In the eye of the law
THE GUARDIAN WEEKEND, MARCH 19 1994
FOOD AND DRINK
When Rainer Lingenfelder decided to create a new German wine, the last thing he expected was a run-in with the authorities.
But his creation has spelled only trouble – initially at least. Hilary Wright reports.
PROSECUTION for a spelling mistake? Seems a mite heavy-handed, even in these times of state curriculum control. For German winemaker Rainer Lingenfelder, however, it’s reality. The police are on his case, and he reckons he’s got about four weeks before the spelling detectives haul him in again. And why? Because of a series of acts which, within the confines of the world of German wine, seem positively rebellious.
Sixties child Lingenfelder, a winemaker fed up with the creeping colonization of his native land by the Big Two, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, has decided to fight back. He’s decided to beat Chardonnay at its own game by creating a neutral grape with the taste oak added, just like with fashionable Chardonnay, but with its roots in regional tradition.
He lighted upon Silvaner, widely grown in Germany but disregarded for its neutral taste. He used this neutrality to give the wine an oaky taste – not any old oak, mind, and particularly not the ubiquitous little French barrels, barriques. He took Pfalz oak, grown just a few miles up the road, and had it formed into "Stueckfaesser", the traditional oval 1,200-litre vats.
Adding oak to Silvaner, his first act of rebellion, was a conscious decision. But then a second accidental rebellion hit. The local Wine Control Board inspector was doing his rounds, and took exception while making a routine check to the label Lingenfelder had designed for his new creation.
Lingenfelder had run into a problem about how to label the new bottle. He saw this new wine as part of a new philosophy he was developing – part of a new zeitgeist, a new spirit of the age, one which involved going back to regional wine-making roots and marrying tradition with new technologies.
He’d already created a "Zeitgeist R", with Riesling, and "Zeitgeist S", with Scheurebe. Silvaner therefore needed a different initial. He tried "I", but it looked more like a tourist information office symbol. So he took the variant spelling instead, and called the wine "Zeitgeist Y: Sylvaner".
This is what did it. This is what had the bureaucrat up in arms, It wasn't a variant spelling, but a deviant. The word "Sylvaner" does not apparently appear on the approved list of How To Spell Grape Varieties, and is therefore verboten. Investigation of a possible crime under the Wine Law commenced.
Lingenfelder began his own investigation. He discovered that back in 1940, in Nazi Germany, the wine regulation board had decided that spelling Silvaner with a Y was "unGerman". Henceforth only the "I" spelling would be permitted. One prominent member of the board, Georg Scheu, thought the decision ludicrous. In a courageous two-page article, complete with satirical poem, he lampooned the board for wasting its time on trivia.
This struck a resounding chord with Lingenfelder. Scheu is his hero, creator of Lingenfelder’s favourite grape variety Scheurebe (rebe means grape). Lingenfelder’s second son is even named Georg in his honour. This was clearly a special cause, a cause he was prepared to fight for.
Meanwhile the investigation trundled on. Now the case even had an official number. Eventually Lingenfelder agreed to amend his label, and the case was shelved.
Some amendment. The new wine is ready to be shipped, and it’s true the label has been completely redesigned. Although the word "Sylvaner" has gone, it hasn’t been replaced by the approved spelling. In its place we get the single letter "Y", and all around it a thick red pen obliterates where S-lvaner might once have been. [SEE LABEL] Beneath it an apparently new name for the wine: Ypsilon, the name of the letter "Y". Confused? That's the whole idea. Lingenfelder explains what’s going on in a label attached by a little piece of thread to the neck of the bottle, because he’s not allowed to put any of that information on a label attached to the bottle itself.
There’s a final new section on the label that goes straight for the jugular, though. Beneath the Ypsilon it reads:
"In homage to Georg Scheu and his rebellion against the I-dotting bureaucrats." Guaranteed to warm the prosecutors’ hearts, don’t you think?
Lingenfelder is about to put the bottles on sale, and reckons he’s got a month at most before the Wine Control Board comes after him.
He expects to be told to obliterate the dedication: "Well, German wine law forbids anything to appear on a label unless it's expressly allowed. And dedications aren’t expressly allowed... well, a little more red ink on the label will add a bit of colour".
Lingenfelder is certainly adding colour to the normally dreadfully dull German Wine Law. For him, there’s a principle at stake: "It’s just one of those things where the grip of the government bureaucrat is getting tighter. They try to regulate every aspect of life. If they enforce senseless regulations why should I submit?"
He is inspired by Georg Scheu’s willingness to stand up against the idiocies of bureaucracy at a dangerous time. "He wasn’t just an anonymous person, he was a prominent official. Rebelling against official decisions was very dangerous. "I" was considered properly Germanic, so he was skating on very thin ice. If supporting the "Y" spelling had been branded "un-Aryan" he could have been in serious trouble. But even in those days people still stood up for what they believed in."
He sees disturbing parallels with today. "Especially when we think we’re living in such a free world. We aren’t really. We’re overrun with bureaucrats. If we’re not prepared to stand up for the little things, chances are low for the big issues."
There are also more prosaic reasons for allowing the variant spelling, possibly not unconnected with local rivalry. "Alsace is allowed to spell it with a Y and it’s the same bloody grape variety."
There’s more to it than that, though. Lingenfelder's protest is an expression of his frustration with a bureaucracy which he feels is tying his hands behind his back at a time when international competition gets ever tougher.
"Look at the Australians. They can put anything they please on a wine label. And they chase me for an 'I' instead of a 'Y'. The committees are run by men who’ve never been anywhere where they can't see their local church tower. What do they know about the international marketplace? How can we fight off the threat from the new world like this?" He thinks they’re fiddling while Rome burns, and who can blame him'!
published: THE GUARDIAN WEEKEND, MARCH 19 1994, page 46-4