By David Schildknecht
Alois-"Luis"-Kracher died at home in the company of his family early in the morning of Wednesday December 5, 2007 after a nearly year-long battle with pancreatic cancer. He was buried two days later. The little church at Illmitz could not contain the thousand or so mourners, including Austria's Chancellor.
A mutual friend remarked, "had not the family intentionally scheduled it so quickly-and without public notice- not only all Wine Austria but half the whole wine world would have been there, and that is what they wanted to avoid, just as Luis had not wanted anybody to learn about his true condition." He is survived by his wife Michaela, mother and father Maria and Alois, his brother Rudolf, and his son Gerhard, 26, who with his grandfather and mother will continue the work of their estate.
Few wine growers have harbored any greater ambitions than did Alois Kracher. Fewer still have seen them realized. The world of wine, viticultural Austria, and his native Burgenland were all profoundly altered by his presence. But even more fundamental, both in its extent and in the importance Kracher placed on this, was his effect on his home town Illmitz and the Seewinkel.
Kracher's tiny native corner of the once vast Hapsburg Empire was just that: a corner, or Winkel of wetlands on the far edge of a huge but shallow steppe lake, the Neusiedlersee. "Far edge"? Well, farthest from Vienna. And it is certainly far from here across the wide Hungarian plain-the Puszta-or along the Danube before one gets to Esztergom or Budapest, from where the region and people around this long and reedy lake were governed for a thousand years. This is also the far side of that lake from Rust, whose reputation for sweet Ausbruch (Aszú) rose, along with that of distant Tokaj, until, in 1681, Rust was proclaimed the tiniest free city under Hungary's Crown. The Neusiedler or "new settlers" were Bavarians and Croats invited at that time by Empress Maria Theresia to fill the vacuum of a land laid waste by two tumultuous centuries of Ottoman incursions. The local Princes Esterházy offered protection to Jews throughout the Empire, completing a unique and polyglot mix of peoples.
This Seewinkel was never an easy place from which to make a living. What can you grow on sand or marsh? Taking goods to Rust meant a trek of more than 50km (31 miles), because a few feet of water won't accommodate large boats. Nor do vast schools of fish teem in a lake so shallow that in 1865 it dried up completely. Mapmakers began to scrub away its patch of blue when, almost a decade later, and then within a year, it filled back up. Nobody understands how this lake sustains itself, and even less the miracle of its return. Not until Alois Kracher, one could argue, did this region witness something so incredible again.
Following the collapse of Empire and a 1921 plebiscite in which its German and Croatian speakers voted to cast their lot with Austria's nascent Republic, the Seewinkel became part of Burgenland, a long and narrow new Austrian Bundesland. "So you see," Luis told me not long after we first met, "that points to a big image problem. This is a land that was only invented in 1921. There was never as much viticulture as on the other side of the lake. We were literally a backwater, a very poor region. And to produce quality [wine], you have to have some money. Our trade looked more toward the east. Our markets were Warsaw and St Petersburg, not Vienna. A third of Burgenland's population were Jews," the prime facilitators of that trade. In a region this precarious, hyperinflation and depression took their toll.
Then came subservience to the German Reich, and with it war and genocide. After that an "Iron Curtain" literally fell at Illmitz's doorstep, as these marshes sprouted barbed wire and watch towers.
Given such grave conditions, the damage done to Austria's wines pales by comparison, but it was that long-lasting damage with which Kracher would eventually wrestle. I asked him once about the origins of Scheurebe, and even though this grape informed some of his greatest wines, his eyes flashed nearly angrily, rather than with the almost naughty twinkle one so often caught when he raised his heavy lids. "Well, you know, it was the Germans. Back then we were 'one Volk, one Führer.' This was catastrophic for our cultural development because we also got the German Wine Law. Before that, wines were known by their villages, just as in France: Gumpoldskirchner, Donnerskirchner, Ruster, Illmitzer. All at once, that [sense of identity] was lost. Worse yet was the economic dependency on the German market. And we still had that in the 60s."
A newly prosperous Germany with an appetite for sweet wine that its own vines could not slake, turned to the shores of Lake Neusiedl. So too did hoards of German tourists, and natural wonders in this neighborhood-much of it destined to become a National Park-soon beckoned visitors from far and wide.
