Franz Strohmeier: Trust the Plant, Trust Yourself


My interview with the Styrian legend proves that Franz is one of the most intriguing and warmest people in the wine world. No wonder his wines procure as much pleasure and feel-good vibe as his very presence and ideas.

Some people need no introduction – if you got acquainted with real wine in the last 25 years, the idiosyncratic Strohmeier bottles, with their typical spiral and evocative German (and later also Danish and English) names written in Papyrus (Papyrus!) are sure to make your heart beat faster, just like mine.

The only thing I love more than indulging in such wines is indulging in the ideas, creeds and views of the person who made it, so when Franz agreed to talk to me while standing behind a stand next to me in a wine fair in Canada, I got all excited. Much Gratitude!

Words by Milan Nestarec / Images Lucie Kohoutová

I think you influenced a lot of people on the wine scene: drinkers, sellers and especially winemakers who followed you in some ways. Do you ever think about it? Do you feel any responsibility as a leader, or is it just something that naturally came with doing your own thing?

I was not thinking about that. I did what I wanted to do without wondering if I influenced others. I've never felt like a leader, I just focused on growing grapes sustainably. That took most of my time. I guess I always had in the back of my mind that it might be a path that can suit anybody, in the sense that it's just a simple way to natural agriculture.

You're making wine in a very particular and rather challenging location, in Western Styria. How does the geography affect your wine?

Our vineyards are on the slopes of the Koralpe mountains, one of the coolest wine-growing areas in Austria, with important rainfall. On the other hand, it can get very hot in the summer, due to winds coming from the Adriatic from the South, even hot air and sand from the Sahara sometimes. Everything is possible here…

I know you are a successor to a winegrowing family, was your journey to making wine the way you make it straightforward?

My family became winegrowers when I was 6 years old, in the 1970s. In the beginning, my parents were mainly selling the grapes to others, and then in 1988, as I was finishing wine school in Klosterneuburg, we started to bottle our wine as well. For the first 10 years, I was making wine like they taught me at school. And then in 1999, after building my own cellar, I decided to plant more vineyards and turned to organic farming in 2003. My first sparkling wine without added sulphites was born in 2005 and the range “Trauben, Liebe und Zeit” – to convey that these wines are made with only Grapes, Love and Time – was established in 2007.

What was the “initiation moment” for going organic and doing things differently? Who or what influenced you the most in this decision?

It was a gradual process – I would say it started in 1996 when I rented vineyards in the Sausal area in South Styria. I farmed them with very little intervention and still had good yields. Back then, I was also drinking many great, world-famous wines and couldn't help but observe that due to all the modern techniques used in the cellar, the wines from nearly everywhere in the world started to taste the same.

Therefore I started to think that to make the most unique wine, one has to have only the grapes and vintage expression. To do the complete opposite of modern technical winemaking – add nothing, take nothing away through fining or filtering. And to do that with grapes grown without fertilisers and chemical treatments, ie. the most unique ones. Around that time, we started to hang out with other growers which then became our “Schmecke das Leben” group of five Styrian growers [the other four are the legendary Sepp & Maria Muster, Ewald Tscheppe, Andreas and Elisabeth Tscheppe and Roland Tauss; EN]. This was my biggest influence in the process and an invaluable space to exchange experiences with like-minded peers.

Is it important for you to take risks? Do you think you have a higher risk tolerance than others?

I don't! Actually, I don't like taking risks. My path wasn't about that, I was just naive and didn't see them at all. For which I'm glad, looking back. On the other hand, I need to say that if there’s a fire in me to realise an idea, to experience and perceive it, I do take action right away.

Are you religious?

If you take the Latin root of the word, "religio" means "to do something with consideration" or "to observe conscientiously". So in that sense, I can say that I am religious. Even if I do not follow any [established] religion.

What or who inspires you?

Nature, of course! And free-spirited people with conscience and peace of mind.

Do you think that the plant should be in some degree of stress or should it be as comfortable as possible? How to strike the right balance?

From my experience, it seems that a certain kind of stress can bring more structure and liveliness to the grapes, for example when you have some leaves affected with fungus, like late peronospora [downy mildew].

What kind of wine do you like to drink?

I stopped drinking due to my pancreas condition, around ten years ago. But I still enjoy a nice little sip of lively wine with personality here and there, which, for me, is nearly always wine made without additives.

You also started making olive oil in Istria – was it driven by a desire to learn something new? I'm curious if you see some similarities between olive trees and vineyards.

I´m always looking for new and inspiring things. Olive trees are similar to wine, as they can last generations. When I sit under these trees which are very old – up to 400 years – I let myself be inspired by these beautiful creatures and their diverse structures. Plus, olive oil is healthy and delicious.

