MWWC #3: Possession


Monthly Wine Writing Challenge #3

This post is part of the Monthly Wine Writing Challenge, which is now in its third round. Sally of My Custard Pie wrote the best piece last month around the theme trouble (this is what I could muster) and threw out the next challenge: Possession. Find the full info on the contest here.

I am a lawyer by training. And sometimes, this training, and the way of thinking it teaches you, can be a curse. So, when I read the theme for this month’s wine writing challenge, possession, my head got stuck on the legal meaning of possession. You see, the law distinguishes between ownership and possession. It is an important distinction, but in colloquial language and understanding, it often gets completely blurred. Now, ownership is a much better right to have, because it gives you exclusive rights over something. Possession, in contrast, only gives you a derived right. Derived, because the thing we are talking about belongs to someone else…

Why did my head get stuck on this distinction when we are talking about a wine writing challenge? Because possession, just like ownership, plays a huge part in the German wine growing world. I remembered a video I watched last year, posted by Denise Medrano, in which Ernst Loosen of the fabled Dr. Loosen winery takes a group through their vineyards in Ürzig, the Ürziger Würzgarten. It’s a long video, and rather boring at times, but what struck me was what he talks about from time mark 4:20 or so until minute 6. That part is not boring!

Ernie is talking about who “owns” which part of the vineyard, and as you can see, it is really tricky. In the most remarkable sentence he states that seven single vines (yes, single vines!) are bordered by four different wineries. What he does not mention is that some of those vines are not even owned by the wineries that work them, the wineries merely have legal possession: they leased the vines.

So much better than Hollywood

So much better than Hollywood…yet who owns these vines?

When you think of wine estates, many imagine the large, sprawling wine estates in the New World, where one winery owns hundreds and hundreds of acres of vines, all in neat rows, belonging to that one winery. The situation in a lot of Germany is different (and not just Germany, I think it is similar in other European wine growing countries): Wine has been grown for 2,000 years. Families have split, and with them ownership over land was split. The Catholic Church had huge holdings, which were later dismantled. But quite a bit of that land is actually still owned by the Church. But most bishoprics have given up making wine themselves.  Add to that the decline of active wineries in Germany because many cannot make a living, and there is a sizable amount of land under vine that is owned by persons that don’t even make wine.

What do you do with these tracts of land? Most of the land is in steep hills, or in areas that cannot be developed in another way for legal or geographical reasons. But the land might actually be quite valuable. And some people are not interested in a full payment to transfer ownership, they rather get a yearly rent (in money or even wine) and retain ownership. According to statistics by the German statistics office, over 60% of agricultural land under production is leased, not owned! In Rhineland-Palatinate, home to the large wine regions Rheinhessen, Palatinate (Pfalz) and the Mosel, 66% of all agricultural land is leased (I couldn’t find data just on wine).

This leads to a lot of possessive relationships in the vineyards. These are regulated by contracts which stipulate the exact duties (how does the possessor need to take care of the vines? Who is responsible for replanting when the vines grow old and tired? etc.) of lessee and land owner. A short research on Google revealed contract forms by two bishoprics leasing out land under vine. These contracts are many pages long. The contracts run for a set number of years, and it is common that after the end of the lease, the vines are rented to another wine maker…so the one who tended them for, let’s say, 20 years from one day to the other loses the right to use to these vines…

Roter Hang viewed from Nackenheim southwards to Nierstein

Roter Hang viewed from Nackenheim southwards to Nierstein

These relationships are beneficial for both parties, though. Take my friend Stefan Erbes of Karl Erbes. His family has been making wine in Ürzig since the 1960s, yet the most fabled of vineyards in the neighborhood was out of reach: Erdener Prälat. That tiny little parcel of land actually has seven or eight wineries tending to the vines in it, although ownership might be more obscure. Last year, Stefan was able to lease a teeny tiny bit of vines in the Prälat, and since the vines are already in place, he will be able to make wine from this top trophy vineyard for the first time this year already. On the other hand, the current owner does not lose his or her stake in this piece of land which, very likely, will continue to grow in value.