"Two hundred and eighty species of birds and 2,500 hours of sunlight," proclaimed the Illmitz tourist bureau, to which it might eventually add 50 vintners. I came here too, a youthful tourist, was smitten, and vowed to return.
"Austria, In the Quiet" proclaimed a guide book I had bought in Germany, and this corner certainly lived up to that billing. But it was no longer the quiet of desperation. Coming on Illmitz from the South, past the great Esterhazy palace, that looked back then as though its Soviet "liberators" had sacked it only yesterday, past watchtowers and Kalashnikovwielding guards, into "the West," the Krachers' little village and its tiny neighbors seemed a fortunate oasis. These sandy soils and alternating autumn fog and sun were generating profitable Auslesen, Beerenauslesen, and Trockenbeerenauslesen, even if only a minority of growers-including Alois Kracher Senior-were bottling it themselves. Most of the wine was sold anonymously and in bulk to Germany.
Luis's father and a forward-thinking few invested in new plantings of superior vines. But while these counted as good times historically speaking, young Kracher followed a familiar path, heading to Vienna to study. Earning his degree in chemistry, he began working as a pharmacist, returning home on weekends or as time permitted, to sweat and toil in the vineyards, just as his brother Rudolf-an official with the Austrian Social-Democratic Party-does to this day. Times were not so good that Luis thought of making wine his life's endeavor. That happened only when things took a terrible turn.
"The Big Bang," as he called it, was what changed his life. In mid-1985, Burgenland wines in Germany and the USA were found to have been laced with diethylene glycol. It had been added to lend an oily, sugar-, body-, and botrytis- boosting character. No people were ever found to have been poisoned, but the market for Austrian wine most certainly was. "It is the worst disaster to hit this region since World War II," Rust's mayor and vintner Heribert Artinger told The New York Times that August. "The job," said Austria's Chancellor Sinowatz-himself a Burgenländer-"is to pick up the pieces, to start anew." That is how Luis Kracher saw it. "I found this blow so terribly unfair. I always believed in our region, and now we had to pull with all our strength against the rudder to turn things 'round," he told Rudolf Knoll of the journal Vinum. "Turning things 'round" meant, for Kracher, turning life upside down. Austrian viticulture and wine would never be the same, but who then could have imagined that they would become immeasurably better, or that Alois Kracher would become the leading spokesman and best-known face abroad for the New Austria that emerged?
Negociants, middle men, and export agents were wiped out overnight. But thirsty Austrians, whose indigenous wine culture is scarcely weaker than that of France or Italy, went out in search of honest wine bottled by growers. The star of South Styria-whose wines from along the Slovenian border had never been commercialized-began to rise.
And, pulling together, Danubian growers in the Wachau set benchmarks for quality that within a decade would take them internationally center-stage. The Austria State, too, took decisive action, instituting stringent quality controls, laying the groundwork for future bragging rights, and for aggressive marketing. But Burgenland was struck specially hard. Not only had the scandal begun here: The taste of Austrians never had been really sweet. Rust's vintners redoubled efforts with their reds, some became serious with dry whites, and all of them took their time pondering how to revive interest in wines nobly sweet. But in the Seewinkel, sweet wine was one's destiny, and nothing could substitute for lost foreign markets.
Kracher's ambitions were certainly extraordinary, but only because he felt the times were, too. The Kracher name must stand for world-class quality. Time did not permit a formal course of study. Capturing the attention of Yquem's legendary régisseur Pierre Meslier, he signed on to train there. In Germany, he sought out Egon Müller. Later, he found his way to an as yet unknown Hungarian vintner, István Szepsy. Not only did Kracher gain a deeper understanding of botrytis's mysterious ways, of the handeye- nose coordination of selection, and of the use of small, new, French oak barrels. Much more importantly, the essence of sweet wine from Burgenland slowly crystallized in his mind. "We are equidistant from Tokaj, from Sauternes, and from Germany," as he was later to explain to me, meaning not merely the geographically obvious. "I want the advantages of Sauternes-if I can get them. And I want the advantages of the Mosel, too." Not just the sugar-acid balance that distinguishes Mosel Riesling or Tokaji, not just the sugar-alcohol balance of Sauternes, but something in between, Kracher envisioned.
