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!

Monday, June 07, 2010

Thorsten Melsheimer is a giant. He looks like a rugby player. He looks like a guy who could pull trees (or grapevines) right from the earth with his bare hands. He lives in the village of Reil, a hamlet nestled into the narrow northern Mosel, as far as I can tell the prettiest part of southwestern Germany. His surroundings magnify the impression that Thorsten is a mythical force that lumbered in from the wilderness, stepping over hillsides and knocking together the skulls of people that got in his way.

Nice guy, though. Thank god. He could do some damage. Soft spoken, with a finely developed and slightly black sense of humor. He is a man that cannot be extricated from his environment. Our travels with Thorsten began in a dark, wood-paneled tasting room whose walls were covered in huge trophy antlers. Five generations ago his family became winemakers: before they were professional hunters. Later, in the farcically damp, dark and low-ceillinged cellar under his home, it became clear that the man is ensconced in a place that could be a movie set environmental representation of his physical and intellectual character. The cellar is a classic old-style space with mold on every surface, a cellar constructed entirely from wood and stone where hopefully Thorsten works wearing a hard-hat. Centuries old, nevertheless it seemed built around him.

Hiking a tiny vineyard road to the top of the Mullay Hofberg, as smaller men (employees) struggled to pull baskets full of rocks up a vineyard with a 60+ degree grade as cool fog rolled over northern hills to blanket thousands of staked Riesling vines, it was perfectly clear that the biology and character of Thorsten are hewn from necessity. I would be hesitant to walk through much less work in these perilous vineyards. This place made Thorsten Melsheimer, and in return he maintains it as a viable entity in a slowly vanishing landscape. His dark humor, wry smile and even demeanor are constructed to weather the facts. Thorsten does not believe what he does is necessarily viable. He makes organic wine from the best, steeply terraced vineyards above Reil. This is brutally slow and labor intensive. He needs 14 workers to harvest 1,800 bottles of wine per day from his vineyards, meticulously making selections and sub-selections of the best fruit. In 1970 the Melsheimer estate was 5 hectares farmed by 12 full-time, year-round workers. Today it is 12 hectares and Thorsten is the only full-time laborer, with seasonal help added as needed when it can be afforded. He charges more than neighboring estates that farm conventionally, or work in the relatively flat fields on the "wrong side" of the Mosel. He is quietly unmovable from a course that leads to truly excellent and deeply, essentially German wines.

But Thorsten does express chagrin at the deception and unfairness in today's German marketplace. Some of his peers even use pictures of Melsheimer's immaculate, terraced and vertigo-inspiring vineyards to promote sales of their wines grown around Reil. They undercut his prices and take an easier path, one that he fears ultimately unwinds the reputation for quality that was always assigned to the wines of his native land. What is the source of his pessimism? What is at stake? In 1970 there were 70 wineries in Reil. Today there are 20, and Thorsten believes one-third of those remaining will not be passed down to the next generation. Great sites have been abandoned. Which is fuel for Melsheimer, who already has plans to rehabilitate another outstanding, unworked vineyard high above his home. But as important vineyards are forgotten, the unique beauty of this place becomes fainter.

As time ran out on the first day of the visit to Melsheimer, after tasting from seemingly every 1000 liter wooden barrel in the very cold and wet underground and seeing all the prefunctory checklist items on a standard professional (probably amateur, too) winery tour (arcane equipment, very old bottles to ooh-aah over, esoteric distillates) we sat around a kitchen table, quietly munching local venison sausage at the beginning of what would become a week-long unrelenting charcouterie fest. And we tasted Melsheimer's bottled wines. Dry, half-dry, sweet: everything was true and honest, simply good. Real. His great site is the Reiler Mullay Hofberg, and several older sub-parcel bottlings are worth trying, particularly the Pfefferberg.

The next morning we walked to the top of the Hofberg and tasted Melsheimer's dessert wines. These wines are good in the morning, even if drinking them is colored by a sadness at how utterly non-commercial they are. Their beauty stands outside of any sort of typical mercantile relationship. Put another way: I am glad Thorsten allows these wines to be exactly as they are. I have emotional desire to sell them, and drink them. But there is no real commerce around Trockenbeerenauslese harvested with 380 grams of residual sugar (38% of the wine is sugar) and 12 grams per liter of total acidity. Watching the Mosel go by on a foggy morning in May, the wine is utterly perfect.

Go visit. The guest house is beautifully old-world and uneven, a winding collection of rooms apparently designed by a team of smurf architects. It is the Mosel at its best, a sleepy, comfortable dwelling surrounded by winding stone streets and innumerable possibilities for hiking, biking, floating down the river.... And Thorsten's wines are perfect refreshments for a mid-day picnic during your excursions.


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