It’s not even noon, but everyone here is drinking. My friend Tom sits down across from me and says he thinks he just saw a baby take a sip, although he’s not sure.
It’s 11:30 a.m. on Sunday, August 26, and I’m sitting with friends in the middle of the central plaza in Bad Durkheim, Germany, trying to take it all in. It looks like rain, but the plaza is full of people. They eat bratwurst and crepes. They laugh. There’s a band somewhere out of sight playing flawless, note-for-note covers of Pink Floyd classics, Eagles tunes, and songs from The Muppets. People dance. A grey-haired man with a sculpted, imperial-style mustache serves wine from an open-air bar. We sit and stare. His customers stand up, raise glasses, offer one another flowery salutations, and clank cups. It’s not even noon, but everyone here is drinking.
My friend Tom sits down across from me and says he thinks he just saw a baby take a sip, although he’s not sure. Moments later, we watch a Mr. Bean-sized car drive past, carrying a blond woman who waves at the crowd like a pageant queen. Bad Durkheim’s Wine Princess is on parade. Throughout the day, she will make her way down Germany’s Weinstraße—and so will we.
The German Weinstraße (literally “Wine Street”) is an 85-kilometer road that winds through the Pfalz (Palatinate), Southwest Germany. The decision to name a road Weinstraße dates to 1935, when it was conceived of as a way to connect the wine growers in the region and increase tourism. The last Sunday in August is the Weinstraße’s big day, known as Erlebnistag Deutsche Weinstraße, which translates to “Enjoyment Day on the German Wine Street.” On Enjoyment Day, Police close the street to motorized traffic and people ride bikes, rollerblades, and sometimes scooters down the Weinstraße to 15 different wine festivals in the Pfalz. In recent years, as many as 400,000 people have come to ride and drink on Enjoyment Day.
When we’re about half way through our first round of wine, my brother Mike, who arrived in Germany less than a week ago and seems overwhelmed, turns to me and says, “Geez. This is a lot different than a wine tasting in California.”
Like everyone here, Mike sips on a glass of Riesling, but he might be the only person in Bad Durkheim drinking from a 0.25-liter wine glass, which is the same size as the glasses you have in your kitchen cabinets. The rest of us drink from something called a Dubbeglas, which looks like a dimpled pint glass, holds a half-liter of wine, and is traditional to the Pfalz region. If a half-liter serving sounds like a lot of wine, it’s because it is. Drink two Dubeglases and you’ve already consumed more than a standard bottle of wine on your own. For those who wish to pace themselves, the Germans drink something called weinschorle, which is a 50/50 mix of wine and sparkling water.
In other words, this is a wine drinking festival; there’s not a lot of tasting going on.
The Germans have their own wine culture, and certain outsiders might scoff and think it low-brow (sparkling water?), but those folks are missing the point. It’s about inclusiveness, not pedigree—or at least that’s how it is during festival season. You won’t find any comparisons guides or places to pour out a glass of something you don’t like on Enjoyment Day. You will, however, laugh with friends, eat sausages, dance, and just generally have a great time. Relatedly, if you’re not careful, you will drink too much. So after spending an hour nursing my half-liter of Riesling, I decide to switch to schorle for the rest of the afternoon. I don’t want things to get out of hand.
At 1:00, we mount our bikes and head south to Wachenheim, population 4,699, where I sip from a glass of roséschorle (weinschorle made with rosé instead of the standard Riesling), eat a street-vender bratwurst, taste a sausage made from horse meat (good) and listen to a band of old-timers known as the Gentle Groove Agency perform N-Sync and Black Eyed Peas covers (not so good). In Deidesheim, population 3,735, my wife Irene orders a huge plate of meat: sausages, patties, meatballs—basically Germany on a plate. We sit in the gentle rain, washing it all down with Rieslingschorles. The Deidesheim festival is one of the Pfalz’s biggest, and the streets are so full of people we have trouble finding space to get back on our bikes.