Surrounded by Riesling country, a German wine seller says cheers

Wiesbadener Frank Kastien in front of his central Wiesbaden wine shop, Procellar.

Frank Kastien fell in love with Cape Town the first time he visited South Africa and now he’s selling South African wines to Germans in Rheingau, one of Germany’s prime wine regions.

After two days in Cape Town, Frank Kastien bought a flat. It was his first trip to South Africa.

It was a strange thing. It’s like, Liebe auf den ersten Blick: when you see someone and think, oh, that’s love. I saw the view and I saw Cape Town and I thought, I have to buy that property.”

His then-girlfriend thought it was crazy. They had come to Cape Town at the invitation of her friends, a German couple who had bought a little house in Bloubergstrand and moved there. But in spite of her feelings about Kastien’s property-purchasing predilections, the girlfriend became his wife and they had two sons. They used the beach flat for holidays; her job at Lufthansa facilitated discounted flights.

At the time, in 1997, Kastien owned and ran a petrol station in Hochheim am Main, a little wine town in a German wine region called the Rheingau (Rhine District), where he had grown up. During one of their holidays, Kastien attended a function in Constantia and met Dave McKay, the then co-owner of Constantia Uitsig. McKay didn’t have a presence in the German market and asked Kastien if he wanted to export his wines.

While Kastien was certainly “a wine drinker and wine lover”, he had never worked in the wine industry bar childhood school holiday grape harvesting jobs, nor in the import/export market. But McKay said he would give all of his German customers Kastien’s number.

The first pallet of Uitsig wines – 600 bottles – sold out in four weeks. “I phoned him and said, ‘Listen, your wine is gone. Please, more’.” And with that, Kastien started approaching other farmers. “Because I was there three to four times a year, I said, okay, let’s do this business.”

He opened a shop on the Wilhelmstrasse, a busy boulevard flanked by trees and lined with upscale boutiques in Wiesbaden, a city of about 280,000 people and the state capital of Hesse.

There he sold kudu leather furniture in addition to the wine of four estates. Gottfried Mocke, the winemaker at Chamonix at the time, came to visit and they had a winemaker’s evening.

After a while Kastien decided to give the wine biz a go full-time. The petrol station was a 24-hour operation and he wanted a healthier lifestyle. He was also getting divorced. The first order of business was to find a shipping agent. “Everybody wants to rip you off in the beginning, so I had to pay my school fees – a lot. But I know all the tricks now.”

The next step was to buy overproduction from top farms and create his own brand. Under his Leeuwenberg label, there’s a house and premium range, made up largely of 4-4.5 star Platter reds.

Then Kastien met the woman who would become his second wife at a friend’s braai in Germany. It was love at first sight again. Tanja had never been to South Africa so Kastien invited her to spend time with him in his flat.

We had a sundowner on Bloubergstrand, not on a windy day. You can’t do better. And she said, after the first day, ‘Frank, this is my country’.” Tanja was working in the pharmaceutical industry and they continued to travel to South Africa several times a year. “Frank, Ive got an idea,” Kastien recalls her saying one day. “‘I would like to study at UCT. I would like to do my PhD’. So I said, OK, good. Why not?”

For three years while Tanja and their son Raphael stayed in Cape Town, Kastien would travel back and forth to Wiesbaden: spending two weeks a month in each city. During the two weeks in Cape Town, he would drive to the winelands every day. They enjoyed Franschhoek and decided to move there. And then they received bad news: Tanja, who was 35, was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had an operation and treatment, flying to Germany for every chemotherapy session.

The worst thing was to get that news because everything was in place. Raphael was so happy in Franschhoek. We had a nice flat. Tanja had a very good job, a PhD – her dream – and my business was actually running itself.”

They managed to treat the cancer and the Kastiens returned to South Africa to recuperate. But in February 2017, she started feeling unwell again. This time they discovered cancer in her liver and four weeks later she died in a hospital in Paarl. Raphael was turning six.

She said, ‘Frank, if Im going to die, Im going to die in Cape Town’. She was 39. And we had so many plans. Living in South Africa, that was her plan and my plan. I had to make a decision: what’s the plan for the future?” He decided to return to Germany and apart from a short trip to sort things out soon after Tanja died, Kastien hasn’t been back, although he plans to resume commuting every three months for business. In May last year he had a heart attack and wasn’t permitted to fly for at least six months.

