Obituary: Erwein Matuschka-Greiffenclau

Robert Temple
Friday 29 August 1997 23:02

The suicide of Erwein Matuschka-Greiffenclau, Germany's leading international wine ambassador and cuisine crusader, has brought to an end almost 800 years of the Greiffenclau family growing vines at Schloss Vollrads.

Matuschka was Germany's "Mister Wine", and used to like to joke that the medieval family Christian name he bore, Erwein, featured the word wein ("wine" in German) so prominently in it.

Few if any Masters of Wine or top hoteliers in Britain have not participated in one of Matuschka's wine seminars. He was tireless in his crusade for German wines and would travel anywhere to spread the gospel. Indeed, in retrospect, he spent far too much time travelling the world on behalf of the German wine industry to the detriment of his personal holdings.

But Matuschka was totally without ego, an idealist of the highest order. His desire was to help people "open out their taste-buds". He advocated a kind of science of food and wine, and was a pioneer in matching the two in new ways - a subject on which he wrote various pamphlets and booklets in German and English. Ultimately, he saw himself as a gustatory and olfactory missionary to the human race.

Before the First World War, the British understood and appreciated fine German wines. Today, these wines have a poor image and only the cognoscenti and the adventurous seek them out. Matuschka was unable to turn the tide, and failed to penetrate the British market. Even though his own wines were dry, delightful Rieslings, the fashion could not be resurrected. The British palate seemed to have been ruined by oceans of cheap Liebfraumilch, which was Matuschka's one great hate. The French, of course, were too happy with their own wines to take the slightest notice of German ones. Matuschka was thus throwing himself against brick walls, year after year. He would go into individual restaurants and try and cajole the restaurateurs. Only a month ago in Helsinki I came across one of his wines in a Lappish restaurant. I imagine that he went in there personally and persuaded them to put it on their wine list.

Born in 1938 at Wurzburg, Erwein Matuschka did not at first believe he would inherit the management of the family vineyard of Schloss Vollrads in the Rheingau region just east of Rudesheim, alongside the River Rhine at Oestrich-Winkel. He was a racing driver when young and the locals later lived in terror of his journeys between the castle and his restaurant, the Michelin-starred Graues Haus ("Grey House"), built in 850 AD, at Winkel, because he always roared along the narrow lanes at 110 mph; however, he never hit anybody, as far as I know.

He had a natural flair for salesmanship, and in 1969 became the Marketing Director for Olivetti in Germany. But in 1977 his father died, and due to his elder brother Karl's lack of interest, Erwein was catapulted into running one of Germany's most famous vineyards, producing 580,000 bottles a year. For three years, until 1981, he combined this demanding task with his Olivetti job, together with the same role for Ericsson Germany, until it became impossible.

At Schloss Vollrads, he bore the mantle of the centuries on his shoulders, for the Greiffenclaus had been growing vines on the same spot for 29 generations, since the year 1210 - some 787 years when he died.

Of all men to end almost 800 years of history, Erwein was the least likely candidate imaginable. He had spectacular personal qualities. More than 6ft 4in tall, stunningly handsome, overwhelmingly charming, hilariously funny, energetic, enthusiastic, romantic, creative and brilliant - how could he possibly fail? He probably had more sales and marketing ability than the rest of the vintners on the Rhine combined (and amidst their universal admiration was mingled occasional envy); he was President of the Rheingau Wine Association from 1986 until his death, from 1978 to 1990 he was President of the Association for German Quality Wines, in 1986 he founded the Mainz-Wiesbaden Wine Marketing Association, and from 1987 until his death he was Vice President of the German Marketing Union, an association of 9,600 members and 57 marketing associations, a position he combined with special responsibility for supervising the marketing associations of Hesse, Baden-Wurttemberg, Rheinland-Pfalz, and Saarland.

Matuschka was generous to an unbelievable extent: he subsidised meals at his restaurant for the local farm labourers and villagers, so that they could come with their children (many of whom were also paid to gather wild mushrooms and berries) and enjoy good food at cafe prices. In the Graues Haus one evening he opened a 1976 Furst Lowenstein (an adjoining vineyard which he had bought, producing less dry wines than his own) in order to demonstrate to me the perfection of its "slight taste of peaches" with my delicately roasted duck. "You see," he said in triumph when I enthusiastically agreed with him - "it's even better than a good burgundy with that duck!" It was the sixth bottle of expensive wine he had opened during the meal to demonstrate his theories, and was to be followed by several priceless dessert wines. He also believed that white wine went well with cheese, and that it was a fallacy to think it must be red.

In order to prove to friends who owned a vineyard at St Emilion in France that German wines were superior to French ones, he once soaked two bones, one in his own Schloss Vollrads wine, and one in that of his friends, and offered them to his beloved dog, Carla (who was always "dressed for dinner" in a white bow tie to contrast with her black fur). Carla chose the bone soaked in Rhine wine. Matuschka's friends wrote back and joked: "Give us a year and a half - wait until we can train our dogs!"

Matuschka's romantic nature was best shown in his relationship with his wife Sabine, a former ski-ing champion and model whom he married in 1982. Every New Year's Eve they would dress in formal attire and disappear into their respective kitchens in different parts of the castle. Then, each would "visit" the other holding a bouquet of flowers and "invite" the other to come to his/her room for one course of a grand dinner which he or she had personally cooked. Wine allusions were everywhere: Matuschka would speak of his marriage "maturing like wine". But tragically, Sabine died in 1995.

In 1986 Matuschka held the Greiffenclau family's 775th Anniversary Dinner, at which guests drank wines from his cellar dating from 1862, while the dessert wines of the 1890s were the closest experience anyone could have to the nectar of the Greek gods.

However when, a decade on, his business failed, Matuschka's family history created a gigantic burden of guilt which drove him to take his own life. In his own eyes he had brought to an end a tradition whose longevity was without rival in the whole of human history. He shot himself in his vineyard beside the Rhine the day after he was forced to declare bankruptcy.

Robert Temple

Erwein Matuschka-Greiffenclau, wine-grower: born Wurzburg, Germany 14 November 1938; married first Countess Waldburg, second 1982 Sabine Naggert (died 1995; one daughter); died Oestrich-Winkel, Rheingau, Germany 19 August 1997.

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