection?
GK No, no. It’s international. Everything.
Would you therefore say the Austrian public has a good grasp of the qualities of international wines?
GK Well, this is a hotel and restaurant. The owner loves wine. So he made this his theme. Not everyone collects wine, but a lot of houses have cellars because it was this way. Sometimes there were two cellars, a cellar beneath a cellar. Wine collecting in former times did not really exist; it’s been in the last 20 years that this has occurred, and then to collect Austrian wines.
Does the Austrian government have a formal position on alcohol consumption? I mean, does it draw a distinction between wine and other forms of alcohol? Better, when they speak of wine are they also speaking of alcohol? Do you foresee a time when Austria might impose stricter laws?
GK It is just alcohol to them. But there are no extreme regulations here. You are allowed to drink when you are 16. That’s it. New laws? Not now.
Kracher is also attempting to open new markets in China. How is that coming along? I think I read you were the first.
GK I think so. We were there 7 or 8 years ago, when we entered the market. It was an import company co-owned by Swarovski. The manager for the Swarovski team was responsible for this import company and he brought us into his portfolio. That’s why we’re there, and it’s growing every year. People get more and more interested in wine. It’s perfect for us.
How do you find the Chinese palate? After all, their wine history is very short. What of those stories of mixing wine and cola?
GK There is none. I’ve heard about the mixing but I’ve never seen it. I was in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Guangzhou, and Macao in May for two weeks. But I have never seen this mixture.
Assuming even urban legends often contain a kernel of truth, do you think the Chinese have an enthusiasm for sweeter wines?
GK It is this way, yes. They have a palate for sweeter products. They like sweet wines quite a lot. It is a very good market for us. We have to build up our market there which will take another 10 to 15 years. They are not educated about wine. That takes time. They have no idea where Austria is. They have no idea who Kracher is. They have no idea what botrytis is. It’s all new for them. We only export sweet wines there. That’s what we are famous for. And I have a similar impression that is the way it was when we began importing to the United States. But, the people in the United States were educated in wine. They just didn’t know where Austria was or what we were producing. So in the US it was easier.
Well, I personally apologize for the American educational system. And after the mid-term elections it will probably get worse. We’ll be teaching creationism and American exceptionalism, and have even less to talk about.
GK Well, it is easier to control a country when people are not educated. (laughs)
And our foreign language studies are not what they could be, shall we say. To speak another language is to enter another’s world. We’re not very good at that.
GK When I was 16 I spent 5 weeks in Chicago. I was quite shocked how historically and geographically uneducated people were.
Was your company at all a part of the European Wine Bloggers Conference? There were a lot of wineries there but I don’t recall seeing Kracher. Were you contacted?
GK We had some wines at the Badeschiff, I think. We were not contacted. Actually, maybe we were. I am not often in the office. But I was not informed.
What is your understanding of the effectiveness of the wine blogging community? What of social media generally? Does Kracher have a Facebook page?
GK No. I think in the future it will become more and more important because the internet is the media of the future, definitely. Whenever I meet people under 40, they spend at least a hour everyday on the internet. That is a large number of people. And wine blogging is something for the future. People are more and more interested in the news, what new is happening in the wine world. And such news is easy to find on the internet. Waiting for a month or two for a magazine, the internet is instant.
When doing background research for our conversation I came across very few interviews, and of those they tend to be quite short. So ours will be a kind of the internet equivalent of War and Peace!
GK I’m a little shy. (laughs) No, I’m not!
I don’t believe it is in the Kracher family’s DNA to be shy. Neither is it in the Austrian DNA, now that I think about it. I’ve been invited into homes and had frequent, detailed conversations with complete strangers.
GK Absolutely not! The people here are quite open-minded because Vienna traditionally was always a melting pot, for hundreds of years.
I would imagine organic viticulture is rather difficult in your area. I would imagine the use of Bordeaux mixture might be common.
GK Well, we are working with Nature and not against it. The thing for me is that it doesn’t matter if it is organic, biodynamic, or whatever: the truth is always in the bottle. And if you work against Nature you will destroy your soil. You will never make great wine. The only thing you have to do is treat your vineyards in the right way. A plant is like the human body. If you’re seriously ill you need antibiotics or you will die. It always depends on the vintage.
If you weren’t here, how would you have spent your Sunday, or any Sunday?
GK My Sundays? (laughs) Well, when I wake up I think to myself what I am going to do today. I have a short breakfast with my girlfriend. Then I read the newspaper. I visit the cellar to make sure everything is alright (I do that everyday). When there is beautiful weather I go out for a bike ride through the vineyards. If it’s cold I will go by car. Then it is lunch, something casual in town with my mother or my friend’s mother, together with my girlfriend. The afternoon then is very easy, sitting in the garden in the summer, going to the beach at the lake. I’ve a small boat. That is my Sunday.
Thank you very much, Gerhard. And thank you for the lunch.
GK My pleasure, Ken.