The Gantenbein Winery – A Taste of Happiness



The Gantenbeins, winemakers extraordinaire in the Grisons Rhine Valley, go about things their own way. Inspired by the best wineries worldwide and with unrelenting determination to improve, the Gantenbeins have turned their wines into a brand that long ago gained recognition beyond the Swiss borders.

Taking the corner so fast that their little red 2CV threatens to tip over, Martha and Daniel Gantenbein approach at top speed out of nowhere. Two cheerful faces can be distinguished through the front windshield, and a muscular forearm appears through the half-open passenger window, the hand beckoning us to follow. And then the red dot-on-four-wheels leaves us behind again. Speeding along a winding road through a landscape of leafy green trees and pastures, with the Grisons mountains looming in the distance, we finally reach the winery Gantenbein in Fläsch. Its most noticeable feature is a large construction with a sand-colored brick façade that shimmers in the sun like a Fata Morgana and seems to be covered in large spherical imprints. The fantastical first impression leaping to mind is that a mythical giant must have stopped there and pressed huge grapes into the wet façade to make the pattern.

The optical illusion turns out to be real, but its provenance not quite so otherworldly. Several years ago, the wine estate enlarged the old wine cellar, adding a bay for fermentation (Cuvéerie) and additional space for labeling the wine bottles along with a wine-tasting station. Building this construction obviously came with a set of technical challenges, but it was the crowning glory to cap the continuous optimizing efforts that have always defined Gantenbein as a brand.

It all began with a vineyard. Or even earlier – when Martha and Daniel first met. Martha was still going to school and Daniel was doing an apprenticeship as a machine technician. "We've known each other for a long time," Martha reveals cheerfully. "And from the start, really, we knew we would end up doing something together one day." Daniel adds, "It's like Martha says. We've always had an eye for quality.” They became a couple and, in 1981, took over the winery run by Martha's family, learning the trade from the bottom up.

We live in a set annual cycle. Everything happens once.

Ever since, their life has followed a set annual pattern. Initially, the winery simply produced a good local wine. Every year they gleaned new knowledge and added 365 days of additional experience to their know-how. "The disadvantage of an ordinary Swiss local wine is that it’s so easy to be pushed out of the market. Basically, regular wine can be produced at a lower cost in almost any other location," Martha tells us, explaining why their common aims were set high from the start. And Daniel adds, "The best, the absolute optimum we can possibly achieve, is what goes into these bottles here, which, when all is said and done, bear our name."

Compare, learn, improve. A motto that has led to a number of experiments. In 1991, for example, the couple used only large barrels made from German oak – and the wine was elected the best of its year. An honor that was noted internationally as well. The associates who produce the oak barrels for the Gantenbeins only use wood that has been air-dried for three entire years. "Undesirable tannin compounds, the influences of sun, wind, and weather, all these elements are phased out in this period," Daniel explains. The gleam in the eyes behind his glasses reveals a man who is passionate about tinkering and experimenting. Following the oak barrels, the next idea was to ferment a part of the harvest in barriques. And, since 1993, that is all they have been using. Two years later, they took another decisive step. In the future, Martha and Daniel decided, they would only produce wine without filtration, an unusual step for wine makers in Switzerland. Promoters of this method, such as the Gantenbeins, argue that in the process of filtration, an exacting process during which the wine is purified, valuable ingredients are lost.

All these details, however, the types of barrels and the production optimization are only the parameters of the production process. The most important thing is and will always be the fruit that the vineyard produces.

And Martha adds, "Each vine is a unit, a separate being, that needs to be pampered and cared for. You ask yourself, is this leaf superfluous, or maybe that one there, and either you cut it away – or you don't."

Light and shadow

A man on a tractor drives up and waves. "Will you go and open, Martha?" Daniel asks, before he nods to Sven, their sole permanent employee. As we enter the add-on he explains, "The more exact your parameters are, the lower the risk that you miss out on any potential." Their success, which has grown continually since that historical vintage in 1990, indicates that they are on the right track. "We prefer to fill less bottles and to sell them at a better price. That's much more satisfying," Daniel maintains.

Inside the building, the 28,000 clinker bricks display their pattern with light and shadow. Their special construction and the exact positioning of the bricks have created a 3D structure with small chinks that allow only a small amount of daylight to filter through.

We produce wine in a single quality. This is our overriding principle, and all our efforts are geared toward that outcome.

Martha wears a red-and-white checked blouse, a pair of jeans, and classic pearl studs in her ears. The overall effect is practical yet elegant. She tells us it hasn't always been easy to ensure that their principles were adhered to, despite having had clear policies from the start. Daniel readily corroborates. "In New York or in Zurich, regardless of where a Gantenbein wine is served, it should always be of the same quality. In order to do so we prefer to invest a little more in good quality utensils and tools. These articles are more satisfying to work with as well: A vat made of chrome steel is much more pleasant to work with than a plastic one.

While showing us around the cellars he continues his narrative. "Suddenly, there are a lot more things you have to take into consideration, more than a farmer would normally have to deal with. You produce, you have to make sure you don't leave anything out or neglect something, you have to find a balance and continually ask: ‘How much do you want to do yourself, how much do you want to delegate?’" The answer to this is provided not so much by Daniel and Martha themselves, but by the fact that, besides Sven, they only hire an extra two women for the leaf trimming – everything else is taken care of by the couple themselves.

Space for thought

"The wonderful thing about this work is that you spend days on end in your own company," says Martha. "Sometimes when I start working in the vines in the morning, I have something on my mind. During the day I have time to mull things over, and by evening I've usually found a solution."

Work in the vines is monotonous and repetitive and I think that's probably quite healthy. You have to be comfortable with your own company.

And if there's nothing that needs thinking over, the Gantenbeins listen to audiobooks. "Over the years we must have listened to thousands of classic books and detective stories. It's a wonderful pastime," Martha says cheerfully. To ensure that their workdays don't get interrupted too often, once a year they organize an event offering food, wine, and a tour for people who'd like to come and have a look around. "We don't sell our wine directly and we don't have people dropping in all the time," she explains. "We can't have an open house every day. We only meet with people who've made an appointment with us. That way the focus remains on our work," Daniel adds.

"We know what works for us and that’s how we play it. You need to have the courage of your convictions, or at some point you'll start regretting it," Daniel says before he uncorks a bottle and takes a wineglass down from the shelf. He looks at Martha and says with a wink. "It's a bit early for us, isn't it Martha? We had a late evening last night." They give each other a conspiratorial smile and, before Daniel pours us some wine to try, he states their motto. "You get what it says on the label." The name on the label is Gantenbein.

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