There was a time, Eric Story remembers, when you couldn’t sell Spätburgunder even to other wine geeks. Around 2011, when importers started bringing in more of Germany’s Pinot Noir, Story, then a buyer for K&L Wine Merchants, fell in love with its “intense minerality and beautiful nuances.”
“But I had to get my colleagues into it,” he says. “They said they were cool but not Burgundies. I would have to let it slide for months at a time.” Finally, Story put together a blind tasting, and the German wines came out on top.
That’s not an uncommon experience. A single-vineyard grand cru from Ahr’s acclaimed Meyer-Näkel estate beat out France and everyone else at the 2008 Decanter World Wine Awards. In 2017 a Spätburgunder again took Decanter’s top prize. With Burgundy prices through the roof, shouldn’t the wine that’s trounced France’s best be flying off the shelves? It might be, if it were filling the shelves.
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“Quantities are insanely small,” says Spätburgunder cheerleader Lyle Fass, of importer and online retailer Fass Selections, “smaller even than Burgundy.” Only 11.5 percent of Germany’s vineyards are planted in Pinot Noir. That’s half the Riesling acreage. And Germans drink most of it themselves.
Historically, there’s also been a problem with quality. The medieval monks who planted the Côte d’Or also grew vines along the Rhine. But in Germany’s cooler climate, the grapes didn’t develop like Burgundy. The wines were leaner, greener, less complex. In the 1990s some vintners overcompensated by bumping up the oak and the extraction. Germans dug it. Americans were turned off.
But Spätburgunder has evolved. Climate change is helping with ripeness and encouraging new plantings. Also, lightweight, quaffable reds now appeal to Americans. On the higher end, improvements in winemaking and vineyard practices are yielding wines that can go up against Burgundy and win.
That’s why Spätburgunder boosters are pulling out the stops to sell it. They’ve got plenty of advice for those who’d follow suit.
Taste Them on It
“I had to talk to sales staff, get them involved, have them taste it,” says Story. “I tried to get their mentality out of what they know—get them to focus on what’s in the glass.” His customers were retail stores, but no matter the clientele, wine industry colleagues agree: The hand-sell is essential.
“I open a bottle,” says the importer Rudi Wiest, of Rudi Wiest Selections, whose main clients are restaurants. “If I see something from California, I put my cheapest German Pinot in a glass beside it. We need to do a lot of that because California beat us to the punch years ago, but I’ve never lost a tasting against California.”
Fass sells through Fass Selections, his direct-to-consumer email list. His first year of selling Spätburgunder “sucked,” but once his followers got to sample the wine, it became his leading category. “You gotta get them to taste it and smell it,” he says. “There’s nothing more important than that.”
It’s hard to get out of France’s shadow, but Fass uses that to his advantage. His clientele tend to be priced-out Burgundy collectors, so to sell them on Spätburgunders, he refers to similar Burgundies. “If I don’t,” he says, “my customers get on me: ‘Why don’t you compare it to something I’ve heard of?’”
Talk Up Its Uniqueness
A few Spätburgunders sell themselves. Enderle & Moll, cult producers from Baden, make light, aromatic Pinot that appeals to natural-wine drinkers. For the retailer Joe Salamone of Manhattan’s Crush Wines & Spirits, “those are slam dunks. They’re fairly rare, and people are excited about them.” But most Späts need a soapbox. “You have to beat the drum pretty loud,” Salamone says, “to get people interested.”
“Pretty loud” is Paul Grieco’s forte. At his New York City wine bar, Terroir, his salty passion is calibrated to selling off-mainstream wines like Spätburgunder. “We embrace complexity, confusion, and anything with a negative impact,” he says. “We want to engage guests in these conversations, wherever the Pinot is from.”
On Grieco’s current list, there’s a Salwey labeled “Pinot Noir.” That doesn’t make him happy. “Whatever perceived notions people have about German wine are bullshit,” he says. “I’m disappointed that more and more Germans are putting ‘Pinot Noir’ on the label to make it more friendly.”
Wine writers like Eric Asimov have joked about Spätburgunder’s tricky moniker. Says Fass, “There’s always an issue with any German name, especially with the umlaut.” But a fan of esoterica might dismiss wine labeled “Pinot Noir” as less German, more international in style. That’s a mistake, says Fass. “Just like Burgundy,” he says, “you gotta know the producer to know the style.”
And when Spätburgunder is up against France and California on his list of Pinots by the glass, Grieco says, it’s the German that helps distinguish it. “People are like, ‘Oh, where is Baden, Ahr, Rheingau?’”
Evan Spingarn, the German buyer for David Bowler Wines, also emphasizes Spätburgunder’s uniqueness. Unlike the comparatively uniform Burgundy, Germany’s terroir is more diverse. Earthy Franken, volcanic Baden, even slate-heavy Mosel—“there’s good Pinot on every single soil,” he says. That’s a story that can hook terroir-obsessed buyers. Says Spingarn, “I can’t think of any other place in the world where people are working with so many different terroirs.”
