2018 Primetime Emmy
& James Beard Award Winner

Raiding the wine cellar with Billy Wagner

Drinking unique wines in Kreuzberg at the home of Billy Wagner, sommelier and proprietor of Berlin’s Michelin-starred Nobelhart & Schmutzig.

Drinking unique wines in Kreuzberg at the home of Billy Wagner, sommelier and proprietor of Berlin’s Michelin-starred Nobelhart & Schmutzig.

This is an edited and condensed transcript from my conversation with Billy. Listen to the episode for free on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

If you want to build a vineyard, that’s a lot of paperwork.

Nathan Thornburgh: All right, well, let’s pour and toast, and then we’ll talk about this beautiful thing. Cheers.

Billy Wagner: This is a wine from 2011 made by Sven Leiner from the winery Weingut Jürgen Leiner, from Ilbesheim in Palatinate Pfalz.

Thornburgh: Palatinate Pfalz. Where from Berlin is that?

Wagner: About 220 kilometers north of Strasbourg.

Thornburgh: North from Strasbourg, France?

Wagner: Yes. It’s close to the French border. It’s a wine from a vineyard called The Kalmit, which has limestone soil. It’s a new vineyard, label-wise. In Germany, the German wine law, from 1971, states that only certain names for certain vineyards are allowed to be used, and this was not one of them, because it was too small and nobody had any interest in it and so on. Before that, it had been used but then fell out of use. If you want to use this, now you have to apply to legally use that name on the label.

Thornburgh: It’s still true. You can’t just go to some part and say, “I’m now creating a wine region that I’m going to call Nathania.”

Wagner: Not, that’s not possible.

Thornburgh: A lot of paperwork.

Wagner: Yes. You actually cannot plant just any wine anywhere you want.

Thornburgh: Really?

Wagner: No.

Thornburgh: What about hobbyists and stuff? This doesn’t really exist?

Wagner: That’s obviously something different, for private consumption. If you want to build a vineyard, that’s a lot of paperwork.

Thornburgh: Got it.

Wagner: But there was always wine [in that area]. They could use the grapes from there, but they couldn’t use the origin name on the label. They applied, and in 2010, they were finally allowed to use the name [on the label]. We did a wine with them, a small batch of 300 bottles or so, and it was one cask or so each of Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, another. The idea was to reflect everything that grows in the vineyard and to reflect this in the wine, to reflect the origin in a certain way.

Thornburgh: Yeah. This is a lot of different grapes.

Wagner: A lot of different grapes. It’s not one grape. It’s three, four grapes but they’ve been growing for many years in this vineyard. They were picked, and they were used for that wine, which was a kind of specialty from the restaurant I worked at before.

Thornburgh: That’s interesting, because I tend to think when you’re blending grapes that you lose character. This is my amateur thing. This has a lot of interest to it.

Wagner: One of the most important wines in the world, Bordeaux, is always a blend. Blends were done back in the day. People actually planted as many grapes and wines differently as possible in a vineyard to create a liquid, and people drank this liquid instead of water, because water was usually poisonous, or difficult to drink because it had bacteria in it.

Thornburgh: It was a more immediate acting poison than wine.

Wagner: People drank wine instead of water, because it was cleaner. People always created a blend of something. Then, in Bordeaux, they had these different grape varieties. One year, the Merlot was better. One year, Cabernet Franc was better. One year, the Cabernet Sauvignon was better and so on and so on and so on. This blending idea is something where you’d be able to take the advantage of one wine, take the advantage of another, and create a good wine. Also, if the Merlot is not so great this year, but the Cabernet Sauvignon is good you put them together, they give a decent result.

Thornburgh: Is there a Cliffs Notes version of wine in Germany? I imagine it’s like Roman invaders bringing grapes with them from Italy. Am I off my rocker? What do you know about the kind of earliest hints of wine in Germany?

Wagner: Probably in the Mosel region, something around 600 AD, you know.

Thornburgh: Long after the Romans.

Wagner: Long after the Romans but, obviously, probably before as well. Those were the first records, I think.

Thornburgh: German wines are not secret. You and I were both in Lebanon recently. They have a much harder road to communicate their wine culture, I think, to the wider world than, say, Germany does. But still Germany is beer country. Everybody knows it as a beer country. Does that ever fuck with your head a little bit? You’re not going to go slamming Bud Lights a bar. You’re at the top of the game in the wine world, but you’re in a beer country.

Wagner: Do you know who the biggest Pinot Noir producer in the world is? Germany.

Thornburgh: I should have guessed.

Wagner: Benchmark-wise, France, Italy, and Spain are probably very, very important. If you want to produce Cabernet, you benchmark yourself with Bordeaux. Pinot is Burgundy, obviously. Sauvignon is Loire, maybe. When we talk about these things, Sangiovese, it’s Italy and all the rest. But in Germany, it’s Riesling. You want to produce a Riesling in the Finger Lakes in the US, you should open up something from the Germany side to see where you’re standing. When it comes to Riesling, it’s very, very important.

My parents sold everything in the East, went off with two suitcases to Hungary, and then to West Germany in a bus.

Thornburgh: So, tell me where you’re from and how you got into wine as your kind of first vocation. You’re not from Berlin.

Wagner: No. I was born in the East. My parents fled before the Wall came down, like just two moments before.

Thornburgh: They fled to the West from East.

Wagner: To the West, correct, through Hungary. The borders of Hungary were open so we had the opportunity of going through there. My parents sold everything in the East, went off with two suitcases to Hungary, and then to West Germany in a bus.

Thornburgh: How old were you?

Wagner: Seven or eight.

Thornburgh: You remember all that shit.

Wagner: Yeah, how one remembers as a seven or eight-year old, I would say. Then, my parents were also in gastronomy. They ran restaurants. My grandparents from my mother’s side also ran a restaurant, or Gaststätte, places to eat and drink like, let’s say, 50 years ago.

Thornburgh: East German cooking culture would have been quite different on some level.

Wagner: Yes, I would say. It was more to feed people and to get full, but still good cooking. Basic, but good. My father was a good chef. I really liked his food. It was not very eloquent, but it was tasty. After I left school, I did an apprenticeship as a Restaurantfachmann [restaurant specialist]. That’s the proper German name, the apprenticeship for becoming a waiter. You do this for three years. I did this for two and a half, because I shortened it up a little bit. Then I started working at a place that’s still around, called Essigbrätlein, in Nuremberg. A very tiny place, 20, 25 seats.

There, I got to know wine in the way that probably influenced me the most. Then afterwards I worked in different places with different concepts, which gave me the opportunity to learn something about wine and to build up my own flavor, my own tastes, my own tongue, and my own mindset—why do I sell that wine,why do I do not sell that wine. Whatever gives me a sense of what makes a good wine.

You can listen to the full episode of The Trip Podcast Episode 99 with Billy Wagner here

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