Winemaker for a Year

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By Gisela Kirschstein

They are cutting grapevines in the vineyard, they learn how to maker a cuvee – and in the end, they are even making their own wine, right in their own kitchens or cellars: "We wanted to give people a chance to really experience what it means to be a winemaker", Wolfgang Thomas says. We are sitting in the vinothek of Weingut Kern deep in the heart of Rheinhessen. Next door, the group of participants is learning everything about wine nursery and the art of grapevine cloning. "Our participants really immerse themselves into the daily routine of winemaking – weather, family and work included", Thomas says: "It's winemaking to touch and feel."

Wolfgang Thomas is one of the cultural Wine Ambassadors of Rheinhessen, they are wine enthusiasts, volunteers, who love to inform about the wine scene of Rheinhessen. The Wine Ambassadors offer guided tours to cultural landmarks, they inform about the geology of the area, and above all: they inform about the wine region of Rheinhessen with its manifold wines and  wineries – around 200 events per year.

It was in 2016 when Thomas and his think tank-group had the idea to offer a year-round workshop about what it means to be a winemaker. "We were always asked for more information, people wanted to go deeper into the art of winemaking", Thomas explains, "so we decided to give people the chance to live along." 52 participants came in the first year, five wineries with 32 participants started their journey this year.

Four times a year, the participants meet for a day-long workshop. "Talk to the grapevines" marks the start into the season, the participants go out into the vineyards and really cut and trim the grapevines themselves. "We had minus twelve degrees Celsius the first time", Thomas remembers, "yet the participants were enthusiastic – and impressed." Most people just didn't know much about the technique of wine making, the use of high tech, the art of trimming, Thomas says: "It does raise the awareness quite a lot."

And the esteem for the wines: "Here, people can see what 'the vintner's signature' really means", Thomas says. Out there, in the vineyards, terroir becomes real and the workload of the winemaker as well. "People say afterwards, they understand much better the product in the bottle – and they understand, why two Euro for a wine is quite out of the question."

Next door, Hubert Schneider intently listens to winemaker Volker Kern explaining the art of raising young grapevines. "I am a passionate wine consumer", Schneider says, "and I wanted to understand better, how that product is made from nature." Living grapevine is the theme of the second workshop in spring, the participants learn how to recognize a variety of different grapevines in the vineyards.

In summer, "a Cuvee in the making" is when they experience a "green harvest" of defoliation and learn about the perfect harvest moment, the treatment of the grape must and the use of yeast in the cellar. And finally, in fall, harvest comes around with hand-picking in the vineyards, the work at the winepress, fermentation control and the art of balancing wines in the cellar. "You can appreciate the wine much better when you know what's behind its making", Monika Menschel says: "Each drop is so precious."

Menschel wants to bring the program to the Nahe region, regions in Australia and even Great Britain asked for the concept of "Winemaker for a Year" already. "We are copied, already", Thomas says, "I am so proud of that."

After the harvest, last year, every participant was handed five liters of must in a glass flask, along with tube and yeast. "People really went into the wine making process", Thomas relates, "some used wet towels to cool down the fermentation process – and it worked." In January, the group met for a very special wine tasting of their own wines. "It was gorgeous", recounts Thomas, "there were so many different wine types." And in the end, "it was the bookseller who had fabricated the best wine."