It’s the early 1990s. Josef Unterfrauner is full of energy as he takes over Zöhlhof in Eisacktal from his parents. In his role as manager, he looks after the apple orchards of Neustift Monastery with the same passion. In 1992 he marries his wife Luise. A year later, as he watches her - now heavily pregnant - standing in the meadow in front of the farmstead’s gate, it hits him like a stroke of lightning. Chemical synthetic plant protection products simply do not fit with his vision of the world that he would like to see his child growing up in. Together with Luise, he decides to change the way the farm is run.
The ‘how’ of that intention isn’t entirely clear at the time. Josef doesn’t quite know what he’s going to do. But he does know, with great certainty, that he wants to change something. Coincidence dictates the path he takes, when an old schoolfriend drops by Zöhlhof on his bicycle. He leaves more than just tyre tracks behind. As he explains how he has been forging a path as an organic apple grower in Vinschgau, the spark of inspiration takes hold of Josef.
The conversation and the evening grow longer, they are followed up by a visit to the organic farm and an information evening for organic converters in Brixen. Josef’s conviction rapidly ripens until he is determined that organic agriculture is the path for him. That same winter, he converts his fruit production and viticulture to organic processes and persuades the administration of Neustift Monastery to do the same. To him it’s a clear choice, all or nothing. It is simply not tenable for him to farm organically at home, but conventionally at the monastery.
At first, there are setbacks. The harvest and the meadows do not always agree with Josef’s wishes and ideas. However, it isn’t in his nature to give up. He immerses himself entirely in the subject of organic farming, gathers experience, absorbs everything, tries out a lot and gets to understand nature more and more. He also wants this for his own children but unfortunately the local school doesn’t measure up. And this is why the Unterfrauners were one of the driving forces behind founding the private Waldorf school in Brixen, which launches just in time for their first son to join when he starts school.
“If you want to change something, then do it. You don’t necessarily have to know how, but you must start on it today.”
Just like Waldorf pedagogy in Brixen – now expanded to encompass a kindergarten, primary school, middle school and two years of upper school – Zöhlhof also goes from strength-to-strength. In 2001, Josef decides to stop delivering his grapes straight to the wine producers’ cooperative association in favour of taking on the task himself and expanding his farm. Even though at the time he has very little experience or knowledge of winery work. It’s a brave step. For that reason, it’s Hayo Loacker, an experienced organic vintner, who expands and develops Zöhlhof’s wines in the initial years. In 2007 Josef once again leaps into deep water and takes on the viticulture of the farm, from vineyard to cellar. In doing so, he’s really bringing the wine back into the family’s home, because the cellars of the farmstead actually have a history of wine production, back in the mists of time.
The mists of time isn’t an exaggeration, the first chartered mention of Zöhlhof goes back to 1484, before Columbus ‘discovered’ America. The ancestral building still stands today, over half a millennium later. The Unterfrauners recently had it renovated, the rustic wooden floor and beams were freshly sanded, the walls plastered with loam and new lighting laid out. In principle, everything is still exactly as it was before. Lots of nooks and crannies, full of charm and character. In the large chamber, which can hold an entire tour bus full of people when Josef conducts his farmstead tours, the floor tips gently, like an aging gentleman. It is 25 cm lower at one end. But it is exactly this sort of thing that creates the charm of the building. Typical Josef, he evens out the tilt of the old cupboard and other furniture with wooden blocks. Life can be so wonderfully simple, if you let it.
Josef is amazed by the sustainability of the ancient construction techniques. He is inspired to insert as little “rubbish” and unknown material as possible into the construction of the family home. This thought is clearly seen in the renovations of the cellar and the drywalls that support the vineyards and apple orchards on the slopes. Josef erected these walls over the last few years together with his youngest son, Wolfgang, who will take over the farm. Stone for stone. The next generation also prefers to get on with it instead of just talking and planning.
The more you surround yourself with natural materials, the more likely you are to age healthily. It’s an ancient insight that is often forgotten today. While the wines age naturally in their wine stocks made of hemp blocks, Josef’s mother, Anna, demonstrates that contact with nature is also a good thing for people. At 88 years old, she is still energetically active on the farm, chopping firewood and making the “Kentln” – bundles of wood that heat the stoves in the farmstead’s rooms. Listening in to the conversations between old and young later in the warm room, it quickly becomes clear the fire of Zöhlhof will keep burning, in the hearth and the heart.