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A talk with Sybille Kuntz.

In Germany's Mosel/Saar/Ruwer wine region, a land of tradition where vintners can look back across several centuries of family estate lineage, Sybille Kuntz is an anomaly. As one of very few female winemakers in the Mosel, Kuntz has combined high traditional standards and an avante garde image that is catching on with both consumers and restaurants which have not previously sold much German wine.

The estate of Sybille Kuntz is located at Lieser/Mosel near Bernkastel in the middle Mosel region of Germany. Although just over a decade after taking over her family estate (a very short time by the German clock) Kuntz has made a splash on the international wine scene and is part of a growing movement to restore the quality and reputation of German wine by raising winemaking standards, simplifying German wine labels and names, and offering Riesling in a more friendly and elegant package. I caught up with Sybille Kuntz in June while touring German wine country.

When did you begin your career as a winemaker?

In 1984 my father became sick and wanted to pass on the estate. To support my studies in pursuit of an MBA, I acquired a wine shop in Wuppertal near Dusseldorf. All wines sold at the store were dry wines, mostly Rheingau Riesling. This exposure to wine retailing created my desire to make very good dry Riesling when I had my own vineyards.

How large is your annual production?

When I started in 1984, we produced only 400 cases. In 1998 we anticipate production to be close to 5,000 cases. We expect to grow production each year as we lease and buy more vineyards in the Mosel.

How much of your current production makes it to the U.S.?

1998 was our first year in the U.S. and Canadian markets. We exported 500 cases to our new distributor who is based in Indianapolis.

What do you envision as the future of German wine in the Mosel?

Mosel wines are going back to where they were in the 1920s, when they were at the peak of their fame. I believe they will become famous as great semi-dry wines, and as world-class sweet wines in the top categories.

What happened after the 1920s to lower the standard consumer perception of Mosel wine?

The problem seemed to be that after a few great vintages, such as 1959, many wine makers began to copy the model of great German sweet wines. The result was that a lot of sweet wines of substandard quality, in both grapes and vintage, entered the market and lowered the reputation of German wine as a whole. Although it may have been a commercial success, people forgot the high standards that made the Mosel famous, and the style of the wines changed completely. People started to make sweet wines for their own sake rather than when vintage would have traditionally determined it.

Describe your opinion of the German wine industry today.

German wine in Germany is considered boring. Although Riesling has gotten most of its recognition abroad, many identify German wine with sweet wines that are of low quality. It has only been over the past decade that the German market has become again aware of the unique importance of the German grape. We recognize that many people have negative associations toward Riesling. It has been our goal to make Riesling much like the traditional Mosel model and to remind the world of our unique growing area and the qualities it can bring to Riesling.

Describe the challenges of being a woman winemaker in a predominantly male industry.

Being a woman winemaker in the Mosel is definitely unique. There are some women who are involved in the wine industry, but not many who actually are "hands on" winemakers. The truth is that in Germany the wine industry is slow to accept the participation of women within it. But on the other hand, consumers find it extremely intriguing. We have been able to use my gender as a unique marketing point, but people still buy our wines primarily because they are different. They haven't tasted Mosel wines like this before, and many of our consumers had stopped drinking German wines because they found them boring.

You have been noted for the unique way you package and market your wines. How have consumers and others in the industry reacted to this?

I view packaging as a question of personal style and individual taste. As a winemaker, you must always make the wine itself your first concern, but packaging is extremely important to convey your overall philosophy and attitude. The German Wine Information Bureau in Mainz has honored the packaging of Sybille Kuntz twice in the past 10 years. This year the German Ministry of Economy presented us with a marketing award for our overall estate concept. We know the way we present our corporate identity is unique in Germany, and it has been well-received by most. The German government is serving our wines at high profile political events all over the world which is really helping us gain a following.

What do you feel you are doing stylistically that is going to renew interest in wines from the Mosel?

Pure, natural Rieslings are what we want to produce. Currently, 75% of our wines are sold in restaurants because the success of our wines is based on their ability to pair well with food. Terroir has been used a lot by the French, and we feel this is where we should be directing our focus. We have a special place in the Mosel that is ideally suited for growing world-class Riesling. The purest Rieslings are grown on the steepest hillsides. Because of this and our unique microclimate, Riesling thrives in the ideal growing conditions of the Mosel. We believe our commitment to purity in our wine making will help our wines sell themselves and hopefully get people interested in the Mosel as a whole.

