Although Jan Klein initially did not have plans for going into the family business once decided, he went after it with boundless enthusiasm. With experience in multiple wineries all over the world, from New Zealand and Australia to France and many different places in Germany plus education in Marketing and Sales, Klein brings a well rounded knowledge to running his family’s 1,150 year old winery legacy. He was gracious enough to sit down and answer some of my questions this past week. I’m sure you are going to love the answers as much as I have!
NC: As the 7th generation to be the caretaker of Staffelter Hof, did you just know you were destined for the wine industry or did you want to explore other career options before settling
JK: Well, I did know that it was my destiny when I realized that both of my brothers weren’t interested at all to go that way. Towards the end of highschool I had many interests that I was keen to pursue, especially languages and mathematics. When I finished high school I sensed that my parents were really hoping I would be the one to continue the family legacy. They never pushed me in my decisions but nonetheless I knew that it was now up to me make a important decision.
I chose to do a two year apprenticehip in viticulture & winemaking working in two different wineries, an organic one in Rheinhessen and a premium steepslope focused one in Mosel. During that time I became more and more fond of this profession, working in nature, controlling every step of the production process, hard but very fulfilling work it was. After the two years were over I studied Wine Marketing and economics to broaden my knowledge to successfully run our family business. After internships in wineries in France, New Zealand and Australia where I also managed to learn two languages fluently, I returned back home in 2005 to follow in my ancestors big footsteps.
NC: With such a great history to your winery, how do you balance the need to respect tradition with the need to constantly improve and innovate to remain relevant?
JK: We of course use the history in our communication a lot. There’s not so many 1,150 year old wineries around! In contrast to that our labeling is rather modern but with a twist that gets us to talk about the history of the winery again. In the vineyard, we work 100% organic and are starting trials for going biodynamic using over 100 year old methods for treating plants & soils. Also in the cellar it’s pretty basic (which is in a way modern now again) with no big fancy machines or additives to the wine (no enzymes, finings etc.), that way we could even label our wines as vegan, which is very trendy at the moment. Innovation is mainly important when comes to finding new ways to market your wines such as using Social Media, doing private tasting parties, or wine markets in different countries.
NC: The Mosel is one of the most iconic and dramatic wine growing regions in the world. What is the most challenging aspect of growing high quality wine there, particularly Riesling?
JK: To be honest the most challenging part is to make enough money to feed your family. With production cost over four times higher than in flat vineyards. And when you’re aiming for higher quality your looking generally at lower yields which makes this effect even stronger. For someone who only works in steep slopes it’s almost impossible to get by when he’s not famous and gets high enough prices for his wines. The model that works quite well is a mix of flatter vineyards, where you can use machines for the entry level and steep slopes for the premium wines, which is also how our winery is set up. Producing high quality is not a real challenge in the Mosel area, the biggest challenge is whether you can sell it at a high enough price that makes the effort you put in worthwhile.
NC: Can you describe your philosophy on winemaking in haiku ?
JK: With wine from grapes
in harmony with nature
life is fulfilling
NC: Many German winemakers are moving back to extremely traditional winemaking for Riesling including skin contact, native yeasts and large oak casks for fermentation. Do you feel this is important for your wines and if so why? Do you also use modern techniques and if so what are the most important for your process?
JK: I think the reason for this is that it often works better and gives you more exciting results. Mosel unlike many other wine regions lives from its diversity, and it shows best when you’re leaving the industrial path of winemaking. For me the art of making great wine means to keep it as pure as possible, and when you work hard in the vineyard and harvest good fruit it’s actually quite easy to make wine with nothing but grapes and little bit of SO2 to keep it stable in the bottle and enjoyable for many, many years. I use selected yeast strains for my entry level wines in order to have product consistency from vintage to vintage because wild yeast ferments which I use for all premium wines vary a bit more with the flavors and style you get eventually. I also mainly use stainless steel tanks to keep the wine most pure and not affected by oak. Oak only comes into play for special traditional style wines I make. Last but not least I invested in a computerized fermentation control which automatically helps me avoid that ferments either go to fast or warm or both, without it being necessary for me to check each tank twice a day. It is a great luxury to have to save 2 hours of work per day during harvest when you’re having very long days already and have very important decisions to make.
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?
JK: Several methods come into play. For dryer styles, I often work with maceration on skins to extract flavor and minerals that will buffer the acidity in a natural way and make for a better balanced wine. For the sweeter styles we usually stop fermentations by cooling down and adding SO2 at the sugar levels that we think harmonize best with the individual acidity of the vintage. In low acidity years we usually pick grapes for sweet wines earlier, when the acidity is still higher and also whole bunch press to get a leaner more acidic style
NC: If you could make wine anywhere else in the world besides the Mosel, where would you go?
JK: Portugal, I’ve actually just planted some white Portuguese indigenous grapes in a steep slope here in Mosel.
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?
JK: I had several older friends whose wine styles and approach to viticulture I liked, most inspiring for me have been my friendships with swiss winemaker Daniel Vollenweider who started a Mosel winery from scratch in 2000 and Thorsten Melsheimer, one of the best and most authentic organic/biodynamic producers in Mosel.
NC: Do you have a winemaking mistake in your past that you remember to this day?
JK: Not really, but you can avoid screw-ups by not rushing yourself, not working too long hours (>15hrs), not doing three things at the same time and of course by pulling the mixer back before pulling it out of the tank.
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?
JK: Be authentic, don’t listen to the press, don’t care about ratings too much, do your own thing!
NC: Are you working on any exciting projects now that you would like to share?
JK: Theres two very different projects I’m a part of right now:
First is the BERGRETTUNG initiative, where we rescue old steep slope vineyards from getting abandoned, because the former owner are giving up on them because of hard work/too low income. – check www.klitzekleinerring.de/en
And then I have created a Riesling based summer drink called MARI. It’s a blend of sparkling Riesling with Yerba Maté tea and elderflower sirup. It’s very refreshing and has some natural caffeine from the tea as well. – check http://www.jointhelama.com/en/start/
Jan’s wines are available at Acker Merrall Stores in NYC, through Crystalline Selection, and in Florida at GOS Wine & Spirits