The German in Springtime: Johannes Reinhardt
October 13, 1995
Neuses am Berg, Germany
Sitting on the edge of his bed, Johannes Reinhardt could barely move. Saturday was about
to give way to Sunday and, just down the road, the lights in his family’s German estate had
long since gone dark. If he were going to do it, this was the opportunity. He would have at
least twelve hours before anyone would realize he was gone.
But his six-foot, three-inch frame was nearly numb with the idea. Johannes knew that if
he walked away tonight he might never speak to his family again. For this shy, courteous
twenty-eight-year-old, the thought was nauseating. His mother and father had given him
everything he had. They had raised him to continue the Reinhardt family tradition of classic
German winemaking. They had taught him how to make the kind of mind-bending wines
that inspire wine lovers around the world. If he left tonight, he would imperil the very survival
of the family tradition—after all, Johannes was his generation’s only possible successor to
his father. Neither of his two sisters had the training. Neither lost sleep the way he did when
harvest rains threatened a year’s crop. More important, neither had his natural ability to
guide grapes from the vine to the glass.
“Leave now,” he said aloud, “and everything we’ve built for six hundred years could be
And yet the thought of walking away from his family was instantly liberating. He had spent
the past five years pleading with his father to allow him to try new ideas in the vineyard and
in the winery, but the answer was always the same: “Tradition means not changing. Tradition
means honoring the way our family has always made wine. Put those thoughts away.”
Once, Johannes had considered suggesting a partnership with a neighboring winemaking
family. He figured that if each family shared their best grapes and their techniques, they
could make a wine together that would surpass what they could make individually. But he
never made a formal proposal—he could already hear his father’s words. “Germans don’t
collaborate. Germans honor tradition. Tradition means not changing.”
The irony was that Johannes was very much a traditionalist—hardly a radical, like some of
the New World winemakers working in places like California and Australia. He simply saw
that some traditional ideas were hurting the wines. Vowing never to be as obstinate as his
father, time after time Johannes summoned the courage to confront his family about what he
thought needed to change. Every suggestion was dismissed as folly.
Tonight he remembered the words of a close friend who had urged Johannes to break away
from the limitations of his family. “You worry about the price your parents will pay if you leave
them,” his friend had said. “But the price you will pay yourself is far greater if you stay.”
A soft rain bounced off the apartment gutters, providing the only sound to compete with
his thoughts. That afternoon, when the steady rain had started, Johannes felt that familiar
nausea that accompanies weather problems during harvest. Now, for the first time, that
consternation was gone. It was as if he had already left.
Still, he couldn’t help but ask himself again if he could ever convince his parents to allow him
to leave the winery. Of course, he knew the answer, but with the moment of departure finally
upon him, he had to ask himself one more time.
Then, as he exhaled deeply, Johannes heard himself say one word: “No.” They would not
allow him to leave, and they would not allow him to change. If he was going to create what
he truly believed he could create, he would have to leave—because he could not do it here.
A peaceful calm washed over the tall German as he squeezed his eyes closed, opened them
again, and looked at the clock. Midnight. It was time to go, time to wash the last ten years of
asceticism away. Munich first, and then who knows? Perhaps somewhere else in Germany.
France was a possibility—Alsace was intriguing. Johannes could even envision himself in the
United States, acting on his energy and ideas, with no one to destroy his enthusiasm.
As he emerged onto the street, Johannes softened his step so as not to wake his neighbors.
The town of Neuses am Berg was home to only a few hundred people, and the last thing he
needed was for someone to notice him walking with an overstuffed travel bag. Even in the
closed, private German villages, gossip spreads.
With one last glance down the road, Johannes could see that his family’s estate was still
dark. His car was parked nearby, and he started in that direction but then stopped. “I love
you guys,” he said quietly. “I know you won’t understand that, but I love you. I do.”
Then he turned and headed up the road, nervous excitement coursing through him.