In the late 1980s, Ernst Loosen began shaking up Germany's winemaking traditions in the Mosel. First, he faced down a mutiny of vineyard workers who balked at doing things his way. Next, he ignored his neighbors's advice and kept his 100-year-old vines. Read Dorothy J. Gaiter's column on Ernst Loosen.
Dorothy J. Gaiter talks to Loosen about his pioneering path and the greatness of Riesling.
Dorothy J. Gaiter: Ernst Loosen, whose family has been making Riesling for 200 years under the Dr. Loosen name. Who was the original Dr. Loosen?
Ernst Loosen: That’s my dad. My father. The family is 200 years in the wine business, in the Mosel, but the estate was always passed on to a girl, and therefore, you can imagine in a very Catholic area, so the girl always takes on the husband’s name, you know. So with every generation the name changed with the husband, and I remember that's the reason I changed the name to Dr. Loosen, which was the last name on our family label.
But at some point in the mid 80s your father said that he needed you or your brothers or sisters to take over.
No. It was more the way my father became very, very sick. And it looked very, very difficult. To be frank, my father and my grandfather didn’t run the winery as a main business. In Europe, you know, you inherit something and you keep it. You keep it always in the family.
Politics were your dad and your granddad's thing.
Yes, actually, my father and my grandfather had been both members of parliament and my father was a lawyer and my grandfather was a CEO of a big industrial company, the Zeitz Company. But our family role in government goes back to the first parliament, 1848. Since then, there was always a member of parliament in the family. We are the first generation where nobody's a politician.
Is that right?
Nobody. No. Yeah. We grew up with politics. I don't know. You know how dirty it can be.
Well, everywhere. Everywhere. Your siblings volunteered you?
Oh, yes. My mother. When my father became very sick, she phoned us up, all of the kids and said, ‘your dad’s health is very, very, very bad and there seems to be no hope even that he will survive over Christmas, and so we have to find a solution here. I can't continue the wine estate anymore. It was always a burden for us, because your dad didn’t do it. I mean, as the main business.’ Her father didn't do it as a main business either. It was my great-grandfather, who died in 1938, who did it as a main business. So she said ‘if somebody wants to take it over I'm happy for anybody who wants to have it. Otherwise, I'm going to sell it.’
My mother was very tough. She said ‘first of November I have a buyer, so anybody who's standing up before the first of November can have it, otherwise, the first of November it's gone.’ And that was when my brothers and sisters told me ‘you have to take it, you studied archaeology, you'll never get a job. You're going on social welfare. We're not supporting you. You better take the winery. That way you’ll have a job’ and so I said, ‘yeah, I'm happy take it.’ They didn't want to lose it, because I mean, the winery is still the crystallization point for the whole family. Everybody's coming on Christmas, on Easter, on good Sunday. They're all coming and it's a big family, the nephews and nieces, my brothers and the other siblings. It's always very Italian-style.
So then you went to the best wine school in Germany.
Well, then I went to Geisenheim. Yes, exactly. Geisenheim is the only university for wine making and regard to management and so on, and yeah, well I was happy to take it over. It was not a good time. In 1988 I took over, 50 years after my great-grandfather’s time when it was a main business for him. The reputation of German wines in the 1980s suffered very much. Chardonnay was the big thing. The world was Chardonized in these days, you know, and Riesling was completely out of fashion. It was not a good time. A lot of wineries in these days had been going bankrupt, because they didn't have customers. The same with us. When I took over the winery, there was not a single customer there. My father sold all the wine in these days to the U.S. In 1983, '84, '85---100% to the US, because the dollar was very strong in these days.
German wines had been in fashion, the dollar was very strong, but then '86 came and the devaluation of the dollar was dramatic. Suddenly the dollar dropped from 3 mark 60 to 1 mark 40, so that means the price had tripled. Then, we had this horrible scandal in those days, the Austrian wine scandal. [The 1985, a number of Austrian wineries introduced into their sweet wines a toxic substance, an ingredient in antifreeze, to make the wines sweeter. Some of the wines were exported to Germany to be bottled in bulk there and some were illegally blended with German wines. When German wine laboratories discovered this, the wines were recalled, some Austrian and German people went to jail or paid stiff fines and the wines of both nations suffered in the market place for some time. In Austria strict laws were passed and the industry, to help put the scandal behind it, focused on dry wine production for a time.]
