My Life With Riesling

Jancis Robinson, Hugh Johnson, Stuart Pigott and David Motion were asked to speak about “My Life With Riesling” at the Riesling Fellowship, an annual Wine Trade event, on 29th January 2015. This is a transcript of David’s speech.

Quick Intro
My name is David Motion. I am honoured to be sharing this platform.
My 1st career was in Music, my 2nd in Wine, with a certain amount of overlap.

I have a shop in Little Venice, London, called The Winery. We import our entire range of wine and champagne direct from (with a couple of exceptions) small growers.
A third of our range is German wine. Of that third, 75% is dry Riesling and 24% Spätburgunder/Pinot Noir. Less than 1% is sweet Riesling.
We currently have 47 growers on our shelves, from 7 different regions. 240 references.
I visit Germany 4 or 5 times a year, usually bringing a different member of staff each time.

How did I get to this point?
I’m going to give you a very quick skim through my own wine history. Then how we developed our German range in the shop and how we sell it.

I first got the taste for alcohol in 1967 at the age of 8 at my Aunt’s wedding. For some reason, they were serving Port as an aperitif at the reception and everyone seemed to be having a good time. My uncle asked me to hold his glass of port while he took a photograph. By the time he returned his glass was empty. A few other guests mistakenly trusted me with their glasses.
I was supposed to be reciting a poem during the reception, between course number eight and nine. When my mother spotted how red faced I was, she said to my father “the child is drunk! Take him for a walk in the fresh air. Sober him up.” I am told that the poem went surprisingly smoothly.

My wine awakening was inextricably linked to Germany. My mother is German and, although we lived in England, every couple of years we would take a trip to the Mutterland. Once we went to the Eifel and dropped down onto the Mosel for dinner. Another time we stopped on the Mittelrhein on our way further south. My sister and I were allowed sips. Once we stayed in Britzingen in Baden. It was at that point that I joined up that this wine comes from that bit up there on the slope and this one comes from the bit below the wood. The wines tasted heavenly.

By the age of 12 or 13 I was at school in Grantham and we were all experimenting with Lager, Cider, Stout and Mild & Bitter.
I remember once at 13 or 14 going into Catlins’, the tea shop and deli in Grantham High Street which had an off-licence off to one side, to see if they would sell us a bottle of wine – a tricky proposition in school uniform. The rather kindly, elderly owner took a warm interest “ah, you lads like your Hock and your Moselle.” That seemed to facilitate the sale. We took our bottle of Moselle and drank it by the railway line. It tasted wonderful.

Winding forward a decade, I was enjoying a little success in the mid 1980s as a Record Producer and ordered occasional mixed cases from Lay & Wheeler in Colchester where my sister and brother-in-law lived for a while. I would buy Burgundy, Californian and (somewhat against my girlfriend’s preferences at that time) some German bottles, which meant JJ Prüm, whom I’d read about in Jancis’ book “The Great Wine Book”.

After a brief taste of success there followed a lengthy (I’d like to say graceful) decline in my career as a Record Producer. I got back into writing music – wrote some for TV, a movie and a ton of commercials. By the mid-90s I was finally back with some disposable income.

This time I didn’t want to buy a big house or an expensive car. This time, I wanted to buy an income. I ended up buying my local wine shop. It wasn’t quite the income I had imagined but I totally love it.

The Winery
Within a year I realised it was going to be very difficult to survive as an independent, buying from agents within the UK. I had to put more of my dwindling cash into the business, and change the stock gradually but completely. We were going to import everything directly.
Burgundy, the Rhone, Italy, California, all came together nicely. Champagne too, although that was a scary leap of faith. Our customers stayed with us and seemed to like the stories and the different wines we were now offering.

I was haunted by Riesling. Alsace was do-able and we went and bought several times. But I wanted to drink German Riesling. At this time the prevailing wisdom was that, yes, everyone in the Wine Trade loves “proper” German Riesling, Kabinetts and Spätleses with residual sugar – but they were impossible to sell. If there were any German wines to be found in any wine shop there might be one or two very dusty bottles right at the bottom, in a corner. OK, we were going to give it a go. Go there, buy a vanload and, if no-one bought it, we would drink it ourselves.

