The Lesson of the Great Bavarian Wine Harvest

Has anyone ever told you how lucky you are regarding something for which you’ve worked so hard? Even when they’re trying to pay you a compliment, it stings a bit, doesn’t it?

After a visit to a family winery in the Bavarian region of Lower Franconia this past October, I imagine that’s how winemakers sometimes feel.

During a weekend crush event at Bickel-Stumpf winery, we helped pick the season’s Cabernet Sauvignon. We enjoyed the blazing autumn sun, we ate heartily, and we tasted far too many wines. And like any roundly fulfilling experience, one of life’s lessons was reinforced along the way: the best in life is often less about glamour and more about hard work, mettle, and passion.

A Helping Hand - Bickel-Stumpf Winery in Thüngersheim, Germany
Picking grapes for the wine harvest, Lower Franconia

Morning Wine and the Harvest

After a 10:30 AM wake-up glass of Reisling — fresh, crisp and reminding us why we were all gathered that day — we were off to the family vineyards in Thüngersheim to start picking.

About 25 of us were paired off and set free to move up the wine rows armed with buckets and clippers. Our task: leave no ripe grapes behind.

The harvest staff – seasonal workers mainly from Romania and Poland — followed behind us, replacing our buckets as we filled them and swooping in when we missed a bunch. (With German efficiency at work, this rarely happened).

A Mighty Grape Harvest - Thüngersheim, Germany
Wine harvest time in Lower Franconia.

The workers must have been laughing to themselves, “These crazy people are actually paying to do this?”

With little urging, we sampled some of the Cabernet Sauvignon grapes we’d cut. Rarely, if ever, do grapes taste this good. Sweet with a bit of tart to balance the sugar, and a distinct flavor hinting at the wine they’ll become.

Audrey Sneaks In Some Grape Eating at German Wine Harvest Event
Tasting Cabernet Sauvignon Grapes

There was something satisfying about clipping ripe berries, hands a-purple. Our temptation to romanticize was mitigated by the fact that we’d only clipped a tiny fraction of the vineyard. Not to mention that harvest is only one event; vineyards need to be watched, cultivated. By no means do grapes follow the Jack and the Beanstalk narrative.

Perfect Franconian Vineyard Symmetry
Terraced vineyards in Lower Franconia, perfect rows.

The business of wine making is about acquired knowledge in agriculture, chemistry, geology and a fine palate to discern flavors imperceptible to others. And that’s when things go well. Otherwise, it’s about battling the elements and seeing years – like this one in Central Europe – where only 30% of your typical grape harvest makes it because of an uncooperative summer marked by heavy rain.

Winemakers work with what is, and they marshal it all to create a fine, quaffable example of liquid artistry.

Leberkäse and Federweisser

We broke for lunch at picnic tables arranged on the edge of the winery and watched Reimond, the father and head winemaker, slice butcher-fresh, steaming loaves of leberkäse onto soft bread. (Leberkäse literally means “liver cheese,” but don’t be fooled. It contains neither of those. One of the other guests put it nicely, “Do you know leberkäse? It’s everything mixed together at the butcher. We don’t eat it often because it’s not very healthy, but it’s perfect to eat like this.”)

Preparing Leberkäse Sandwiches -
A wine harvest picnic of leberkäse sandwiches.

Unhealthy perhaps, but fitting after a morning of clipping in the crisp air and sun.

We washed down our sandwiches with glasses of federweisser, a cloudy, fermenting wine available only around harvest time. Although federweisser tastes one step away from grape juice, it’s deceptively powerful and continues to ferment in your stomach.

Lunchtime at the Vineyard - Thüngersheim, Bavaria
Lunch at the Vineyard

Cheeks reddened with the sun and the next round of drinks. The Romanian workers even kicked in an offer of home-brewed slivovice (plum brandy) for good measure.

A Franconian Feast

Later that evening, after a walk in the vineyard and tour of the Bickel-Stumpf production facilities, we gathered at the family’s home in the small town of Frickenhausen am Main in the 500-year old family cellar — the same one once used to store the family’s winter provisions of potatoes, sauerkraut, pickled vegetables, and barrels of wine.

These days, the cellar serves as a hollowed-out storybook setting for a beautiful, candlelit dinner and wine-tasting.

A Lovely Dinner at Bickel-Stumpf Winery - Frickenhausen in Bavaria, Germany
Dinner in an old Bavarian wine cellar.

We piled our plates with hearty Bavarian food: schweinbraten and kloss (roast pork potato stuffing balls), red cabbage and brussel sprouts. Wine flowed — their signature Silvaner; a classic Riesling; Scheurebe, a delightful hybrid of the two; a Müller-Thurgau; and a stand up Spätburgunder, a German style pinot noir.

Melanie, whom we originally befriended in Berlin, shared stories of growing up in a family of winemakers: “My father used to tell us that water we had to pay for, while wine we had and could drink for free.”

