Volume 90 Issue 15 | p. 28 | C&EN Talks With
Issue Date: April 9, 2012

Bernhard Wolff

The chief sommelier of BASF’s expansive wine cellar has a mandate to spread enjoyment
Department: Business
Keywords: wine, Germany
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Kellermeister Wolff describes wines at the American Cleaning Institute conference in January.
Credit: BASF
Bernhard Wolff, chief sommelier for BASF’s wine cellars, at the American Cleaning Institute’s annual conference in January.
 
Kellermeister Wolff describes wines at the American Cleaning Institute conference in January.
Credit: BASF

As the world’s largest chemical company, BASF does things big. The firm’s headquarters site in Ludwigshafen, Germany, is home to the world’s biggest chemical complex. BASF boasts the industry’s largest staff of research scientists.

Less well-known is that Ludwigshafen is also home to the chemical industry’s largest wine cellar. Americans might be surprised to learn that a company would keep a wine cellar at all. But cellars are not unheard of at firms in European countries that have a heritage of winemaking and an acceptance, at least in the past, of the intermingling of work and drink.

The chief sommelier, or kellermeister, at the 1 million-bottle BASF wine cellar is an ebullient, bowtie-sporting 48-year-old named Bernhard Wolff. With the help of Katja Schweder, a former German Wine Queen who now works for BASF, he hosts some 450 wine-tasting events per year for BASF staff, customers, and local groups.

Wolff grew up in the Palatinate, a grape-growing region near the BASF facility, and as a child worked in the vineyards during vacations, especially the two-week harvest holiday in the fall. As a high school student, Wolff visited the Ludwigshafen site on a tour with his chemistry class, but otherwise he gave little mind to the company. “I never thought I would become part of BASF one day,” he says.

After college, where he earned a degree in economics, Wolff became a sales manager for a winery in the region. In that job he learned that, in addition to being a chemical company, BASF is one of Germany’s top 10 wine merchants, with a reputation for stocking quality wines. In 1999, when a job at BASF presented itself, Wolff happily came aboard.

He was joining a wine business that dates back to 1901, when BASF opened its Gesellschaft, or guest house. As Wolff tells C&EN, the firm was expanding at the time, and its potential workers in the region often grew their own grapes and made their own wine. “BASF wanted to make sure that employees were always in reach of good wine,” he says, adding quickly that “nowadays, of course, wine and working are clearly separated!”

BASF’s other motive for starting the cellar, to make sure the company had the best wines to offer guests, is now the cellar’s main reason for being. The cellar has about 25,000 customers, Wolff estimates, more than half of whom come from outside the Ludwigshafen area. It also operates two stores in the town itself.

The wine cellar is a tiny part of BASF—contributing a mere 0.01% of the firm’s $100 billion in sales last year—but it does turn a profit. “Our aim is to not cost money to our colleagues,” Wolff says.

It employs about 20 people, including four trained as sommeliers, four as enology engineers, three as enology managers, and four as winemakers. To keep the cellar stocked, the staff tastes roughly 5,000 wines a year. “The secret to the success of the BASF wine cellar is our competitive selection process,” Wolff says. “We taste every bottle of wine every year. You can trust BASF on its selection.” Sometimes the cellar will buy the entire output of a particularly good vintage—mostly local Rieslings—and make it a BASF exclusive.

Wolff says he spends most of his time helping colleagues choose from the cellar’s 2,000 different wines to enjoy at company events both local and afar. But the most visible part of his job is the tastings, which he and Schweder conduct almost every evening.

Many events are in BASF’s tasting room, which is equipped to display Google Earth images of the vineyards that yielded the wines being enjoyed by guests. Some affairs are much bigger. In January 2011 at the American Cleaning Institute’s annual conference in Florida, for example, BASF hosted a lavish party at which it celebrated the acquisition of Cognis, a provider of ingredients for home and personal care products. Standing on a stage, Wolff presented cuvées, or blends, that surpassed the individual wines from which they were made. At the same event a year later, Wolff and Schweder offered a cuvée created by members of BASF’s newly “blended” care chemicals team.

Wolff always tries to pick wines that are relevant to his guests. For customers in the coatings industry, for instance, the color of the wine is important. Wolff enjoys hosting perfumers, because of their sensitive noses and expressive descriptions. “They don’t speak the everyday language of our colleagues in the wine business,” he says. “It’s never just honey to them but wildflower honey from Corsica. It’s not mango but Indian mango. It is a lot of fun for me to hear how they approach wine.”

And he also likes anniversary celebrations at which guests are served wines bottled the same year as the event being remembered. According to Wolff, 1865 is both the year of BASF’s founding and the second-best year in the 19th century for German wines. Nestled deep in the Ludwigshafen cellar are 11 bottles of an 1865 vintage. Surprisingly, they are white wines, which aren’t known for aging well. “My big hope,” Wolff says, “is the next event where a bottle will be opened is our 150-year anniversary in 2015.”

 
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Comments
Bruce Maryanoff  (Mon Apr 09 12:13:53 EDT 2012)
Great article! Thanks.
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