Are you curious about German-speaking wines and which ones you should try? Why is biodynamic winemaking particularly important for viticulture? What’s the real difference between natural wine and biodynamic wine?
In this episode of the Unreserved Wine Talk podcast, I’m interviewing journalist and co-founder of TRINK magazine, Valerie Kathawala.
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- What was it like to be a German translator at the UN in the time of the Iraq War?
- How did Valerie’s interest in language – German in particular – develop?
- What was the catalyst for Valerie to start her wine journey?
- How did Valerie’s lifelong love of storytelling and writing show up before her wine career?
- What made a writing trip to visit Rudi Tossen in the Mosel region of Germany the highlight of Valerie’s wine career so far?
- What was the most painful mistake of Valerie’s wine career so far?
- How does Valerie find the balance between connecting with people to get the story while asking the hard questions?
- What is biodynamic winemaking and why is it particularly important for viticulture?
- How do biodynamic practices offer some protection against climate change?
- What are some common misconceptions about biodynamics?
- Why is biodynamic farming an empowering tool for growers?
- Where did biodynamic viticulture come from?
- What are the characteristics of German-speaking wines?
- How do you know when you have a great story?
- What was Valerie surprised to learn about the natural wine scene in the Mosel?
- What’s the difference between natural wine and biodynamic wine?
- Which German estate played an important role in the resistance movement during World War II?
- How did a labour scandal spotlight poor practices in the natural wine industry?
- I loved how she described German-speaking wines as sharing a certain mindset, tradition and values, grape varieties, winemaking approaches, geography, and climate.
- I agree with her that biodynamic winemaking provides an excellent framework for wine growers to keep vines in equilibrium to stay healthy.
- Her explanation of the differences between natural wine and biodynamic wine was insightful.
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Biodynamics provides an excellent framework for wine growers to keep vines in equilibrium to stay healthy. - Valerie Kathawala Click to tweet
Biodynamic growers feel their practices give them tools that will be protective against climate change. - Valerie Kathawala Click to tweet
German-speaking wines share a certain mindset, tradition and values, grape varieties, winemaking approaches, geography, and climate. - Valerie Kathawala Click to tweet
About Valerie Kathawala
Valerie Kathawala is a freelance journalist focused on the wines of Germany, Austria, South Tyrol, and Switzerland, with a particular interest in biodynamics. She’s a lifelong student of German culture and language and has lived and worked in both Germany and Austria. She crossed over from translation and editorial work at the United Nations to writing about “German-speaking wines” and hasn’t looked back since. Valerie’s work appears in the pages of SevenFifty Daily, Meininger’s Wine Business International, WineFolly, and Grape Collective, among others. In 2020, she co-founded TRINK magazine, which she now edits and contributes to regularly as a writer and translator. She lives in New York City with her husband and three children.
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Natalie MacLean 0:00
What do you mean by German speaking wines?
Valerie Kathawala 0:03
Its wines from countries where German is either the main language or one of the main languages. More broadly, it’s a certain mindset, a certain share of tradition and values, grape varieties, winemaking approaches geography climate that these regions Germany, Austria, this little corner of northern Italy, and the eastern part of Switzerland all share.
Natalie MacLean 0:28
Is there a style that runs through them? Is it like the edgy acidity or
Valerie Kathawala 0:34
These are all cool climate regions. And acidity is a hallmark native grapes that maybe don’t shine on the international stage quite as brightly. It’s this commitment to craft and tradition at a very high level so far less industrial winemaking. Far more small growers who have been working this way for generations.
