Wine Connects: The Rhineland Wince Culture

By Osmond, Stephen J. | The World and I, August 1998 | Go to article overview

Wine Connects: The Rhineland Wince Culture


Osmond, Stephen J., The World and I


Black-haired, thickset, a little rumpled, and brimming with intellectual energy, Jochen Gummersbach greeted us as we clambered off the bus. But his first words came as a surprise: "Welcome, welcome. I know that you have come from Munich, but now you are in the real Germany. Now you are in wine country."

Several years ago, I had joined a small group that was visiting castles and sites of historic interest in southern Germany. After touring Munich, we had arrived in Wurzburg, Bavaria. "This is not really Bavaria," said Gummersbach. "Officially it is, but we are really east Franconia. And Franconians are Catholic and drink wine, as does all Germany. Beer is Bavaria. Wine," he declared, "is Germany."

I was vaguely aware of a German wined industry, but I had not anticipated a fervent wine culture. Munich had lived up to all my stereotypes and hopes about Germany, particularly regarding good living, hearty food, and an unashamed love of beer. But these were my only real expectations of German life. Both the sense of nationalism imbuing the culture and identity of each state and the importance of wine as a historical common ground between those "countries within the country" were revelations.

Gummersbach was a wonderful guide and an enthused authority on Wurzburg's rich architectural and social heritage. As he led us through the city's magnificent ducal palace, he exuded fascination with its extraordinary Tiepolo ceilings, magnificent central staircase, art galleries, and ornate Baroque and Rococo decorative indulgences. But every now and then his commentary would include asides about the importance of wine. "Culture in Wurburg is time spent between glasses of wine," he commented as we studied the palace's marvelous gardens from the gilded ballroom. And he promised us lunch in the town's finest wine lodge. "We have sixty churches and more than two thousand pubs," he grinned.

In the chapel he mused on the once terrible divisions between Protestants and Catholics in Germany, then offered a homespun theology: "In Wurzburg, a good Christian drinks wine."

Gummersbach described the Wurzburg craftsmen who had built such magnificence. They lived in relative poverty and probably were never able to set foot inside the property once it was finished. He mused on the fact that such remarkable treasures were built on a grossly unequal social order, noting than in our century social disparities have been eliminated and, with them, the class system that could fund such great works. This insight provoked a woman from. Beverly Hills, who haughtily derided such thoughts as "socialist nonsense." Stung by the reaction, he continued our tour with an empty discussion of aesthetics.

Afterward I offered my apologies for the woman's rudeness. We talked of regionalism, the influx of "Easties" into the area, and their difficulties in being assimilated into, and being accepted by, west German society. "There are no walls," he said quietly, "only walls of the mind."

And a little later, he enigmatically confided: "Wine connects."

The Wine Road

I recall nodding in sage agreement, then busying myself with my camera as he headed off. As to that comment, I had no idea what he was talking about. I vaguely assumed he meant the hazy camaraderie shared by drinkers. But today, having had the opportunity to travel Germany's "Wine Road," I think I begin to understand more clearly what my friend was implying those few years ago.

Wine is Germany's common culture. It flows from generation to generation, transcends regional and social differences, symbolizes a good life of simple, shared pleasures, and gives continuity to an authentic sense of national heritage. Germany is a collection of once independent small nations, forcefully cobbled together in recent centuries. Now that those tendencies have been put to rest, the sense of national unity comes not so much from economic advances and political cohesion but from Shared traditions. …

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