Schloss Janson: A Cinderella Story

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Fairy tales and dreams sometimes do come true. Ask Sarah Ross, whose life appears to fulfill the dreams of every girl wishing to be swept away by Prince Charming and taken to live in a far-away castle. Born in bucolic Southold and raised close to the hearth of her family’s North Fork restaurant, in 2001 Sarah met young German vintner Kurt Janson, whose family’s Schloss (castle) in the Pfalz (southern Germany’s premier wine region) is among that region’s leading wine estates. He had just arrived at Paumanok Vineyards on the North Fork, to work for Paumanok’s owners, Charles and Ursula Massoud, as an intern for a season; she went to Paumanok to help her father, John Ross, cater a party there.

Ursula Massoud remembers that party well.

“Kurt was fresh off the plane,” she recalled. “We couldn’t figure out why he was so keen to help Sarah!”

Within two years, Kurt and Sarah were married and living at Schloss Janson. It was not as easy as climbing into Cinderella’s pumpkin for Sarah (who spoke no German when she met Kurt) to make the leap over the ocean and become the frau of a vast wine estate. At the time, Kurt’s parents were in residence and control of the schloss. But now, with their two young children joyfully underfoot in castle and vineyards, Sarah and Kurt are fully in charge of the property and its wines.

Over the Fourth of July weekend, the young Janson family returned to the North Fork to visit the Ross and Massoud families, hoping along the way to introduce their wines to the American market. On July 7, at the North Fork Country Club in Cutchogue, where Sarah’s father is now manager, the couple planned to present their wines to a sold-out crowd at a dinner designed to pair them with typical German specialties. Unfortunately, U.S. Customs refused to allow the 200 bottles slated for the dinner and for trade samples to enter the country, so (with the generosity for which they are known), the Massouds made up for the lack of Schloss Janson wines by offering Paumanok wines closest in style to the Janson wines.

Disappointed as we were not to taste the German wines, all of us lucky enough to attend the wine dinner were delighted by the wine and food pairings, and riveted to hear Sarah and Kurt’s tales of taking on an ancient castle and modernizing the winemaking while keeping centuries of tradition at the forefront.

Since its beginning in the 12th century as a protective fortress, Schloss Janson’s property has been thoroughly destroyed and rebuilt at least four times—most significantly, by the first Janson, who bought the estate in 1831 after it was ravaged by Napoleon’s soldiers. Six generations later, Kurt benefits from his parents’ successful efforts to make and market 30 different wines from their 50 hectares of vines.

Kurt and Sarah have their own take on what today’s wine customers want, and have turned their attention to increasing retail trade and online marketing. Followers on Facebook can see the progress of the harvest, learn about new wines, and see what festivities can be enjoyed at the castle.

One of their most amusing projects is called “Edition Tierliebe” (which translates to “for the love of animals”): a series of wines labeled with caricatures of the Janson’s many pets, matching the personalities of each pet with a suitable grape variety. For example, the Tierliebe sweet Riesling/Gewurztraminer blend features Dana, a “cuddly, super-sweet, more-than-slightly overweight German shepherd mix.” The bone-dry riesling is named for the “reserved but lovingly loyal guard dog,” Cindy.

The day after the tasting, John Ross brought me two Schloss Janson wines that he had brought back from his last visit there. I was happily on the receiving end of the opulent Grauer Burgunder (pinot grigio), with a long, lasting finish, and the classic and classy Riesling Spatlese trocken, which echoed the vibrant freshness of the Paumanok dry Riesling we enjoyed at the wine dinner.

In maintaining continuity for generations of a winemaking family, Kurt and Sarah have another parallel here with their friends the Massouds. At Paumanok, Charles and Ursula are also releasing the reins of their winery to their sons, Kareem, Salim and Nabeel. For both families, the experience of growing up in a vineyard makes the best possible vehicle for taking a wine estate forward—maybe not in a coach made of a pumpkin, or a flying carpet, but certainly with confidence touched by a bit of romance.

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