Well, this got us on quite the tangent, and is not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind when speaking of possession. But I just thought it was an important piece of information about German wineries. That the land they produce their wines from might never have actually been owned by them. Some of them are just possessors…

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44 thoughts on “MWWC #3: Possession

  1. […] Possession or Are German winemakers merely possessors? by The Winegetter […]

  2. […] Possession or Are German winemakers merely possessors? by The Winegetter […]

  3. Theresa says:

    Fascinating! Any you don’t need to wander to Europe to find this occurring. There are quite a few leased vineyards in California too.

  4. […] and while everyone seemed to struggle with it, the outcome has been pretty great. I wrote about ownership structure in German vineyards (yeah, I know, way to go to not win a popularity contest), others approached it from the angle of […]

  5. binNotes© says:

    You think Germany’s idea of ‘possession’ is complicated? Try Burgundy…great read!

  6. […] Possession or Are German winemakers merely possessors? by The Winegetter […]

  7. […] Already, “possession” has revealed many astounding collections (aka hoards) online: from old bottles, to 173 glasses, to German vineyard land laws. […]

  8. Stefano says:

    Great, educational post, Oliver.
    Very interesting: 2/3 of agricultural land being leased is a remarkable proportion!
    And you are right, although not as extensively as in Germany, even in Italy leases of vineyards are not unusual.
    Thank you for teaching us something and good luck with your entry! :-)

    • Thanks! I figured it would be similar in Italy as well but wasn’t sure. So this is good to know.

      The fun about these contests is that they actually make me write about something I would usually not approach. So as always, the fun is in the journey, no matter the outcome!

  9. ksbeth says:

    great post oliver, and you continue to inform me )

  10. […] – The Winegetter – talks about vineyard possession and ownership issues in Germany (trust me, it’s fascinating)  […]

  11. foxress says:

    Your contrast between ownership and possession is so thought provoking and the vineyards of Germany are a beautiful illustration of that contrast. Well done!

    It’s interesting also to compare Burgundy and Germany. It’s a similar situation, but in Burgundy the multiple-owner vineyards came about because inheritance laws divided the vineyards into smaller and smaller pieces. The einzellagen were created by cobbling together small vineyards to create a 5 hectare minimum vineyard. Opposite reasons, same result. Are there other places in the world that have a shared vineyard situation?

    • Thanks, Linda!! That is a great addition!!

      The smaller and smaller parcels in Germany are actually a result of inheritance law as well, just like in Burgundy. German farm law for a long time stipulated that all sons would get an equal share of the land…you can imagine where that led to.

      What was done in Germany in the 1970s was that the state offered help to create bigger parcels per winemaker to make working in the vineyards easier by creating an exchange. The outer reaches of the Würzgarten have undergone this so called “Flurbereinigung” (“straightening up agricultural land”), but where Ernst is standing that has not happened. It was easier to do in non-prime vineyards…

      I don’t know where else that is the case, but I could imagine Austria and Italy falling in that category as well.

  12. So very German of you, to get stuck on distinctions. How lovely, that it led to this fascinating look at vineyard and vine possession. I learned so much (and that’s one of my favorite reasons to read). Good Job, Oliver!

  13. I am possessed by this tangent that you took on the subject. I may need another glass of wine to fully enjoy your literal take on the matter. It was a fascinating read about all the legalities involved for the winemaker. Excellent as usual Oliver.
    – John

  14. I am possessed by your dissertation. This is so exacting, that I think I need another glass of wine to reread this. Great take on the subject.

  15. Very similar to the laws in Burgundy but with much easier vineyards to work in! Also, I can tell you are a lawyer and not a salesman–I have to confess that I skipped the video because you described it as “boring”.

