Jas Swan, Katla Wines: Underdogs & Safe Spaces


Opinionated and full of energy, my Mosel-Valley colleague Jasmin is a vocal supporter of the queer community and part of the "new German wave". Intrigued by her freethinking mind and the fearlessness with which she creates her own world and rules, I wanted to hear more of her story.

Jas aka Katla Wines (@terroirmerroir if IG is your home turf) farms 0.4 ha of her own vineyards on the Mosel Valley slopes; more often than not, her wines are a blend of not just multiple varieties but also regions. Being the freethinker that she is, she happily combines grapes purchased from her organically working friends from different parts of Germany into idiosyncratic, vivid wines with unmistakable triangular labels, often dotted the portrait with a colourful, joyful drag queen.

I'm not quite sure where we met for the first time – definitely at some wine fair, but neither of us remembers if it was in Cologne, at La Dive or in Tábor for Bottled Alive. The thing I'm 100% sure of is that Jas has admirable courage and zeal in building her own world and I definitely wanted to ask her where it all came from. Our interview was edited for length and clarity.

Words by Milan Nestarec & Lucie Kohoutová / Images courtesy of Jas Swan, Katla Wines

I don't know your life journey completely but what I know sounds quite adventurous. I assume you don't really have a wine tradition in your family, so how did you get into wine?

I’m a classic European I think – I have lived in Cologne, Berlin, London, Edinburgh, Iceland, and a bit in France before coming back home to Germany to start my winery. I grew up in the suburbs of Mönchengladbach, in a somewhat middle-class family. My dad used to sell cars and my mum sold wedding dresses, and we didn’t have any drink or food traditions really. I don’t think we even had a traditional Christmas dish… I only got into wine in a serious way when I was in my twenties, before that my only wine “experience” was cheap Asti bottles and “Sangrias” with added canned fruit.

It all started in Edinburgh, where I used to work as a receptionist in a Michelin-starred restaurant. A couple of weeks into the new job, I became friends with the sommeliere of the place who was pretty saddened and shocked to hear that I had no wine knowledge. Nothing. So she was so kind to sign me up for a WSET course and got me to level 2. That got me interested – at the time I thought that all grapes were the same and that Chardonnay was a brand, so to learn that there are over 20,000 varieties was a pretty wild concept. But I was hooked and started working in wine bars, and then moved to Iceland to work as a sommeliere at Dill in Reykjavík.

Iceland is quite an important part of your life, right?

I loved living in Iceland – I spent two and half years there in total, and I still come back every year to see my friends. It's a place that helps me to breathe. I loved the job at Dill and suddenly saw some ambition in myself, which I had not known before, I used to just swing from one job to another without much thought. Reykjavik has a really fun natural wine scene, especially for the size of the place, and people are full of passion, so that was cool.

In 2018, I was sexually assaulted, however. After that, my brain went sideways and I couldn’t do my job as a sommeliere anymore. I simply lost the ability to deal with patronising men and decided that I was not suited for classic customer service anymore. But I still loved wine, so I decided to go to France for an internship and hopefully figure my shit out in the meantime. I really loved my stage with Gilles Azzoni, he and his son Antonin showed me how to prune vines and I felt inspired again. It was the first time that I saw that wine can be made with purchased grapes and that you don’t need to own a big family winery in order to be a winemaker. So this got the stone rolling.

A couple of other internships later, I decided to sell my flat in Scotland and move back to Germany. The Mosel Valley was at the same time close and far enough to home so I found a corner of a cellar to rent, bought 5 tanks, and found some organic grapes to buy. That was in 2019, my first vintage of 2,500 litres.

I see you as a very energetic woman with clear opinions and clear visions. Would you say that your wines are like that, too?

You are sweet. I am indeed very energetic but also a very emotional person, my opinions are clear but my visions can be wild. I think my wines definitely are energetic but they are surprisingly streamlined in my opinion, at least in comparison to my mind game [laughs]. My wines help me to focus and vice versa, I help my wines to move forward and have a direction.

How do you make your wines? How would you describe your style?

Little direct press, loads of macerations, but all short-ish. Low alcohol, light intentions, deep vibrations. I usually have an idea about the wine in advance but in the end, I make the final style decisions when my grapes arrive in the cellar – I try to listen to what they want to be and what I can let them be. I don’t think I have a specific style. Cash-flow-wise, I can't really afford to make big big wines, so to be frank, the lightness of my wines isn’t a purely creative decision but also a pragmatic one. Winemaking is so romanticised, I wish I could let wines age for years and years but the reality of my life and the guy in the bank says otherwise.

Part of your production is négoce, ie. you buy grapes from other growers – who do you work with for that?

I am happy to work with people I can also have a drink with, I think it creates a nice community vibe. Namely Christine Pieroth of Piri Naturel in Nahe, Lukas Kraus in Pfalz, Andi Mann and Nicklas Rückrich in Rheinhessen. It's fun to see how Piri and I can make completely different wines with grapes from the same vineyard – this is so curious, it always makes me wonder.

Your cuvées happen to mix grapes across regions. I like that approach, it defies the idea that wine has to necessarily come from one place. What's your take on it?

There are so many imaginary rules to spike prices and create this uber-privilege about wine. “Only this soil”, “only this grape”... people will always try to tell you what is "the best”. I just try to listen to my gut – I might make a single-varietal wine, but if I'm blending grapes, I don’t think twice about different regions. To me, it's about uplifting the wine and creating the best possible drink. Also, the regions that are traditionally considered as best are places where I could never afford to make wine. The “best” places are usually the most privileged. I am just happy to make wine, it doesn’t have to be Romanée Conti. To make something good out of something “small” or traditionally considered “less worthy" and to keep wine affordable is the real art to me.