Natalie MacLean 1:05
Do you have a thirst to learn about wine? Do you love stories about wonderfully obsessive people, hauntingly beautiful places, and amusingly awkward social situations? Well, that’s the blend here on the Unreserved Wine Talk podcast. I’m your host, Natalie Maclean. And each week, I share with you unfiltered conversations with celebrities in the wine world, as well as confessions from my own tipsy journey as I write my third book on this subject. I’m so glad you’re here. Now pass me that bottle please. And let’s get started. Welcome to Episode 200. 200 baby. Are you curious about German speaking wines and which ones you should try? Why is biodynamic winemaking particularly important for viticulture? And what’s the real difference between natural wine and biodynamic wine? You’ll hear those tips and stories in my chat with Valerie Kathawala, co founder of the Wine Magazine TRINK. Now on a personal note before we dive into the show with a continuing story of publishing my new wine memoir Wine Witch on Fire: Rising from the Ashes of Divorce, Defamation, and Drinking Too Much. So last week, I shared with you the which cover concept won on the voting. I loved how there were so many different interpretations of the fire under the glass, the wine glass in particular. So opposing. The scientific purists who said that the fire couldn’t be contained under a glass for lack of oxygen. There were those who believed that only someone with magical powers, maybe a witch could sustain those flames. Others said it was symbolic of keeping your inner fire burning even when life gets difficult. While some believe that it’s important to contain an out of control configuration with the tools that you have. Then there were those who swore that they could see the profile of a woman rising in the flames, a hidden figure. And one woman said she spotted the fiery corkscrew right away. So I guess what you see depends on who you are just as what you take away from reading the book. So I’ll share a review with you now from Megan Hayes, who was a beta reader from Melbourne, Australia, “but a stellar read this was like a phoenix from the ashes. This gives women the gift of inner strength and courage to face their biggest fears and give the all too common online trolls no attention. I’m so proud of Natalie’s evolution and this book reads like a modern woman’s fairy tale of forever after love success and satisfaction. A definite must read even for a wine novice. I inhaled this book within mere hours of starting it. And I hope it’s on everyone’s wish list. Five stars” Thank you, Megan. It made my day. I’ve posted a link to a blog post called Diary of a Book Launch in the show notes at Natalie MacLean.com/200. This is where I share more behind the scenes stories about the journey of taking this memoir from idea to publication. If you want a more intimate, insider seat beside me on this journey, please let me know that you’d like to become a beta reader and get a sneak peek at this manuscript. Email me at [email protected] So thanks to you. This is the 200th episode of the podcast. I so appreciate all of your emails and good wishes recently about this so let me know which topics and people you’d love to listen to in the next 200 episodes. Okay on with the show.
Natalie MacLean 4:59
Valerie Kathawala is a freelance journalist focused on the wines of Germany, Austria, South Tyrol in Italy, and Switzerland with a particular interest in biodynamics. Very interesting and specific focus she’s got here. She’s a lifelong student of German culture and language and has lived and worked in both Germany and Austria. She crossed over from translation and editorial work at the United Nations to writing about, as I said, German speaking wines and hasn’t looked back since. Valerie’s work appears in the pages of SevenFiftyDaily, Meininger’s Wine Business International, Wine Folly, and Grape Collective among many others. In 2020, she co-founded TRINK magazine, which she now edits and contributes to regularly as a writer and translator. She lives in New York City with her husband and three children. She joins us now from New York City. Hello, Valerie. Hello, Natalie. Great to have you here with us. Thank you for coming on and chatting with us about these interesting topics.
Valerie Kathawala 6:00
Delighted to be here.
Natalie MacLean 6:01
Cool. All right. So let’s start with you worked at the United Nations as a German translator. So tell us what was that like? What were you doing there? And it must have been kind of a heady experience.
Valerie Kathawala 6:14
It was. This was between 2001 and 2005. So under the administration of Gerhard Schroeder. That’s Angela Merkel’s predecessor. And you’ll remember, this was the time of the Iraq War. And Germany was working to try to get the United States not to go to war. So it was a very interesting time to be a little bit behind the scenes. You know, that job as a translator sometimes had me translating diplomats parking ticket appeals, but other times translating. That’s funny, too. Saddam Hussein’s bunker. So it really ran the gamut. There were so many interesting insights. I was in the Security Council Room when Colin Powell made his fateful claim that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and we had to go get them. So yeah, heady times, indeed.
Natalie MacLean 7:06
Wow, that’s fascinating. I just love parking tickets to the bunker. Yeah, you covered the gamut there. So what drew you to languages? And why German in particular?
Valerie Kathawala 7:17
That’s a good question. I have to think about that a bit myself. But I certainly was a lover of reading and storytelling from a very early age. And I think anybody who grows up with reading as their main pastime can’t help but fall in love with language. I did have some German connection. My grandfather was born and raised in Germany and left in 1933 for New York, not as a religious refugee, but an economic one as Germany was going through the horrible way that the Great Depression played out there. But turned out to be a lucky move for him. And so he died when I was young. But there was always this kind of fascination I had with why was Germany in so many ways so lauded for its scientific and cultural achievements, and yet had performed the, you know, committed the worst atrocities in modern human history. And as always trying to kind of reconcile those things, thinking of myself a little bit as German because I had a German last name before I got married. So I need to tease it out as part of my own finding my own identity. And actually the first language I studied, not by choice, but in middle school was Spanish and I was terrible at it. I mean, I think, Oh, really, if you’re gonna predict the future for me, I would not have been in languages based on Spanish. But then later in high school, I had the opportunity to study German and then it just clicked like Lego bricks. Just snap, snap, snap. I mean, there’s something very, very logical about the German language. And I think that just appealed to a certain part of my brain. So look back from there.
