Winemaker 2 Winemaker: Nik Weis of St. Urbans-Hof in the Mosel

Nikolaus (Nik) Weis is the third generation of his family to manage the winery founded by his grandfather, Nicolaus Weis, in 1947. Hermann, Nik’s father, carried on the traditions established by founder Nicolaus increasing the winery’s acreage further and, today, Nik manages the winery’s 35 hectares (87 acres) in the Mosel and Saar Valleys and is responsible for overseeing operations and sales of this second largest privately owned family winery in the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer.  Nik has a degree in Viticulture and Enology from Geisenheim and has worked and studied in Champagne, Canada’s Niagara Peninsula and the Nahe in Germany.  Nik works diligently to preserve the traditions of German winemaking and establish St. Urbans-Hof as a leader of innovation and quality in the region.

Fotos Jon Wyand 2012 143

NC: How did you first become interested in wine?  
NW: The first time I seriously tasted wine at our family winery at the age of 15 I liked the taste so much, that it was clear to me that I wanted to become a winemaker. Also, at the same time my sister started her education in restaurant business and I got some insight into fine dining for the first time. I loved those places, where fine wines were consumed. I still love everything about it. Later on I got started to travel wine regions and started to love the places where wine is produced. Today, besides my love for the making of wine, I also enjoy being in the wine business selling my wines and broadening the distribution. You get to meet a lot of people and that’s a great thing. 
NC: Your wife, Daniela, and her family seem to be very much involved in the success of your wines.  Were you in the industry before you met your wife?
NW: Yes, I had graduated from the winemaking university in Geisenheim and I had already worked at Weingut St.Urbans-Hof for 3 years, when I met Daniela. She was studying business at that time. Even though she is from a family wine business she had promised herself to never get married to a winemaker. She broke that promise! Thank God! After we got married and she had graduated from university with the degree of an MBA, she even purchased her own vineyards, which are part of the St. Urbans-Hof vineyard portfolio. Her father helps me to find good grapes for our URBAN Riesling. Part of them he supplies himself from his vineyards.
NC: The Mosel is one of the most iconic wine growing regions in the world.  What is the most challenging aspect of growing high quality Riesling there?  
NW: The great reputation of the Mosel is based on the top vineyard sites that are located on steep slopes and where the vines grow on a fantastic highly decomposed slate soil. Given the fact that the vineyards are extremely steep, we will never be able to compete with the production costs of other wine regions where viticulture is done on flat land. We only have two choices: Make the effort and practice an intense, expensive and thoughtful viticulture in order to achieve a wine quality that is so good and a wine style that is so unique that people are willing to pay a higher price for the wines and for all these efforts it takes to produce them, or we just let goats graze on the slopes and we produce goat cheese. :)
NC: I love your 10 Points Philosophy on your website!  You reference keeping the Riesling grape’s path to the bottle as short and as undisturbed as possible.  What do you think the key factors in this gentle path are during the vinification process?  
NW: Wine is not made. It grows and develops. It’s a Genesis. It’s better to let nature take it’s course rather than interfere too much. You will hear this from a lot of winemakers, but I really mean it. If you do too much with your wine you either get components in it that are too much or you take things out that are going to be missing later on. Your wines gets out of balance. And the three most important things in a wine start with a “B”:
Balance, Balance and Balance!
NC: You also speak about “very gentle filtration.” What does that mean and how important do you feel this is to your wine quality?
NW: Gentle filtration for White Wines to me means either no filtration or in case of Mosel wines with a bit of natural residual sweetness it means filtering with filter pads made of cellulose. You have to use as many pads as your filter can take to keep the pressure down. In addition you got to water it really well in the beginning before you filter the wine. This way you get a very neutral, gentle and effective filtering process. 
NC: How do you achieve the delicate balance between sweetness and acid in your wines?  Do you wait for the yeast to stop the fermentation on their own or do you stop the fermentation through some other means to retain a balanced level of sugar?
NW: I just taste the wine while it is fermenting. I have one of the greatest Riesling cellar master in my cellar That there is. Together with him, I follow the development of the wines as they ferment. We both consult when there is the best moment to stop the fermentation. This decision is only done by our taste. Not by numbers. I don’t want to digitalize my winemaking decisions. When we think the wine has it’s perfect balance, it’s what we think perfect balance should be like. This is one aspect of the art of Mosel Wine Making. Sometimes the wine slows down or stops fermenting by itself, but usually we have to stop the fermentation by chilling it down and giving it it’s regular sulphur dose.
NC: Early in your career was there a single person who you felt was an important inspiration for your style or did you pull from multiple sources?
NW: Multiple sources: 
The wines of JJ Prüm inspire me still today and so does Carl von Schubert of Maximin Grünhaus. 
NC: Do you have a winemaking mistake in your past that you remember to this day? 
NW: We all make mistakes. I have made a lot of them. You learn from those mistakes. Just to name a few: Too much skin contact, too much leaf thinning, too much of this and too much of that…  It is never just one thing that makes a great wine. 
NC: If you could share only one or two things with younger winemakers, what would be the most valuable pieces of knowledge or experience that you pass on?
NW: Taste as many wines from as many wine regions as possible. And taste as many famous wines as possible. There is a reason why they are so famous. 
NC: Can you describe your philosophy on winemaking in haiku?
NW: Buy a great vineyard.
         Work hard in it.
         Don’t do too much in cellar.
NC: Are you working on any exciting projects now that you would like to share?
NW: Yes, my winemaker friend Martin Foradori from Weingut Hofstätter Tramin in Alto Adige and myself just invested in the most famous winery in Ockfen in the Saar Valley. It’s the Dr. Fischer Estate. Together with Johannes Fischer from the Fischer family we are giving this old traditional estate a new boost.