You dug a pond below one of your vineyards during the Covid hiatus. Hearing about that inspired me a great deal – in one of my vineyards, there's a spot where the vines are not doing very well, so I decided to create a biotope pond there. What is the most important thing to have in mind so that I do not screw it up?

The reason I started to dig the pond was that there has always been a lot of water coming out of the ground in that particular part of the plot. The water from the entire slope above this spot was enough to create a natural pond, I only had to dig the earth to create a reservoir and the water accumulated very fast, thanks to the impermeable loam and clay in the soil there. The water plants were fast to come and naturally outgrew those I put in there. All in all, it depends a lot on your geological situation – there's a lot of nuance to that, so it's important to think about the nature of your soils at that spot.

You work a lot with unpruned vines. We also have some, but mostly accidentally – for example, we had a vineyard that we were going to uproot so we didn't prune it before its last season. And what happened was amazing, the grapes from this vineyard were the freshest, most vivid, literally the most joyful we had that year, which was also then reflected in the wine. From your experience, is this joy and fertility of the vines something that gets gradually lost with minimal pruning? Do you do at least some trimming at some point, or not at all?

In my case, I see the fertility tends to alternate with the unpruned vines – one year we get a lot of grapes, year after there's less of a crop. I prune every year, but only the tops of the vines, to keep the leaf canopy in shape, so that it doesn't become bell-shaped.

From my perspective, looking at the plus side of minimal pruning you get small, complex grapes with good acidity. Vine top shoots are not cut and shortened, the vineyards are in natural balance. Are there any pitfalls in minimal pruning, apart from the fact that it makes treatments and harvest more difficult?

I got a lot of damage with black rot in the last couple of years, so I´m now hoping for more stability. Also, late-Peronospora and oidium are an issue in my area and wet climate.

I recently tasted your Gratitude at one of the fairs where we met. It's a wine made with Souvignier Gris, Muscaris and Bronner, ie. all PiWi grapes, and it tasted just great. What is your experience with working with these varieties that are not 100% Vitis vinifera? I see so many advantages in them, yet also sense a lot of skepticism towards these hybrid varieties in the wine community. Are PiWis the future?

I also perceive skepticism for PiWi`s, but this is natural, people are often afraid of new possibilities. As the name of this wine shows, I'm personally very grateful for these grapes. They have the big advantage of parting with the monoculture and growing and coexisting together with other fruits, without spraying. It's a kind of regenerative agriculture or permaculture.

Do you also have animals?

Only the wild and free ones.

I perceive your approach as optimistic. I dare say that in your wine one can feel that you have maximal trust in the plants. What is your philosophy? I ask because I think that your answer will be much more colourful than "biodynamics, permaculture, regenerative agriculture" which are the traditional answers in our winemaker niche.

To describe it colourfully is possible but it would take a whole book if I wanted to touch on all the aspects [laughs]. But you said it yourself: the most important thing is to trust the plants. I would also add trust in nature as a whole, and the rest will follow.

I´ve been in this learning process for a long time. Before my trust in nature could grow, I had to go inside myself, find tools to release my fear, and trust myself too. It is still a work in progress because every vintage brings new challenges. So there's always some test for my own stability and development.

To me, it's crucial to get the bottling moment right. To capture the energy from nature and not lose it along the way. What is the right bottling moment for you?

I think the bottling time of course has an impact, but not more than the harvest moment, the pruning time, and all the other things we have to do… Once again, I feel that the most important thing is that the wines and myself are in a “peace of mind” state. When you're mindful and the feeling is good, bottling will work properly as well.

Being at peace, and satisfied with the way things are sounds simple, but it's not always easy to achieve. How do you get into this state of mind?

Breathing exercises, sensing my body and feeling its physical reactions. My body is the guide for my actions more and more.

“Mental hygiene” can also help to develop a satisfied mind – I let in only information that allows you to keep such a mindset. The first simple step was to stop watching the news as they are mostly full of fearful stories that lowered my energy, whether consciously or not. Another tool I use is cleaning the mind by switching from thinking to going into nature and feeling it with all senses… Good, relaxing music can help as well.

Last but not least, solitude and stillness. It is like fasting for the mind – it leads you to the inner self. It's probably advisable to have a guide or teacher to make sure that you clean your energy and mind before that. And to keep being patient.

Thank you for sharing that! Time for my traditional wrap-up questions: is wine art? And what is the future of wine?

Now and in the near future, wine can be art and wine can be helpful and healthy, if you drink the right dose and if the wine gives you energy instead of taking it away. Further in the future, wine could be possibly less important. It all depends on how mankind will evolve spiritually and mentally.

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