Over thirty years ago, I stumbled into the wine business, more or less by accident, because my primary profession, that of writing poetry, did not provide much of an income.  I needed a job with defined hours so I could do graduate work, thinking I might become a teacher (more or less the only thing poets can do which will earn them a living – unless you’re Wallace Stevens, I suppose). At the time, I was working as a carpenter across the street from the old Wine and Cheese Center down on Jackson Street in San Francisco. I used to get my sandwiches there, and occasionally buy a bottle of wine. One day I walked into the store and, thinking the wine business might be a interesting change, not to mention solve the problem of fixed hours for classes, asked for a job. Somewhat to my astonishment, I got it, but only because the owner was an ex-English teacher and, somewhere in the interview, got to discussing favorite writers. At first, I sold cheese, but gradually worked my way into the wine department and, under the excellent tutelage of Mel Knox and Jim Olsen,  began learning about wine. (I still remember some of the first lessons – Mel handing me a glass of something white and asking me what it smelled like – anything was fair game. I stumbled around, finally blurting out ‘peppermint’, and Mel said ‘Fine. Now remember that and, if you smell it again, you’ll have a place to start from.’ And so on.) In time, after the degree and various trips to Europe, including a year in Greece, I became something of an expert in French wines, especially in Burgundy. I still think retail is the best teacher, because you must learn about, and consequently taste, everything.

After a year in Vermont, I came back to the Bay Area and worked for twelve years at The Pacific Wine Company. For a time, Mike Lynch,  the owner, didn’t particularly relish traveling, which thus allowed me to go back to Europe. I traveled extensively, first in France, then Italy, and finally Germany, in order to learn, and then to buy.

I came to German wine both early and late. In the early days, when ’71s and ’76s were both plentiful and cheap, they were popular and well worth learning about. But soon, the wines went out of fashion and my attention wandered. My interest was re-kindled by a love for German literature and music, especially Lied and Opera. I began studying the language and spent more time in Germany.  One year, I think in 1992, I arrived at Mr. Helmut Dönnhoff’s door, meeting, not only him and his wife, Gaby, but also Terry Theise, who, by coincidence was also visiting. We all became fast friends and Terry and I traveled together every year until he switched parent companies and I began to go off on my own. So it is a place where I feel at home, and one whose wines I now believe carry the most subtle and satisfying flavors in the world.

When Pacific Wine Company closed in 1994, I made a decision to invent a way of staying in the wine world but bending it to my particular needs and to what I felt were the needs of my customers. German and  Austrian wine need articulate advocates. Because there is so little quantity, there can never be large-scale marketing projects associated with it.  Add to that the innumerable cuvées, fuders, A P Numbers, and that the best wine is all hand-crafted, and it becomes a marketer’s nightmare. Which is perfect for me.

And thus I began a private business devoted almost exclusively to first German and then, after a year or two, Austrian wines, one in which my relationship to the estates and clients would be strictly personal and service-oriented. I made most of my selections in Germany and Austria on my yearly trips and looked for wines that convey uniqueness of place and culture. Technical proficiency is presumed but by itself not especially interesting. There are a number of fine estates in Germany with impeccable credentials but, at least for me, they are empty or soulless, and those estates I did not buy. Also, I like to have at least a passing relationship with the people, and preferably a warm one. I remember once speaking with Michael Wild of the excellent restaurant The Bay Wolf, who said there were loads of good wines out there, so he decided to buy only from people he liked. That makes sense to me as well, so I focus more on the people than one might otherwise expect. There are good estates whose wines I do not carry. Perhaps I don’t know them; perhaps we don’t really click together.

Wine is, after all, more than just a nice drink, with food or by itself. It is an integral part of a culture that spread outwards from the Mediterranean over two thousand years ago. It is, in fact, one of the great minor accomplishments of the Western World. And there is always, no matter how distantly, something of the sacred in its use. It is a gift of Dionysus, and in some manner, a part of the ritual of his worship; and though I don’t expect everyone to get ultra serious over what is mostly a delightful and sensual part of life, it is good to remember, if only once in a while, the source. Also, the sensitive wine drinker will understand that drinking a wine from a small estate, hand-grown and made, is a way of entering, if only distantly, the culture that made it. Your pleasure in that Niersteiner Spätlese, or Ausbruch, or Kamptal Grüner Veltliner, or Mosel Kabinett, is trebled, at least, by your knowledge of the source. Just ask anyone who has traveled to visit Sepp Mantler, or Peter Jost. The wine becomes personal, and precious.

I believe you can taste all of these things, culture, sensibility, a way of life, tradition in the wine. It’s like going out in a glass-bottomed boat (do they still have these things? they had them when I was a child in Los Angeles) and you can see down into the depths the myriad creatures and underwater landscape. The wine is the glass.

In the fall of 2005, after several people recommended it, I went off to Austria with the specific purpose of finding estates to import myself. I thought it  would be extremely difficult to find estates in Germany (all were taken I had been told) but that Austria was comparatively still open. I visited twenty wineries in ten days and every one of them were worthy. Trying to be sensible, I chose six, and then added several more over the next year or two.

In the Spring of 2014, I decided to change importers and now work exclusively with Winemonger. This is very exciting and a real positive move.  As I write this, I am in the midst of big changes. It is uncertain yet how many of the wineries I formerly worked with will come with me.  Soon I expect to be visiting Europe and, when I return, we should know better what the future will bring. For now, please contact me at 510-549-2444, or contact Stephan Schindler and Emily Weisman at 1-866-966-6437 for the latest news.




-Bill Mayer