Schloss Vollrads might be the oldest winery in the world, but it's only still around to celebrate the 800th anniversary of its first bill of sale because local banks wanted to save it.
A previous 900th anniversary year didn't go well.
The Greiffenclau family -- doesn't that sound like something out of Harry Potter? -- owned the property in Rheingau, Germany from the year 1097.
In 1997, Count Erwein Matuschka-Greiffenclau took a seat on a spot overlooking the vineyards his family had owned since the beginning of the Crusades. He wrote a note, pulled out a gun, and shot himself in the head.
The Count felt burdened by debt of about 20 million deutschmarks: Less than $10 million US. His second wife had died of cancer.
"I think he was not very lucky in a lot of things in his life," says Rowald Hepp, a longtime friend. "Ten million doesn't sound like a lot of money when you read about the big bank bailouts. But he was an older man, a man raised in the nobility. He couldn't solve his problems in his lifetime. He couldn't face going on."
The Count had been a leader in the Rheingau, head of the Winegrowers Association, at a difficult time for German wine. He tried to prove how food-friendly Rheingau wines are by touring the US with Michelin-starred chefs and by opening a restaurant on his property. He took on bank debt to make these investments.
He had a remarkable legacy to draw on. The estate had been entertaining nobles for centuries, and still had hundreds of menus from these events. Ironically, what German nobles ate 500 years ago is much like what you get in huge supermarkets today: Out-of-season, non-local produce.
"The noble families entertained each other by serving things like strawberries in winter," Hepp said. "They would cut ice from the river and save it in their cellars and keep foods cool all year long. They loved rare products. They made a sauce Nicoise which contained all ingredients that could not be grown in Germany, just to impress the guests."
Hepp, who ran two different nearby wine estates, dined with the Count at his two restaurants and often discussed wine and history with him.
When the Count killed himself, he left two daughters, one legitimate and one born out of wedlock. Neither wanted to assume the family's debt, so they simply let the estate go to the banks.
Nassauische Sparkasse bank quickly found itself fielding offers to buy the estate, from winery owners in Spain (Vega Sicilia, no less), New Zealand, Russia and Canada. The easy thing to do would have been to sell. The estate was run down for lack of funds. The winery needed a new roof and the vineyards needed replanting.
Instead, the bank put Hepp in charge.
"On the day I took over they had decided to plant Pinot Noir," Hepp said. "I said, "If you plant Pinot Noir I'm leaving, because there are so many Pinot Noirs in the world, we can't be special."
Hepp tore out everything but Riesling; that's all Scholls Vollrads grows now. He got rid of the mechanical harvesters and brought back hand-picking. He stopped buying commercial yeast and selected the best yeasts from the property.
He bought a new, gentler press that uses just 6% of the pressure of the previous one. He developed a new bottling line to reduce oxidation. And he switched from cork to all glass closures.
"Quality is like a jigsaw puzzle," Hepp says. "Every piece is important."
I didn't try the Schloss Vollrads wines of the '90s, so I can't compare. But the wines from 2011 -- the 800th anniversary of the oldest existing bill of sale for wine in Europe -- are lively. I especially like the Kabinett ($25) for its expressive floral aroma, fresh stone fruit flavors and smooth finish.
The estate makes seven different wines now, including two Kabinetts, one medium-dry and one sweeter. I wondered if the grapes were designated from one part of the estate for the Spätlese and Auslese. It turns out the reality is far more complicated.
I don't know how common this is in Germany, but what they do at Schloss Vollrads is make multiple picks of the same vines to get grapes at different sugar levels for the different wines. The grapes are sorted at the winery, as the difference between Kabinett, Spätlese and Auslese is sugar level. Christopher Klau, president of the importer Schmitt Sohne, showed me a photo he took during harvest on one morning where grapes for five different wines, including the shriveled Beerenauslese and TBA, ended up on the same table.
You'd think just making Riesling would be simpler than that. But Hepp wouldn't have it any other way.
"I feel privileged to work for the estate, and I feel the obligation," Hepp says. "I don't want to be the one who cuts it off after 900 years. I have to be the one who works a little bit harder to bring back the estate. On the other side, it gives you confidence to look to the future. If an estate runs for so many years, it must be something special."