For all of this ambition, Luis was highly cognizant that great wine is grown; it cannot be concocted. Great growing is an art requiring long years and exceptional toil and patience. And even Alois the younger could not hope to learn it overnight. Had it not been for his father's labors, as Kracher would often readily admit, his own work could not have been so successful. "My father was one of the great pioneers of Burgenland.
Thus, I had an exceptionally good grounding. I could afford to experience youth in the service of winemaking. I mean, I could experiment, innovate without danger of losing gravitas. The other thing," he quickly came to understand, "is that we farmed only top sites. Point one: [how Luis relished a didactic mode, unintimidating, beaming as if he'd just learned it himself!] the light, bright sand absorbs the sunlight. Point two: sand drains away the water. Point three: lots of mineral stuff, many stones and minerals." Gesturing to a minor undulation in the ground, he quipped: "Here are our hills. You see, we haven't many-maybe not any. All around is water. There must be enough stones, not too much humus. Sand brings fruit, but also extract. That's critical. It dries out easily, that is not a problem. What's mixed with sand determines the terroir." Each grape variety in its optimum site could be a building block for superb wine: Chardonnay, Traminer, Muscat in loamier, slightly heavier soils; Scheurebe-"my Riesling," as he would later call it-in the sandiest sites, ones very much like those on the Rhine that Professor Scheu had had in mind; with Burgenland's workhorse, Welschriesling, alongside, since "sand tones down the acids." He knew his father, as he put it, "had my back." Show up in early morning-as I often did-and you'd meet Alois Senior at the gate, quietly heading out, a hoe across his shoulder.
They might have seemed anomalous, this elder's cap, his work clothes, wooden tools, and wrinkled tan. In fact, these were inseparable from Kracher quality. Even a consummate vintner has to sell his wine. But Alois Kracher found this work had been cut out for him as if by an omniscient tailor. No-one I know had met another such consumate salesman among vintners as was Luis.
Constantly seeking out and tasting the world's great wines, he held that only in comprehending them could he scale such heights himself. He showed up at Jan-Erik Paulson's rare wine sessions, and afterward, writes Paulson, "he approached me, telling me firmly that I would be selling his wines" soon together with Yquem. "I had no interest whatsoever in trying sticky Austrian wines and even less in adding them to my catalog." But not long after, at a trade show, "he more or less carried me to his stand. There the coin dropped and I have been [...] selling his wines proudly ever since the 1994 vintage." Many of Austria's younger vintners used Vinitaly as their window on the wider wine world, and Kracher was in the vanguard, preaching Austrian quality. There, in 1992, he met Seth Allen, whose Vin Divino imported only Italian wines. "I agreed to work with him in ten minutes," Seth relates, "but somehow I must have known what was coming. In the only cautionary moment of that day, I remember telling this charismatic, idealistic, and clearly brilliant man, 'Luis, there is absolutely no way that I am going to become some sort of ambassador for Austrian wine.'
But the expression on his face told me he knew better." The expression on Luis's face nearly always told you that he knew better. But it was not the face of arrogance.
I finally returned to Austria myself in 1996, newly mandated to taste her wines. But time was short for scheduling stops in Burgenland or Vienna (that would have to wait a year), and Alois came to Krems to meet me. At Erich Salomon's vinoteque, he showed up with an entourage of colleagues, along with several times as many bottles wrapped in foil. One of these, I was soon to learn, was an Yquem. That was just like him: scrupulous in his fairness to the wines, and to his neighbors, yet shooting for the stars. "It's not to demonstrate that our wine is better," he told me afterwards, "but that we can play in the same league."
