The birth of the grape eagle

How the eagle met the grapes

Brandenburg’s eagle appeared blood red while the Prussian wore black. The Habsburg device was nothing less than a double eagle. In the course of the centuries, the breast of this awe-inspiring heraldic beast has borne many things, but never grapes; at least not before 1925, that is, when the first and last Imperial German Wine Exhibition was staged in Coblenz. When that happened, the Rhineland had belonged to Germany for precisely a millennium; that is except for those times when it was occupied by the French, indeed as it was then. The French had been in the saddle since the war ended in 1918. Franz-Josef Lichtenberg, a poet and graphic designer from Cologne sensed a good deal and painted an expressionistically distorted Prussian eagle with a big bunch of grapes on its chest. He appended a florid legend and sold it as a limited edition print. It could be bought as a big poster or as a postcard at six marks per hundred. The first Grape-Eagle had seen the light of day.

Whether Lichtenberg did it off his own bat or was commissioned by someone else is not known, nor are we sure if it was he who had to foot the bill. It is also a mystery why the graphic artist Fritz Quandt from Trier took this presumably orphaned Grape-Eagle under his wing in the winter of 1925—1926 and pressed it into service for the VDVN or Union of German Natural Wine Auctioneers, founded in 1910. It is possible that the President of the VDVN, the Lord Mayor of Trier Albert von Bruchhausen, had his fingers in the pie, and played some role in the rebirth of the Grape-Eagle? Whatever the case, of the sketches preserved in the Trier City Museum, the more austere of the two was the one chosen. On 10 March 1926, Bruchhausen was able to break the happy news to the around two hundred natural wine auctioneers in the six regional associations that existed at the time, that the Reich Patent Office had registered the new trade mark. 

It is no longer possible to ascertain how many wine estate-owners carried out the request to print the trade mark on their their membership of the natural wine auctioneers club. From all the evidence we have it was not many: no label or capsule bearing the motif and the letters VDVN has survived; but the device nonetheless found a perch in the aesthetically wrought seals of the regional associations of the VDVN from the Rheingau to the Nahe, from the Palatinate to Rheinhessen and from Baden to the Mosel and the Saar.

That was clearly not enough: in October 1929 the VDNV’s ‘Promotional Committee’ asked three well-known artists to design a ‘uniform label.’ The commission was won by the Berlin graphic designer and book illustrator Professor Ernst Böhm (1890-1863). ‘Our Members Own World-Famous Sites’ was to be written on the left together with ‘This Motif Together With the Branded Cork Guarantees Naturally Pure Wine.’ That meant the Grape Eagle (see below). The decision to introduce a common label was agreed at the committee meeting of 26 September 1930.

Like so many innovations in winemaking, the introduction of a uniform label was due less to success than distress. As a result of a series of bad harvests and the world economic crisis, the misery in the German vineyards was more acute than ever. The new label aroused fresh hopes: ‘the aim of the common label is to increasingly direct the consumer’s attention to the estate together with the Association. When people get used to it, it should also be possible to insert the words “Union of German Natural Wine-Auctioneers’ next to the name of the producer on wine and price lists.” But wishing alone was not enough and the situation failed to improve.

The First Grape-Eagle

No one can say now many wine estates used the new labels either. Was it just a handful? Or were there more than a few dozen? In those days members of the VDNV rarely mucked in together. For the Prussian State Domaines on the Rhine, in the Nahe and the Ahr, or on the Mosel and Saar, for political reasons there was no question, any more than there would have been a likelihood the Hessian Grand Ducal estate in Mainz would have subscribed: the form of the bottle and label was decided by the administration and not by the Association or by matters of taste. On the other hand many famous estate-proprietors whose wines had been on all lips before the founding of the VDNV, were prepared to accommodate it in their artistic labels— this was as much true for Friedrich von Bassermann-Jordan as for the Princes Metternich, the owners of Schloss Johannisberg. Two other prominent estates in the Rheingau also saw that the time was come to make a nod to ‘corporate identity’: Schloss Vollrads, owned by Richard Graf Matuschka-Greiffenclau, and the hardly less traditional estate owned by the counts Eltz in Eltville. Even in the Mosel and the Saar the new label seems to have aroused interest in places—and there alone has there been uninterrupted use of it since before the Second World War, above all at the J.J. Prüm estate.. 

A Label of the Estate J.J. Prüm

Nearly all the other members of the VDNV adopted the uniform label with its striking Grape-Eagle in the middle of the left-hand panel at the time the 1969/1971 Wine Law came into force, if not before. Not only was the concept of ‘natural wine’ no longer permitted, but also the thinking that the character of a wine was largely dictated by its origins had lost a good deal of its credibility during times when it was believed it was possible to shape entire societies and economies.

The Grape Eagle survived that crisis too, together with the VDNV, or rather – only up to a point: the name of the Union was no longer feasible: if there was no more ‘natural wine’ there could hardly be room for a ‘Union of Natural Wine Auctioneers’, and as for auctioneering—as a marketing method it was also for the birds. What was to be done with a worn out association and a shabby eagle? In 1971 the VDNV became the VDPV and ‘natural wine’ ‘predicate wine.’ A year later the name of the Union changed to the ‘Union of Predicate Wine Estates’ or VDP, and it is still called that to this day.

In 1990 they went for the Eagle’s throat, or rather its breast. Reduced to ten rather than thirteen grapes, the bird carried less baggage. Later that number was axed to six. It was noticed that the Eagle still looked to the left, and to the past. Today the Eagle looks decidedly towards the future:

All that needed to be done there was to twist its head round. The heraldic device hardly appears on the label now but it is to be found in all its glory, perched on the capsule on the top of the bottle, and in a variety of liveries that the Brandenburger, Prussians not to mention the Habsburgs would never have even dreamed of (bottles  above). 


And that is how it is with the wines of the two hundred or so members of the VDP. If there is nothing bird-brained about their producers, they still sport an Eagle, and this is how it all came about