Arguably the most legendary wine shop in Berlin, Viniculture has been championing biodynamic & natural wines since before most drinkers knew what they were. Owned by German-born Holger Schwarz, a former sommelier in London who took on the shop that started in 1984 and changed its whole direction towards focusing on the (then new and unknown) world of natural wines, Viniculture not only has a showroom of over 500 wines but is a highly respected supplier to many restaurants and bars all over Germany. We sent Holger Schwarz a few questions to find out more about his pioneering natural wine shop.
The business started in 1984, and you took it over having worked there for 10 years in 2006. Why did you want to take it on when the owners decided to sell?
when I started, it was a decent wine shop with the most important provenances like Sancerre, Chablis, Brunello and so on.
In 2006 I was in my late 30s and it was time for me to decide whether I would change to wholesale as a purchaser, or create my own small business with my wines I personally like.
After a longer search for the right financing possibilities, I decided to give it a try.
The location of the shop near Savignyplatz is and always was very good, which was a major reason to take it on.
And after 10 years I had gotten to know the customers well and built up a good relation with most of them.
So what changes where made when you first took it on yourself?
Firstly, we had a refrigerated cabinet with French cheese, Italian ham and other fresh delicatessen and I decided I simply had to get rid of that – I was happy to not be making sandwiches anymore!
Essentially, I am a wine-guy and so I was happier to start with something very polarizing at the time – natural wine.
By introducing biodynamic, organic and natural wines to Berlin at a time no-one else was, did you lose a lot of your previous customer base (especially as some might argue, the quality of most natural wines are far improved in today’s age compared to ten years ago) ?
Yes, kindof! When I started with selling natural wines, every second bottle was given back and deemed faulty! My customers simply didn’t understand – they just thought that the bottles were oxidised and off.
Anyway, a few were impressed and because I believed in it and the energy coming from these raw wines, as well as the people which were producing this bizarre stuff, I followed this lonely route alone.
So for those for are unaware, how would you define a natural wine…. in just one sentence?
Natural wines are grown and produced with little or no intervention and additives!
The nose and taste should be different (less fruity) and more complex than conventional wines.
We admire how there is always a decent amount of bottles open to try wines at Viniculture, as well as special days where even more are open too, especially as with these sorts of wines they can often be unexpected from what you might guess to expect from conventional producers. How do you go about deciding what to open?
There are usually practical reasons for this.
As you know, we enjoy working with the restaurant trade. When a new menu comes up with a client, we open the bottles so that the restaurateur can taste the wine to match his menu. This means we generally always have bottles open for that reason, as well as opening up others just for our customers too.
Our team consists of winemaking technicians and wine specialists from the restaurant scene. I myself am a trained waiter and sommelier. Wine and food are a very central topic for us.
Of course we also open bottles like this because a new vintage has not yet been tasted. The remains of the opened bottles – if they are not poured – end up in a container and offer the basic material for good (natural wine) vinegar, which a friend cook produces from it.
You also organised the large winefair ‘Meet the Winzers’ at the Michelberger Hotel last year, which was amazing as so many incredible producers came to show their wines! Are you planning on doing another in the next 12 months?
Meet The Winzers is every two years; next one will be end of November 2020. But we will have the smaller version of it: SAW (sophisticated artisanal wines) 1st of December 2019 in Kreuzberg, near Lausitzer Platz.
Speaking of winemakers, how do you actually go about finding most of your producers to work with?
We (now) have a good name in Germany when it comes to natural wines. So we receive a lot of samples from vintners.This means we regularly have a team tasting in the evenings with sometimes 70 + bottles to test and evaluate. After that we have dinner together cooked by a member of the staff. That’s always nice and helps us to define the Viniculture style.
That’s one way, but of course there are also recommendations from one winemaker to the other, wine fairs and so on.
When I am in a foreign restaurant I always try to order wines I never tasted before. One or two producers we work with have entered in our portfolio starting like that.
A good idea for us as well is to go to a winebar within a wine region, where you can try several wines, sometimes as well as new, totally unknown producers.
What has been the biggest challenge of Viniculture since you took it on?
The biggest challenges are: Finding and keeping the best staff, working through German bureaucracy, to always find (and sell) new products, optimising the workflow and last but not least: not to lose respect for the alcohol, which is basically a drug!
How do you feel the natural wine scene in Berlin has changed in the past few years… and where do you see it going?
Natural wines are more and more visible now in the gastronomic landscape, not only in “hidden” places – it’s less underground.
But we are increasingly searching to find elegance in these wines. We prefer much more than just face-punchingly stinky and cloudy.
We will find a growing range of these wines, some less natural as at the beginning. Somehow natural wines are already produced from normal wine producers, that aren’t even organic certified.