How do you define "purity"?

There is a saying in Germany that wine is made in the vineyard, not in the winery. The best Rieslings have a natural aroma, a natural taste. They are simple wines that do not have flavors imparted from oak, or reduced acidity.

What are you doing to expand operation and output of your winery?

We have put our efforts into acquiring the steepest and best vineyard sites to make the best possible Riesling. We are leasing and buying different sites around Bernkastel and Lieser. The challenge has been the limit of available sites in our relatively small and established area. A few years ago you couldn't find available vineyards for any kind of money. People would not give them to you because they were so attached to the land. In the '80s, things began to change as many vintners retired and winemaking, as a profession, wasn't viewed in high regard as it traditionally had been. All of this has resulted in more available growing areas and more opportunities to acquire additional growing space.

What are your plans for becoming known in the U.S. market?

We just got distribution and sent our first shipment of 500 cases to North America. Although we will always be limited in our ability to ship huge amounts of wine abroad, we want to establish a reputation among American consumers. Because our wines are great food wines, we want to be avail-able in many finer restaurants in the states. We think this will become a niche for us. We want people to consider Mosel Riesling as more than an aperitif, but as an ideal choice for many food pairings. Because of German Riesling's high acidity, they are not limited to delicate or light foods. Our single vineyard Rieslings pair very well with veal, for example.

What do you expect from your 1998 vintage?

We have had a period of rain, but we expect that to turn before harvest. The grapes are very ripe, much like last year, but the berries are smaller. We expect a very good vintage if you have a period of sun. We will go through the vineyards several times to pre-harvest and select, eliminating the lower-quality fruit.

Many winemakers in the Mosel have come to appreciate the importance of lowering yields to create better quality wines. What is your opinion on this?

Many people have talked about lowering yields, but for a long time production was high. The trade-off has been quality. You can take the very best sites on the steepest vineyards and if you have very high yields you might as well go into the flat lands. High yields result in a loss of the influence of terroir, which is what makes wines from the Mosel unique.

You have launched a unique marketing program in Germany that is getting quite a bit of attention. Please talk about that.

We are offering shares of our vintages sold in 1,000 to 10,000 mark increments. In return, we give investors an "enjoyment certificate", which means they receive 10% interest on their investment in wine. Investors can select from our "wine list" and get a portion of each harvest as a return on their investment. People consider this valuable because of the increasing value of wines, especially our Rieslings which can age for a very long time. The 10% that investors receive will actually increase in value over time in their cellars.

What mark are you trying to leave as a winemaker?

We live in Riesling country. I want to create wines that are very natural and pure to the region. I want to create the purest wines that redefine the traditional reputation of the Mosel and are competitive on an international level. I want to have a place in wine history and renew the reputation of winemakers as artists. Although it is easy to have dreams, I am counting on the help of my husband, Markus Kuntz Riedlin, to help me become famous. He spent eight years making wine in the U.S. and brings a very broad perspective to our project.

RAVE, Joint Symposium is Feb. 8-9 at Davis.

This years Recent Advances in Viticulture & Enology (RAVE '99) and the second Joint Burgundy-California-Oregon Winemaking Symposium is set for Feb. 8-9 at Freeborn Hall at the Davis campus.

Among the California winemakers scheduled to speak are Bob Cabral of Williams-Selyem and Ted Lemon of Littorai Wines. Academics include Barney Watson from Oregon State University and Roger Boulton and Ann Noble from U.C., Davis. Speakers from Burgundy include academics from the Universite de Bourgogne as well as winemakers and negociants.

A joint wine lasting is scheduled. Cost of the dual event is $250. Enrollment can be on-line at http://universityextension. ucdavis.edu or through the Registration Office, University Extension, 1333 Research Park Dr., Davis, Calif. 95616.
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Title Annotation:winemaker
Author:Yoder, Steven Van
Publication:Wines & Vines
Article Type:Interview
Date:Jan 1, 1999
Words:1806
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