The Wine Drinker

This is the Dead Letter Office of my wine writing. These stories ended up not fitting on our company's Facebook page (Piedmont Wine Imports) or website,, for reasons that I think are clear once you scroll through a few posts. Less professional musings, impressions that ultimately never got past the rough prototype stage. Um... enjoy!

Thursday, October 19, 2006

My appointment at JJ Prum fell on one of only two gray days during the stretch of September I spent in German wine country. The town of Wehlen was pretty in spite of the elements: swans loitered under the bridge that spans the Mosel, and the threatening sky framed and heightened the large charcoal-gray brick Prum residence. Maybe it was weather made-to-order for the experience: their entrance hall may have seemed a bit incongruous on a warm, sunny afternoon, but the collection of massive antlers (from stags that must have been mythical in proportion) and yellowing antique maps, displayed in a room of verdant antique emerald tile seemed like a natural transition from the clouds, raw wind and general ominousness brewing outside.

The flavors of the best Prum wines, and they are products that tend to range from above-average to overwhelming in quality, share this outsized, mythic aspect. They taste of nature but with a range, scope and intensity of flavor that seem to seep in from another world, a Borges or Grimm or Beowolf reality whose distorted boundaries allow for a surreal vibrancy in the yellow liquid presented by the Prums. In their tastefully Old World sitting room flavors explode from the glass, overwhelm the palate, break through to senses other than taste and smell. This may sound scary, perhaps even unpleasant, and that's not true, at least once the wines are 2-3 years old. I think we're used to experiencing 50 or 80 or 90 percent of what's possible from a sensation in nature, so that when we get 100 percent of a thing, its completeness and purity and the total awareness of being alive that such a taste (or sight or sound or combination of senses depending on the medium in which an experience occurs) brings shocks us with an intensity that seems supernatural, outside of life, when it is actually just the maximum of life. As if an orchestra played an inspired version of your favorite symphony in a room possessing perfect acoustics. Or to be less grand, it is the experience of biting through the flesh of a peach picked by your hand from a tree planted on a sunny slope in South Carolina, on its last day of perfect ripening. Sometimes everything aligns and experience is total. Good or bad.

(So) The wines at Prum are like that. Magnificent. Awesome. The vineyards are magnificent - Wehlener Sonnenuhr, Graacher Himmelreich, Berncastler Badstube, all steep from the Mosel at intervals of a few kilometers, all saying different things about its sun and soil. Thankfully the Prums themselves are human in scale, affable, welcoming. Manfred is a little intimidating despite his joviality, but we're spending most of our afternoon with Katharina Prum, who is modest, intellectually engaging, bright in a way that seems to have led to an awareness of her family's role in these wines. She's lucky, and she knows it. Happily she (and her father) leave grandiosity for inside the bottle.

We tasted wines in their living room/parlor, a great old room full of portraits of unsmiling Prums long gone, and antique furniture whose long residence in the space has created a comfortable organic sense of belonging. Katharina offers levelheaded analysis of the wines we tasted: 1984 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Kabinett, an 04 then an 03 Graacher Himmelreich Spatlese, then an assortment of very young 2005s. The wines are great, the experience was great, and after a generous amount of her time I go home happily clutching a bottle of 1995 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Auslese. I leave feeling I understand the context of their wines, at least a little.

Epilogue: And now for the bad stuff. A general gripe about "other Americans." The only blemish on our visit to Prum was the appearance of an oblivious American wine broker, the kind of person that is a sad blight on my profession. You think I exaggerate. We all have flaws, goofy wine pretentions that make us hard to be around at times. So my examples. Our companion explained at length to Katharina his plans to grey market her wines, including the purchase of some number of cases of Prum wine from sources she said they had never sold wine to and indeed had never heard of. Our absurdly polite host deflected or smirked through his clueless business banter, occasionally suggesting the American buy more products with consistency from her regular US importers, of which there are several, and build a relationship with them in order to gain larger allocations. In essence, play by the rules. The wine peddler then attempted clumsily to suggest she could sell directly to him, and when that (hair-brained) business plan went nowhere he tried to coerce Katharina into selling him - wait for it - a solid case of 1976 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Auslese, to replace the one from his private collection he claimed to have sold for a tidy profit! She said they had little left. It was sad and embarassing. Where do we breed these rubes? This man ostensibly makes money selling wine and he apparently knows next to nothing about it. And has the tact of a seedy corporate wheeler-dealer. I'm no Jancis Robinson and my manners have been known to waver, but come on. . . .A slight blemish on a happy afternoon. Next Time: We're off to Monchhof, Karthauserhofberg, the Franken, Hessiche-Bergstrasse. . . .

JJ Prum Tasting Notes:
1984 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Kabinett - Bright and dry, only tastes to tastes a little aged with some aeration. Bright yellow straw color. Amazing. I thought it was a 1998!

2004 Graacher Himmelreich Spatlese - Aromatically tight/unevolved, but on the palate it's already all peaches and apricots. This wine would be a good study in weight/brightness balance for newcomers to German wine.

2003 Graacher Himmelreich Spatlese - You can taste the weight of the vintage. Very juicy. Ripe. Still a little closed aromatically. Definitely could use another 12 months in bottle. Faintly corked? Some lychee and vanilla, which is odd because the wine sees no wood.

2005 Berncastler Badstube Spatlese - Some sulfur on the nose but great bright citrus fruit. So very fresh.

2005 Graacher Himmelreich Spatlese - Really incredible balance and vibrancy. Light Auslese weight but still has an elegance. Fun to drink already. May be my favorite of the group.

2005 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Auslese - Gets ripe in a fruit/gum way. Lychee. Soft, round. Almost cloys. Certainly opulent.