Natalie MacLean 8:45
Oh, wow. Yeah. And they talk about things that are passed on through DNA. I don’t know if this is scientific. It could be a lot of hooey. But maybe you had a generational aptitude for the German language because of your ancestry. But who knows? That’s really interesting, though. Yeah, who knows? Yeah, anyway, like to speculate without any proof here. So then, how did you get into wine from translating?
Valerie Kathawala 9:10
That was really completely separate from German initially. I would say it’s really my husband’s fault.
Natalie MacLean 9:17
Always good to blame the husband. Yes.
Valerie Kathawala 9:21
I was perfectly happy in my 20s drinking Yellow Tail and other pretty industrial mass market wines until I met him, and he’d grown up in a wine loving family. And so when we started dating, he showed me the finer side of wines, and it didn’t take long for me to see how much more pleasurable that all was. This was the time when we were first dating. This was time when the ’85 vintage in Bordeaux was the big hype. And so we started getting into Bordeaux and then we shifted from there into Italian wine. But then came the 2001 vintage for Riesling in Germany, and my husband has German family as well and grew up going to Germany. So the two of us just zeroed in on Riesling. And we’re both really into cooking and food. And so we think it’s just the ultimate friendly wine. So it was all coming together and kind of a perfect storm. However, I was not involved in wine professionally at all. At that point, I would still work as a translator and an editor. And then in 2005, we had the first of what would be our three children. And I stepped back from the working world to raise them. My youngest child was going off to kindergarten full time. I said, this is it. This is when I get to draw the plans for my future. And that’s going to kind of pull three personal passions and loads together the writing, German, and wine. And so I went on to do my WSET studies, and really am very much self taught through the medium of podcasts. I listen to podcasts like Dolphins All Drink to That and many others just on repeat. When they were over my head, I just listened again and again. Again, I looked up the terms I didn’t understand in books. And yeah, just sort of sheer scrappiness and fascination, taught myself, but I wanted to know.
Natalie MacLean 11:13
Wow. I love that. I love that story. And was sometimes one time for you.
Valerie Kathawala 11:16
Yes, that was often one time for me when my kids were very little. And it was you spend the afternoon at the sandbox in the playground or wherever and then you slept them all home, plunk them in the tub, and you can safely supervise them, there was the perfect time for me to pour myself a glass of wine. And, you know, of course, that’s like, a nice way to unwind at the end of the day. But it quickly became much more than that. I kept thinking what’s happening in this glass. Why then, later after they’d all gone to bed, do reading and research. And so that was actually the catalyst to get me thinking more deeply about what was in the book.
Natalie MacLean 11:54
That’s terrific. Well, and I like that you use podcasts as well. Like I’m an audio listener, too. I listen to books, I don’t read the physical. And I love being able to just play it over and over. I don’t know if there’s something. I love the layered learning, but I also love having something read to me. Maybe it goes back to those bedtime stories after bath. I just love a voice telling me something. But yeah, cool. Love that approach. Can you remember the exact moment when you wanted to become a writer when it really got serious? You were learning lots about wine. Was there a threshold moment when you said, hey, I want to write about it, too.
Valerie Kathawala 12:30
I had already done writing before. Well, in my 20s, when I lived in Germany, and I actually had a pretty boring job as an editor at a big German bank. But I wrote on the side for a freelance magazine about German cultural affairs. So I already knew that I want to write and think that seed was planted long before me somehow keeps coming back to that time. But when I was really little, and I used to have that time by myself, not with my siblings, I would just tell myself stories. And I can remember, you know, I didn’t write them down. But there was always this narration happening. And I think that’s a lot of the way that I live my experiences to live it and then re-narrated in my head, and it was just natural that it would start happening coming out on the page.
Natalie MacLean 13:16
Oh, that’s great. Do you remember any stories you made up as a child? Do any of them come back to you now?
Valerie Kathawala 13:22
There is one I definitely remember. My grandparents, my German and Italian grandparents live in a little trailer house in the Catskills of New York. And I found that to be endlessly romantic and fascinating. And so I used to often tell stories about how I’d be in that little house, but it wouldn’t just be parked on cinder blocks. Would be rolling to all sorts of exotic places, and I’d be waving to people so that was, that was a recurring story.
Natalie MacLean 13:54
Oh, excellent. Little bit of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. A house moving, taking you to new adventures. That’s great. I love it. And what would you say so far has been kind of the best moment of your wine writing career? Any highlights so far?
