Alsace: Where Everybody Knows Your Name
By Michael Kiefer
I had no intention of going to Alsace. I needed to go to Bordeaux to start research on my next novel, and I invited my grown daughters to go with me. One could and one couldn’t.
But then I was tooling through the internet and I came upon a hotel in Alsace that bore the family name, Hotel Kieffer, and I was intrigued.
Now, I suppose that if you were a Smith or a Jones, a Wong or Garcia or Romano, it wouldn’t be any big deal to find your name on a business. But Kiefer is a relatively rare name in the U.S. And when I read that the hotel had its own vineyards and vintage, I had to go, and so did my oldest daughter, who has been a sommelier and a beverage director at swanky restaurants in New York City and Los Angeles for more than a decade.
I emailed for reservations, and the response, from one Mireille Kieffer, said that they had been making wine since the early 1700s, about the time the first of my American forebears, François Kieffer, came to America and settled in Pennsylvania.
No one in my immediate family was particularly interested in genealogy. We assumed that we were German, just like all the rest of the Pennsylvania Dutch folks in the Lehigh Valley. My father’s grandmother still spoke some German, 200 years after the family came to America. Even on my mother’s side, despite her efforts to convince me her father was Welsh, he was a Dutchie, too, and his grandfather had changed the spelling of the family name from “Braun” to “Brown” several generations after the family came from Germany and married into other German-speaking Pennsylvania families. Tombstones don’t lie.
And as for the spelling of my surname, when I was in college, I was reading a canoeing map of the upper Delaware River when I came across “Kieffer Island,” near a rapids that abutted farmland owned by my grandfather’s cousins. I assumed it was a typo. But not too long afterward, I saw my great-grandfather’s tombstone at a church in Bangor; it too, said “Kieffer.” My aunt told me my grandfather had dropped one “f” without explanation, and I have to think it was during that time a hundred years ago when World War I was raging and having a German surname was not an asset.
A few years later, when I was in graduate school, a professor of Romance Linguistics I encountered on an elevator asked me my name, and when I answered, “Kiefer,” he told me it was Alsatian, the first I’d heard of it. No one in my family knew or cared anything about it either.
It was one of my cousins who traced the family back to 18th-Century François Kieffer, though he didn’t know where he came to America from. Last year, my younger daughter bought me one of those ancestry tests as a Christmas present, and it was no surprise that it tracked my DNA to a swath of Europe along the Rhine River, where France, Germany, and Switzerland all come together. The part of that swath on the French side of the Rhine, of course, is Alsace.
Hotel Kieffer is a half hour drive south of Strasbourg, in the small town of Itterswiller, on the so-called Wine Road. It is nowhere near Bordeaux, where my daughter, Jessie, and I both had business, she visiting wine châteaux, and me, well, just noodling around the city for a sense of place for my novel. In fact, they are on opposite sides of the country. Bordeaux is considerably south of Paris, near the Atlantic coast. Strasbourg is east of Paris, on the border with Germany. And there is no direct route from Bordeaux to Itterswiller. To get from one to the other, we had to take one high-speed express train two and a half hours north to Paris, grab a cab cross-town to a different train station and catch another high-speed train that went east two more hours across a rural French Expressionist landscape to Strasbourg. Itterswiller was only “sort of” accessible by a local train out of Strasbourg.
If Bordeaux is quintessentially French with its narrow cobblestone streets and 18th Century Neo-classical and Louis IV architecture, Strasbourg is a gingerbread German fairy-tale city. Of course, as the central city of Alsace, it has complex loyalties and enmities to both France and Germany. And over the last millennium, longer than there has been a France or a Germany, the border has been redrawn multiple times, most recently in 1919 when the French wrested it back from Germany after World War I.
That afternoon, we walked along the Ill River to La Petite France, a village on an old mill site on an island in the river. We ate dinner twice that evening at my daughter’s insistence. At a cafe, we had a duck pate and sausages on choucroute (sauerkraut) washed down with a German-style ale. Then, after a run in the rain, we made reservations at a more formal restaurant, where we had pig’s knuckle and choucroute garnish (sauerkraut with sausages and hams and other smoked meats). It reminded me of dinners my grandmother made in Pennsylvania when I was a boy, foods I found peculiar then but love now. Nana, however, did not serve good Alsatian Pinot noir.
In the morning, right outside our hotel, I noticed a street sign that said, “Kiefergass.” I had noticed that all of the streets in the city center were named after professions — lace tatters, tailors, sawyers. This one, in French, was also called Rue des Tonneliers, or the street of the barrel makers. Though I had looked my name up in print and online German dictionaries, it always translated as “pine tree” or a “jawbone,” the latter painfully apt. Now, for the first time, I realized that “Kieffer” really meant “barrel maker” or “cooper.”
At the train station in Strasbourg, Jessie had a moment of practical wisdom and suggested I call the hotel in Itterswiller to see if we could get a cab from the train station in nearby Epfig. Down in Bordeaux, while on our way to the various chateaux, we’d taken local trains that dropped us off at mere railroad sidings, where the nearest thing to a station was an automated kiosk that accepted credit cards and dispensed train tickets.
I phoned Hotel Kieffer, and the woman who answered sort of chuckled when I asked. A cab would cost at least 100 Euros, she said, because it would have to come all the way from Strasbourg where we were calling from. The train station was hardly a mile away from the hotel, but still too far to walk given the terrain.