Her mother and father both came from a long line of winemaking families. When they married, each one kept the family vineyards (one in Frickenhausen, the other in Thüngersheim) for growing, but they merged production facilities. And the Bickel-Stumpf label was born. In this current generation, Melanie works for VDP, the German wine quality association, and her brother, Matthias, works alongside his father as a winemaker.

Melanie and Matthias have even joined forces to create a blend of traditional German white wine varietals that pairs well with spicy Asian food, a favorite of Melanie’s. The wine is called “26” in honor of when it was first conceived on her 26th birthday.

An affinity for all things wine clearly runs in the family.

Note: We tried this wine with spicy Thai curries and a spicy Hungarian paprika sauce. We can vouch that it was excellent with both. And at 7.50 €/bottle, it’s also very reasonably priced.

Ice Wine Passion

Reimond later came around with tall, slim bottles of schnapps, grappa and cognac. Melanie explained that in addition to this and everything else we’d tasted, her father also makes ice wine. After the harvest, he often leaves a few rows of grapes on the vine. For proper ice wine, grapes have to freeze and be picked at exactly –11 degrees Celsius.

It used to drive my mother crazy; the thermometer would always hit -11 Celsius — during the holidays. Family would be gathered around and my father would run into the fields to check on his frozen grapes. She tried to forbid my father from leaving fields for ice wine, but it didn’t work,” Melanie laughed.

Reimond later opened a bottle of ice wine from 1999. As he did, he explained why the grapes need to freeze and how the press process differs from ordinary wine. The amount of juice extracted from each raisin-like grape is miniscule. The result is something like the white wine equivalent of liquid gold. Sweet, not cloying. Like nectar, refined and meant to be appreciated in small doses.

As we sipped, Reimond was probably already thinking ahead as to whether this year’s conditions would be right.

With some hard work, maybe he’ll be lucky.

Photo Slideshow: Bavarian Wine Crush Weekend

If you don’t have a high-speed connection or you would like to read the captions, you can view our Bavarian Wine Crush Weekend photo essay.

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Comments

  1. says

    Regarding luck, we were talking to a couple we’re going to be house-sitting for the other day. They said people often tell them how lucky they are to have such a beautiful home – an old cottage in Wales they restored themselves. He said he’s fond of replying “Yes, the harder I worked the luckier I got!” That sounds about right.

  2. says

    @Michael: We have so many stories along the same lines from people we’ve met along our travels. I don’t think people always mean “lucky”. It just happens to be the easiest word at hand.

  3. says

    I do think that people often use lucky due to a lack of a better fitting word. But at the same time, I think that we’re kidding ourselves if we don’t credit luck a little. Sure, we’re not lucky in the lottery sense, but we’re lucky in the sense that we were born into circumstances that allow us to pursue opportunities that have outcomes that other people may deem as “lucky” (though, in fact, obtaining that outcome does require a lot of hard work). Unfortunately, a fair number of people aren’t “lucky” enough to even be in the position to be able to access the opportunity. No doubt I work hard for the things I have and have accomplished, but I am also lucky, lucky, lucky.

  4. says

    @Theresa:  True, there’s an element of random in every bit of success and failure.  Perhaps I’m a little too wrapped around words, but “fortunate” strikes me as a better balance as it credits the force of fortune while crediting the force of effort.

    I’m lucky to have my health and to have been in a position to make some of the choices I’ve made.  However, for the longest time my family and I didn’t really have the means to travel abroad.  So I didn’t travel until much later than most (26 years old).  Having said that, I realize there are countless others who begin with disadvantages so much greater than the ones I’ll ever know.  And I’m confident in saying that because of my upbringing I was aware of that before I ever traveled abroad.

    More broadly, what I was trying to get at in this piece was that professions loaded with apparent romantic allure (winemaking, restaurant business and traveling among them), I believe there’s an even greater tendency to write off more success to the winds of fortune instead of years of hard work and commitment.

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

    @Sarah: That’s a common angle on the fortune vs. working hard debate. I like the added distinction that Theresa’s comment (and my response) brings to the table. A bit gray, but more fair to luck and effort.

  5. Christine Lawson says

    Thank you for sharing this fine article and wonderful photos! I have been gathering the names from my ancestors and have discovered recently that our family is descended from the Johann Michael Rudisill family who came to America from Bavaria. This dates back to the early 1700′s. My husband and I plan to take a 50th anniversary trip to this country in 2014. Your story and photos have opened up a whole new idea for how I want to spend some of my time there.

  6. says

    @Christine: Congratulations on discovering your family roots. Glad to hear that you are coming to Bavarian Germany for your 50th anniversary and glad that our stories and photos have provided travel inspiration fodder. Sounds like a great plan. Any more questions, please let us know.

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