The Great Gamble

By | September 26, 2017
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Pioneering label Zocker offers Grüner Veltliner and Riesling from vineyards in the Edna Valley

All I knew of German wine was its decades-old reputation for being cloyingly sweet. But, having heard the wine scene was changing, I decided to give it a chance last year.

What followed was an enchanting tour from Frankfurt to Freiburg, tiptoeing along the winding, sunshine-doused shores of the Rhine to the edge of the Black Forest, through whimsical cobblestoned medieval towns and towering castles, and around the unexpectedly lush, centuries- old Baden and Rheinhessen wine-growing regions. Nearly every wine I tried, from Riesling to Spätburgunder (German for Pinot Noir), was refreshingly bone-dry(or “trocken”) in style, with tantalizing aromatics and bright acidity—not to mention, most of them signi cantly undercut the prices of their Burgundian counterparts across the river in France. I was hooked.

Returning to the Central Coast, I was determined to  nd a local German wine source. My  rst stop was the Edna Valley’s Claiborne & Churchill (, a winery now well-known for its dry Gewürztraminer and Riesling inspired by the Alsace region of France, near the German border. Founder Clay Thompson explained that he came of age in Germany, where his family was stationed while he was in college and where he had his  rst encounter with “Germanic” varietals like Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Dry Muscat, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and the other “Burgunders.”

You might say the country left a lasting impression on him. He went on to chair the Department of Germanic Languages at the University of Michigan and, with his wife Fredericka Churchill  ompson (whose mother is German and who taught German at Cal Poly), eventually left academia to make the wines of Germany and Alsace in Edna Valley, in 1983.

“At that time, almost all German wines were sweet, as was virtually all Riesling in California,” Thompson says. He and his wife set out to change public perceptions by making the dry Alsatian versions they loved. While the wines were immediately embraced by the industry, he says, it took the wine-drinking public another 20 or 30 years to catch up.

“Now, the idea of ‘alternative whites’ is well-established,” he says, “and there are more brave souls making dry Riesling.” One of them is John Niven, whose Zocker label ( focuses speci cally on the German Riesling and the Austrian Grüner Veltliner varietals. Niven explained that his grandfather originally planted Riesling in the family’s pioneering Paragon Vineyard in Edna Valley in 1973, but it was grafted over in the 1980s. Grüner, on the other hand, had not been tried in the region.

“We definitely took a gamble in planting 12.3 acres of Grüner,” Niven says, thus explaining the name Zocker, which translates to “gambler” in German. But the fact that both Grüner and Riesling are suited to Edna Valley’s long, cool growing season told him that the Zocker brand would be worth the risk and deliver “racy, fresh wines.”

His wager paid off. Zocker placed in the top six, and the “Best American,” in the International Generation Grüner Tasting Series in 2012–13, and the label now enjoys a strong following both domestically and abroad.

To the north, in Cambria, Lisa Miller, proprietor at Cutruzzola Vineyards (cutruzzolavineyards. com), set out on her own Riesling risk based on the parallels she found between her steep, coastal vineyards (rich in natural limestone and slate) and the high slopes of slate in many German vineyards. S

he and her partner, Francis, originally fell in love with German Rieslings at a Sonoma County wine shop in the late 1990s. “The wines were very low in alcohol (usually around 9% alcohol by volume or less) and really inexpensive—most under $20,” she says.

When it came to choosing the varietals for their own small vineyard in 2006, Riesling topped their list. Much like Thompson, Miller says she wanted to try to right Riesling’s California reputation by growing the grape in its proper cool-climate location.

“We had no idea if it would work,” she says, “but decided to give it our best shot.”

Her hunch resulted in both dry and offdry Rieslings that display the natural acidity and minerality I so enjoyed in the wines of Germany. And, she says, they have “happily converted a lot of Riesling-haters to Riesling-lovers.”


This Oktoberfest, trade that stein for a glass of German wine. Visit Luis Wine Bar (, Foremost (, Granada Bistro (granadahotelandbistro. com) or The Station ( in SLO to find at least one German-made wine by the glass, or head over to Beda’s Biergarten ( where Beda and Helga Schmidthues, who hail from the Lower Rhine and Ruhr Valley region in Germany, cook up authentic family recipes like Wiener Schnitzel, Beda’s Stew, Rouladen and Spätzle to pair with locally made Riesling, Gewürz or Spätburgunder

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