Competition – Jeff Vogel

An (unedited) entry in our seminal wine competition

My name is Jeff Vogel. I’ve served on active duty in the United States Air Force since 1999—an unremarkable vintage in most cases, but meaningful to me regardless. My career as an air traffic controller has taken me many places, but none as fine and memorable as Germany. I’d spent a number of years there in my youth. My father, the venerable Patrick “Herr” Vogel (photographed here with me), was an early doyen in the world of popcorn, a noble endeavor indeed. You see, in the early 80’s, movie-goers in European markets demanded the same banal culinary diversions as Hollywood folk, and so the demand for popcorn grew. (Rather immensely, if my five-year old memory serves me correctly.)

With his German fluency well affirmed—thank you, Rotary International—my father took a senior sales position in Bad Homburg and planted us firmly there until my own dual fluency had flourished. I doubt that was the point, but it was certainly the payoff. I wish I could remember more of that experience. The pictures are astounding; the stories, too. Castles, beer, sausages, questionable characters with more cigarettes than teeth, and vineyards aplenty. But alas, these are largely unwritten pages in my nascent youth.

Fast-forward about seventeen years, and I’m back in Germany. The odds were resolutely against this based on my junior rank and experience, and no one got a direct assignment like this. One had to endure Korea first, or brave some frozen redoubt in Greenland. And yet I felt my feet firmly planted on hot asphalt in some idyllic and unpronounceable German village. It is at this point I wish to stress the word “hot”. Of all the summers—of all the years!—we could have moved to any patch of earth, we were blessed with the summer of 2003 in Germany. It seemed as if the air were on fire. Not embers and ashes; not a parlor fire; but a veritable inferno. We could not escape it.

My very Nebraskan wife—a wellspring of useful, practical insights—was quick to note the absence of air conditioning in our third-floor apartment. I failed to recognize the import of this in May of 2003; my deep failure was apparent in June. I imagined a beer—any beer—that could sate my insatiable thirst. After all, I was a self-proclaimed “beer guy”. But an unfiltered wheat beer, heavy and clove-ridden, was hardly the swift and bracing tonic I needed. Bitburg, based on earlier encounters, was a winter beer: a mouthful of wet, prickly hay, snake oil, and last year’s lawn clippings. There were a few lagers that seemed to fit the bill, but I wouldn’t make it one meter out the front door of the Getränkemarkt with a rack of twenty bottles. Not in that heat.

I needed wine, I recall. Something refreshing at least, with a modicum of alcohol to distract us from the bonfire we lived in. If it proved to be lip-smacking and memorable, then at least we’d have prescriptive measures for the next conflagration. I asked the Getränkemarkt’s store-worker for his recommendation, (auf Deutsch, of course), but he seemed as familiar with his wine selection as I was. Nevertheless, he seemed to hold Riesling in high regard, and so I grabbed the only one cold enough to pay for, a 2001 Riesling Kabinett Trocken from the Lucashof winery in Forst. The vineyard, according to my now-hilarious tasting notes, was the Forster Stift (or, “monastery”, for those as curious as I).

It was—and still is—a wine I’ll always return to in reverence. Neither famous nor unique in any way, it was still as mythical to me as Zeus. Few are the wines today that could match the irony of a 5 Euro, 2001 Forster Stift: weightless density, profound grace, and nail-biting nuance. After years and years spent unraveling the mysteries of wine, I can still feel the virgin rapture of Riesling. The first sip, the first tingling on the sides of my tongue, the first unshakeable urge to draw a wine in words, the first glass gone, the second one promptly thereafter. We could not feel the heat anymore that year, although I think we chose to think of other things beside it. After all, there was this limpid yellow-white nectar in our glasses, and it tasted like a river flowing in the Garden of Eden.