Leading Between The Vines Evokes The Heart of German Riesling

Posted on: January 8th, 2013 by


Besides the act of pouring it down my gullet, nothing has had a bigger impact on my appreciation of German Riesling than the writings of Terry Theise. He has discovered, rediscovered, and championed some of the most compelling wines in the world. So I was suitably geeked as a member of the wine media to get to screen (for free) his nearly hour-long film, Leading Between The Vines. The title is a play on Theise’s book, Reading Between the Wines. (Say those two titles ten times fast!)

How are the book and film related? I’ll let Theise explain:

“We’re calling it Leading Between The Vines because we wanted to link it to the book, and because honestly we didn’t know what else to call it. Yet it’s not the ‘movie of the book,’ but rather a means of testifying to the beauty of authentic wines and the cultures that give them to us all. Like the book, it wants to answer the question ‘Why care deeply about wine?’ and in this case it uses the German Riesling culture as its nexus.”

I’ll confess to not having read the book. At least it saves me from being one of those insufferable people who say, “I liked the book better.” (Though usually those are the words coming from my mouth.) And, as Theise maintains, the movie isn’t a filmed version of the book. I am, however, very familiar with Theise’s writing from his wine catalogs, covering not just Germany but also Austria and Champagne. To call them catalogs does them a disservice. It’s like calling Michael Jordan a ‘basketball player.’ Each catalog is an entertaining, enlightening, saber-rattling, sometimes maddening, philosophical treatise on wine and life.

The testament to the greatness of Leading Between The Vines is that you could enjoy this film, and be moved by it, with the sound off. Now you may think this a slight on Theise’s narration or the words of the winemakers interviewed. Not true! My point is that a great story can be discerned solely from the film’s visuals. You’ll see stunning (and stunningly steep) vineyards, some dating back to 1896. (Vineyards that, as Theise beams, are “spread out like a necklace of diamonds.”) Also on display: mothers, daughters, fathers, and sons, side by side. Much warmth and laughter. Soil, soil, soil. And a few bottles of Riesling.

Wine geeks will appreciate all of that soil talk; this movie gets dirty in the vineyards. But Theise’s film will not just appeal to sommeliers who want action shots of slate being hand-crumbled; anyone who is interested in family farming will find Leading Between The Vines compelling. A main theme of the film is passing the vineyards down to a new generation; there is a palpable and honest tension present surrounding this issue.  Will the children follow in their footsteps of their parents?

The answer for most of these wine estates seems to be “yes.” There are wonderful, heart-warming, interactions between fathers and sons as they praise each other’s work and contributions. And tweak each other a bit, too. Caroline Diel cradles a infant in her lap while talking about how she gains knowledge of the vineyards. This film is permeated by family and the familial.

There is a grim reality to Leading Between The Vines as well. Owning a winery and working the vineyards is a business of personal cost (Johannes Selbach notes that it drove two of his colleagues to suicide) on every level imaginable. There is great financial cost as well: Johannes Leitz reports that it costs 300 Euros per square meter to repair stone walls in the vineyard.

These sobering moments do not preclude the joy of getting to know many families. I’ll focus on two brothers who had more then their fair share of memorable moments: Alfred and Rolf Merkelbach.

Leading Between the Vines

Two brothers in their 70s, the Merkelbach’s still do a hell of a lot of work in the (incredibly steep) vineyards. All the harvest reporting is completed with low-tech tools: pencil and paper. (No iPads here, folks.) I love when they reminisce about their father and mother. One story about the former concerns his refusal to get rid of two cows. Alfred thought his father should sell them to purchase more vineyards. (And the cows were “too much work.”) His father said while he was alive, the cows would stay. So when he died in 1965, the brothers “got rid of those beasts.”

The Merkelbachs also found resistance from their mother when, in 1975, they contemplated building a cellar. She chided Alfred, “You haven’t got a wife. What do you need with a cellar?

The story of the Merkelbachs is emblematic of Theise’s core philosophy: when devoid of the connection(s) between soil, people, families, and generations, wine is “…stripped of meaning, however pleasant it may taste.” I’m a little more sympathetic to the pleasant pleasures of wine. The majority of people drink wine because they are looking for something that, well, tastes pleasant. Sometimes wine is just a beverage, and not imbued with any more compelling properties than tasting good and providing pleasure. And that’s OK. Wine can be a wonderful part of an event, a presence at moments containing great meaning and future memories. Or just part of a hell of a good time.

But, like every agricultural product we consume, when confronted with questions–“Who made it? How did they make it? Why did they make it?”–we can’t help but see some distinction in our decisions. Leading Between the Vines poetically reminds us of the faces and places that are an indispensable part of what ends up in your glass.

Photo of the Merkelbachs from Michael Skurnik Wines. Thank you to Terry Theise for letting me use it.

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