It's a country city, the kind Alphonse Allais dreamed of: built in the country, on the Ried plain, the alluvia of the Rhine at its doorstep, the blue line of the Vosges mountains like a sentry watching over it, with the Fecht and Lauch Rivers to gaze in. A city? Not really.
Ginette Humbrecht who, with her son, Olivier, and her husband, Leonard, runs the most modern vineyard in the area, on the Turckheim plain, says with a chuckle, "I couldn't just show up in the center of Strasburg in my boots, straight from the vines! In the morning, we work in the vineyard. And then, on the spur of the moment, we might come into town and shop at our leisure." In a nutshell, Colmar is a homey town.
The wine barons can go on boasting about their flowerful villages of Eguisheim "the cradle," and Riquewihr "the pearl," but Colmar is where we live, dine, meet up for a drink, and especially, where the decisions about the future of the wine business (trading, marketing and laws) are made.
"Alsace and Corsica are the only two regions of France," remarks Jean-Michel Deiss, "where the regional council of the National Institute of Appellations d'Origine (INAO) makes its own, independent decisions. Paris' role is limited to approving the decisions." And the Alsatian INAO is located in Colmar, as is the CIVA, the Alsatian Wine Commission, which assembles the many winegrower-owners, traders and collaborators which, in turn, unify the well-established individual producers.
History and geography have left their mark - clearly and indelibly. As early as the Middle Ages, Colmar sent wine from its tiny Horbourg-Wihr port to the far reaches of Eastern Europe. For the last 35 years, the charismatic, Picard-born character from western France, Pierre Bouard, has been the kingpin of the wine industry. As an outsider, he manages to avoid provoking local quarrels as he unites the vineyard barons, the main wine cellar coops and individualistic-minded producers.
Colmar and its Rhine tributaries, the Fecht and Lauch Rivers, Colmar and its museums (the Unterlinden Museum repository - of the Issenheim altarpiece - is the most visited French museum outside of Paris), Colmar and its three millions annual tourists: these are well-known facts. People come here to see the house of the sculptor, Bartholdi, who created the world-illuminating Statue of Liberty. People gather before the house where Jean-Jacques Waltz, nicknamed Hansi, was born. He was the caricaturist, regionalist and patriot whose shop signs adorn the streets of Colmar. Examples are the Zimmerlin butcher's sign, the Fincker brothers' with a depiction of St. Anthony tempted by the pig, the tricolor kougelhopf adorning Martin Musslin's shop and that of General Kleber.
Colmar truly is an open-air museum. The House of Heads, the Pfister House, an Italian renaissance guards' house, the Old Customs House and the 'Petite Venise' quarter - all are must-sees. But do people know that Colmar is first and foremost a wine capital? "Colmar assumed this role," interjects the wise Pierre Bouard, "because of its history, geographic position and its central yet border location. It is just a natural consequence that all of the institutions are in Colmar."
With the Alsatian wine country divided into a thousand or so properties averaging 4.5 ha (11 acres) each, and 6,500 registered harvesters all obtaining their livelihood from the vines, there was a dire need of unification.
"If we had chosen Kaysersberg or Riquewhir," states Colette Faller, the grande dame of Weinbach who sumptuously celebrated her handsome vineyard's centenary, "old jealsousies would have resurfaced. In choosing Colmar, which everyone knows and loves, no one feels left out." And to that, she added that when she takes a taxi in Paris, she doesn't say she's from Kaysersberg. "No one has heard of Kaysersberg. But when I say I'm living near Colmar, they know right away."
Colmar's only weak point? Its modesty. "It is the only wine capital that does not proclaim the fact on road signs, in contrast to Bordeaux, Beaune and Reims," Pierre Bouard comments quietly. To which Robert Schoffit adds more sharply, "When I see the sign at the entrance to the city "Colmar - museum town," that disturbs me. On the contrary, we should be proud to live here." I have to add that the lad, Robert, who lives in the Semm quarter - formerly a market gardening area on the edge of town - is one of seven wine growers within the town. With his son, Bernard, he cultivates 15 ha (37 acres) of vines : 2 (5 acres) at the Saint-Théobald vineyard on the prestigious Rangen in Thann, and 12 (30 acres) on the Harth, a rich alluvial soil near the Rhine River, which is composed of the stones deposited on the Fecht River's alluvial fan. The labels on his marvelous, fresh, spirited, full-bodied Harth Riesling, depict the picturesque town's skyline with the shadows of the roofs and steeples. And his light chasselas is the perfect wine to drink amongst friends after a day of fishing.
