Few members of the wine trade seem inclined to resist the flow of commercial fashion, but Washington's Kate Whitmore seems to relish the idea of swimming upstream. By devoting her importing company to the persistently undervalued wines of Germany, she was already courting disaster when starting her business two years ago. Then, rather than focusing on conventionally styled sweet wines from well-known regions like the Rheingau or the Mosel Valley, she really pushed her luck by basing Kerlin Wines on dry bottlings from relatively obscure regions and grapes other than Riesling. But today--contrary to any objective prediction--Whitmore's business is waxing rather than waning, thanks to a selection of delicious and distinctive wines.
In light of her background in economics and finance, one must wonder whether Whitmore has been consulting her calculator or her heart. After completing a master's degree in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown, she served in the World Bank for six years before moving to Frankfurt to accept a position as an economist for Dresner Bank. Whitmore credits her husband, who is German, for fostering her love of wine during weekends spent touring wine regions and speaking with winemakers. Her time in Germany (1990-1996) coincided with a string of excellent vintages, particularly for dry wines.
When returning to Washington, Whitmore was distressed to discover that the dry-styled German wines she loved (and had seen most Germans enjoying) were virtually unavailable here. Those German wines she could find were either mass-produced products of very low grade or notably sweet wines. Although she expresses no disdain for sweet wines, she regards them as "holdovers from another era" that are difficult to match successfully with many foods. Since nobody else was willing to supply the "wines of modern Germany" for which she longed, Whitmore decided to accept the challenge herself.
The first step was to line up producers for her portfolio, so Whitmore consulted the bible of German wine, Gault Millau's WeinGuide Deutschland (just published for the first time in English as "German Wine Guide" by Abbeville Press, 1-800-278-2665, $25). She found that many top estates were not represented by any U.S. importer and, even more surprising, that many had never even been asked if they wished to sell their wines in America. Selecting just a few producers for starters and working entirely with family funds, Whitmore imported her first wines in 1997.
She resolved to try the enterprise for at least three years, and her early efforts proved very trying indeed. Many restaurants and retail stores were having trouble moving the German wines they already held and were reluctant to expand their selection.
Showing her wines to groups of German wine lovers--a task seemingly akin to preaching to the choir--actually proved to be equally trying. Whitmore found many members of such groups ardently attached to a sweet style of wine she associates with the 1960s and fiercely opposed to the wines she associates with modern Germany. She notes, "I've had more than a few people yell at me during tastings, including one memorable fellow who screamed that I was ruining German wine." Rather than being daunted by these difficulties, Whitmore laughs them off with an easy confidence that bespeaks deep conviction.
Looking ahead to the future, Whitmore's plan is to grow slowly, remaining loyal to her best customers by continuing to supply them with adequate volumes of her small-production wines. Those customers are mostly top restaurants (e.g., Ardeo, Citronelle, Kinkead's and 1789) and small retail stores (especially Cleveland Park Liquor and Fine Wines on Connecticut Avenue, NW) willing to explain and recommend the wines to customers who might otherwise overlook them.
The Kerlin Wines portfolio is headed by the wines of Hans Lang, an important figure in the renaissance of the long-overrated Rheingau region. Lang's Weissburgunder Spatlese Trocken 1998 ($18) is one of the world's finest renderings of Pinot Blanc. He also makes two exceptional dry Rieslings, Charta 1997 ($13) and Riesling Spatlese Trocken "Johann Maximillian" 1997 ($20) as well as a bottling for everyday drinking priced at $10 for a full liter.
Also highly recommended are two fantastic Rheinhessen wines priced at $14 for 500-milliliter bottles: Keller's Grauer Burgunder Spatlese Trocken 1997, a very fine Pinot Gris, and Rieslaner Spatlese 1997, which proves that Whitmore is not averse to a great wine with some sweetness. Two fine bargains are WG Konigschaffhauser Grauer Burgunder Trocken 1997 ($10) and Weissburgunder Spatlese Trocken 1997 ($12), both from Baden. Finally, there are also two delicious, finely-crafted Pinot Noirs, WG Konigschaffhauser's Spatburgunder "Selektion" Trocken 1997 ($17) and Karl Johner Spatburgunder Barrique QbA Trocken 1997 ($36).
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