Kracher captured your interest with his words, even before the wines arrived to seal the exits. "Our region is like something halfway between the Balkans and California," he said by way of introduction. And then, those little foilwrapped bottles worked their magic. He said that in his opinion, Beerenauslese showed the fullest expression of his blender's craft, the highest quotient of finesse and richness. "TBA," he said, "is to impress wine writers!" I nodded, and I was indeed impressed. His 1994 Chardonnay, I wrote, showed "fabulously vivid honey and citrus, with a remarkable freshness for a wine so viscous and obviously far-gone on rot." But there was that suspicious glimmer in his eyes when he said "visit me next year." Nature had taught Kracher a new lesson about wrinkled berries, with 15 points that would leave tasters speechless.
Recognition and remembrance
It happened at the perfect moment, that nearly-perfect vintage for botrytis: 1995. Kracher was feeling confident in his methods, his wines were catching on abroad. Everywhere he traveled, in the black leather jackets that became a trademark, he found new opportunities to impress and to be photographed and quoted ... and to party. Luis was gregarious the way that Marilyn Monroe was glamorous: as if in his genes. He'd just been named "Winemaker of the Year" by England's Wine magazine, after he treated the Londoners to Yquem and Kracher. In Austria, too, his wines were getting prominent placements. But now, how not to eat his words concerning Trockenbeerenauslese? Nature had handed him nothing but TBA, and as each lot developed, his excitement about their quality had mounted with perplexity. How to do justice to this bounty? Some wines had been fermented in large wooden ovals, the sort in use there since his father's time. Others were treated to new French barriques. An audacious strategy evolved: 15 numbered bottlings. The more traditional cuvées featuring fruit were dubbed Zwischen den Seen ("between the lakes"). The barrique batches he called Nouvelle Vague, after the '60s cinematic movement of that name. "How did we come up with the numbers?" He flashed that smile and then began "lecturing" me: "Point one: it makes it easier for us to refer to them. Point two: I had 15 TBAs with so much personality I didn't want to blend them. People told me, 'You are crazy! You want to market three Welschriesling TBAs, three Scheurebe TBAs, and so forth?' I looked around and determined that no winery in the world is labeling their wines by number."
The wines in that first of many numbered series made their points, with an effect resembling that which-in reviewing them for The Wine Advocate- Pierre Rovani attributed to the man himself, who "burst into my life like an air-raid siren during a peaceful nap."
Soon, wine aficionados the world over were bolt upright sniffing for Kracher TBA, and Kracher was sniffing fame. As one numbered collection followed another, tongues wagged, and then hung limp in sheer amazement. The 13 1998s seemed to set new standards. And so it went. Meanwhile, new goals kept getting set and new projects begun. Jellies, cigars, blue cheese, and chocolates eventually bore his imprimatur. An importing and distributing company was formed to bring the world's best wines to Austrian restaurants and collectors. The "Sweet Wine Pope," "Mr Botrytis," "Mr. K," was soon in great demand as an advisor. Joint ventures flourished both abroad-with friends like Manfred Krankl and John Alban in Central California, and with Jorge Ordoñez in Malaga, Spain-but also back home. Kracher wanted to "play" with red wine, too, and with Krankl consulting, began bottling tiny batches. Then, he decided to make his friend, Illmitz' butcher Hans Schwarz, the beneficiary of that red wine zeal. His own acknowledgement on the label shrunk to an initial. Luis was still involved heart and soul, but wanted Schwarz to take full credit. He had high expectations for this red, but, cross-examined, freely granted that the wine, not he, would have the final say: "If it is not worth drinking 15 years from now, and not more complex from aging in the bottle, then I'll have failed."
Yet all his new projects-whether or not high-profile-seemed unimportant beside his core commitment: great sweet wine from Illmitz. Kracher consolidated parcels that had been split up over three generations, planted more vines, and built a huge, sophisticated chais. "It's like an airport hanger," I told him when I first walked in. "Yes, it's huge," he said, "but for a simple reason. We're only just putting '96s on the market. The '97s are now in tank. Then there are '98s, and soon it will be time for '99. No wine will leave here until it is ripe. To do things our way, you need a lot of interim storage." One huge chamber housed the fermentation, its many vessels-ovals, tanks, barriques- arrayed at the perimeter. "The arrangement is really very simple, practical, but without compromise. No more, no less. I now always have twice as many stainless steel tanks as I need, more new barriques on hand than I require, but if it should just happen that I do need them, they're there. I can see and control everything from here," he told me, standing in the center, then, launching into a credo. "No compromise! Nothing is so expensive as quality control. Not intervention, [but] control." His was not the control of a "control freak." Rather, it was the watchful monitoring of young wines fulfilling their destiny-a matter more of self-control, restraint, refrain from harm.
