Schloss Leader: A Business Strategy?

Wolfsburg_VW-WerkHaving worked in Wolfsburg for a number of years, I can tell you that whereas I respect the technological traditions and cultural chutzpah of Germany—which, incidentally, was cool enough to name a major city after me—there is still a certain undead spirit of annoying superiority hovering over the people.

So annoying, in fact, that I frequently had to remind know-it-all engineers at Volkswagen where we stood in terms of the score:

Two to nothing.

Schloss Sauce Bears a Cross

Rheingau vineyards

Rheingau vineyards

As much as I joke about the Aryan race, though, I do take their wine seriously.  The lengths that this frosty fraternity of frenetic Franks has gone to grow grapes amid the Rhine Valley’s shivery shale is astounding.  And they’ve been improving it for millennia, to the point where it is often (and erroneously) said that Germans make only one kind of wine, but they do it better than anyone else.

For sure, they do riesling better than anybody else, and considering that they make two-thirds of the world’s supply, they should.  I might entertain argument from people who do not have German metropoli named after them who are fans of riesling from Alsace, but I’d counter it by saying that Alsace is, in fact, part of Germany depending on which way the wind is blowing.

Australia’s Grosset, Finger Lakes’ Hermann J Wiemer Vineyards, the Wachau’s F. X. Pichler and of course, my Northern Michigan buddies produce some class product, no question.  But, alas, not really in the same league as Rheingau’s Robert Weil or Nahe’s Doennhoff.

So whenever a German winemaker finds that the egg in the fining is now on his face, it is a sad day in Vintopia—especially when it is a hallowed estate like Schloss Schönborn, which has been making wine since 1349.

Last year, the German equivalent of the BATF discovered a couple of problems with Schönborn product—namely, a suspicious alcohol level in the Rheingau estate wines (potentially from illegal must concentrations; cryo-extraction, in other words) and a blend of reds from different regions, known under Verband Deutscher Prädikats (VDP) law as Übergebietlicher Verschnitt.

Both are verboten.

Tabula Rasa

Peter Barth, pre-exile

Peter Barth, pre-exile

The Germans have refined their methodology for dealing with those who would upset the grape cart, but shamed former Director of Wine Peter Barth learned that if you work for the SS, whether it is the Schutzstaffel or Schloss Schönborn, you need to keep your nose very, very clean.  ‘Tabula Rasa’ does not mean ‘Master Race’, but it does mean ‘blank slate’ and has nothing to do with the legendary blue-gray soils of the region.  It has to do with the purge of personnel that followed the revelations.

Protecting nearly seven centuries of reputation, the Count of Schönborn dumped 20,000 unsold bottles, offered to buy back every potentially ‘manipulated’ wine and exiled Barth—who had won the Garth Millau ‘Wine Director of The Year’ award in 2009—to Bad Dürkheim, where he now Cellar Master at Fitz-Ritter.

Rockin’ Röll

Another German tradition that has not yet caught on in the United States is the sort of unwritten rule that a new hire never bad mouth the reputation of his predecessor, unless you happen to the POTUS.  Schönborn’s new wine director Steffen Röll was immediately on a röll, hatin’ on Barth with his head-shaking and tsk tsking:  “What he did was absolutely not okay and I still can’t understand what his motive was…”

'I've got my eye on you, Röll.'

‘I’ve got my eye on you, Röll.’

I suspect that Röll knows exactly what Barth’s motive was, and will make very sure not to fall into the same temptation lest he find himself in a work cellar on the Eastern Front.

Meanwhile, I will continue to monitor the situation of these dirty rascals from my position on high as King of the Kassel.

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