My year in Austria started out with me asking for mustard instead of soap when I wanted to wash my hands. Fresh off a plane, this was the first impression made on my host family, at that point they probably had second thoughts because they were under the impression that I spoke German (which I did, I swear – I was just jet-lagged, nervous and unfamiliar with their Austrian accents). This was the very start of my experience working as an au pair and improving my German. I may have chosen this family because they had a dog (Santa never brought me one, even though this was the only thing I ever asked for my entire life). Or possibly (definitely) because they owned a winery, and I was thrilled to actually be fulfilling my lifelong Parent Trap horseback-riding-through-the-vineyards dream. Spoiler alert: there were no horses.
My life living at a winery quickly became entertaining, informative and, at times, confusing as hell. One day, I found myself asking my host dad why he was putting beakers of white wine in the kitchen oven, only to be told that this was how he could identify the percentage of egg whites that were in the wine. Wait. WHAT?
Although my level of German was good for most conversation topics, venturing into scientific territory was dangerous. And at the time, my knowledge of winemaking was limited to picturing old Italian men stomping red grapes with their bare feet, and thinking white wine could only come from green grapes (surprise – red grapes make white wine too!). The fact that egg whites could be present in wine was theeee craziest idea I’d ever heard.
However, I learned 2 things from this brief conversation with my host dad that day:
1) Fun Fact: The word “Eiweiß” in German means both “egg whites” and “protein.” So when I thought he wanted to determine the percentage of egg whites in his wine, I was seriously mistaken, and he was actually conducting a heat test to determine the protein stability in the wine.
2) This misunderstanding of the word “Eiweiß” was easily my favorite joke to share with fellow wine-loving friends, until the day I mentioned my language mishap to a friend from CA – who was a winemaking intern at a neighbor’s winery. As I laughed at what I thought was the most absurd idea, that egg whites were in wine, he failed to see the humor in my anecdote as he explained that egg whites really are added to some wines. They’re used as a “fining agent” to absorb bitter tannins. Think I’m crazy? See for yourself.
I must admit, it was handy living in a house with direct access to the tasting room and wine cellar. Though this was a nice perk, what I really got to experience was the winemaking culture that is so proudly widespread throughout Austria. Steeped in tradition, sons are often named after their winemaking fathers, bred to take over the family winery. The younger generation of winemakers respectfully continues the ways of their elders’ traditional winemaking styles. Weather patterns are obsessively monitored, as members of prominent wine associations dare to interfere with Mother Nature and hire helicopters to fly over valleys threatened by frost, disrupting menacing cold fronts with the wind created by their flights. Neighboring winemakers forego sleep and rally at dawn lighting brush on fire to create a protective layer of smoke over their grapes, with hopes that their frozen crop thaws slowly as the sun rises.
Everyone knows someone who owns a winery. Winemaking in Austria isn’t just a job; it’s a way of life. Winemakers keep careful watch over their vineyards, dedicating their lives to the success of the vintage. It is a beautiful thing in a picturesque country. And I hope to Dionysus (or the wine god of your choice) that you can taste the passion in Austrian wines that I had the honor of witnessing for twelve months.
PS: If you’ve never tried a crisp Grüner Veltliner, you’ve been seriously missing out. This wine single-handedly turned a Malbec-loving, red-wine-only drinker into a white wine lover. Austria will always have a place in my heart, as well as my ever-growing personal wine collection.