Have you ever come across a huge party - perhaps a village wedding - and not been able to join in because you weren't invited? A German wine festival can be like that, in that everyone seems to be having fun but you aren't quite sure what is going on or whether it's just for locals. But there's nothing to stop you joining the fun, and you will almost certainly meet with a warm welcome. If you read on you will know what to expect and will feel right at home.
One of the many good things about touring by bike rather than by car is that you don't have to avoid alcohol completely. That is particularly the case if you keep off roads, something that is often possible in German wine regions where there is a network of vineyard paths to enable the winegrowers to access their vines. These paths are usually well surfaced and are a pleasure to cycle on, being just like roads but narrower and almost devoid of traffic. You will meet the occasional tractor or car, but only vehicles associated with the vineyards are allowed. Cyclists, however, are welcome. So take advantage of these paths that undulate over the wine hills of Germany and cycle to a wine festival. You could hire a bike for a day trip from a town or city such as Bad Durkheim, Koblenz or Rudesheim, or make a detour to a local festival as part of a longer touring holiday.
A large number of wine-growing villages hold an annual festival, usually over a weekend, to show off their wines and celebrate, so you shouldn't have to travel far to find one. And don't think that they are only in the summer, they happen throughout the year, although the majority are from late spring to mid autumn and you won't find many in the depths of winter. The Rhine, Mosel, Baden, Palatinate and River Main areas have the greatest abundance of such events.
To explore the possibilities, wherever you happen to find yourself, ask at a local Tourist Information office about weinfeste (pronounced "vine-festa") - they will usually have a leaflet listing all the wine festivals in that wine region for the year. Alternatively, the German Wine Institute's website lists events month by month.
So what can you expect at a German wine festival? They vary in size and content but the common elements are food (heavy on the pork, but often fairground-type fare such as candyfloss and doughnuts too), music and, of course, wine tasting/drinking. In addition, there may be a crowning of the local wine queen and her princesses, a church service on the Sunday morning or a walk through the vineyards to bless the vines. Larger festivals will have a booklet detailing what is happening, hour by hour, while for smaller events there may just be a programme on the village notice board.
But to concentrate on the wine (that's what we're really interested in, isn't it?), this is how it works. You will see stalls, usually little wooden chalets, each staffed by a particular winemaker or co-operative and serving probably 6-10 of its cheaper wines by the glass. The wines on offer will be listed, with the list pinned up somewhere or lying on the counter of the stall. You simply decide which wine to try and order it at the counter - pointing at the list and saying, "Einmal, bitte" (One, please - pronounce the first syllable to rhyme with "eye" and remember to say the e on the end of bitte: "bittuh") will do the trick if you don't speak German. Two glasses would be "zweimal" ("tsviemal", with the first syllable again rhyming with "eye"), but if there are several of you it's more fun to try a different wine each and compare notes. Don't forget to sniff as well as taste.
You will get a fairly small glassful, and German wines tend to be lowish in alcohol, so you can afford to sample a few, moving from one stall to another. The prices are reasonable, usually in the range €2-3.50. Your first purchase will include a deposit (Pfand) of a Euro or two for your glass (often produced specially for the event and bearing the name of the village and year), so hang onto it and get it refilled at the next stall.
In some places there will be tables with long benches at which you can sit to drink your wine. There may even be table service - watch what everyone else is doing - but usually you will need to go to a counter to buy each round. In the evenings, and at lunchtime for the larger events that start early in the day, food will be available, and that is normally ordered from a waiter or waitress. There will be a limited but tasty menu of local specialities that go with the wines, and the cost will be modest. As the evening wears on, the music will start (if it hasn't been going all day), and you'll probably find that fellow imbibers sitting around you wish you "Prost!" (Cheers!) and generally try to get you into the spirit of things. Don't be surprised if, at some point in the evening, everyone bursts into song. If participation in such merriment isn't your thing or you don't want a sit-down meal, choose instead from one of the stalls serving roast pork, grilled sausage, hotdogs or other such snacks that you can eat in a roll as you wander around.
At the end of the evening (or afternoon), hand your glass in at any of the stalls and ask for your Pfand back. Or keep the glass as a souvenir of a pleasant day in wine country. Then, all that remains is to try and remember where you left your bike, climb aboard and wend your wobbly way back through the vineyards to your night's lodging. (Don't forget your bicycle lights, you will need them.) You may find you enjoyed the whole experience so much that you want to repeat it the next weekend, and between May and November the chances are high that you will be able to find another festival without travelling too far. You can even persuade yourself that the exercise will be good for you. So happy touring, and Prost!