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Published:  23 July, 2008

Iris Ellmann, Managing director, The WineBarn, Winchester. Interview: David Williams

The WineBarn 2 Stable Cottages Church Barns East Stratton Winchester SO21 3DU; tel: 01962 774 102

German migre Iris Ellmann started her one-woman mission to change the UK's perception of German wine by opening The WineBarn four years ago. Having started with four producers from Baden and the Rheingau, Ellmann's portfolio has grown to take in producers from the Ahr, the Nahe, the Pfalz and Franken, whose wines she sells primarily to restaurants and independent retailers, but also to an increasing number of private clients. Ellmann (who was about to give birth to her first child when these pictures were taken), travels back to Germany four times a year to develop the list, whose style leans towards what she calls modern-style' (aka dry-style) wines.

What brought you to England? Do you want the official or the unofficial reason?

The unofficial one sounds more exciting. Well, the official reason is that I came to study English. The real reason is that I fell in love with an Englishman. So I combined the two! I originally planned to come for three months, but that was 10 years ago!

Were you involved in wine from the beginning? No. I started off working in a marketing agency, managing accounts and dealing with clients, and the wine was very much a hobby. I really enjoyed doing that for about five and a half years, but I came to a stage where I wanted to do something else. I come from a family where everybody owns their own business, whether it's large or small. So I always had that urge, and it came back when I came to England.

Choosing to sell German wine was brave. The English don't like it anymore, do they? Part of the reason I started was because I realised just how under-represented Germany was in this country, and what misconceptions people had about it. As a German, you get quite irritated by it. You hear people talk about German wine again and again, and you start to think: Hang on a minute, these aren't the wines I grew up with!'

What kind of wines did you grow up with? My parents were very interested in wine, particularly French but also lots of German wine. We had wine at every meal, even if the meal was just a bit of soup. My father would go on about who the winemaker was and what region the wine was from. At the time, when I was about 15, I would find this all quite boring. I would just want him to be quiet so we could get on with enjoying the wines, but I think it paid off for me, and little bits and pieces from those years do come back.

Were you ever tempted to add any other countries to your portfolio? No, because my main knowledge is Germany. I have a very limited knowledge of French wines, but I am German, I grew up with German wines and I feel very strongly about them.

You were fresh to the trade when you first started. What did people make of this young upstart? Some producers said it would never work, and were quite patronising, really. But if that was their attitude, I didn't want to work with them. There were other people who really put their faith in me as a person, because I was very much a one-woman band. They said they knew it wouldn't be easy, and that it would take time, but that they would be willing to help me wherever they could. These are the kinds of people I can work with: people with vision.

Is it becoming easier to sell German wine in the UK? In the on-trade, it depends on the sommelier. I work very closely with most of the sommeliers, mainly in London, but they have to have the right attitude. If they just put the wine on the list and don't actively try to sell it, then they don't re-order for three or four months. But if you get sommeliers who are passionate about their job and about their wines, then it's a real joy because they get a real buzz out of persuading people to try German wine. It's the same in independents. I get a lot of people saying to me that they don't want any German wines because they don't have any people coming in to ask for them. Now I'm an easy-going person, but I have a real problem with that attitude. It's like saying: I can't sell German wine, because it's too difficult.' What kind of attitude is that?!

You have wines from most German regions, but none from the Mosel. Do you have something against them? Not at all, and I am currently looking for a Mosel producer, but when I started I wanted to be completely different from other wine merchants. Most of the well-established wine merchants have Germany as a sideline and if they stock anything German it's Mosel. But I wanted to make it clear that there's more to Germany than the Mosel.

Such as Baden and Wrttemberg? Yes. Wrttemberg is still almost completely unknown here, and it has a reputation for mass-production, so you have to be careful about the producer. With Baden, it's interesting, because food is so important there. People don't associate Germany with food, but in Baden there are more Michelin-starred restaurants than in any other region in Europe. So the wines are very food-friendly, and they are working extremely well in restaurants, if sommeliers give them the chance.