Here is the text from an article which I wrote for drinks industry trade magazine, Harpers, about my time working at Weingut Hermann Dönnhoff in the Nahe region of Germany. It was published on 10th April, 2012.
Alex Down, 28, blogger on The Riesling Revolutionary and self-confessed German wine fanatic, recently made the decision to leave his job as a lawyer in the City to follow his passion for wine. The first stop on his wine adventure is a month’s work experience at legendary German winery, Weingut Hermann Dönnhoff. Below he recounts his first week in the job:
My journey to the vineyards of Germany began at the crack of dawn on the Sunday before Easter. Such was my excitement that I barely noticed the hour as I bounced through the revolving doors at Stansted on course for my 6.50am flight to Frankfurt Hahn. Arriving at Hahn (the Frankfurt can henceforth be dispatched as it is about as close to Frankfurt as London is to Dover), I boarded the splendidly named Mosel-Rhine-Bus and off we went through the idyllic countryside towards my home for the next four weeks – Weingut Hermann Dönnhoff in the village of Oberhausen in the Nahe wine region.
Arriving at the winery, I was greeted by Cornelius Dönnhoff, heir to the Dönnhoff throne and the current head winemaker. After the customary guided tour, Cornelius showed me to the room where I would be staying. An en suite bathroom and a balcony overlooking the famous Niederhausen Hermannshöhle vineyard – had I died and gone to heaven? It certainly felt like it but in an attempt to keep my excitement to manageable levels I decided to forego the temptation to crack open a bottle on the first night.
The following morning I reported for duty in the courtyard at 8am sharp. After exchanging brief pleasantries with my co-workers, I was informed that we would be spending the day bottling the 2011 Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc). In a nutshell, this is how the bottling process works: empty bottles are fed onto a conveyor belt which go into the bottling machine; the empty bottles are sterilised and then filled with the wine before moving down the belt where they are corked, capped and labelled; at this stage the wines are the finished product and the sole remaining task is for them to be stacked or packed.
This is where I came in. Once the bottles had emerged from the labelling section of the machine, it was my job to grab them and pack them (in six-bottle cases). As we began the day’s work, I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. Here I was, free from the shackles of the City and working in one of Germany’s finest wineries. By lunchtime, I was still in good cheer but definitely feeling the strain. By 5pm I was in tatters. Now, I know what you are thinking – sticking a few bottles in a box doesn’t sound too bad. But to put it in perspective, on the first day we bottled around 8000 bottles (which accounts for approximately 1335 cases)!
And things did not ease up over the next couple of days as more bottling was in order. It was certainly backbreaking stuff but it was made all the more manageable by the team and their ability to seamlessly interchange jobs with one another when someone needed to take a well-deserved breather.
By Thursday afternoon we had bottled the 2011 Weissburgunder, Grauburgunder and Tonschiefer (Dry Slate) Riesling. Although by the end of this process I was totally kaput, I nevertheless felt a great sense of satisfaction in the knowledge that I had played a part (albeit very small) in the lifespan of these brilliant wines.
That evening, all of the crew (vineyard and cellar) gathered round the table in the communal galley for wine tasting, hog roast and friendly conversation. The selection of wines was a celebration of the diversity of German wine styles – everything from a Dönnhoff Weissburgunder from the Nahe to a dry Riesling from Baden to a sweet Ruländer Spätlese from the Pfalz to a Müller-Thurgau produced by one of the crew members from his own tiny vineyard plot in the Nahe. But the wine of the night for me was the 1998 Jacob Schneider Niederhäusen Klamm Riesling Auslese – a classy wine from a much underrated producer which has aged with grace.
Could there have been a more fitting and enjoyable way to close out a hard week? Not to my mind. As for next week, I have been told that I will spend some time in the vineyards – very exciting. But, first, time to put my feet up with a couple of chocolate eggs and relax over the Easter weekend.