Valerie Kathawala 14:09
There have been and I’m trying to think of them from different angles. But one certainly for me was in 2019, when I was on assignment to write about a winegrower in Germany. And I had it all mapped out in advance that I would go and work harvests with them and then write about the experience and this was really going to be a highlight for me. And about 10 days before I was supposed to leave, the wine grower wrote to me and said, you know, typical wine world fashion that harvest had wrapped up early. They were done and there wouldn’t be much for me to do so. You know, I had plane tickets, arranged the childcare, but they said you can still come for a couple of days and just see what we’re up to which was great. But then I had five days when I could really just go anywhere I wanted in Germany and cover any story at harvest time. So I just went to my absolute top of my wish list, which was a grower named Rudolf Trossen and in the Mosel, and reached out to him through his importer. And sure enough, he said, please come. And you can kind of embed yourself with our team for these days, and then write about it. And that turned out to be one of the most transformative experiences I could have imagined. Because he’s a real pioneer of biodynamics and he was a real mentor to me on that subject. And I got to write this profile for Pipette magazine, which is a no longer in existence print magazine. But it was probably one of the piece that I’m most proud of. So was it a great way for for something that seemed like it wasn’t gonna go anywhere to be a real highlight.
Natalie MacLean 15:42
Yeah, I interviewed Rachel Cygnar, who has just published a book as you know You Had Me at Pét-Nat. But what did you learn from, his name was Rudy the winemaker at Trossen? What insights did you take away from that experience of being I love it embedded? It sound very Iraqi war. Embedded, they’re doing things presumably with the team?
Valerie Kathawala 16:05
Yeah, the chance to just follow them through a full day. You know, meet the part of everything that they were doing for all day from 8am to 8pm, including their coffee breaks, and mealtimes and then back at the press house and watching the way, you know, the team would unwind. And the winemaker would just keep checking in on his press cycles. As you know, he’d also during the crew for Foosball games, and there was just a real sense, I mean, that winegrower really prides himself on having a very intimate team of people who know each other over decades, as well as young people coming to learn, coming together at harvest time. And so to observe that was really special. And Rudy is very, very articulate and very generous with his knowledge. I mean, he didn’t finish high school education as far as I know. And yet, he’s probably one of the most erudite philosophers of wine that I’ve ever encountered. And you know, he does speak English, but it’s German is certainly much, much better. So the fact that I could tap into that because my German skills just made me feel like I was getting a window into something very, very special. And then I felt really privileged to be able to share that story, especially in print.
Natalie MacLean 17:18
Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. I would imagine that native German speakers would feel more comfortable with you, could better and more fully express what they’re thinking what they’re doing, because you also speak their language. That’s a real advantage. It helps. Yeah. Do you have a worst moment of your career that comes to mind? Or maybe it’s all been Skittles and Riesling so far, I don’t know.
Valerie Kathawala 17:38
It has not. I can actually think of something that happened quite recently. That was really a pretty painful moment I thought in my career. This spring, I was travelling around in New York, doing some research for a piece on the state of biodynamics in New York viticulture. And I went off to see the first grower of the trip. And you know, my whole approach about biodynamics is to bring the spirit of investigative journalism but also to be pretty skeptical because there’s a lot of romance around biodynamics. And there’s also a lot of people who like to drop that term haven’t be associated with what they’re doing, but doesn’t quite hold up to true practice. So I was there really to be pretty closely scrutinizing what was happening. So I went to the first grower, they were so impressive, they were so wonderfully kind, and their wines just swept me away. And our conversation was excellent. And in the end, I walked out of there, and I hadn’t really asked the hard questions that I needed to ask. And I didn’t even really realize that I hadn’t. I just got carried away by the moment and then often use Instagram as a sort of short form of journalism a succinct 300 word little account of what I’ve experienced, and maybe put in some tasting notes. So I went back to the hotel, and I worked up something that I thought very long and hard about but I said that they were biodynamic. And it wasn’t true, I had allowed myself to believe it. And as soon as I published it, I started getting all kinds of comments from people from everywhere. Hey, DM me. Is that really true? And you know, I had to call myself to pass I had really fallen into the trap I warn people against all the time. So it was really eye opening throughout even with this most intentional approach to trying to get to the real heart of the story, journalists are not about being swept away by their subjects. And so I had to learn that the hard way.