People didn't differentiate between Austria and Germany, ‘they all speak the same language,’ they said, so that was a bad time. So when I took over, there were no customers. We didn’t sell a single bottle of wine. I had to build the whole winery from scratch again, you know, with customers and so on.
Bernkasteler Lay Vineyard
But one of the things you did was to drastically cut the yield.
Yeah. Well, I mean, if you are under the pressure to reinvent yourself, you know, then you can think okay, what has been going wrong in the last decades. What do you have to do? What is it? And to be frank, that's a general principal. So to improve the quality, look at what you’ve got and improve the quality, and the base was there. I had vineyards, which had 100-year-old, ungrafted vines, the best resources to make great wines. So in thinking about what we had to do to make better wine, we reduced the yield in these days. We stopped fertilizing. We worked very pure, very simple.
My dad always told me about my great-grandfather, how he produced wine, dry wines. He left them very long in the barrel, up to two to three years in the barrel under full yeast and all-natural, yeast-fermented. Since I took over, we have been going back mainly to the roots, where we came from, basically to the time when Riesling from Germany had been the most expensive wines in the world, and that was around the turn of the century, the last century. Between 1880 and 1918, it was the most expensive wine in the world, Riesling, two to three times more expensive according to Berry Bros. & Rudd.
Is that right?
Oh, yeah. I mean, Berry Bros & Rudd is the oldest wine merchant in the world, you know. I once visited Simon Berry, the junior, and he took me to St. James Street where the shop is. A wonderful shop. He took me up into the library and said, "Ernst, I have to show you something." They have everything on file, what they sold the last 400 or 500 years. He took the old books out and said, "Look, Ernst, here 1911, from the Mosel. Look, two to three times expensive as Château Latour, Château Margaux, you know.
I didn't know that.
The Riesling in these days had been two to three times more expensive.
In the years that you've been in control, have your wine growing and agricultural practices changed? Have they changed much?
They've changed in a certain way, because first I told you when I took over, I inherited all these wonderful old vineyards. I mean, it's the only area which had never ever had been hit by a phylloxera and that is very, very rare in Germany. We are still a growing, wine growing area which was never hit by phylloxera [which can’t survive in the slate-rich soil.) That means our vines are on their original roots.
So it's ungrafted vines.
It's all ungrafted. All on their own roots. We have vineyards, which are 120, 130, 140-years old, you know, on their own roots, because they have never been grafted or pulled out. I always saw it, when I took over, as a huge asset, but in our country, the people say ‘oh, after 25 year the vines don't make enough ... they don't give enough yield anymore and then you have to plant new.’ Every 25 years they rip it out and plant new again for higher yields. I saw it as a big asset that we had old vines. Everybody when I took over said ‘oh, you have to plant now everything new. Your dad and your grandfather never planted anything, so you have to plant everything new. You will never succeed with that, because it's so expensive.’ I said what are these guys talking about? I mean, I have 100-year-old vines and that's the best thing in the world.
Never in my life will I experience this again if I plant new, and so I kept it. That was one of the most, for me, traumatic decisions, because everybody in the valley said, ‘oh, you have to plant new. You can't stay with the old vines.’ They don't bring enough fruit, you know, but they bring excellent fruit. They bring not enough fruit, but they bring excellent fruit.
Blue slate soil
Quality over quantity.
Quality, exactly. Then, we stopped fertilizing, because everybody had been fertilizing their grapes to increase the yield. We stopped fertilizing, only organic, I mean, material, you know. We have been keeping it as it is, to preserve what we had. That in the long term, gave us absolutely gorgeous plants, different wines than the others produce. We take still our own cuttings, you know, so we can control what we plant. We school them out and we still replant this very old material, which we take cuttings from the 120-year-old vines, school them out. They're very, very low vigor, you know. It's difficult to grow them. They need time. With other vines in the third year you get a huge yield. With our material, we are happy if we get the first little yield after five or six years, but this material adapts naturally to the fertility of the soil. We never have to adjust (green harvest), which is a wonderful thing. We lose more and more of these kind of things, old things of value. Why were there great wines in the old days? I'm wondering the whole time, while doing wine making like my great-grandfather did. I still use this old material.
I just had been talking to a French guy from Burgundy yesterday. He said, we totally comprehend you. I mean, all the vines we planted 20 to 25 years ago, they're all tiring now. They don't produce anymore. I mean, whatever they did in 20 to 25 years, I think they did too much with all the chemical fertilizers, with the selection of root stalks and so on, you know. It seems to have been going the wrong way. We see that we don't have this huge problem we have now in Europe. We all don't know what it is, but certain vines suddenly die, from one year to the other, boom, dead. Why? It was green yesterday and by now, five weeks later, dead. They don't know. They think it's coming from the nurseries. A funny thing. Me, with my old vines and my original good stuff, we don't have this problem at all.
