Saturday, October 22, 2005

Another Night On The Town

I tell ya, I spend all week waiting for various people in various countries to get back to me about various projects, and nothing doing. I could have been working! But no, nothing doing. Then, all of a sudden, I have three things to do in one day.

Mid-afternoon yesterday I headed for Berlin's hinterlands, where I jumped into a car with a couple of my friends and their young daughter and headed out to the middle of nowhere to the Havelpark, a gigantic shopping mall. The reason? My favorite German winemaker, the ebulliently eccentric Heribert Kastell was, for some reason, selling wine there.

I first met Heribert when a couple of friends of mine here made an ill-fated investment in a restaurant. It was a superb restaurant, in a superb location, but they got screwed by some legal technicalities relating to the sale, and lost everything they had -- another Berlin success story: no matter how good you are, someone will come along to make sure you don't succeed. But before it all crashed, they invited me to a dinner and tasting with Kastell, and said he was their favorite winemaker, so, knowing their exquisite taste, I agreed to show up. Heribert was in fine form, opening various wines, and matching them perfectly with the food. I was dead broke, so I couldn't do anything but nod approvingly and remember his name.

Then, a year later, I was both writing for the Wall Street Journal Europe and heading to Cologne. His headquarters is in Bingen, an hour or so south of town, and so I headed down there with a friend who was living in Cologne and did a story on him. He drove us to the land he'd inherited from his family and told about how, after skipping a generation while his father was a butcher, he'd decided to reclaim the family business. Not only the family business: the Rheinhessen, where he's located, has a very poor reputation for wine in Germany, and he was out to rehabilitate that, too. No more weak, sweet wines like Grandma liked. Nope: he was going to use his experience apprenticing at Schlossgut Diel, one of Germany's top estates, to good use. The idea of bigger, drier wines was an idea whose time had come, and now he was advising younger winemakers on how to turn their production around. By the time I visited him, in 1997, he was selling out nearly everything he was producing, to clients like Deutsche Bank's main executive dining room. That didn't stop him from loading me up with enough stuff to take home and try that it took me a couple of years to get through most of it, and I saved a 1994 Riesling Sekt, his answer to champagne, for the 1999/2000 New Year's evening, when I enjoyed a tremendous wine, redolent of hazelnuts and flowers, as the Millenium changed.

The next year, I was back in Cologne for PopKomm, and one of the guys from SXSW, with whom I was working, declared he'd never had a German wine he'd liked. We had an extra day, so I called my friend and he agreed to drive us down there. We got to Bingen, I called Heribert's house, and was fortunate to get his brother, an archaeologist specializing in Native American archaeology, and based at the University of Wisconsin, on the line. Heribert had just packed off for a wine fair near Frankfurt, and his brother was loading the car with more wine and said he'd meet us there.

We walked into the fair, and there was the Kastell stand at the end of a row of stands. Heribert saw us coming and waved. "Heribert," I said as we got there, "my friend from America here says he's never had a German wine he liked." His eyes lit up and he grabbed a couple of glasses. "I hope you have a little bit of time," he said. As much as he was willing to spare, we said. A couple of hours later, we weaved away from the stand, my friend wondering how he'd ever get so many bottles through customs.

But I lost track of Heribert for a while after that, and it wasn't until my suburban friends announced earlier this year that he was coming to visit them over lunchtime that I saw him again. This time, it was obvious that he'd made great strides. He had a Kastell Klassik Riesling, which was, simply, the Platonic ideal of a German Riesling. He had begun experimenting with other grapes, including the Blauer Portugeser, which produces some of Europe's worst wine, out of which he made a rosé with amazing vanilla and floral tones. This being a classic German granny tipple, it was typical of his attitude towards winemaking: it's universally derided? Time to give it a spin! There were also a couple of others, very limited editions, which were just as astonishing.

Yesterday he didn't have as much in the way of avant-garde goods, but he did have some good solid stuff, including a couple of reds, one, a Frühburgunder (Pinot Noir), which I swear has a nose of gunpowder -- or, rather, gunpowder after it's gone off. I bought three. Yes, German reds.