Use All the Tools
Messaging gets amplified online. Salamone does most of his Spätburgunder boosterism through email, matching audiences with specific wines. “If it’s accessible, available, and $25,” he says, “that goes to the full list. If it’s more expensive, specialized, and needs knowledge to enjoy, I target Austrian, German, Burgundy, and Jura buyers.”
Fass keeps the chatter going on social media. With each Delectable review, Tweet, or Instagram video, he’s furthering the “whisper network,” creating an in-group buzz. He extends the messaging on his blog, Rockss and Fruit.
Spingarn made excellent use of that format, too, pronouncing 2016 “The Year of Spätburgunder” on David Bowler’s blog. “It worked because we used consistent marketing,” he says. “We sold it as a coming-out party for German Pinot.” Wine writers ran with it, and David Bowler saw a 30 percent increase in sales of German Pinot.
Rudi Wiest works his media connections directly, but that’s less of a sure thing. “Some marketing is through Annie Krebiehl,” an MW who writes for Decanter, he says. “She did an article on German Pinot Noirs, and most got 94, 95, 96 points. It got a lot of critics behind us.”
Promote Low Prices
Perhaps Spätburgunder’s chief selling point is its stunning values. “They’re a third to a half the price of Burgundies of comparable quality,” says Fass. “Many of them do better than Burgundy, even though we have incredible Burgundian producers. At $40, no matter what Pinot I sell from Burgundy, the German’s gonna be better.”
And, says Salamone, that’s particularly the case at the entry level, where consumers seeking new, food-friendly wines will spring for Spätburgunder’s reasonable prices. “One of the great things about Spätburgunder,” he says, “is that oftentimes the top wines aren’t the best wines, and certainly not the best introductory wines.”
Spingarn seconds that assessment. He says that selling quality low-end Spätburgunder is a breeze: “You taste people on it and they say, ‘Wow. This is terrific. I can’t believe how cheap it is.’ And you say, ‘That’s right. How much would you like?’” At $21 retail, his Becker Estate Pinot Noir, a berry-and-herbs bottling from limestone Pfalz, “flew off the shelf.”
Pair It with Food
So how do you sell the expensive stuff? “Slowly and with great pain,” jokes Spingarn. Becker also makes a grand cru for $800 a case, and Spingarn “couldn’t get arrested selling that. At that price, people switch to Burgundy, period.”
Fass says that that’s why his direct-to-consumer approach works for these wines. “If you’re going through the three-tier system,” he says, “they’re going to be more expensive. With wine drinkers not familiar with it, if it’s too expensive, it gets ignored.”
Rudi Wiest hooks restaurant buyers on glass pours first. “Then slowly we step them up to the grand cru,” he says. “But it’s quite a bit of work. We have to get the margins down, make a little less money.”
Still, if most wine directors won’t take a chance on the high end, that doesn’t mean intrepid ones shouldn’t. You just have to put those bottles in context: “If we have to have a price conversation,” says Grieco, “I tell them there is no comparison between the steepness of those vineyards in Baden with Burgundy, which is a relative cakewalk compared to what the Germans have to do to make wine.”
Topping out at $99 for a 2013 Meyer-Näkel, Grieco’s current Spätburgunders are reasonably priced for a restaurant. At Manhattan’s Günter Seeger restaurant, Spätburgunder in that price range comes as a prix-fixe pairing. Sommelier Molly Wismeier serves Fürst’s 2016 entry-level Tradition with Seeger’s squab, and if the diner is curious, she sells the wine by talking about how well it goes with food.
“I talk about the wine’s contrasting and marrying properties,” Wismeier says. “It can cut through the texture of the squab but also marries with it: red currant, strawberry, this beautiful layer of black earth. Game and Pinot is a classic pairing, and there is an energy in the wine that matches the energy of the food.”
In New York’s only haute German dining room, Wismeier also has no problem selling diners a 2015 Weingut Fürst Hundsrück Spätburgunder Grosses Gewächs for $450. But a German chef with a deep-pocketed following is rare in the States. Seeger hopes that, as he works with Wiest to bring in more German Pinots, he can help open up the American market. But even Günter Seeger doesn’t have Spätburgunder on its Burgundy-heavy reserve list.
“We’re forcing these wines as much as we can into better restaurants,” says Wiest. It’s a big battle. We’re flying under the radar, but we have the goods. We really do.”
The good news is that “more and more consumers want the conversation,” says Grieco. “They have questions. They feel the need not to make a blanket statement. That is a seismic shift. It allows you to do a number of things”—including selling Spätburgunder.
Advantageous climatic change, improved winemaking, illustrious origins, and fascinating terroir: German Pinot Noir has quite a story to tell. And with wine drinkers seeking adventure, particularly through food-friendly, reasonably priced wines, now’s the time for ambitious pros to sell Spätburgunder. As Fass says, “I’ve been doing wine for a long time, and I’ve never been on a ground floor like this before.”
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Betsy Andrews is an award-winning journalist and poet. Her latest book is Crowded. Her writing can be found at betsyandrews.contently.com.