We have to come back to the way that, you know, 2,000 years of wine making and wine growing on the Mosel, 2,000 years they didn't use fertilization. Why do we think that we have to do fertilization if they did it for 2,000 years with no fertilization? All these things. We have to go back more to this old thinking. To this, let it go. Let the nature do it itself a little bit more. Also with the wine making, it's exactly the same. These are all these things I implemented, you know, to find out what did they do 100 years ago. There must be a reason that these were the most expensive wines.
I mean, lousy quality, definitely in these days, wouldn't have made these prices.
They knew things, which we lost after two world wars and whatever, you know, and we lost things that we have to slowly to learn about it. My brother ... my brother, a real German, calculating everything, three digits behind the comma. I do all these things, and my brother says, "Do you know that we produce wine to sell it and not to lay it away." Because I lay it away. I mean, I have now 250,000 bottles of reserve wines in my cellar, and I said, oh let's put it away and let's see what it looks like in 10 or 15 years. I read that Goethe did something 250 years ago that was a fashion in Germany to keep wines 20 to 30 years in barrel. When I read it as a student ...
Erdener Treppchen Vineyards
I thought how can you keep wines for 20 to 30 years in barrel? They must be awful. They must be horrible, these wines, you know. After going to my dad, because that's something I told you, my dad wasn't very much interested in wine, I said, ‘can I have a barrel of wine?’ He said ‘take what you like.’ It was 1981 Wehlener Sonnenuhr, and I said look, this 81 we keep now. I kept it 28 years in barrel, nearly 28 years. I bottled it the end of 2008. It was an '81, and so we put it away and it was a little bit kind of like a…how do you say a cider? And then I tasted it again now after 5, 6, 7 years again, and the wine becomes younger and younger and younger.
What is this movie, the story of Benjamin ...Benjamin Button. He ages backwards.
All of this wine ... I call it my Benjamin Button wine, you know. Every year the wine tastes fresher and fresher. I thought this is ridiculous. What is going on here? This 1981, I think we show it tomorrow in the seminar ... I'm not allowed to sell it because the German law doesn't allow these kinds of things, you know, so it's only an experimental wine, but these things are of interest. What did people do in the past and what was the idea behind it?
In those days, things had been much slower. People had much more time. Nowadays everything has to be fast, fast, fast, fast, but I think we have to come back to this going slow, like the slow food movement. We have to get slower. We have to find out. This whole thing now doing wines like my great-grandfather, leaving it long on the lees and under full yeast, maturing it under full yeast. So we have to find out in the next 50 years what happens. My brother again goes, “oh, Lord, this is a 50-year experiment?” I said ‘yeah, because you can't find out in one or two years. We need to know it. It's possibly my very last project. The same with my sparkling wine. I keep my sparkling wines 25 years on the yeast. I wanted to find out and they're wonderful.
I have all these ideas, but I don’t like wine that’s orange, like from the times when the Romans made wine. I find it a little bit strange. People want to tell me I should drink the wine that’s orange, this kind of oxidized wine. ‘Oh, this is the real thing as they did it in the old days,’ they say. Even the Romans hated these wines, because they cooked them with honey and herbs and other things to improve the taste...
All these things to disguise the oxidation.
... to get this horrible taste away. Then, the people nowadays, some of them tell me now ‘oh, this is the real McCoy.’ Sorry. Ask the Romans how they hated these wines, you know. I'm more interested in historical wine making. I mean, the last 100 to 200 years, you know, from the days when these Riesling wines enjoyed high reputations. What made them worthy of such high reputations? There must be something right that my great-grandfather did, but certainly I never met him.
What happened to American wine drinkers and Riesling? Why isn't it more popular here?
It was in the late 80s, early 90s, when the world changed very much to popularize wines like Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. There seems to be always something in favor and out of favor here in this country. Suddenly something takes off like a rocket. It was possibly in the early 90s, the first thing was Chardonnay and then Sauvignon Blanc in favor, then this big boom about Pinot Noir.