What inspires you?

Nature, being outside in the vineyard or in the forest. Drag queens – they draw my attention to a different world, one that’s not filled with lumberjack shirts and dark underground cellars. They bring joy to people and can set my mind to a completely different dimension. Music, since it calms my anxiety a lot. People like you, whom I can ask any question and they are happy to share their knowledge without overexplaining or making me feel stupid. Paintings and colours help me focus my vision. The touch of a nice fabric. I think the more I work with wine, the more I realise how focused I am on the senses. Oh boy, and I love pop culture. Also, other women inspire me. Being a woman, I am always in an underdog situation, but I like that because when people don't expect much from you, you can work without pressure and put them in their place.

Which wine do you like to drink?

Aromatic macerated shit. Macerated Gewurztraminer from Alsace for example, JP Frick or Domaine Brand. But otherwise, at the moment I really like Caroline from Pranzegg. I love drinking deep red wines from southern France in the wintertime. Burgenland, the Renner sisters are great too. I will never turn down Champagne, especially if someone else is paying [laughs]. And I like easy-drinking rosés in the summertime, sometimes even with an ice cube in it – so refreshing!

What is your attitude towards tradition? You take inspiration from all over the world, but you don't lose your roots. Are roots important to you? Do you follow tradition or do you prefer to create it?

You can't lose roots if you don’t have any. Mental health issues have riddled my family since I was a young teen, so I don’t really have strong ties back home. I believe a lot in chosen families, a concept that’s quite common in the queer community. Kids that get kicked out of their original family because of their sexuality or their gender identification find support in their chosen families, a circle of friends where they feel safe, supported and have people to relate to.

So I am a creator, anything else would inhibit my freedom and creativity. I think tradition is important for other people and that is important. I respect it but my own path is different. We all have different jobs and talents.

You indeed are a vocal advocate for the rights of the drag and trans community, which is great. Do you see your wine as a tool that can have an impact and influence other people's opinions?

I see so many empty “buy my wines” voices on Instagram. I like to live my life with more substance. Plus I have a voice nowadays, something I didn’t use to have. So I want to use this platform for something good and I hope I can support the queer community as much as it has supported me when it created the safe space I needed.

I think that to a certain extent, you have influenced what is happening in Germany now – I call it the "new wave" of young winemakers, it is really massive and great. What is the current mood of winemakers and consumers in Germany?

You asked the worst German, haha. I don’t even like Germany as a country that much, but I like my friends, our pH levels and Piwis and Riesling. So I get by OK! German consumers have always drunk very little natural wine and I don’t think that their consumption has increased a lot. But we have much more natural winemakers now, at least compared to how many of us used to be at Surk-ki’s Weinsalon Naturel in Cologne back in the day! But the market in general is difficult right now I think. It's really important to stay relevant, otherwise, you will disappear in a blur of Weiss. Inflation is hitting all of us hard, our importers, the consumers, the winemakers. So I feel like everyone is drinking very safe at the moment.

It's true that I am asking you about Germany yet I perceive you more as a citizen of the world. Would you be able to make wine anywhere on the globe? Do you have preferences regarding varieties, soils and places?

I think I could make wine anywhere that’s north-ish. I have no interest in going south – I love southern France, I just think that the more extreme the global warming becomes, the more extreme weather freak events will be happening there. Also, the higher the pH, the harder it is to make clean 0/0 wines [without additives]. If I had all the money in the world and could live anywhere, I think I would move to Sweden and plant a vineyard there. The weather is solid, their forest a proper one, and southern Sweden has shown that grapes can grow there. Now it's just a matter of time for them to create something big. I also thought that Brittany would be cool because I could grow grapes there and also have an oyster farm at the same time. That would be fun.

What do you think about alternative packaging like key keg, cans, etc.?

I like key kegs for what I do. I also like drinking out of cans but I don’t have the production facility. Both vessels can contain so much more wine on one pallet while being way lighter than the usual pallet full of bottles, that’s good and important. I find heavy glass or ceramic clay bottles near-offensive to the eye and so unsustainable that I want to cancel them. All. I mean, when did we decide that a bottle is more “worthy” because of its weight? Also, why doesn’t this “more is better” thinking extend to humans and their body fat?!

You're touring the wine salons with your van, how did that happen?

I am a pretty basic person and I want to create places for people where they can enjoy wine without fancy words or white collars. It intimidates and excludes people and we need to make our wine world more open and more diverse. The van is a bit of a secret gig – the location only gets announced on the day of the event since I don't usually ask for the necessary permissions and I don’t want the authorities to show up. I usually ask friends if they wanna show some of their wines alongside mine, and then we gather and hang out, pour wines, listen to music and everyone is invited and we have good conversations.

What are you working on right now? As I know you, you are certainly full of new projects.

Ha! I'm prepping for the upcoming harvest and trying to find ways to make my winery and concepts safe spaces. I am also working on more collaborations. Most importantly, I am trying to work on a proper future for myself. I need to move my cellar at some point again and I still have no clue where it will be – I have no money for Sweden, unfortunately [laughs].

What do you think is the future of wine?

PiWi grape varieties are the sustainable future of wine. Baby boomers definitely are not. I don’t know, really, but as long as we are involved in the future, I think it will be pretty wild and fun.

Is wine art?

Yes, but not all wine. A wine that challenges, awakens our senses is art. If a wine makes you feel something and touches your emotions then you are drinking art. To me, the worst wine is a wine that doesn’t make you feel anything. But not all art appeals to all people in the same way, just like wine.

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