Natalie MacLean 19:38
Absolutely. That is fascinating. Because that is an issue I’m exploring in my memoir. It’s like, okay, so wine is about hospitality. It’s about the people who make it. You can’t separate I think the wine from the people and the stories of the people make the wine itself more interesting. Unlike other consumables. You know, we don’t talk about where the Crisco cooking oil was made, and no one cares. But that people in place and product, the wine are so intertwined. I mean, do you have I don’t know how to put this? How do you balance getting the people story with – I don’t believe in objectivity, which some people do but I tried to remove bias for sure – but what’s that balance for you and trying to get the story, but also, being an advocate for the reader, staying I don’t know detached enough to ask the hard questions?
Valerie Kathawala 20:32
That’s an excellent question. I think it requires going to other sources. So if you just parachuted in or even if you’ve been studying a region or a person for a long time, and you go in, and you just see the one sided view that they are going to want to show you. It’s very easy to get swept away. Talk to other people. Talk to other experts in the field. Talk to other people who’ve profiled these wine growers. Talk to people who done a harvest with them or intern for them. And just confirm that this is an accurate picture before you go on record saying something that’s maybe not true.
Natalie MacLean 21:10
Sure, sure. No, that’s excellent. I like that just get other perspectives to balance it out. You don’t have to do it all on your own, like this is true; that’s not true. I mean, you know, it’s bringing more perspectives to the story and to those people, to flesh them out, so to speak. But what question would you have asked if you could have redone it? Like what hard question or two would you have asked them?
Valerie Kathawala 21:32
It’s the question that I asked everyone else I interviewed for this article. And everyone I interview otherwise: do you use synthetic fungicides or herbicides or pesticides? I didn’t even go there because the tenor of our conversation was such as well of course they wouldn’t based on everything we’re talking about.
Natalie MacLean 21:50
Right. Yeah, that makes sense. So while we’re on this, because I know you’re a big interest in bio dynamics, maybe for those who are not as familiar with what it means in the wine world, can you give us a high level definition of what it means and how it’s different from say organic winemaking or wine growing?
Valerie Kathawala 22:08
Sure. I mean, it is a very complex topic. But I think the most succinct way of defining it is that it takes as its baseline organic, so certainly there going to be no synthetic inputs in the vineyards. But then it goes much broader than that to look at the farm or the vineyard as its own ecosystem as a closed system. So the only inputs are coming from whatever can be produced on that farm or vineyard or some take it a little bit more liberally and say from that region. And the only outputs are to the greatest extent possible recycled back into the farm. And it’s particularly important for viticulture, I think because vines are a perennial crop. So you know, we’re not talking about tomato plants that get ripped out at the end of the season. These are living beings that need very particular care over decades, a century even. And biodynamics provides an excellent framework for wine growers to observe the needs of their vines and then respond to them and to keep those vines in balance and equilibrium so that they stay healthy. And yields are what they should be and combat diseases and great healthy even times of heat stress, which you know, everybody’s dealing with now.
Natalie MacLean 23:27
Yeah, that’s true. So they – just correct me – at a simple level, because you’re not giving them lots of irrigation or additives in fertilizers, the roots of the vine have to dig deeper and that makes them more resilient when you have droughts, as you said, that we’re experiencing worldwide now with droughts and salty Earth and so on. So it makes them more resilient, like a person who’s not on drugs, I guess.
Valerie Kathawala 23:54
Natalie MacLean 23:55
Is that kind of it?
Valerie Kathawala 23:56
I’m not sure that I could stand by the claim that it makes the vines grow that makes the roots grow deeper, but that may be one effect. But I think it’s certainly, you know, if you’re working intensively with composting and enriching your soil just with compost, that soil structure is going to be so much healthier and retain moisture so much better. When you talk to biodynamic growers, especially in Germany and Austria where I focus, you’ll hear again and again phrases which are more shocking. I’m not afraid of climate change. I think I know how to handle it. Because they feel their practices, give them tools that will be so protective.
Natalie MacLean 24:35
Wow. And what do you wish people understood better about biodynamics? Or maybe we’ve already covered it in the things you’ve been saying, but is there anything else you think you wish they knew or that they misunderstand and you wish they could be corrected or whatever?
Valerie Kathawala 24:50
I wish that people would look at it less as a dogmatic practice that was scripted by an Austrian philosopher 100 years ago, and see it much more as a springboard for growers to take much more responsibility and creativity in their farming and to see themselves as much more autonomous and empowered. I think that you know especially if you look at growers right up until maybe the 90s who were just fed in many parts of the world even more recently than that was just spoon fed from the agricultural industry these prescriptives for how you can farm safely and get reliable yields and not have them be eviscerated by pests or disease. And that was very reassuring. But it took all the autonomy away from growers. So when growers discover biodynamics and it’s what they almost always say is like took away my fear gave me the freedom to feel like I was in charge but I was in charge in partnership with nature instead of feeling like nature is the enemy. So I feel like it’s a very empowering tool. And I think that it’s a way to open a path to a more kind of creative future for farming, which I hope will be more widely embraced.