For all the superlatives his wines and labors garnered in the press, Kracher also displayed restraint and circumspection when he showed them to me. After that first encounter with the foil-wrapped 1994s, he nearly always left me alone with his collections, to pour, to taste, to ponder, and to tape my notes. Periodically he would return to see how far I'd got, smiling, his eyes saying "so ... ?" and then he'd disappear. Only when I had finished would we sit and discuss the wines. Few vintners in my ken have harbored greater insight into their own wines, both strengths and limitations, than did Luis.
But while he had some early reservations about his 2002s, they surprised him. #11, a Welschriesling, left me speechless for the longest time. Here were paradoxes nested like an exquisitely detailed Russian doll. Ennobled wine from a "non-noble" grape. Something so pure and rich, so dizzyingly complex, it transported me farther than I had imagined possible from grapes, and yet returned the taster to the essence of those grapes as they had hung. "I think we picked them at the perfect moment," Kracher said, but not by way of bragging. He seemed to want to say, "thank goodness we didn't screw up something rare and beautiful that Nature wanted us to capture."
While Kracher's reputation and persona threatened to leap-frog over one another, each vying to be more colorful, larger even than the life he really led, he wrestled them determinedly to the ground, displaying a generosity and down-to-earth-ness (Bodenständigkeit) that was, for him, essential to being a vintner and a Burgenländer. "I remember the first time I met him," Lisa Laurence has reminisced in tribute, "sitting in Heidi Schröck's kitchen and listening as the two of them made plans ... passionate about wine, about tradition, new possibilities, and delighted like children.
As a winemaker comparatively new at the game, I was at first overawed [by Luis]. I expected to feel like an outsider at such a gathering, but he made me feel like I belonged."
"Despite all of his successes," wrote his friend Helmut Knall, "Luis remained the same rascally, endearing character with whom one hurriedly and conspiratorially snuck off from a wine show to grab a beer. And he remained a realist. 'One can never rest on one's laurels,' he told me, 'you have to prove yourself again each year.'" When Rudolf Knoll asked Kracher how he'd "rank" his own wines, and whether one couldn't "order from you blind," the reply was "No. To be as self-assured as that suggests, not even 30 years would be enough. For that, one has to demonstrate achievement over generations." Luis would not be granted 30 years, but he knew that the labors in his vines and cellar were not those of a single lifetime. His loss has left an aching gap, and for his family surely an unspeakable one. But he is still that same strong bridge across the generations.
Philosopher Walter Kaufmann once coined the word "humbition" because, he said, it seemed to capture a vital human virtue that the ancient Greeks had overlooked. Humility and ambition, for a vintner, are two faces of a single, precious coin. That, Luis knew. Few can achieve true greatness without ambition, to carry one's spirit over adversity and fuel the body when arduous tasks threaten to become mere chores. None can achieve it and not be humble in the face of Nature's cruelty and her gifts. I last saw Luis in June2007. In our 12 years of friendship, it was the first time we had met not meaning to make wine our focus. My wife was visiting eastern Austria for the first time, and on her last day there, we sat down with Gerhard and Maria-like my spouse, a life-long teacher-and several other friends and vintners, at Josef Lentsch's restaurant Zur Dankbarkeit. The talk that night was nearly all of history, and what it meant to be from Burgenland. To say my wife was charmed by Luis is an understatement. It was, she said, as if she'd known him all her life. Cathy had begun thinking of countries we had not seen together for three decades, and should next visit. She left that table with altered aspirations.
"As Luis said," she told me when we headed home, "we really must come back to Austria-soon." Lentsch told that night how his grandfather had recovered from the Great War, the Great Depression, and myriad misfortunes, to realize his youthful dream of serving guests at a place that would be called "In Gratitude." Whatever happened, his heart held fast to the belief that thankfulness would hold sway. And so it must be now for us, remembering Luis.