The first person ever to tell me something true about wine was my first real boss, a generous and wise woman who toted me along to the Frankfurt Book Fair with her for several years in my early twenties. At the time I drank mostly sweet red blends that came in denominations of ‘box’ or ‘jug’. When she sensed (or perhaps shared) my fear of humiliating us both when I was asked for my wine order at a long, formal luncheon in a rather famous hotel, she leaned across the many forks of her place setting and whispered to me, ‘Get the Grüner.’
She elaborated that the American white wines I’d had were probably sweet or buttery, but German whites, like dry Rieslings and Grüner Veltliner, were mineral and fresh and lovely. They paired well with all foods. They would make me look like my usual drink wasn’t a $2 Bud Heavy tallboy at a happy hour below Delancey Street. If I was ever unsure what to ask for, anywhere in Europe, I was not to panic: ask for a Grüner and I would be fine. This proved to be the best recommendation of any kind I’ve ever received. (And from a woman who was a veritable font of good advice: stay hydrated; never accept the first offer; don’t trust a man who leaves you a key in a hollow book at the front desk of his hotel.)
The wines poured forth at the Book Fair on the corporate dime, year after year. In real life, though, I couldn’t usually afford Sancerre or Pouilly-Fuissé or Champagne. But Grüner almost always retails for under $15.
It turned out that a vaguely Eastern European cafe near my friend’s apartment in the West Village had a happy hour that sold a bottle of Handwerk, a Viennese Grüner, for $20. I started going once a week or so with companions: good friends, bad dates, my mother. You could get a plate of cheese and pickles and sit on the sidewalk for hours, watching traffic down 7th Avenue South.
The wine itself is bright and refreshing and a little grassy and not overwhelmingly tart. I learned that’s called ‘drinkable’, which I guess I could have intuited by how I drank and drank it. Eventually the café closed, but I discovered you could buy Handwerk in wine shops in the Village, and in my neighborhood in Queens too. Last March I brought a bottle to Astoria Seafood, a BYOB fish wholesaler in the ocean of auto mechanics and taxi hubs between Astoria and Long Island City. We picked up a whole salmon from an ice bucket and handed it to the cashier. They grilled it while we waited outside, then called us in to eat it at a closely packed card table with a plastic fork. Grüner is great with fish. The waitress, an older Greek woman with electric-blue eyeliner, threw napkins, shouted ‘Opa!’ and, after we’d had a few glasses, danced with us through the aisle.
A few days later I returned to my hometown in Pennsylvania — for good, as it turned out. Fun fact about Pennsylvania: there are no wine shops. Alcohol is tightly regulated by the state’s Liquor Control Board, and mostly only available at a state-run chain called Fine Wine and Good Spirits, which is basically the boozers’ DMV. You can also buy wine and beer in grocery stores, but at a strict maximum purchase of 192 total ounces per person, per visit. In addition to now being highly proficient at my 12, 16, and 24.5 times tables, I have also become a free-market fundamentalist. Desperate times.
My last visit to New York was to collect my things. My friend from the West Village came to help me pack, and I got us a bottle of Handwerk for old time’s sake. I hadn’t had a good white wine in months. Sharing the bottle over all my half-packed boxes was still just like all the afternoons at the Book Fair, all the evenings at the cafe, every time I’d brought the same bottle to Sunday night salons in her apartment or the fish market, or to a picnic in Central Park. Bright and refreshing, mineral and lovely.
You can get Handwerk Grüner Veltliner by the case at Astor Wine for $150, with free shipping on your first order. The bottles are one liter, slightly larger than standard size, so even accounting for ‘drinkability’, the case will last you a while. When you start attending dinner parties again, bring it along. Your host will be impressed and the other guests will be grateful — especially if you live in Pennsylvania.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s March 2021 US edition.