Billy Wagner is the award-winning sommelier and owner of the starred Berlin restaurant Nobelhart & Schmutzig. To complement his “brutally local” cuisine, he presents one of the most unusual drinks menus in Germany: Amongst the 900 items you will find only beverages which Wagner himself finds interesting, be that a natural wine from the Jura region, an organic Lambrusco from Emilia-Romagna, a pear-cider or a beer brewed by Trappist monks. For him, the Josephinenhütte glasses are an extension of the rich diversity which he lives through his choice of drinks. A conversation about the triad interplay of wine, glass and taste.
Billy Wagner, is wine a good medium for communication?
Absolutely. Wine drinkers talk to each other, they exchange values. People come to us because they want to connect through the wine. Other restaurants choose their wine list with the aim of providing the best for their guests. We do the opposite: we challenge them. The superficial drinker will not have a good time at our restaurant.
You only serve wines which are outside of the mainstream, and less popular flavors such as sour or bitter are naturally accorded their place on the menu. Do your ever expect too much of your guests?
Our cuisine demands a certain kind of wine. And many people have a very limited horizon of taste. For them, red wine always has to be heavy, white wine has to be fruity, light and ice-cold. There is nothing in-between. If I have this sort of guest, I try to match this profile of taste – but with wines from our cellar. That guest will get a wine he likes, even if it doesn’t match the food. The concept that the wine always has to match the food is wrong, it’s more important that you drink the wine you like.
You could make it easier for yourself and put a Pinot Grigio on your menu, a wine many people like. Why do you not offer one?
It is difficult to find a good Pinot Grigio which we also like. Pinot Grigio is a variety of grape which often comes across as very agreeable. Nicely juicy and with an emphasis on fruitiness. And this defines a sort of beat which I find boring. I actually consider myself to be above this kind of wine. I also don’t want people to drink poison, alcohol which was made in wasted time. They can do that 364 days a year. But we serve something different.
Your restaurant also lives in the details, such as the designer-coats for the smokers who are banished to stand outside, or the soap in the lavatories which smells of the spices used in the southern German black pudding specialty “red sausage”. What qualities must a glass have to match your high expectations of a perfect restaurant?
The first prerequisite is that the wine must be presented in the best possible way. But I also consider the sensation of touching the glass important. The empty glass should already call up some feelings by look and touch, just like the surface of the table, the plate or the napkin. The glass must be a sensory experience.
Holding a hand-blown glass, such as this one, by Josephinenhütte: how does it compare to an industrially made glass?
First of all, you notice its lightness. It is a very delicate, elegant feeling. The fact that you can feel a texture also gives a feeling of value. This is important to me. The look also plays a part, of course. A glass should ideally always also be an object of design. Most people buy glass because it’s beautiful which is totally legitimate. But we buy wine glasses first and foremost in order to be good for the wine.
When is a glass good for the wine?
It is absolutely possible to drink wine from a coffee cup. The problem with this, is that it’s impossible to smell the wine, because it cannot develop its aroma in the cup. It slides along the edges but does not get out. With a simple industrially made glass, you have at least the chance to smell something. Since what you taste is always also what you smell, it is crucial how you perceive the wine with your nose. A good glass is the best possible way of presenting wine to all the senses.
"In my opinion, the undulation definitely has a clear function. The bend makes a lot of sense."
You use wine glasses from the „Josephine” series at your restaurant. Do you consider the characteristic undulation an aesthetic or a functional element?
In my opinion, the undulation definitely has a clear function. The bend makes a lot of sense, especially for the champagne flute. Champagne and sparkling wines made from apples or rhubarb taste excellent from this glass. We also find that beer goes well in these glasses. The aroma comes across as fruity, lively and very precise.
Is a visit to a restaurant influenced by beautiful glass?
When we first opened, we put a lot of consideration into the moment when the guest sits down for the first time in our restaurant. How does that feel? Is it too light, too dark, is the temperature pleasant? What does the guest sit on? Is the chair comfortable? Does it have armrests, can you put your feet somewhere? We consider all these things to be very important, down to a nice atmosphere in the restrooms. Even if the food or anything else is not to their liking, there should still be enough details for our guests to think: this is a great restaurant. And these wonderful wine glasses!
Can a great wine glass make a bad wine taste better?
You appreciate a drink more from a good glass. A good glass is honest with a wine, because it allows it to show its characteristics better. What I like about the glasses from Josephinenhütte is that they show off the best parts of a drink: like when you look at yourself in the mirror thinking ‘I look so good today!’ But they are well balanced, the glass is definitely no phony. It would be mean to drink a 2,99 Euro wine from Josephinenhütte glasses. You would smell things you just don’t want to smell. So, if you own good wine glasses, you have to drink good wine.
For you, there is a political dimension to eating. You like to promote quality and diversity. How is better drinking done?
If you drink a Merlot from Sicily, it might be a wonderfully tasting wine. For planting the Merlot though, a Nero d’Avola was very likely torn out. And in this, diversity had to give way to an international grape variety. By drinking those wines, you are complicit in the standardization, in a growing uniformity of wines. This is why it is important which wine you drink and how it is made. If nobody buys wines for 2,99 Euros, nobody will make them anymore, for sure.