Florian Minzlaff writes, 'I am thirty years old and was born and raised in Berlin, Germany. I’ve mostly been abroad for the past ten years spending my time studying Gastronomic Sciences in Italy and Conflict Resolution in Northern Ireland. But most importantly, I’ve been working as a cellar hand at various wineries around the Northern and Southern hemisphere. For now, I am back in Berlin trying to resist the urge to move to wine country.’ This is his (unedited) entry in our seminal wine competition.
I don’t remember exactly the first time I set foot into Gérard’s French wine shop. It is located on a busy neighborhood shopping street on the western edge of central Berlin. Gérard founded his business in 1979 and it is, to this day, the oldest French wine merchant in town. At that time, Berlin and Germany were divided into East and West by a massive concrete wall. The British, American and French forces occupying West-Berlin at the time, added a significant amount of colour to a grey post-WWII city that was not known for culinary riches.
Originally hailing from the Champagne region, Gérard had come to Berlin to bring French drinking culture and joie de vivre to a city that was thirsty for distraction and entertainment.
Roughly two and a half decades later I first set foot into Gérard’s shop as a teenage student. I must have been fifteen or sixteen years old. Let’s say sixteen – for that is the legal drinking age for wine in Germany. At home, I had become intrigued by the occasional bottle of Muscadet or Sancerre (purchased at Gérard’s) on my parents’ kitchen counter. Their cryptic yet alluring labels meant nothing to me but casual sipping under my parents’watchful eyes had sparked a vague interest. So, one day I made my way up the street and around the corner to Gérard’s shop, pushed open the glass-paneled wooden door and enquired: Could they help a teenager with little money to spend and no expertise find a decent bottle of wine to enjoy with friends?
It turned out, they could. I was welcomed into a small space with dark wooden shelves full of wine bottles, organized by region. There was a large, illustrated map of France on the wall. A small refrigerated counter with French cheeses and terrines humming in the back of the shop. Gérard – short and stocky –and his assistants Christophe and Philip were a jovial and sincere presence in the shop.
Coming here was always a true adventure, like stepping off the street and through the door would whisk you away to a brief vacation in France. There was always a new wine open to taste. Sometimes, if you just showed enough interest, Gérard or Christophe would step to the cheese counter and pick out a tasty morsel to try with the wine. They would then point to the large map on the wall and explain where the food and wine originated from and how they were connected.
My most memorable event in the shop involved the humblest of wines. From a tall and slim bottle, Gérard poured me a glass of Picpoul de Pinet from Languedoc. It was light and crisp with a twist of grapefruit peel and pear. He then went on to describe to me the Bassin de Thau, the lagoon that is wedged between the Mediterranean and the Picpoul de Pinet AOC region, and the local shellfish caught from the waters and prepared in the villages around. “They eat it with mayonnaise and a bottle of Picpoul”, Gérard said. Of course, there was no fresh seafood from the lagoon for me to try in that moment, yet I couldn’t help but feel transported to the French Mediterranean coast. I could almost feel the light breeze on my skin, smell the wet rocks and taste the salty shellfish and the creaminess of the mayonnaise cut by the Picpoul’s sharp acidity.
From then on, I was hooked. I have been back many times to buy a bottle or two, but just as much to experience these short journeys to the places where the food and wine are created. Becoming acquainted with a certain region and to learn about its soul without even being there – that is truly the magic of wine, if you ask me.
I owe this formative experience not to a specific bottle of wine, but rather to a place; this small wine shop that was, and still is, so alive with the spirit of sharing and passing on the knowledge of wine to a complete novice with very little money to spend. Between the first time I set foot into that particular shop and now, Gérard has handed over ownership to his former assistants Christophe and Philip. They have been able to grow and expand their business, starting a second location just down the road. I’d like to thank all three of them for facilitating my first steps into wine so skillfully and I raise my glass to all the small independent wine merchants who communicate about wine so passionately.