Crowd Funding a Vineyard? Randall Grahm’s Next Idea

I’ve seen quite a few things put up for crowd funding.  Start ups, charitable causes, and travel have all made their way through the sourcing sites that have made this method of raising capital famous. I even have a friend who designs games through crowd funding.  I’ve always wondered, for obvious reasons, if this type of funding would work for establishing a vineyard or building a winery.  Apparently, I wasn’t the only one pondering that.  Last week, on a day most suited to planting and sowing crops according to the Biodynamic planting calendar, Rhone Ranger and maverick winemaker Randall Grahm, announced he was trying just that on  I immediately reached out to Grahm to find out more about the project which sounded incredibly unique from the press release.  The idea is to establish a “living lab” on his 400 acre estate Popelouchum near San Juan Bautista on the Central Coast of CA.  The goal of the vineyard would be the breeding of 10,000 new grape varieties on site.  I caught up with Grahm late last week to get some more information on the project.

My first thought on a project this ambitious is how on earth do you decide which varieties get planted to be the parents of the 10,000 new varieties.  That, to my viticulturist’s eye, would be the most critical of choices which may decide the success or failure of such a project.  Grahm states they are “still working out the theoretical basis for the selection of ‘worthy parents’, but in the interim we’re looking at collecting data on which varieties (or clones thereof) seem to be particularly successful on our site – as far as vine health, flavor, drought tolerance, potential alcohol/acid balance and other criteria.”  He also mentioned working with Dr. Andy Walker of UC Davis to select from his recent breeding results some of which are 97% Vitis vinifera and may offer the best of all worlds from native disease resistance to European variety wine quality.  At the moment, it seems 100% natives (such as V. berlandiari) are being considered for rootstocks but not for further crossings with the chosen vinifera stocks.  Other scientists involved in the project are Dr. José Vouillamoz of Switzerland & Dr. Carole Meredith, a well known grape geneticist from UC Davis.

The initial report of the project mentioned that Grahm wanted donators to join him “on a journey of discovery to change the way we grow grapes, to change the way we think about vineyards, to perhaps discover an entirely new vinous expression.” I asked him what he envisioned those changes looking like.  His greatest wish is “complexity in wine arising from a lot of complexity in the genetic material constituting the vineyard itself.”  His “big leap of imagination is that perhaps a big set of maybe not so interesting grapes (in and of themselves) may yield a rather unique and special wine that is far more interesting and complex than a wine grown in the same field from a smaller set of “superior” varieties.”  This would be taking a selection massal theory to an entirely new level and then adding in dry-farming, biodynamics, and something called Bio-char, an activated carbon and compost mixture, to enhance the water holding capacity of the soils as well as the biological diversity of the microbial population in the soils.

Another aspect of the project that was interesting is a “major goal of the endeavor would be to establish a 501(c)3 status which would allow for crowd sharing with the community at large, the findings of the project over  the arc of a decade’s time.” I asked Grahm what did he hope to accomplish as a 501 c3 organization and what happens to the revenue from this project if he did succeed in finding a new grand cru site?  His answer was refreshingly frank and straightforward.

“Obviously, we hope to gain the sponsorship of some larger donors through the deductibility of the donation.  Since the entire intention of the project is to leave a legacy to California viticulture, the furnishing of the new germplasm as “open code,” as well as the sharing of research, as well as the extreme long-term nature of the project, makes this a natural for a 501c(3) organization.  While there will likely someday be some revenue from the sales of wine made from grapes grown on this site, it will certainly take many years to begin to recover the level of investment made.  At some point soon, we will work out a logical way to segregate the for-profit and not-for-profit aspects of the business.”

