Monday, July 7, 2008

Can't we all just get along and drink each other's wines? Or, how wine and politics do not mix! A rant against prejudice against German wines

Pieces of the Berlin Wall, at Deutsche Echt in Koblenz
Inscription: "Dedicated to the Victims of the Separation"

My relationship with the German culture began when I immigrated to Canada at the age of 4. We moved to a neighborhood traditionally inhabited by immigrants - the wave previous to ours was of Germans and other central Europeans. So, we lived really close to a fantastic German delicatessen and several bakeries and pastry shops. Often, our family would treat ourselves to Black Forest ham sandwiches made on big tasty Kaiser buns, Black Forest cakes, and all sorts of other goodies.

When I entered Kindergarten (another German word), the coolest kid in school was a blond girl of 5 (we were all 5) who exuded a certain confidence and charm that made other kids, boys and girls, want to sit next to her. Her name was Jennifer Hildebrand, and I still remember it! No, I didn't have a girl-crush on her, but still, she was that popular and cool! She was the polar opposite to the ugly duckling that was me - black hair in an uncool style, boyish clothes, and not much of a command of the English language.

That's what it was like growing up in Canada, a country that I have finally figured out is way more Germanic than it is here. Even the town of Kitchener in the province of Ontario used to be called Berlin, until World War II when it became a shame to be associated with the German capital city, and it was changed to Kitchener. The fact was, many people in Canada were and are of German descent, so much so that it used to be taught frequently as a language course in university.
Fast forward to now, and I'm selling German wine with passion. It has been great and I've been very enthused. But what I have noticed from time to time is this underlying prejudice against German wine and maybe all things German, or maybe some select German things. It's odd. For example, a couple of weeks ago I was pouring a Gruner Veltliner (from Austria) for a gentleman, and he started telling me how he didn't like anything German, even though he himself was German (though grew up in the United States). He went on to explain that growing up during and after the second world war, it just wasn't good to be German, and that feeling stays with him even now. Plus, he added, he just didn't like German traits, which he perceived as strictness and rigidity. He did add that he had visited Germany and found everyone very, very nice. And yet he still had this prejudice against German wine, and of course, that spread to things that weren't German wine, such as Gruner Veltliner, which sounds German.

He is not the first person to express such sentiments. Sometimes, the comments are more subtle, less in words, more in non-verbals. Sometimes it comes veiled in a joke, or a warning, or a brush-off. Or a refusal to see anything beautiful in something already decided as the incarnation of evil.

It is like the winemakers in Germany should pay for the sins of the Nazis. That doesn't make sense to me! And it strikes me as so rude! It is like if someone suggested we go for sushi tonight that I break into a rant about how the Japanese raped the Chinese capital of Nanking, or that they ransacked as much of Asia as possible during the same second world war, doing inhumane human experimentations and taking on "comfort women" wherever they could.

See, that's just not cool!

Or, should we hold California winemakers accountable for the attrocities in Vietnam? Should we bring up napalm and other unpleasantness if someone is offering us a taste of Zinfandel? I think not!

The issue here is mistaking politics for ethnicity. Or mistaking a country's misguided and plainly bad political situation (and politician) with the people of that country. Because it is my view that the people of that country - whatever country one may think this and that about - have little control over what the politicians foreign policy is. Sure, there may be supporters, and that is hard to digest, but the fact is, humans, all humans, have the ability to do evil. And they have the ability to do good. And they have the ability to make beautiful things beyond your imagination: music, art, food, wine.

Still not sure what the stigma of German wine is all about some times - people fall over themselves buying BMWs and Mercedes Benzes, and even Volkswagons - that's apparently okay. I'm not saying most people have this issue but I'm just bringing up the notion that I don't think political views hold any weight when saying "no" to a wine - it's just an excuse. Same goes for French wines. Please! Making negative comments about "I just won't drink French" does NOT sound cool or patriotic or particularly knowledgeable. I'm not trying to stomp our freedom of speech, but just calling out what I see as rudeness and hypocrisy.
Here's another anecdote: Allie Mitchell of Rudi Wiest Selections and I did a German wine dinner in April of this year up in Santa Monica, and it was a lot of fun. One couple was a German lady married to an American man, and they met when he was stationed in Germany. The lady told me out of the blue that when phylloxera hit German vineyards, grape growers were scrambling because all their vines were dying from the louse. They were trying to import American rootstocks to graft their vines onto them, but Hitler wouldn't allow it - he didn't want anything American. I don't what this story means, but for me I guess it says how powerless we are as citizens sometimes to the whims of the government.
I'm not sure how this story here will read, whether it's a snore, or just another rant on a blog, but hopefully I have communicated what I feel. Finally, I'll just say I'm not saying that all Canadians are necessarily that tolerant or have so gotten over the world wars and things - especially since there are many European immigrants that were affected by various war atrocities. Also (another finally!), I hope I don't sound insensitive to people who were affected, though probably I do. People have a right to be sensitive! I'm just not sure it is a justification for prejudice. And sometimes, I think prejudice is a result of group-think, not just hurt and sensitivity, so I'd just like to see less of it.
Finally, finally, I'm just saying, let's all just get along and drink wine from various places, without too many hang-ups! It's not the winemaker's fault!! Drink German wines! And French and Austrian too!


David McDuff said...

Way to rant, Nancy! Seriously, good post. In my experience on the East Coast, the bias pointed at French wine has been of a much more political nature, whereas the fear/apparent dislike of German wines seems to stem mainly from plain ignorance, i.e., "Ooh, aren't they all sweet? I don't like sweet wine."

Samantha Dugan said...

Can I just say, "Here here sister!". Wine is supposed to be a civil beverage. I heard my fair share of anti-French wine comments as I'm sure you know and when I hear it now it takes all the restraint I have not to say, "You have got to be kidding me". The thing that always floors me is that not buying French, German or whatever wine is not going to hurt France or Germany, they will sell those wines in other are only hurting "American" retailers and importers. Seems like the idea was never quite thought through...
Any and all prejudice is ugly, plain and simple. Don't let them get you too upset, we can just sit back and drink the bounty of wines their narrow minds wont allow them too! Hooray for us.

Nancy Deprez said...

Whew! Thanks guys! I was worried that the post was too political!

Yeah, I totally don't get the anti-French thing. Why anti-French? What did the French do????????

Indeed, wine is supposed to be a civil beverage, a beverage for socializing and being part of a society. Let's do it!

Nancy Deprez said...

Woohoo! I just sold a bunch of German wine!

Samantha Dugan said...

Ha haha Yea, I just rang in that order! Super cool....
The post is political but not "too", it needed to be said and you said it beautifuly!