“We will pick you up in Epfig,” she said.
We rode a nearly empty train through the countryside, passing quietly through increasingly smaller villages. Fields and vineyards rolled past, and the sun came out for the first time after a week of rain and unseasonably cold temperatures.
When we got to Epfig, we rolled our suitcases to the door of the train and pushed the green button to exit. The doors wrenched opened about a foot, and then immediately slammed back shut as the train pulled out of the station, refusing to let us off. I called the hotel again, and again was told not to worry, they would pick us up at the next station, which seemed to be little more than minutes away.
This time, the train doors opened fully and we were deposited in a parking lot in a quaint village. A black Mercedes SUV cruised up and stopped. Its driver side door opened and a young woman emerged, opened the trunk and reached for our suitcases.
“How did you know it was us?” I joked (as if any sensible people had ventured this far out into the country without their own transportation).
Our driver was a young woman named Adeline Kieffer, who works in finance in Paris during the week, and then commutes out to Itterswiller on weekends to help her family with the hotel and the tasting room.
“We don’t get many Americans here,” she said as we drove uphill through vineyard after vineyard, “but we do speak English because of the British who come here.”
And French and German, too, of course. Itterswiller is right on the Wine Road, which I should have already known was a sort of vacation concept. You cruise the country two-lane highway in your car or on your bicycle or motorcycle, inn-to-inn, stopping at the tasting rooms, much as you would in Napa or Sonoma Counties.
Within minutes, we were in Itterswiller. I asked Adeline to pose with Jessie, cousins 300 years removed. Curiously, they had the same smile and the same cheeks (later Adeline’s mother, Mireille, agreed it was true). I felt strangely at home, though maybe I’m overly suggestible in that way of people who read symptoms for exotic diseases and suddenly think they’ve come down with them.
Our rooms were homey and large, with doors that opened onto a grassy hillside terrace on a hillside, the vineyards just yards away. We decided to explore Itterswiller, and that is when the trip became strange.
We knew that the hotel had a vintage under the name of Jean-Charles Kieffer, Adeline’s father, and it was being transitioned to her brother, Gerard. But over the next three blocks — and Itterswiller is, at best, five blocks long and two blocks deep — we came upon several more. Signs marked the vintages of Remy Kieffer, Vincent Kieffer, Robert Kieffer, and François Kieffer. I suddenly felt that we were Kiefers in Kiefferville, like Whos in a winey Whoville.
By then, the tasting room was open for business. Gerard, Adeline’s brother, is the current winemaker, and of course, my daughter the sommelier wanted to try everything they had: Pinot Noir after Rose after red and white Cremant after Riesling. We chatted like family as we snacked on salami and cheeses.
There, on a dais in the tasting room, was the Kieffer genealogy, an encyclopedia-sized tome listing all of the Kieffers from Itterswiller, going back to the 1600s. Mireille opened the book to a page of Kieffers named François. There were dozens, and I had no clue if one of them was mine.
That evening, Jess and I had dinner at one of the two restaurants in town. The maitre d’ asked what name the reservations were under, and I responded, “Kiefer, comme tous le monde ici,” which is French for “like everyone else here,” and the restaurant staff laughed out loud.
We dined again on sausage and sauerkraut and a tarte flambée, which is sort of a Germanesque pizza. The waitress told us she was married to a Kieffer herself. And then, after dinner, there was nothing to do but walk back to the hotel under the stars and go to sleep.
We ate breakfast in the hotel the next morning, one of those big European buffets where you boil your own eggs and feast on hams and dark breads. I showed photos of my grandkids to Adeline.
“There are those Kieffer cheeks again,” she said, as if we were really related.
There was not much going on in town. Men zipped by on tractors, headed to the vineyards. The hotel staff swept and ripped down beds. There was no one on the streets, and when we went into the one open cafe in town, the staff seemed surprised by the disturbance.
Jess and I walked up to the top of the hill to look out over vineyards in every direction. On one side, we could see the Vosge Mountains; far off was the Black Forest of Germany. Here and there, a church spire stuck up out of a small village. But mostly there were rows and rows of grapevines just starting to leaf out.
We walked back to the hotel. The Kieffers were in the tasting room having a pre-lunch glass of wine. Gerard poured one for each of us, a Pinot for me, a Riesling for Jess. They showed me a bottle of Kieffer wine that had been bottled the year I was born, and it was just as crusty as me, the label barely legible under decades of dust. An elderly man seated at the end of the bar spoke up.
“I’m a Kieffer, too,” he said. He had once been sheriff of the town, and he told me in detail about the Kieffers he knew who had gone to America over the last century. Perhaps I knew them. And then it was noon and everyone had to excuse themselves to eat lunch. Mireille brought a plate of bread and cheese and salami to Jess and me, and she poured us more wine, and we sat it the sun, waiting for their lunch to end so we could get a ride back to the train station.
We rode back to Strasbourg with smiles on our faces, then boarded the high-speed to Paris for our last night in France.
I got back to Phoenix two days later with a few new ideas of who I am and where I’ve been.
Michael Kiefer is an award-winning journalist, formerly of The Arizona Republic and The USA Today Network. He has mostly covered crime and punishment, but he’s also reported extensively from Europe and North and South America and has written for dozens of magazines including Playboy, Esquire, Self and Outside, where he was an associate editor. He is the author of six books, including Into Umbria.