  16. Margaret McCamant says:

    This is fascinating and such a good reminder to us Americans that most of the world has had to plan their use of space for a long time. We’re only just recently recognizing that there’s no more frontier out there for us to expand into when we’ve messed up the place we started in. Steinbeck’s novel, East of Eden (set in California), is about that American mentality–that there’s always somewhere “out west” where we can go and be free individuals (read: not having to bother with anyone else’s needs or rights). It quite neatly explains many things about us, including space exploration and Alaska (!).

    We were never an old-style colonial power–look at all the messes the British Empire left in its wake–but I think the inexplicable U.S. need to impose democracy on people who don’t want it is our version of empire. Our own history should have made it clear that democracy has to come from the ground up.

    As always, I’m stunned by your writing skill, in a second language, no less.

    • Great point, Margaret! Land ownership in societies where it has existed for a long time can be a tricky subject. One of the big allures of America was that there was (seemingly, and naturally falsely) no real ownership going on so you could just take what there was….

      This frontier spirit has led to what seems like some misdirections in how people perceive land and the responsibility that comes with its ownership or possession…Will try to find that Steinbeck novel. I have found that Upton Sinclair also does a good job at dealing with some of these issues. Petroleum comes to mind.

      I like the spin on spreading democracy, or yet even better, freedom which can indeed be seen in a neo-colonial light.

      And, as always, thanks for your compliments which quite naturally boost my ego…

  17. I visited a friend in Greece who, as we parted company, gave me a huge bottle of olive oil and said “This is from my husband’s family village where they still press their own olives.” The husband and wife had long since moved to Athens but still maintained ownership of the olive grove and totally reaped the benefit of possessor-ship. I think it’s a beautiful and beneficial relationship for many parties. Well done, Oliver!

    • Oh yes, those are always the best moments…our Portuguese friend’s father has a vineyard with olive trees, and he would always do the 18+ hours drive to visit his daughter to bring wine and olive oil…and we always got some as well. Still some of the best I have ever had.

  18. WOw, this is great. Thanks for taking the pressure of writing a post for the challenge off of me. Pick a good theme for next month and I’m in!

  19. talkavino says:

    Very interesting interpretation, Oliver! Great read – I had no idea about the complexities of the vineyard ownership in Germany – I’m curious how much effort the wineries have to invest in explaining to the pickers what vines they can pick the grapes from, and what vines are not theirs… Add that to the mind-boggling terroir, and my respect for German wines just increased dramatically.

    Thanks for the post – I learned a lot of interesting stuff about German wines, and now I also know that you are a lawyer : )

    • Thank you, Anatoli! In the video, Ernst explains that they put colored sticks into the vineyards right next to the vines to show where ownership starts and ends. And in the row that is tended to, technically, by two winemakers, they go 1-left 2-right 3-left 4-right….it’s insane! And Ernst also alludes to how hard it is to train the pickers…

      And yes, a lawyer by training, but only loosely in the field nowadays. :) Thank goodness.

  20. Super interpretation of the theme, Oliver! This post reminds me of the German laws on cemetery plots. A plot is leased for a number of years, but not owned. If you don’t renew the lease, the deceased can be removed to make room for others. (At least it’s this way in Opa’s town of Pullach). I love your closing sentence . . . in many ways, we’re all just possessors. Salud!!

    • Yup, same in other regions, too (including my home). If you don’t have space, you need to be efficient.

      Thanks for your compliments regarding the closing sentence. It makes me realize I could have gone all philosophical-ballistic here….:)

  21. Duff's Wines says:

    Fascinating! It’s interesting to see how much of an economic interest wine drives. Vines maintain value despite requiring what seems like a very convoluted and risky lease arrangement. You have to love wine and be passionate about the craft. Thanks for this.

  22. Sally says:

    This was such an interesting read and the way you highlight the differences between the new and old world vineyard through the comparison of tiny tracts of land that are fought over to the wide open spaces is genius.

    • It was quite tricky writing this in a way that flowed and I am still not completely convinced that I expressed all I wanted to express, but it definitely gives one a good idea of what’s going on…

      Now I hope you understand why it was so frustrating at times. It wasn’t your topic, Sally, it was my interpreting it…:)

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