Natalie MacLean 26:03
Oh, terrific. I love that. And the Austrian, I guess, philosopher was Rudolf Steiner? That’s correct. And is he the one that also talked about some of the more, I mean, some people characterize it as I don’t know Zodiac witchcraft or whatever, these things about burying bull’s horns. And, I mean what is it some of those misconceptions? Maybe you can just highlight a few of those that people think it’s kind of too woowoo or whatever.
Valerie Kathawala 26:33
Sure, it’s true that there was a lot of esoterica and a lot of spirituality, kind of cosmic spirituality. And also some questionable theories that were part of Steiner’s philosophy. I mean, one thing that always has to be made clear is that Steiner had a long career over the turn of the last century. And he went through a bunch of changes in his own thinking during that time. But he really wasn’t applying any of this to farming and certainly not to viticulture until 1924 which was the year before he died. And at that point, he was asked by a group of large scale German farmers for advice. They were seeing the effects of industrial and chemical agriculture on their crops and their livestock. And it was devastating. And they were looking for answers. And he drew on his resources from philosophy but also from having studied Goethe who was a very intense observer of nature and scientists. And he kind of codified those things. He also talked to farmers throughout Europe and tried to pull together their practices, their traditional practices, you know, many of which were centuries old, but had fallen by the wayside just in the span of a couple of decades, falling victim to chemical agriculture. And so he presented these in a series of lectures. And those lectures have gone on to become the foundation of what we know as biodynamic viticulture today. But they represent you a snapshot of a certain time and a certain place. And so anybody who would say these are words that have to be interpreted fundamentally, I think that’s mistaken. I think they just encourage growers to go back and look at what they have and look at the resources around them and how they can apply them most sensibly. But there are others who think you really have to take his word as law, but I think generally it is away from that and towards interpreting his books more liberally.
Natalie MacLean 28:34
That’s great perspective. So what do you mean by German speaking wines? Something broader than just wines made in Germany. Maybe you can tell us what that means?
Valerie Kathawala 28:44
Yeah, well, I’m quite literally it’s wines from countries where German is either the main language or one of the main languages. But I think more broadly, it’s what language stands for culturally, right? So there’s a certain mindset, a certain share of tradition and values, and grape varieties, winemaking approaches, geography, climate, that these regions Germany, Austria, this little corner of northern Italy, and the eastern part of Switzerland all share. We could extend that to parts of Luxembourg and Alsace as well. Someday maybe we will at TRINK magazine, but for now this is as much as two people can handle. So yeah, that’s what I mean by that.
Natalie MacLean 29:27
And what characteristics do they share it apart from like, they tend to use the same grape varieties and winemaking mindset? I mean, is there a style that runs through them? Is it like the edgy acidity? Or how would you say here are some things to look for in German speaking wines?
Valerie Kathawala 29:44
I think edgy acidity is definitely one of them. I mean, I hesitate to make any sweeping statements, but broadly, these are all cool climate regions or until very recently were. And I think acidity is a hallmark. I think native grapes that maybe don’t shine on the international stage quite as brightly aside from Riesling and Grüner Veltliner or another hallmark and that’s something that really distinguishes this corner of the world. Their rich trove of native grapes. And I think it’s really this commitment to craft and tradition at a very high level. So far less industrial winemaking and far more small growers who have been working this way for generations. And to really understand their terroir, as you were saying, at the DNA level, and bring that to expression.
Natalie MacLean 30:39
That’s so interesting because in Canada, of course, we’re all cool climate here. And many of the founding winemakers were either from Austria or Germany. So, you know, if I look at wineries like Inniskillin or even in Nova Scotia, it’s very cool climate. They really have that influence from both Germany and Austria. And of course, Riesling is I think our signature grape here in Canada when it comes to white wines. So that’s what your magazine focuses on. So let’s bring it full circle. Now to the pieces that you write for your magazine. How do you know when you have a great story?
Valerie Kathawala 31:18
That’s a great question. I think you probably have experienced this too. It’s when you hear something totally unexpected. And then you hear it from someone else, and someone else again, and then you start connecting the dots to see that this isn’t just one anomaly. This is something happening beneath the surface that no one else is talking about. And then you start to probe: what does this mean? how did it come to be? and when those things all come together? And you feel excited and curious, and you want to know why these things are happening? And where they’re going to take a region or a grower or whatever it is, then, you know, like, you just you’re following your own curiosity and your own excitement. And usually you can’t help but sweep readers along with that.