For many years, the wine growers here dreamed of acquiring the quality label "grand cru"' for their "Harth-Colmar" wine.
Robert Karcher, the most fervent dreamer and honorary president of the local syndicate, owns a welcoming, down-to-earth cellar in the heart of town on the rue de l'Ours - which seems somewhat out of place just around the corner from the stylized window displays of the classy shops on the elegant pedestrian streets. As he serves his delicious muscat and rich, citrus-perfumed gewurz, the lad, Robert, replaced today by his son, Georges, continues to dream of a glorious destiny for these homey wines. "Oh, if the Harth wine had the grand cru appellation, some of the others wouldn't see the light of day."
Some of the local, big wine producers, traders and coops also have properties within the 350 hectares (865 acres) of the Harth. René Sparr of Sigolsheim, whose vineyard extends on to the Brand in Turckheim and to the Schlossberg in Geisberg, is a case in point. "Sigolsheim, he says, "does not have the attractions of Riquewihr, apart from its panoramic necropolis, the final resting place of the brave fighters of the Colmar Pocket battle which occurred at the end of 1944, and the beginning of 1945. Besides, Colmar is the place where we shop, pay taxes, etc."
"Colmar is the place where Alsace's economic geography crystallizes," adds Pierre Hussherr, the present mayor of Eguisheim, who turned Wolfberger wine, from his village's cellar, into the king of the vineyard (10% of his vines and turnover). We are next door to Freiburg and not very far from Zurich. We understand each other across the Rhine. To be heard in Paris, on the other hand, is another matter..."
Alex Heinrich, Colmar's outsider from Pfaffenheim, adds, "Colmar continues to benefit from its historic advance. By the Middle Ages, they were already exporting wine. While Mulhouse, which was created because of the textile industry, didn't even exist yet." Both men speak the same language: collective-minded and quality oriented. "In Alsace, the coops demonstrated that new techniques which most often, small wine growers couldn't afford, and smaller yields, were the path to success.
The wine coops in Ribeauvillé, directed by the art connoisseur, Jean-Marie Lang, gives bonuses to compensate for potential losses incurred on the harvested grapes: we pay the difference between the 50 hectograms per hectare actually harvested and the 66 per hectare allowed by law. Alex Heinrich repeats, "We've got the message across that quality is the priority." It has, by the way, become the catchword of the main winegrowers here who mock the July "Wine Fair." "It brings 200,000 spectators to the Johnny Hallyday concert, but nothing to the winegrowers," scoffs the great Leonard Humbrecht from Wintzenheim. He would rather talk about the INRA (National Agronomical Research Institute) which conducts experiments right here on its own grape vines.
Jean-Michel Deiss, the eccentric from Bergheim, is trying to change things. His audacious projects include using a Burlenberg pinot noir which is capable of usurping some grand burgundies, harvested at only 35 hectos per hectare. He's also running trials, planting all of the Alsatian vines together on the "grand cru" clay-lime-rich soil of Altenberg. 17 hectos per hectare, 13,5° and 120 grams of residual sugar to produce a revolutionary wine is a gamble for which the Colmar INAO has given the go-ahead (the grand cru appellation theoretically reserved for muscat, riesling, gewurz and tokay),.
What kind of life do the Colmar winegrowers lead? Sometimes, trade and technical work are put aside, and they relax, with the above as ready excuses. "When our great grandparents founded the Wine Exchange more than a hundred years ago, in 1898, they did so to preserve Alsatian unity at the time of the Prussian annexation. It was also to find new markets, sell wine side by side, but also, to share a drink together at the same table."
Paul Ginglinger, owner of 12 ha (30 acres) in Eguisheim, is one of the twenty-five descendents of the Wine Exchange's first hundred founders a century ago. He is also its general secretary. "At the time, the idea was, to go to where the tourists go, to sell wine, and that was Colmar rather than the villages." Likewise, the well-born wine producers from various villages took advantage of the occasion to meet and feast at the House of Heads and Bartholdi's - two fine restaurants which are part of the architectural heritage of the city, and which are owned collectively by the Wine Exchange.