Between the Vines, Part III

Between the Vines, Part III

I sat in front of my computer for the better part of the next morning gazing upon each photo the registrar sent; the old German script mysterious but clear, beckoning further attention. Amazed that the documents still existed, I marveled in how they now solidified my relationship to each ancestor’s name where previously it had been much more abstract. With the word Essigproduzent (vinegar producer) on my mind, I picked up the bottle off the shelf and could only chuckle over the circumstances leading up to this moment.

After all, it was the discovery of the wine’s spoilage and transformation into vinegar which finally led me to seek answers of how my ancestors were connected to the vines. I recalled the morning when I made it, of how I unknowingly held the answer in my hands as I peered at the brown liquid sealed inside the bottle. The entire experience, from the cemetery in Osthofen, to the bottle on the shelf, and now the note from the registrar revealing my great-great grandfather Maximilian’s occupation was serendipitous. I could not help but want to learn more.

There was no doubt the documents deserved translation. At first, my hesitation was they might reveal contradictions to existing family stories, disrupting my own assumptions of where I came from. Yet, with much of the journey already complete, I felt at peace with what they might reveal, and as I already knew, there can be differences between lore and fact. Ultimately, I hoped it would strengthen a shared identity with family, ancestors, and the town in which it all began, and I was thankful that the records were kept. It was time to move forward and I eagerly made arrangements for the translation.

The weeks spent waiting afforded an opportunity to learn about 19th century German vinegar manufacturing which I felt could provide context in understanding Maximilian’s connection. He would easily have obtained wine for processing given Osthofen’s flourishing viticulture economy. Exposing it to the bacteria acetobacter turned the alcohol into acetic acid, the primary ingredient Maximilian needed to make vinegar. Interestingly, German vinegar manufacturing technology was already the most advanced in Europe with use of the rapid acetification system allowing faster, higher-volume production.[1]

The records arrived just before Christmas and from across both time and an ocean, Barbara and Maximilian could finally “speak” to their descendants about their lives in Osthofen. The couple became engaged in March 1874, the announcement read publicly on two occasions in front of the main doors of the town’s parish hall; which still stands today. At 3:00pm on Saturday, July 4, 1874, the brickworks owner’s daughter and bailiff’s son were married, with both sides of the family consenting to the Catholic union. My great-grandfather, Otto, was born just over a year later, followed by his two brothers, Hugo and Jacob.

It was on Otto and Hugo’s birth certificates that I discovered their father was not initially involved in the vinegar trade, rather Maximilian’s occupation was a cigar manufacturer. However, by the time of Jacob’s birth, cigars had been replaced by vinegar and another surprising product: mustard. This intrigued me, not only because vinegar is needed to make mustard, but because, like the local wine Maximilian procured to make vinegar, the key ingredient for the condiment – mustard seed – was also plentiful around Osthofen, including in its vineyards!

The white mustard plant’s small bright yellow flowers dot the town’s landscape during high summer. When in bloom, seeds are released falling mostly within close proximity to the mother plant, then growing at a quick rate. While some farmers view this as a nuisance, vitners have for a long time found benefit in using the plant as crop cover to minimize soil erosion and keep certain pests at bay. This likely would have been in use during the time Maximilian was producing mustard, and while it is unknown if he sourced the seeds he needed from Osthofen’s vineyards, the possibility is not unreasonable.

This final connection was exciting, taking me back to the July afternoon Barbara and Maximilian were married. Given the season, the mustard flowers would have been in bloom and, although most assuredly a romantic notion, perhaps the couple took a sentimental moment to admire the landscape. Indeed, it was the same upon which my cousin Rainer and I would walk in silent contemplation listening for their voices, searching the cemetery for their names, and, through roots touching the same ancient rocks, tasting its terroir on that fall day 120 years later.

Citations and Credits:

[1] Bourgeois, Jacques F. and Barja, François. “The history of vinegar and of its acetification systems,” University of Geneva Science Archives (2009) 62:147-160, (accessed 15 December 2018)

Between the Vines, Part II

Between the Vines, Part II