Natalie MacLean 32:05
Yeah, absolutely. It’s about the patterns and connections that we can make for ourselves or for readers. I think that’s truly what’s mind blowing or mind expanding, at least when things aren’t isolated, can make sense of connections. So tell us about some of those stories that exemplify that for you. One was called Alt Mosel. Unless that was the one we were already talking about with Rudy, I’m not sure if that knows the same thing.
Valerie Kathawala 32:30
That was different. We’re again talking about the Mosel there, but yeah, that was when I went to really look at what was happening in the natural wine scene in the Mosel, which in itself was a little bit unexpected a few years ago, because now it’s almost a given. But you know, three or four years ago, was still pretty surprising because the Mosel has this reputation for being you know high spray in the vineyards, high sulphur in the cellar, and people said that’s the only way you can make Mosel Riesling especially for residually sweet Riesling. They have to be filtered. They have to be stabilized. But yet here was this whole cadre of growers doing things their own way and brilliantly. So that’s the story I went to go see. But then what I found out was that there were all these things happening below the surface. You know, Mosel people tend to think of as a place of these vaunted historic vineyards that have been in family hands for centuries. And it turns out that there are just as many or great many vineyards of equal importance, ungrafted centenarian Riesling vines, incredibly low yield, and they’re free because no one wants to put in the work on the steep slopes to keep them alive. And so they’re either going to be ripped out or growers who are somehow willing to put in the sweat equity are taking them over. So there’s this whole group, German as well as international, young growers who are flocking to the region and getting their hands on these. The cost of living in this part of the Mosel in the Mosel is incredibly low because again, there’s kind of this generational turnover where a lot of traditional conventional Mosel wine growers weren’t able to make these wines profitably. And so they were giving up or retiring and there wasn’t a younger generation to come pick them over. And now, new apartments are cheap, cellar spaces cheap, seller equipment is cheap. There’s the spirit of collegiality and fascinating things are happening. So that was the Mosel story.
Natalie MacLean 34:33
Oh, that’s great. And you mentioned natural wine again, just maybe a quick differentiation definition between that and biodynamic wine.
Valerie Kathawala 34:41
Sure. So biodynamics refers to the farming those your input farming and it can also refer to the cellar processes should also be without any inputs. But natural wine, people will take that as a very broad term. And so there are people who claim that they’re making natural wine if they don’t add sulphur, they don’t fine or filter. But they may not be working with the organic or biodynamically farmed grapes. So my definition of natural wine is that it has to start in the vineyard. But there are plenty of people who just say no this is my orange wine. It’s natural because it’s had some maceration. So I think people play fast and loose with that term.
Natalie MacLean 35:23
Okay, cool. I love this title. You have one called The Vineyards of Defiance. What was that one about?
Valerie Kathawala 35:30
Thank you. That was also for Pipette magazine. That was a profile of Heinrich Mayr, who’s estate is called Nusserhof. And this is in Bozen which is in South Tyrol, in northeastern Italy. And I went there really just because I had had his wines in New York and was fascinated by them, and really just want to understand because he works with these rare, native South Tyrolean grapes Lagrerin and Blatterie and a few others that few people have heard of. And I just want to get a little closer to what he was doing within these farms organically and works pretty minimalistically in the cellar. But when I got there, I realized or I saw that the vineyards are completely surrounded by the city that has grown up around it. So there’s this two, two and a half acre farm, Nussehrof, the nut farm, and then all around it, you have factories and office buildings and highways. And so I asked, how did this come to be? And he said, well in my family’s history is a little special. And what does that mean? Well, his uncle was in charge of the resistance in World War Two. So the Nazis were trying to take over this part of South Tyrol and there was this local resistance movement, and his uncle had headed it. So after the war, and his uncle was actually taken to a concentration camp and killed for it. So after the war, there was always this special deference paid to the family in the form of allowing them to preserve this vineyard and house and cellar because it had been a place where the resistance fighters had congregated, and it was the family’s home. So I just found that to be, you know, an element of wine that we rarely talk about when we talk about, you know, what we taste in the glass. But to me, that just transformed my appreciation for what I was experiencing when I drink this one.
Natalie MacLean 37:25
I love that picture mentally, too. Like city, sidewalks and everything around these vines and vineyards of defiance. That’s great. I love it. And then tying back to the war. How about the labour in natural line? That story?
