Gerhard Retter is one of the best-known sommeliers in Germany. Born in Austria, he has worked in the best establishments in the world, knows the industry like no other and can be seen in many TV programmes. He told Raffaella Usai what makes a good host and what is currently moving the gastronomy.
Gerhard Retter, born in 1973, grew up in his parents' inn in Styria. His first station after training as a chef and waiter was Eckart Witzigmann's renowned "Aubergine" restaurant in Munich. This was followed by the "Girardet" restaurant in Lausanne, "Gordon Ramsay" in London and the "Adlon" hotel in Berlin. On television, he is known from the VOX cooking show "Grill den Henssler", from "Grill den Profi" on RTL+, "Topfgeldjäger" on ZDF and "Hells Kitchen" with Frank Rosin on SAT1. He was also a judge on the programme "Kitchen Impossible" on VOX in 2021. Retter runs the Michelin-starred restaurant "Cordo" in Berlin. A new restaurant on Munich's Praterinsel will open soon.
You have been working as a sommelier and restaurateur for decades. How has gastronomy changed over the past 30 years?
Gerhard Retter: On the one hand, everything has become much more relaxed, let's say "casual", even if it is fine dining. On the other hand, gastronomy has become an hourglass, with a broad mass and a middle class that is finding it increasingly difficult. We have become a world of superlatives - with a large number of first-class restaurants. But many of them are struggling to survive because the competition is now enormous.
On top of that, there is an extreme shortage of staff, which has been exacerbated by the Corona pandemic. What are you doing about it?
Gerhard Retter: You have to create a liveable, respectful working culture. Price-performance is not only relevant for the guest, but also for the employee. The wage must be decent. People in gastronomy want to have a life besides their job. It has always been difficult for chefs and sommeliers to have enough time for family and friends. Things have changed, but it's still a problem.
What makes a good host for you today?
Gerhard Retter: You shouldn't be a misanthrope (laughs). No, it's the cordiality. I'm really happy when people come to me and I get to pamper them with my team. My motto has always been: Find the way to your guest's heart! If that succeeds, I'm happy.
With many sommeliers, you don't get the feeling that the guest is the centre of attention. Do you need more humility?
Gerhard Retter: Absolutely, that is one of the most important qualities. The stage belongs to the guest. I hate nothing more than self-dramatisation. Good service is there when you need it - and otherwise in the background. If you don't stay on the ground, you take off and burst at some point. By the way, guests remember exactly where they were treated and how.
Younger people in particular are drinking less and less wine. How do you succeed in inspiring this target group?
Gerhard Retter: I don't think it's bad at all that per-capita consumption is falling, as long as it's growing in quality. Wine is an everyday drink, but it also needs a certain occasion. In my perception, many young people are enthusiastic about wine, especially the wild natural wine producers have done a lot for it. Most wine lovers today have a different approach to wine. They drink more consciously and of higher quality.
If you look at the secondary market, is Fine Wine in the end only a speculative object?
Gerhard Retter: That is the worst development of all. People like you and me, who would like to drink these wines and also appreciate them, can no longer buy them. I wouldn't want to pay 1,000 euros for a bottle of wine either. If you're honest: the price-performance ratio is probably over at 50 euros. It's all about supply and demand, completely crazy! That's why I consciously avoid cult wines. It annoys me when I have to beg as a sommelier to get hold of a few bottles of them. There are so many good wines.
I consciously avoid cult wines. It annoys me when I have to beg as a sommelier to get hold of a few bottles.
With such wines you only reach an elite group in the restaurant.
Gerhard Retter: Our job is to do something good for the guests. As a sommelier, you have to find great wines for ten or 15 euros that are just as surprising, that have excitement and vibration. It's about finding treasures, observing the development in the wine world, discovering young wineries and looking where there are changes. And that's also what most people enjoy. The uniformity of wine lists is a disaster.
What about Piwi wines? So far, you rarely find them in restaurants.
Gerhard Retter: Piwi wines are still in their infancy for me. Let's wait ten years until the vines have reached a certain age. What I've tasted so far hasn't quite convinced me yet. At some point they will certainly be equal to wines that have the added advantage of being produced more sustainably.
Non-alcoholic wines and sparkling wines are becoming more and more popular. Are they an issue with sommeliers?
Gerhard Retter: Rather not. Personally, I find it totally pointless to extract alcohol from a product into which I have put it by fermentation. Before I order such an "artificial" drink, I prefer to drink a high-quality juice. What you do observe, however: You can't get by these days without a high-quality non-alcoholic menu accompaniment. I find that gigantic. Because what alternatives were there in the past if you didn't want to drink alcohol? Water or Kiba...
Gerhard Retter: For me, the most important information on the wine label is the name of the person who made it. Origin alone is not a promise of quality. Of course, the taste corridor becomes narrower. With many appellations such as Chablis, Sancerre and Chianti Classico, the guest usually knows that a wine typical of the variety awaits him, regardless of the winery. Either you are a wine connoisseur and order the wine because you appreciate the winemaker or you trust the appellation. But let's take the natural wines: It's the style that dominates and not the origin.
So origin is not so important?
Gerhard Retter: Yes, it is, I'm just saying that a real terroir wine, a cru, has to be recognisable and comprehensible. These are then really exceptional wines that tell you at the first sip where they come from. Otherwise we end up with a mass of well-made wines that are extremely boring.
Origin alone is not a promise of quality.
Do unknown appellations have a chance in gastronomy?
What trends can you observe?
Gerhard Retter: Many consumers are becoming more and more sensitive to the issue of water consumption and artificial irrigation, also with wine. And this is where many growing regions will reach their limits in the future. We have to realise that certain appellations may no longer be able to be cultivated without water supply. And adapt our wine lists accordingly.