Theresa Olkus: Her First Year as VDP Managing Director

It's been over a year since Theresa Olkus succeeded Hilke Nagel as managing director of the VDP. She spoke to Alexandra Wrann and Clemens Gerke about her first year in office at the Association of German Prädikat Wine Estates, and the challenges of the VDP.

Reading time: 5m 10s

Theresa Olkus, MD of the VDP
Theresa Olkus, MD of the VDP

Theresa Olkus comes from Markelsheim in Württemberg. Wine has been a part of her life since she was a child. In 2013/2014 she was the Wine Ambassador of Württemberg. She holds a bachelor's and master's degree in Communication Science and Media Research from the University of Hohenheim, Germany. In 2020, she joined the VDP as Communications Manager. She succeeded the long-time managing director Hilke Nagel in 2022, who continues to work in the background as co-managing director.

After the first year...

What is your conclusion after one year in office?

I was able to start working at the VDP two years before my current role and was able to get to know many things beforehand. And so now, one year later, I have the feeling that I can make clearer decisions: What do you want to focus on? What makes sense? I think the motto is focusing and profiling rather than expanding.

It should not be about doing less, but more of the important things. Of course, it's about external communication or cooperation with the trade. But it is also very much about the work that happens within the association.

What does this work look like internally?

This is really the strategic direction for the future: what do we want to stand for? When I look at the wine regulations, it becomes even clearer: Origin is and has been the DNA and will remain the DNA. We will work even harder on this in order to continue to be a role model. The issue of sustainability is also very important to us.


According to the Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter VDP (Association of German Prädikat Wine Estates), 2022 had a positive outcome for its members.

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Where is sustainability heading? The VDP announced an offensive a good year ago.

We want to tackle one milestone per year.

For 2022, the focus was on significantly lighter bottles, and 2023 will be marked by social sustainability, because we think that of all the pillars of sustainability, this is still the least tangible for the wine world. There's already a relatively large amount of good there, but it's still far from being settled with. What do we do for training and health? How do we position ourselves as leaders? What do they in turn do for their team? And ultimately: How do we manage to keep our industry attractive to people who choose this profession?

All this is part of it; it's not easy, and I think we still have a lot to do in agriculture and viticulture – not just to say, "Yes, but in return you can occupy yourself with your passion topic, – wine" but to make sure that the incentives and conditions are right.

Of course, social sustainability also includes dealing with seasonal workers. It is certainly difficult to communicate when the wine ends up costing 50 euros and more, but the Polish or Romanian workers live in small spaces and just earn the minimum wage ...

Yes, that is also one of the main aspects. Many are already doing a lot of good. It is important for them to be role models for others and to offer opportunities under the right conditions, to show that a model is needed that works for both sides: In the time that people are here, they want to work a lot. This could be used to compensate other employees.

But of course, it's also about paying people better. In the sector as a whole – for example, for apprentices, but also for seasonal workers. It has to be said, that for seasonal workers from Romania, who would receive a minimum wage of around 3 euros there, Germany is considered more attractive than some neighboring countries in a Europe-wide comparison with the 12 euros minimum wage paid here (which is often paid net). According to one of our surveys, VDP members as a whole are already doing very well in the industry on average. Ultimately, the overall structure must fit.

Every winery is supposed to be certified sustainable by 2025 – but not all wineries are fans of the sustainability label, they think it's greenwashing. How is that solved?

By not saying that we must use exactly this seal or this certification. Instead, members should be free to choose. The choice of certifications, however, must be official and "recognized" within the association.


The VDP stands for quality standards. However, quality has also grown strongly outside the association; there are businesses that do not want to join the VDP at all. Doesn't that weaken the role of the VDP? 

Of course, there are wineries that have their own ways of doing things, or don't want to be part of a community, but still stand for the highest quality. But we don't see that as a problem. Something else is holding us back. It's the voices that keep saying that certain steps won't be feasible, that don't limit themselves or sharpen the origins, that are skeptical of all innovation, for whom sustainability is a foolish or trendy term that will disappear tomorrow. I am convinced that the VDP is needed and that these people, who think in the same direction as we do, are the really important supporters – both internally and externally.


However, things are not quite uniform within the VDP. Christmann, for example, has abandoned the four-level pyramid and no longer produces Gutsweine. How much individualization is allowed in a uniform system?

There will always be a certain degree of individualization, depending on the structure of the winery. I think that for years people tried to squeeze everything into the classification pyramid and discussed the fact that a certain wine, for example a Zweigelt, has a huge significance in the winery itself. So, in theory, it should be a Grosses Gewächs. And in terms of pricing, it should be right there.

I'm aware that the VDP is considering additional categories. We have to keep in mind that the regions as well as the members are all different. Where there are similarities between the regions, they should be included in this pyramid – this is the only way to create a profile. But at the same time, we must be careful not to blur the pyramid by squeezing everything into it.

At the same time, there can still be a degree of individualization for each winery, opportunities to distinguish itself through a particular grape variety or a particular style. The question of how far this has to go is a different one. If it deviates too far from the common system, it would be unhelpful. But as long as the agreement is that the pyramid itself remains clean, we can accept it. Ultimately, all VDP wines that do not fit into the clearly profiled higher levels of origin are wines of the VDP.Gutswein level, as is the case with Christmann.


Radical youngsters

What kind of impulses are coming from the young members of the VDP?

That's quite exciting because I have the impression that the generation would be almost more radical in some decisions. Some say, "Let's skip that step and go straight to the next big one." We have had many conversations with Steffen Christmann and representatives of the next generation. And I believe that they have firmly decided that they want to continue working in this profession and are therefore even more consistently prepared for some decisions. Last year, for example, we co-opted a number of people onto the Executive Committee and brought in a lot of new people. After just six months, we can say that the combination of experience and new ideas is incredibly stimulating, both in the honorary office and in the main office with Hilke Nagel. This strengthens us and helps us to be even bolder in many areas.


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Reading time: 11m



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