Valerie Kathawala 37:39
Yeah, that came out of just observing some efforts that importers in the US were making to talk about labour when they were labelling their wines. So I guess I need to back up one step further, which is to say that that was also right around the time when the Valentina Passalacqua situation was happening. I don’t know if you’re aware of that. But that was a Italian grower who had become very hip and trendy at least in the US. And she had a fairly large estate, maybe 80 hectares, and she was really up and coming. And the wines were reasonably priced, biodynamic natural wines. So they were really fan favourites in the US, and I think in other countries as well. But then her father became embroiled in a labour scandal. And she, by extension, as well. And it’s still unclear exactly who was to blame. But then suddenly there was all this scrutiny being brought to bear. Natural wine and labour because previously, the presumption was that natural wine was new, this handcrafted labour of artisanal love. And there would never be any thought of exploitation or, you know, large scale workforces being trucked in and mistreated. So there was this kind of spirit in the air looking a little more critically at what was happening in labour not just in conventional wineries, where there are plenty of abuses, but in natural wine as well. So I was seeing that importers, like we have one importer called Super Glou in the US. And that importer had decided to create a back label that kind of looked like a nutritional label on the side of a cereal box. So instead of saying calories and grams of sugar, it would say like how many people harvested in that vintage or are they provided with meals and adequate housing. So it was a new way of thinking, stimulating the conversation and getting people to think about what they were drinking from the labour perspective. And so that just got me started looking at it more broadly. And then I talked to some of the leading experts in the field and I found that it was really a topic that was going much beyond just natural wine and really touching on some of the issues that were really foremost in mind in the US at least in 2020 in the Black Lives Matter movement above all, and I was grateful that I got to delve into that.
Natalie MacLean 40:05
That’s fascinating because we also hear about the issues with migrant workers from say Mexico, coming up to California and elsewhere. We have migrant workers as well and Canadian vineyards and those issues don’t get spotlighted a lot. They just I guess don’t fit with the whole imagery sometimes of wine and sunny verandas and everyone’s wearing white linen. And so there’s some real, you know, real people behind the label, not just the winemaker. So sounds very interesting. I have to go back and take a look at that one as well.
Natalie MacLean 40:41
There you have it. I hope you enjoyed my chat with Valerie. Here my takeaways. Number one, I loved how she described German speaking wines is sharing a certain mindset, tradition and values, grape varieties, winemaking approaches, geography and climate. Number two, I agree with her that biodynamic winemaking provides an excellent framework for wine growers to keep their vines in equilibrium and to stay healthy. And three, her explanation on the differences between natural wine and biodynamic wine were really insightful. In the show notes, you’ll find my email contact the full transcript of my conversation with Valerie, links to her magazine and website, and where you can find a live stream video version of these conversations on Facebook and YouTube Live every Wednesday at 7pm. You’ll also find a link to my free Ultimate Guide to Wine and Food Pairing. That’s all in the show notes at NatalieMacLean.com/200. Email me if you have a sip, tip, question or want to be a beta reader of my new memoir at [email protected] You won’t want to miss next week when we continue our chat with Valerie. In the meantime, if you missed episode 163, go back and take a listen. I chat about travel tips for the Austrian and Washington wine regions with UK wine expert Lawrence Francis. I’ll share a short clip with you now to whet your appetite.
Lawrence Francis 42:10
Vienna makes a really good base to go from. City of music. Their food scene is so phenomenal and they’ve got amazing sommeliers starting in the bars of Vienna. Start a conversation with the sommeliers there because they will know the really cool places to visit. Go for a weekend. Enjoy Vienna. And while you’re there, do your research, speak to sommeliers, restaurant owners. Try the different wines. Make some of these notes from there. And then in the midweek get out there and visit these people tend to have more time and there’s maybe less tourists and then finish off with Vienna at the end of your trip.
Natalie MacLean 42:49
That is such a smart tip. I love that tip, Lawrence, not just for Austria but anywhere where you can have a base in a city a cosmopolitan city and then branch out, like Madrid. But it’s really a great way to go.
Natalie MacLean 43:06
If you liked this episode, please email or tell one friend about it this week, especially someone you know who’d be interested in the wines and stories we discussed. This is the best way you can help me celebrate episode 200 and encourage me. I do need encouragement, I am human, to continue on with this podcast. Thank you for taking the time to join me here. I hope something great is in your glass this week. Perhaps a German wine that speaks to you.
Natalie MacLean 43:41
You don’t want to miss one juicy episode of this podcast, especially the secret, full body bonus episodes that I don’t announce on social media. So subscribe for free now at NatalieMacLean.com/subscribe. Meet me here next week. Cheers.