As we stood and sampled, I watched the heavily-laden Friday-night shopping carts being pushed along by the Brandenburgers who come to Havelpark to shop at Kaufland, surely one of the largest supermarkets I've seen in Europe, filled with about 85% stuff I'd never consider eating. It seemed that the more heavily-laden a cart was, the worse the nutrition represented by what was visible in it. The bad nutrition was also evident on the faces and bodies of the customers, and it reinforced my observation that this part of the country is one which takes no pleasure whatever at the table. Even so, it should try to feed its families better.

We were there for about two hours, sampling things Heribert poured -- I don't use that much white wine, so although it was interesting to taste, I wasn't blown away enough to actually buy any -- and watching the parade. Finally, we made our purchases and left. I'd bought some Riesling Klassik, and some of that good Pinot, and Heribert had given me another couple of bottles to try. My friends, who are headed to Frankfurt soon, made tentative plans to visit him in Bingen, which is only 60 km away, and we headed out to the car with the booty.

My next stop was a Halloween party, although 3-year-old Amalia didn't approve, it not being Halloween yet. This invitation had come out of the blue, with a phone call earlier this week. I'd been expecting a call from a British guy working on a very interesting project (the remastered Harry Smith Anthology), and when the voice on the other end had a British accent, I assumed it was him. It wasn't: it was Alex, the owner of Another Country, a used book store I'd been hanging out in at the end of last year and early this year, as Alex tried to cobble together some sort of expat community non-profit organization. The trouble was, each conversation took hours, and I had to be there in person, and, after a long hiatus, my time was actually getting used up doing actual work for a while, so I stopped going. I really don't think I'd talked with the guy since about January, and here he was, inviting me to his Halloween party.

It was tons of fun, as I sort of half-expected, with the store's regulars, mostly sci-fi fans like the owner, all in costume, mostly Goth-y stuff, as one would expect. What one wouldn't expect was a huge amount of great food, all prepared by our host, who was on the verge of collapse, as you might expect. I met Heidi, a strapping young woman who'd lived in Austin and was now living in Schöneberg, and Bernie, an affable Jamaican slightly older than myself, who'd gone from St. Catherine's to Harvard just as the '60s began to ripen in that area of the world, and who had known Richard Fariña.

Trouble was, I didn't get to stay as long as I wanted to there, because duty called. I had helped put together the Bubblegum Film Festival, which was essentially a screening of a strange bootleg film called Bubblegum Music is the Naked Truth, based on the book of the same name. Because the film is, let's not mince words, illegal, showing it is, too, except if it's part of a larger event. So it was decided that D Strauss, music editor of the otherwise-crappy local English-language rag The Ex-Berliner, would read an excerpt from the book and then DJ a few hours of bubblegum music.

The event got picked by lots of our local media, but as it turned out, there were only something like four paying customers. Strauss was jet-lagged all to hell, and apparently had forgotten he was supposed to read, so he slurred his way in a monotone through a text which wound up being pretty much word-for-word repeated by the first few minutes of the film, which, at around two hours, was waaaaay too long. Each artist, and I use the term loosely, as about half of them were cartoon characters, was represented by two songs, which, in some cases, was two too many. As the lights went up, most of the audience bolted for the doors so fast you'd think the Berlin Marathon had just started. As I was out on the sidewalk afterwards, waiting for some friends to conclude some business inside the cinema, along came Heidi from Another Country. "Hey! This is my neighborhood! Is this where the bubblegum thing was? I'm sorry I couldn't come. But I gotta love this town." She pointed at the Klingon ears which poked out of her black-dyed hair. "I just rode all the way back here on the U-Bahn and nobody even noticed this." Heidi, stick around. You'll see much scarier aliens on the U-Bahn. Try Zoo Station at about 11pm.

So I think in the next couple of weeks I'll take some books I don't want down to Alex and shoot the breeze with him and see if he's gotten anywhere with this thing. I'm already in exit mode, I can feel it every time I walk into another part of town I haven't been in recently and wonder if this is the last time I'll see it for a while. But with the reduced daylight, the coming of horrible weather, and all, this is the time when community does make a difference in Berlin. It won't get better for six months, if that. It helps to have others around.

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