Thursday, April 16, 2015

Jurgen Gothe: a connoisseur of wine, food and music

Photo: Jurgen Gothe

The death of Jurgen Gothe on April 9, 2015, is such a loss to all of us who experienced his generosity, his erudition and his wonderful personality.

Born in Berlin in 1944, he grew up on the Prairies. When he became bored in high school, he decided he could learn what he needed to know on his own. He dropped out of school and initially, supported himself by selling magazine subscriptions and working in a gas station in Carberry, Manitoba.

Few self-taught individuals have accomplished as much. Blessed with a voice of intimate richness, he started as a broadcaster in private radio. That led to the CBC in 1985 to name him host on Radio Two of a classical music program called DiscDrive. It was on the air nationally five days a week until 2008. Its cancellation was part of the CBC’s unfortunate decision to dump most of its classical music programming.

His refreshing approach, salted with quirky humour, made music accessible to a large audience. In his highly rated three-hour time slot, he programmed not just classical music (I recall him being a particular fan of Mozart) but also jazz and bluegrass and whatever else appealed to his eclectic taste.

I would think that Jurgen will have approved of the CBC’s recent decision to give tenor Ben Heppner a classical music program on Radio Two. Heppner has the same eclectic taste, wit and intellectual curiosity that distinguished DiscDrive over 23 years.

Jurgen and I took up wine writing about the same time, perhaps 35 years ago. We also met frequently at wine tastings and at wine judgings. He had a fine palate. Most recently, he was the wine columnist for the Georgia Straight from 1997 to 2014. His wine reviews were like his radio work: entertaining, accessible and generous.

In the interest of full disclosure, I can tell you that Jurgen reviewed most of my books. The reviews were always positive. While I like to think that is because the books were good, I think it is more that Jurgen just had a positive view on life. I never remember hearing a negative comment from him about anyone.

In 1994, I wrote the first edition of The Wineries of British Columbia. With some temerity, I asked Jurgen to write a foreword. It was one of the best essays in the book.

“Being a wine writer is, in this country at least, still somewhat suspect,” he wrote. “For one thing, there’s all that free wine. ‘Bet you get a lot of good stuff free, eh?’ people nudge-nudge at cocktail parties. The wine writer chokes on his chardonnay. Thanks to the byzantine rules and regs of our ten different-as-can-be provincial bodies of control, thanks to the still-lingering fear that wine may yet be the handiwork of the forces of darkness, the freebies are as scarce as affordable burgundy.

“Now and then we do get some plonk to sample: new versions of the wine equivalent to the K-car; offshore blended cabernet-muscats; generic varieties fashioned into low-alcohol, high-sugar fizzers with a fake French name.”

I am glad that Jurgen experienced the positive changes that were just beginning when that was written. Samples of good wine now arrive with such regularity that every wine writer conscripts friends and neighbours to finish the samples. I am sure Jurgen was no different.

As Jurgen observed then … and it remains true … we don’t write about wine expecting to get rich. “I know most of the wine writers, real and soi-disant, in the land. There isn’t a one of us who makes enough from the fruits of these labours to keep a beach cottage in hydro,” he wrote.

“It’s similar to what musicians tell you. You can’t make a living playing Bach. You can’t make a living writing about wine in Canada. Yet. Or so I like to think.

“For years I was the wine columnist for a hundred-and-something-year-old daily newspaper in these parts. I am too embarrassed to tell you in public what they paid me. But I did get one raise in ten years of never missing a Sunday: six bucks per column! As a sartorially challenged Canadian sports commentator says: you gotta love it!

“And really, there’s the rub. Like John Schreiner, I have been an enthusiast of and periodic apologist for British Columbia wines for what seems to be a lifetime; since long before it was fashionable – or even safe – to do so.

“I recall how upset the winemakers one Okanagan wine festival when we awarded no gold medals. (John Schreiner was one of the judges.) The point was, no wine deserved any that year; boosterism can only go so far. When gold standards were achieved the judges dispensed as much precious metal as they could get their hands on.”

And Jurgen continued for several hundred more words, showering a lot of kindness my way. I blush when I read that the book was “a signpost along the road of an industry still in the making. It’s a position paper telling us where we are at this point in time, what we are doing and who is active in that doing.”

The book led to two other editions and numerous other volumes on B.C. wines. The wines kept getting better and people actually wanted to read about them. I did not need more forewords from Jurgen to bolster the credibility of the books. As Jurgen wrote in 1994: “ We don’t have to apologize anymore.”

He continued in his essay: “There are still people who feel Canada in general and British Columbia in particular cannot produce fine wine. I call them people who have been out of town for a long time. Let them live with their opinions; that leaves all the more for you and me and John Schreiner.”

The foreword turned out to be a rave review.

And Jurgen ended the essay with typical wit. “And no, I didn’t get paid for this,” he wrote. “I’m a wine writer after all.”

He wrote at least three books of which I am aware. There was a 1990 volume called Good Gothe! The Enthusiasms of an Airwave Connoisseur. His 1995 book of recipes, Some Acquired Tastes: A Recipe Album was cited in an academic paper reviewing cookbooks by B.C. authors.

The most recent, I believe, was his 2005 volume of recipes, DiscCookery: The DiscDrive 20th Anniversary Cookbook published by Whitecap. The recipes are, as you would expect from Jurgen, practical and accessible. He even pairs them with wine and with music to listen to while cooking.

You can find them on Amazon and other used book sites.

Amazon says this about the 2005 cookbook: “DiscCookery even includes Gothe's legendary Dinner and Ride Home for Cinderella: a stew of beef, peaches, corn, and vegetables, cooked and served in a pumpkin.”

It has been a favourite around our house for years. Thank you for that, Jurgen, and for everything else.


At April 17, 2015 at 8:13 AM , Blogger Sam Wilson said...

Great read thank you. I'd love to try and find his book.

ps. I think I may have caught a typo in the last sentence


At April 18, 2015 at 9:28 AM , Blogger whyner said...

John, a lovely tribute to Jurgen! I fondly remember my drives to or from work listening to the melodious Gothe wax poetic on the masters on Disc Drive (even have the CD collections). I met him at many Vancouver wine functions and enjoyed his joie de vivre.


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