Working with wine

oliver &amp ;jürgen

Working with wine

I blame my parents for my lifelong fascination with wine.

As a child in the 1970s, each ‘Karneval’ season my parents and their friends celebrated ‘Juergen’s Weinstube’ at our suburban home near Duesseldorf, Germany.

A Weinstube is a traditional German wine tavern, in this instance named after my father, Juergen.

They turned the entire basement into an old-fashioned wine tavern complete with plastic grapes. It was a wine and food-themed party, with guests dressed as vignerons, wine queens and the like.

Welcome to the 70S – and Bacchus’ Den!

From my early teens onwards I was ‘allowed’ to help serve the wine. Mum decked me out as a wine waiter and I loved the job.

There were at least three wines on pour: always a Riesling, a Sylvaner and a Mueller Thurgau – sometimes even an Edelzwicker, a ‘noble blend’ from the Alsace. (Try saying “Edelzwicker” as a young kid – the guests thought this was hilarious.)

In my later teens I quite often ‘sampled’ a few glasses of Edelzwicker myself – with parental approval of course!

Guests danced all night to a mix of blassmusik and Astrud Gilberto; these parties were rowdy and joyful with wine flowing freely. The next morning one of my favorite things to do was count how many bottles had been ‘consumed’ to see if the record for last year’s party had been broken.

‘Juergen’s Weinstube’ was not the only thing which started my wine bug. From the early 1970s onwards my family holidayed every vintage in a German wine region (sometimes French.) I loved visiting the old cellars, smelling the young fermenting wines, watching the grapes being delivered to the cellar and then being crushed. Drinking a glass of ‘Federweisser’ (freshly fermented grape juice) from the barrel was one of my ultimate joys in these formative years.

Visiting wine regions during harvest is a great experience which stimulates all senses – from impressions in the wine cellar, to the beautiful changing Autumn landscape and the wonderful meals enjoyed with family and friends in humble wine taverns. This, combined with long walks through vineyards and forests, left a lasting impression on me.

Inspired, and intent on becoming a hospitality professional, in my twenties I began an apprenticeship in a large Duesseldorf hotel. My dream was to work in Spain in the hotel industry. In my youth I had travelled there a lot and adored the Spanish way of life. I wanted to join their celebration and passion for food, wine and life itself.

Unfortunately it didn’t eventuate; in 1989 I somehow found myself opening a small bistro in Papua New Guinea with a good friend from hospitality school. I was the Head Chef, Sommelier, Waiter and Cleaner rolled into one!

Thanks to good contacts at the German Embassy we had quite an impressive selection of German and French wine on offer (and beer), to compliment our cuisine of German pork specialities and freshest seafood from the Coral Sea. I relished my time in PNG and being in charge of the food and beverage pairings in our bistro. Sadly, it became too dangerous to continue living there. After a short stint in Germany, in 1995 I relocated to Darwin, NT.

There – another ‘frontier town’ – I managed a variety of cafes and restaurants and couldn’t wait to get my hands on the local wine lists…

In those days the average list in Darwin included ‘four reds and four whites’. The reds were usually two heavy Shirazes and two even-heavier Cabernet Sauvignons; the whites often two wooded and one unwooded Chardonnay, and, one Crouchen Riesling ie BIG flavours and HEAVY on the palette. In my humble opinion, not quite right to compliment subtle Asian-inspired cuisine in a sub-tropical climate.

Darwin’s average temperature of 30+ degrees and high humidity created a ‘challenge’ for anyone to enjoy a heavy red ‘at room temperature’, especially in a town where al fresco dining was popular. To me, wooded Chardonnay and snapper fillet in a fragrant mango and coriander salsa — just — doesn’t — work.

I started to improve the varietal mix on various wine lists, introducing lighter reds such as Pinot Noir, Rhone blends and Rosés. In the white department I added Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Semillon and Verdelho. Being just a little bit proud of my ‘adjustments’, quite often local diners greeted the new wine lists with some ‘scepticism’. In the past they had enjoyed their barramundi with a “Fat Shiraz” or an “Oak-chipped Chardy”, so why should they now suddenly choose a Pinot Noir or Sauvignon Blanc?

It took a long time until the general dining public was ready to embrace change (at least ten years.) However I spent over a decade living and working in Darwin with the quest to create more appropriate beverage lists – to give the locals not only new wine options but an opportunity to have an enhanced experience of their local cuisine.

These days Darwin is a very different place. It taught me a lot: I benefited from great opportunities to engage with the public, I taught and trained in a variety of industry contexts, and learned how to carefully implement change while considering the desires of others.

My ultimate dream in Australia though was to live and work in ‘wine country’. Since 2010 I have called Central Victoria home, and was lucky enough to find employment as Cellar Door Manager of a beautiful, small, family-owned vineyard in the Heathcote region. This appointment was then followed by operating my own café for a couple of years where I took full advantage of the local wine selection for our lists. It was so rewarding!

Nowadays, free from the responsibility of running a business, I have fully empraced the journey to become a certified Sommelier. This year I completed my WSET level 3 course at the Prince Wine Store in Melbourne in preparation to sit next year’s Court of Master Sommeliers Certified Exam.

The last four years especially have been a steep learning curve and I’ve loved every second of it. My professional journey in wine has nearly reached three decades and I feel that I am just at the beginning.