Andreas Stanita / translated by D. LanghoffJulian Beekmann

Two left Wellingtons and good drops

The Palatinate town of Bad Dürkheim attracts people for its wine—not only during the world’s biggest wine festival, but all year round. A remarkable proportion of the attraction comes from a special ‘family business’: the wine-growing business of the ‘life support’ association Lebenshilfe Bad Dürkheim e.V.

 

There has been significant growth over the past 30 years. No, we’re not talking about master winegrower Jan Hock, but the Lebenshilfe Bad Dürkheim’s vineyard. When this unique experiment was launched in the 1980s, the association had no more than two hectares at its disposal. Now the vineyard, which has given people with impairments the opportunity to participate actively in working life as winegrowers, comprises as many as 25 hectares.

The vineyard of Lebenshilfe Bad Dürkheim.

It is just past seven in the morning in Bad Dürkheim as a number of minibuses turn down a field path towards the old Dürkheim sawmill, passing the tall, glowing blue silo tower that soars into the Palatinate sky. This is where the cheerful winegrowers meet every morning, having covered long distances every day to get here. They come from Ludwigshafen, Eisenberg or Bad Bergzabern, where they live with their families or in integrated residence or house-share projects. Supported by Jan’s team, they are a crucial part of the wine-growing business that produces up to 120,000 bottles of wine per year, which have come to sell like hot cakes—even internationally.

Master winegrower Jan Hock.

Jan enjoys meeting the customers on the small but sweet organic food market, ran by the association to offer products from their own production. Deidesheim-born Jan is in his early thirties and has known the association’s business for well over a decade. “After completing school, I did my community service here in the wine-growing department. It meant getting up early and working hard every day. But that didn’t turn me off, it rather filled me with enthusiasm—thanks to the team spirit.”

So much enthusiasm that the young viticulture engineer applied for one of the vacancies in the association’s business after graduating from the Geisenheim wine-growing University—and he was employed straight away. Because of a tragic death, he was offered the management post for the business the day after his graduation party. Quite a responsibility for a 24-year-old novice. “I only accepted the job, because I could bring my dear friend Martin Fußler on board, who has managed the production ever since and with whom I share the work.” It was a stroke of luck for the two dozens employees, for whom the duo became responsible. Transition of the operation of business was smooth and a success story was born.

“A total of 33 people with a mental handicap work here.”

The success must have something to do with the joy that surrounds the work in the vineyard—something you can both feel and hear: There is probably no other wine-growing business in Bad Dürkheim that can offer so much laughter and cultivation of kind and considerate cooperation. “A total of 33 people with a mental handicap work here,” Jan explains. “This provides a special working atmosphere, of course. Sometimes I am already stressed when I arrive at work, particularly during the grape harvest. The work is urgent. But then, hurly-burly begins: one of the guys wears two right wellington boots, another one two left and then they die laughing. And all of a sudden I forget my stress. This is how we are here—more emotional than elsewhere.”

For the head of the team this means likewise that if an employee is in a sad mood, they need some comfort; and if there is an issue, it needs talking about—even though they may be out of time in that moment.

No wonder that it is easy to find a second vocation next to wine-growing in this close-knit family team—just like Stefan, who is a great entertainer and compère. “Stefan has a round the bend sense of humour that is present throughout the work day. It has become his main job to spread a good atmosphere. He also works with the others, of course, but most of the time Stefan with his funny talk and activities makes everybody happy at work.”

However, it is not only Stefan’s slapstick gags that provide for good moods in the Lebenshilfe team. The increasing quality makes everybody very proud. The sparkling wines score award after award and even the wines themselves are in high demand. The ‘average’ businesses along the Weinstrasse (wine route) are astonished. The association’s ambitions were somewhat a target of ridicule in the beginning, but by now the success of the relatively young, 30-year-old wine-growing estate is recognized everywhere. This is in part down to the fact that the all-season business has specialized in “Rebholzziehen” (vine shoot cutting)—a loathed off-season task in the Palatinate and a service, which the association has started to sell successfully to other estates.

But for the association, the fact that here, people can work and are taken up in their occupation so well that they even manage to leap into the regular labour market matters more than any wine medal does. “Those are the moments that really make me proud of what we do here,” Jan says cheerfully and is happy about the pride the entire town takes in the Lebenshilfe association, which since 1965 has always been much more than a self-help group. It is a great caring society for the love of life.


Weinbau der Lebenshilfe Bad Dürkheim