Natural styled wines will be found as an “Add-on” in the portfolio of conventional producers (same as barrique wines in Germany in the late 1980s). So, let us see where it’s leading … we at Viniculture see ourselves more as a small avant-garde wine merchant and we always keep our eyes and mind open.
Of course, wine tastes for every one of us are constantly evolving, but at the moment of writing this interview what grape region is your current favourite?
We are currently in the process of gaining an overview of natural wines from America (North and South) as well as Australia.
Alcohol-free booze is also an interesting field (verjus!). And France continues to offer great diversity and remains interesting to us.
Which wine producers are you most proud to represent at Viniculture, and why?
Well, there are some producers I know longer than others.
Escoda-Sanahuja’s wines (catalonia) were the first to knock me down in awe, from what I knew.
Pignier (Jura) is very much grounded and established in his country place, and it is a joy to be with him.
Riffault (Loire) is a thick skull, but so clear about what his wine should be and taste like. I appreciate this self-understanding very much.
Do you ever struggle with customers returning wines that are perfectly fine, but being natural and perhaps not what they expected they return them as faulty?
Yes, even sommeliers give back good natural wine. It is an issue!
That is why we regularly conduct tastings for our (restaurant) customers.
In addition, you really have to point out the special taste to the customers in the shop or have them taste it best!
Do you ever miss being a sommelier?
Hehe, there are hardly any sommeliers my age!
No,to be honest. The working hours, the exhausting guests that you might have to endure for 3 hours, that is definitely behind me…
And life in London is only fun if you earn a lot of loot.
You can take 3 bottles from Viniculture with you to a desert island. What would they be and why?
Riffault , older vintage Sancerre – because they show how nice natural wines can age. There is strength, energy, hidden Sauvignon fruit, which is getting stronger with every sip.
Warnung Grüner Veltliner – the wines of this talented young man are so deep and mysterious, so serious and different to all the other producers in Austria. Love it.
Leiner “Riesling Delight” a Viniculture project-wine with Sven Leiner, Pfalz. Sven has become a good friend within the last 10 years. He is still so interested and open to all our crazy ideas. This Riesling was fermented on the skins, it’s really spacious and profound.
Working with wine and it’s addictive / dangerous properties, is it sometimes challenging to work surrounded by it every day, in a business where your expertise revolves around knowing the wines so intimately?
Yes, wine is dangerous and I think every sommelier and waiter should learn in school, what it does to you. You are in real danger, if you lose the distance between you and the wine.
And if you’re always with people who drink too much, you think it’s normal.
That’s why I usually only have cooking wine at home and no supply, so I cannot be tempted.
What’s the reality of actually working in the wine industry like?
A lot of paper work and administration, it is really not enough that a wine tastes good, we have to check, if the wine-partner really wants and if he is serious to have a relationship with us.
Staff is hard to find. We are lucky, that people are always interested in our work, our wines and in the way we sell them. After all, wine is alcohol and as dangerous as good.
Of course, you’re in charge of Viniculture but one thing we love about the place is how your whole team are so knowledgeable and friendly too. Many restaurants struggle to find good staff… is it the same in the wine industry?
First of all, thanks for the compliment!
I have always wanted my shop to be a centre for (avant-garde) wines and exchange. Everyone has his preferences and abilities.
To make this possible for my company is actually my main job. Only if you create an attractive space and climate for your customers, but above all for your own staff, will you also get interested and lively employees!
The same applies to restaurants and of course many other industries.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of opening up a wine importing business in Berlin?
The market has become very narrow. We notice that every day. You need good contacts and should be networked before you open your shop for the first time.
You need a certain financial cushion – wine is expensive.
In addition to good storage possibilities, vehicles, coworkers, you’ll pay plenty of taxes and so need to understand this extensive goods economy, in order not to lose your focus.
In the best case, one of the owners should be familiar with webshops and technology. This becomes more and more important as time goes on.
Where do you love to eat and drink in Berlin at the moment?
I really go out a lot.
An all time favourite is Hallmann & Klee in Neukölln. I love Sarah Hallmann and her attitude.
Otherwise I am open for nearly everything.
What I like less and less is sharing a plate with 3 items for a table of 4. As well I do not like too tiny portions. I just get drunk too fast.
Complete the following sentence “ For me, Berlin…”
…was for a long time hard to handle and strange – I was born in the Pfalz, a gentle wine country. Today, after 24 years here, I found peace here – and a place where I can live all the different lives that are in me.
Viniculture really is an incredible wine shop to visit – the staff are so knowledgable and the choice of wines is absolutely remarkable. Don’t worry if you’re new to natural wine, they not only are experts at advising for every taste but have wines ranging from what you might be used to, to ones you won’t believe at all! Pop in and say hello, stop for a glass to sip outside and ask for some recommendations! We promise you’ll love it !