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German Family Wine Businesses Change Hands

Family companies have a special place in the wine world these days: witness Australia’s First Families of Wine, New Zealand’s Family of XII, and similar organisations in other parts of the world.

The oldest winemaking families that I know of are the Antinori (tastings) and the Frescobaldi (tastings) in Tuscany, each with a 600-plus year lineage, and the Chaves (tastings) in Hermitage, with more than 500.

While in Germany, I was struck by two of the greatest family wine businesses which were tragically lost to the founding families. Reichsgraf Von Kesselstatt was a family business for more than 700 years until 1977 when Franz Kesselstatt made the decision to sell. This terminated the family’s continuous operation since 1164. Franz, who died just last year, apparently couldn’t decide which family members should inherit and run the place and the easiest solution was to sell it.

I spent a most enjoyable afternoon tasting with Annegret Reh, who owns and manages this great Mosel-Saar-Ruwer estate today. Her father bought it from the Kesselstatt family. According to those who knew Franz, including Sydney wine man Christopher Anstee (who was working for the Kesselstatts in Trier at the time of the sale), the decision broke the old man’s heart. Says Anstee: “over the course of more than 700 years the Kesselstatt family had amassed exceptional vineyard holdings, in extent second only to the Catholic Church. Notwithstanding the demise of the Holy Roman Empire, the 100 Years War, Napoleon etc., and the two huge 20th century wars, his ancestors had sacrificed whatever was necessary in order to hold onto their vineyard assets, and then he sold them all…”

The second case is Schloss Vollrads (tastings), in the Rheingau, a great vineyard estate which was owned by the Greifenclau family for 900 years until the death of Count Matuschka-Greifenclau, who saddened and shocked the wine world by taking his own life in 1997. Schloss Vollrads is now owned by a German bank, and has not only recovered from a parlous financial state but grown and prospered under this ownership and the management of Dr Rowald Hepp, one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet in the wine world.

Matuschka-Greifenclau was a larger-than-life character, a raconteur and popular bon vivant, with friends the world over. But, according to Dr Hepp, he found himself in a bind. The property was going broke and he couldn’t bring himself to sack the incompetent key employees who needed to be let go. Hepp himself was a friend, working elsewhere, when Greinfencalu asked him to quietly take a look at the books, and Hepp informed him that the place was insolvent. It was a terrible blow to a proud aristocrat. The shame of a high-profile gentleman presiding over the demise of a great and famous business was too much for him.

Of course, long and distinguished family tenure brings with it special stresses, including unspoken pressure on the next generations to continue the tradition. These days, wine families are aware of the implications and are at pains not to push their children into the family business. 

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