Then I’ll say since the early 2000s, slowly Riesling gained back ground, and it was with the sophisticated diner. The food changed. Food is very important to how wine trends change, you know. With this all more versatile food, east meet west now, Pacific Rim food, more lighter cuisine, not as heavy. Suddenly you need different wines, more delicate wines, not over extracted wines but delicate wines, wines with finesse.... I mean, we never had a problem with the journalists. The journalists always loved it and the high-end wine drinkers, they always loved it. It was more a problem with, say, with the average consumer, because I think the versatility of Riesling puts a lot of people off. Because they don't know what they’re getting. Is it dry or is it sweet or is low alcohol or is it high alcohol.
It is beautiful that you have so many options with Riesling. There's no other great variety in the world, which has this kind of versatility that you can choose a wine, a bone dry, medium dry, sweet, low alcohol, high alcohol. I mean, you have all these options. Riesling responds to the particular terroir of the region, you know. You can have a more earthy style. You can have a fruity style. That is like Pinot noir. It is a beautiful variety, but it seems that if you want to drink Riesling, you need a little bit of knowledge. You need a background. That is something totally different if you have a Pinot Grigio, you know, I mean, Pinot Grigio is always the same, you know, and so people say it's a simple wine, and for the average drinker, ‘oh give me a Pinot Grigio’ then he knows what he got. He doesn't have to think about it.
I have to say in the last 10 years, Riesling made a real renaissance in this country. Over the last 10 years, Riesling was growing every year, you know, with five to ten and even more percent. This year it was the first time flat, but I think Riesling gained back a certain popularity with certain consumers. The worldwide production of Riesling is tiny in comparison to Chardonnay or to Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio. We are small. It's a niche, great variety still, but I think we are successful in the niche. I'm happy with that.
Well in '88, you took over the family business, and the very next year one of your wines was named Wine of the Year. How did that make you feel?
I can tell you ... yeah. It was the best. With the Der Feinschmecker, which is our best and most recognized wine magazine. That was a huge help, I tell you. I mean, it was ... it is not that easy, to start from scratch again, and to make your name, to build your name. It's a lot of work, and we have been working a lot.
Your siblings probably thought that they were right. Give it to Ernst to do it.
A lot of people had been betting on me that I would go bankrupt in between two and three years, and so they all have lost the bet, at least. That was a big help, to win this prize being best Riesling of Germany, best dry Riesling of Germany and it was publicized, and some people asked, ‘who is this guy?
You were also Decanter magazine’s “Man of the year” in 2005.
Yes. I think in the long term, the people really recognize what we’re doing, but it is long term. Here in this country, things have to be much faster. We have another winery in Oregon, Appassionata, and here you have to write a business plan for three years and then it's done. In Germany and Europe we say, God, we need at least 10 years' time to make it happen. Here, the bankers want it in three years. I always say to my lawyer, how does this work, I mean three years? I mean, sorry, I'm 35 years in the business. I know how long it takes to build up a reputation. You can't build up a reputation in three years and make something happen. People have a different idea here. These bankers have a lot different ideas.
Bankers always have a different idea.
It takes time. You have to be aware, you start something and to build up a reputation you need ten years' time. You have to focus on the quality. You have to focus and you have to be straight, you know, don't make compromises, you know, being straight. Then people in the long term will discover it. People will see it. I mean, this whole marketing ... I'm not a big guy. These people, they celebrate themselves mostly, themselves. They think there's this magic powder that you put out there and then things happen, a nice label, a nice bottle, and a little bit of powder here, a little magic powder there. Be serious. Choose to make good wine. Choose serious wine and being straight, and then the people will slowly discover it. They will see it. Word of mouth recommendations, that is most serious way to get your wines known, not all this kind of gimmicky stuff.
The Belz vines and soil, Villa Wolf
Now, Pinot Noir is another love of yours.
Oh, yes. Absolutely. Pinot Noir and Riesling for me are the twins, the red and white twins for me. They have so much in common. Riesling is a cool climate variety. Pinot Noir is a cool climate variety. They both need the right terroir to make great wine. Both are food driven in the beginning. I mean, Riesling can be stone food. Pinot Noir in the beginning is cherry or raspberry or whatever, you know. Then, both wines after three or four years go into this kind of different phase, this kind of depression. I always call them, I say they become a teenager. It's very difficult.
