On the 23rd of June, in the year 1319, Johann von Steren had a good idea. He established the Bürgerspital zum Heilige Geist to care for the sick and needy citizens of Würzburg and at the same time designated certain of his vineyards to provide the necessary financial support.
A couple of centuries later, Prince Bishop Julius Echter followed suit and founded the Juliusspital with the same general goals in mind and a similar motivation: to acquire divine salvation through the mortal and the eternal through the transient.
Today these two institutions are among the oldest and largest wine estates in Germany, with 140 and 170 hectares respectively, and still provide the major source of income for their charities.
Franconia, the wine region around Würzburg, is known for full bodied, dry white wines traditionally bottled in the distinctive green, flask shaped 'bocksbeutel'. The mild and fruity Müller-Thurgau grape accounts for 60% of the area production, another 25% is the more vigorous Sylvaner, said to be the best produced anywhere. Rieslings are popular as are some modern varieties including the flowery Bacchus.
The German poet and wine connoisseur, Goethe, was a great fan of Franconian wine - he drank close to three bottles a day - and in 1821 he consumed 900 liters, proclaiming as he did that, 'Life's most profound wisdom lies in wine.'
The best bottles, of course, remain in Germany so even if you're not normally a white wine devotee, reserve judgment until you try these. And what better place to do so than at the aforementioned spitals?
The Burgerspital can handle up to 400 winers and diners at any one time in its various rooms. In nice weather the action spills out into the courtyard where waiters in authentic leather cellarers aprons work diligently and spital residents enjoy the warm sunshine on the balconies above and wait for their daily glass of wine.
Medium dry wines: Müller Thurgau, Bacchus, Sylvaner, Mario-Muskat and Kerner Kabinett are available by the glass for 4.20-5.25 DM ($2.60-$3.26). Drier versions of Müller-Thurgau and Kerner Kabinett cost 4.50-5.25 DM ($2.80-$3.26).
Full, moderately-priced meals are served throughout the day.
• Bürgerspital Weinstuben Theaterstrasse 19, 8700 Würzburg, telephone 09 31-1 38 61. Closed Tuesday. No credit cards.
Bürgerspital Weinstuben: inexpensive
The Juliusspital is considerably smaller. We sat in a little nook by a leaded glass window. Fresh tulips and a candle graced the table in a room with great, high ceilings and big wrought iron chandeliers.
Wine by the glass cost between 3.40 DM and 5.20 DM ($2.12-$3.22). We had a crisp, dry and deliciously cool 1991 Randersackerer Marsberg, Sylvaner for 4.90 DM ($3.04). Fresh bread to keep our palates fresh arrived with the wine and on the table was a basket of wein blatz, 8" rounds of cracker-like bread and frankische salzstangen, 12" long breadsticks, both baked at the Juliusspital Bakery. Note: the custom here is to charge 1/2 DM (31 cents) for each piece of bread consumed.
Lunch was delicious and inexpensive. Bratwurst with sauerkraut cost 8.50 DM ($5.28) as did the Franconian speciality, Blaue Zipfel, veal sausages simmered in vinegar with spices and vegetables.
• Juliusspital Weinstuben, Juliuspromenade 19, 8700 Würzburg, telephone 09 31-5 40 80. Inexpensive. Closed Wednesday. No credit cards.
* Juliusspital Weinstuben: inexpensive
It's difficult to imagine a more leisurely way to spend an afternoon or evening in Würzburg than in one of the spitals, tasting wine and enjoying good food. Always remembering, of course, the proceeds go to charity.