I still have a problem driving. I did it once after Tanja passed away; I went to Cape Town and I was driving the N1 from Blouberg to Franschhoek. If you drive a highway every time with your partner since two years, and you drive the first time by yourself, you feel, like, ooof. It hits me. It was not easy. So I said, Frank, I don’t need this.”

In his shop now, which moved 12 years ago to Grabenstrasse in the downtown pedestrian zone of Wiesbaden, he sells the wines of about 15 estates, although the selection changes every year.

If I don’t like the next vintage, then it’s out of the shop. I get sent samples to taste.” Every two months a few pallets are brought in. Last year he sold 20 000 bottles. Some wines he sells for less than 5. The most expensive is 75.

He follows the industry awards and tries to get the winners of local competitions, such as Veritas. He has personal relationships with a handful of farm owners such as Gerard Holden and Migo Manz (of Holden Manz), who have become good friends. Former Gabrielskloof winemaker Kobie Viljoen “taught me the most important things I have to know”, Kastien said.

I don’t have a lot of wine. I’ve got a small selection because I know who’s got the best Chenin, I know the best Sauvignon Blanc. We don’t need 500 labels, these gold medals. It’s the wine in the bottle. It’s a discovery, basically, the wine business.”

Three years ago he started his own production in Franschhoek. In Switzerland he had tasted a white Merlot. So, sample in hand, he recruited a local winemaker to make a version for the shop. Some of it went into new barrels and some into tanks and they blended them, producing 1000 bottles.

Kastien only drinks South African wine if he can help it, despite living next door to the Rheingau – Wiesbaden’s answer to Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and Paarl – where there are about 580 Riesling producers. He’s particularly keen on heavily-wooded Chardonnay and Shiraz, from Jordan and Tanagra respectively, both of which he sells in the shop.

We found out that a lot of older people now have moved from the Riesling high acidity to more fruit-driven wines. Chenin Blanc or Chardonnay is a perfect solution.”

He’s also managed to secure the sole rights to sell Windhoek Lager, which he says is wildly popular. One of his best customers is a farmer from Namibia who is married to a German woman and spends part of the time in Frankfurt, about 28kms from Wiesbaden. Kastien served some of the farmer’s meat to friends at a braai to great fanfare. He now gets the meat at a wholesale price from the farmer and, in turn, sells it to his best customers at cost price.

On a weekend, he moves about 50kg of roast beef, fillet, rib-eye and flank. “On a Saturday it’s like a supermarket here.” Saturday late afternoons are also drinks time at Procellar, when some of the handful of Saffers in town flock to the shop. Kastien sets up tables outside and sells wine by the glass, as well as G&Ts, Windhoek and Savanna (he stocks Inverroche and Six Dogs gin and for 7.50, customers can mix and match with the two tonics he carries).

Customers had prevailed on him to sell them wine by the glass for a long time, he said, although he doesn’t charge for tastings. So at the end of last year he applied for a licence from local government to rent the space outside. And in April this year, with the start of the summer season, he opened it up. The wine menu changes every week and is usually dependent on the weather “and what I want to sell”.

He endeavours to design a “wine route” with the menu. “I would like to give the South African vibration to the customer: good life, good food, fun and Spontanität.”

A lot of his regulars are on speed dial – a number of them board members of international companies living in town. “I would say Wiesbaden is like Constantia. Many old, rich people – conservative. They’ve got big bucks and big houses.” Typically Kastien will call them if he has a new wine in. “They say, ‘Okay, Frank, if you recommend it, we trust you. Just bring me 24 bottles’. It’s 20 years’ work.”

Apart from the availability of direct flights and the two countries being in the same time zone, Kastien attributes the appeal of South Africa for Germans to the pricing. “You get a lot for your euros. You’ve got everything what you need: you’ve got the mountains, you’ve got the wineries, you can do safari – you’ve got the animals. You’ve got the beaches, you’ve got good food.

For me, South Africa is the most beautiful country in the world. My dream one day will be to have my last years in South Africa. I would like to retire there, in Franschhoek maybe. It’s really lecker. That is the future, maybe: to stay healthy and going back to South Africa.” DM


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