They go into this teenager stage where you really hate them. You can't drink them then. Then after 10 or 15 years they come into ... they get adult, you know. Then they achieve this beautiful secondary life. If you have an old Riesling, I mean, I’m talking old, 40 or 50 years old, and a 40 or 50-year-old Pinot Noir from Burgundy, they have the same aroma structure. What the French call “the floor of the forest,” or sol de la forêt, the mushroom scent. They have so many things in common. I think if you are a Riesling lover you must love Pinot Noir and the other way around. That's the reason my favorite red variety and red grape variety is the Pinot Noir. I finally got my dream come true as we all know, but not with my own vineyard in Burgundy. If you look to the prizes and the French laws, ah, stay away. [Instead Loosen Bros. USA. import company has a Burgundy producer in its portfolio.]
So you're doing it in Oregon.
In Oregon. I finally found a partner in Oregon where we partnered up with J. Christopher in the Willamette Valley. Jay is also here today, and he started his business as a little winery in 1996, you know, so the typical American Dream. With $3,000 dollars in the pocket, and he bought a ton of fruit and produced his first 100 to 200 cases of wine. Four or eight barrels, and produced his first 100 to 200 cases of wine, beautiful wines. I still have one and I think two years ago, he opened his first '96, a wonderful wine. And this guy is very European. That's the reason we became very friendly.
He is possibly for me the most European Pinot Noir producer in Oregon. He goes not high in alcohol. He’s going versatile. He over barrels, 18 months, 20 months in the barrel, no fining, no filtration. Very, very old style, old Burgundy thinking, you know. All bio-dynamic philosophy idea. He's producing this. Not certified. He looks for honest expressions of the soil, that's three AVAs and the three AVAs really show the soil, the area, you know, and that's the German or the European thinking. So I don't want to have Pinot Noir that tastes too high in alcohol. We want the elegance. The traditional Pinots are elegant, and if you look to old Burgundies, color is not important, color is not important, but in this country color is so important. But Pinot Noir has nothing to do with color. It doesn't need color to be great.
You're making Pinot Noir at Villa Wolf as well?
Yes. Villa Wolf is our second love. It's on the Rhine River. It's about 100 miles southeast from us, and I always wanted to do Pinot in the Pfalz. Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc I love these varieties. Pinot Noir is a beautiful variety but I didn't want to do it on the Mosel, because the Mosel has a 200-year tradition for Riesling, and I don't want to do something in an area, which has no tradition for these great wines, but the Rhine River has a very long tradition for it. I think it was Charles the Bold, a French King, who brought it 1,000 years ago, the Pinot Noir to the Lake Constance, and there the Pinot vineyards have been moving up along the Rhine River and down the Rhine River and so the Rhine River has a very long tradition for Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc.
In 1996, I found a wonderful old historic estate, the Villa Wolf estate, beautiful, oh, absolutely gorgeous, old Italian style villa, which was built by the previous owners in 1842 or something like that. We found it, we took it on, and then we started to produce Pinot Noir there, Pinot Blanc, and Pinot Gris. Gewürztraminer also is a very traditional variety on the Rhine River as is Riesling. Riesling belongs to Germany. If there's anything that belongs to Germany, it's Riesling, also to the Rhine River, but the Rhine River also supports Pinot Noir.
We were very successful, I must say, with the Pinot Noir. Germany was until two years ago, Germany was the second largest Pinot Noir producer of the world, always.
The Villa Wolf Estate
Always. After Burgundy, it was always Germany who was the second largest Pinot Noir producer in the world, but then Sideways, the movie, changed the world. Since Sideways, there was so much Pinot Noir planted in this country that two years ago, the US took over being the second largest producer of Pinot Noir with a few hundred acres more than Germany. Germany is still nearly as big as the US, but now the third largest. Germany is big. There's a huge Pinot Noir production in Germany.
Loosen Bros. is distributing the wines from Villa Wolf and Dr. Loosen as well as some other German wine estates, and a Burgundy producer, Nicolas Potel's new Burgundy négociant company, Maison Roche de Bellene. It is accessible, really, I mean, we saw in the last three years, that suddenly we also gained a little bit of a reputation as German producers for Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir, but Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris are growing every year in this country. We're selling more and more every year here.
That's good. And it has also something to do ... we have a lot of Pinot Noir in Germany, a lot, and the prices are very reasonable, the prices are very reasonable. In Germany we don't gain the prices as we gain the price for Pinot Noir from Oregon in this country, so from that point of view ... I was just in Miami and I've been in really high end regions and so we quote the wine and the people said, "Wow, really. This is only 10 dollars?"
"Only 10 dollars and this is a Pinot Noir." And the people pour the wine by the glass. Pinot Noir are so expensive by the glass and we can still offer wine by the glass, 10 to 12 dollars.
It is fantastic. A good wine also over barrel, 18 months of barrel and everything.