I did a load of research. My girlfriend (who is now my wife) bought me Stuart Pigott’s book “Die Grossen Weissweine Deutschlands” The Great White Wines of Germany and an excellent old German Wine Atlas from the mid-80s that carried Hugh Johnson’s name.
I identified Stuart (who was based in Berlin) as someone who had the best perspective on contemporary German wine and was determined to track him down and pump him for information. I managed to get his number in Berlin either from Andrew Jefford or Simon Woods. I cold-called him, floated my plan and, once he had gathered himself, he said, “On the Mosel go to Clemens Busch, on the Saar to Manfred Loch. In the Rheingau go to Fred Prinz and the Spreitzer brothers. In the Pfalz go to Bergdolt and Koehler-Ruprecht.”

The plan had been to buy 75% of the “proper” sweet Rieslings and 25% dry which we thought would form the bridge from Alsatian Riesling to “proper” German Rieslings.

We noticed something unusual during our week long buying trip. We had imagined that, after a hard day of tastings, we would be drinking beautiful aged Kabinetts and Spätleses in the evenings. By the middle of the week we were beginning to order more of the trockens – dry Kabinetts and Spätleses.

When we got back with our first vanload the dry wines sold out really quickly while the fruity ones moved slowly. On our next buying trip the proportions were inverted – we bought 75% dry Rieslings and 25% sweet. Again the dry wines flew and the sweet stuck around.
Ever since then we buy 99% dry.

How has it changed my life?
It is fair to say that German Riesling has had an enormous impact on my life – it has become something of a Cause for me.

Firstly, I’m drinking excellent wine daily as a result.

Secondly, it gives me a brilliant excuse to visit Germany frequently
I have travelled to Germany 4 or 5 times a year for the past 13 years.
I have seen some jaw-dropping scenery – dropping into the Mosel valley at Reil or Piesport or Winningen always catches my breath. I still get excited taking the ferry across the Rhine from Bingen to Rüdesheim.

It’s a great place to visit. Wonderful hotels and restaurants with super food and deep winelists.

Then there’s the open warmth and hospitality of the growers. I have met so many fantastic people – each with their own compelling stories.

How we share the Riesling love
I could not do this without the enthusiasm and support of my colleagues at The Winery over the past 13 years.
It is important that our staff are onboard. Converting staff has been easy to achieve. Exposure to a spread of dry Rieslings is usually enough to switch any waverers – (although the reality is that I don’t recall anyone joining the team who wasn’t already totally hooked). And if they weren’t, the first full immersion trip to Germany would have anyone returning as wild-eyed believers.

How do we convert customers?
My colleagues’ enthusiasm for these wines is infectious. We have a high level of engagement with our customers, most of whom ask for recommendations. It’s a relationship of trust. We recommend wines that we love – we want the same thing.

The other key is letting people taste the wines. We always feature at least two dry German Rieslings at each of our free monthly tastings.

One of our very clear messages has been “German Riesling is dry”. Of course, that’s not the full picture but it is easier to communicate than the fuzzy idea of different levels of residual sugar. Most people want dry white wine. Their reference points are Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio.
It is simpler to deal with the preconception that “German Riesling is sweet” by saying “not these. These are dry and they are amazing. Try one.”

There are causes for optimism.
There is a new generation of wine consumers emerging – with no baggage, or at least different baggage. They were brought up on Australian or Chilean Wine and have no experience of German wine.

We have also found that our customers, of which at least half are from overseas, are open and receptive to our message.
The smaller and smaller percentage of Brits within a certain age range, who still hold prejudices formed in the 60s and 70s, can often be converted with an intensive tasting of 4 or 5 dry Rieslings side-by-side.

I also notice that a shift is taking place as I meet new people around London. Increasingly, when the topic crops up, the response is “oh, I love Riesling!”

We may be pushing against an open door.