Finally, I wanted to get to the major question.  Why crowd funding?  Grahm had two main reasons for this; 1) He wanted to get the funding going to establish the site as a 501 c3 business and 2) to start building a community of like-minded people who would be “sincerely interested in this sort of project.  Not just wine-drinking connoisseurs, some of whom might be able to appreciate the audacity of the proposition, but others with a real interest in both sustainability.”  Don’t worry though.  Grahm is not expecting the crowd sourcing to foot the entire bill.  He says he has been and plans on continuing to contribute the “largest percentage of funds for this project” however he does anticipate that the percentage may shift if the non-profit status is granted.  To attract donations, Grahm has put together special packages for all of the donation levels ranging from signed posters, books, and gift baskets to having the new grape varieties named for you or your entire family!

At the time of writing his campaign was 12% funded with 25 days left to go.  At this point it seems off to a strong start!

Exploring the Wines of Montefalco

Pettino – Our Umbrian Village

Italy has always been a bit of a mystery to me.  When I first started studying for my WSET programs it was a toss up between Italy and Germany as to which was the most confusing.  Now, after years of study I understand that I will NEVER, in my LIFE, know everything there is to know about Italian wines.  I have contented myself, however, with exploring a region here and there when I get the chance.  One such chance has presented itself in the last month and I hope to make the most of it.  Montefalco is a small mountain village in the province of Perugia in Umbria almost exactly half way down the boot,  in the middle of the peninsula.  It was originally settled by the Umbri, an ancient Italian tribe, which lived in the area from the 9th-4th centuries BC.  In March of this year, Montefalco was named Italy’s Best New Wine Region by Conde Nast Traveler Magazine.  It is only a short train ride from Rome making it an easy escape from the bustling city to the mountains.  The region, largely known for their fabulous truffles, olive groves, and amazing hill top vistas is now starting to break out from underneath the shadow of their Tuscan cousins.  Every spring around Easter the town holds a large festival called Settimana Enologica or “Wine Week” to bring tourists in to sample the local wines.   Until recently, the wines of this area have been not well known outside of Italy. However, the Consorzio Montefalco is working to change that and have graciously sent me two wines to taste and explore to get a sense of what this area and the Sagrantino grape are all about.

Colpetrone 2011 Montefalco Rosso DOC – Elegant and Floral

The first wine hails from one of the most important producers in the DOCG area.  Montefalco Rosso is usually a blend of Sangiovese and Sagrantino.  This wine is a beautiful blend of both plus a bit of Merlot coming from a vineyard planted in 1997 on limy soil with clay deposits.  A moderately deep ruby colored core followed by a lovely burst of plum and black cherry on the nose.  The wine had none of the “raspberry leaf” character I normally associate with wines from further north in the country but did have a distinctive earthy aroma reminiscent of crushed late fall leaves.  The intensity of the fruit suggests a lack of oak influence which was confirmed by the dossier that accompanied it.  With a moderate body, fresh acid, and structured but supple tannins that hit in the middle of the tongue, this wine is more weighty than a Pinot Noir but just as elegant.  It is strikingly similar in style to Chianti Classicos but with darker fruit and rounded edges.  While this wine can age a couple more years due to its textured tannins I highly recommend taking advantage of it’s fruitful youth!

Azienda Agraria Scacciadiavoli 2008 Montefalco Sagrantino – Power Punch

The second wine comes from the oldest winery of the Montefalco appellation, founded in 1884.  The name Scacciadiavoli, literally translates to “cast out the devils” apparently named for a 19th century exorcist who lived in the village.  The vineyard is 400 meters above sea level on a clay shale soil.  The wine itself is intense with a dense ruby core that is impossible to see through, living up to the expectation that Sagrantino is one of the most deeply colored grapes in the world.  The nose is quite concentrated with aromas of ripe black plum, graphite, and cedar.  The full body continues with the concentrated theme with intensely structured tannins, the description of which is hard to pin down.  It is similar to the texture of Nebbiolo but slightly smoother with the intensity and palate distribution of Cabernet Sauvignon.  The finish is long and the wine is crying out for food as most Italian reds do.  If the body were lighter the tannins would be harsh and out of balance however the richness in the core of this wine was deeply concentrated and left a seamless transition from beginning to end. My hat is off to the winemaker because I know it is quite challenging to balance tannins of that quantity! It is quite unlike anything I have ever tasted before.   This is a 2008, already over 6 years old and I am of the opinion I opened it too young!  This structure is built for aging quite in line with the other hallowed regions of this country.  If you are interested in this wine it seems the previous vintage is for sale at one of my favorite wine sourcing spots, K & L Wines in San Francisco.

These wines have distinctively different styles however both show that this region is focused on making serious wine that can stand on the international market.  The town itself looks charming and it’s views dramatic.  I only hope I get the chance to visit for myself soon!

Picture courtesy of