(Note: In the summer of 2012 I was asked to contribute a piece for the next edition of the “Every Wine Tells a Story” book compiled annually by Tara O’Leary. Unfortunately, the book was never published, but here is what I wrote for it, now shared for you here. I hope you enjoy it. ~Cliff)
THEY SAYTHAT LIFE is made up of moments. That at the end when we look back on our individual lives certain fragments of time will blink like stars in a dark sky. That along the timeline of our lives certain small personal interactions or experiences will be recalled with laser clarity: distinct milestones – either meaningful or nostalgic – that we may or may not have noticed at the instant of their occasion.
Every once in a while, a lucky wine lover will encounter a certain vino that changes the game, shifts the boundaries of perception, and leaves one stunned, mystified… Gaping like a beached fish, overwhelmed by the mysteries of the universe, by the inexplicable ways that wine evolves in the bottle. A wine that transcends this world and dispatches the drinker’s consciousness into a parallel dimension where muses enlighten, angels and deities celebrate, and the sands of time flow not to make us old but to revive us with revelations and new discoveries.
In 2012, I had the honor of being visited by one such wine – a 1963 Graševina “Arhivsko vino” (archive wine) from the Kutjevo winery (a historic bastion of cellared treasures in the Slavonia region of Croatia) on two separate and equally memorable occasions: once at the winery, and subsequently at a vertical tasting workshop of aged graševina wines called “Wine of Grace” at the Zagreb Wine Gourmet Weekend in Croatia.
Tasting the same wine on two separate occasions did not diminish the profundity of my experience but reaffirmed it. Indeed both encounters left me paralyzed in awe, helpless to summon my professional sommelier training to conduct a point-by-point assessment and expound pretentiously upon the wine’s merits and misdemeanors.
Instead I sat there dreamy-eyed, slack-jawed and loose-limbed, struggling to suppress the urge to whimper and weep like a baby. Lost in this dumbfounded comprehension of the implications associated with being touched by such a wonder of creation, I yielded to its mysteries and allowed myself to be absorbed.
Forty-nine years of dormancy and leisure in a mold-crusted cellar deposited a patina of fossilized dust and organic matter on the bottle, cloaking it in ash-colored velvet. I watched with mixed emotions (excitement, sorrow, anticipation, unworthiness) as the bottle was opened, revealing a cork that was amber and black with age, ripe and moist.
What emerged from within was a beautiful liquid genie: older and wiser, perhaps, but no less enchanting with sultry hues of gold, a brilliant clarity and regal structure. Now exhumed from her confines, this “wine of grace” released – or rather, bestowed upon us like a cherished, granted wish – an alluring, continuously unfolding tapestry of rich aromas: honey, roasted nuts, candied citrus peels, autumn bouquet, buttered forest mushrooms, something akin to apricot cobbler….
Ensconced as I was in such a blissful stupor – sniffing, swirling, marveling – I quietly flipped back pages of history. Over the decades in which the 1963 Graševina laid still in the damp darkness of its lonely old cellar in Kutjevo, the world outside the cold stone walls was bustling, with many things coming to pass: my parents’ marriage; my birth; Beatle Mania; the deaths of Elvis and John Lennon; the Vietnam war; Jimi Hendrix’s ascent to guitar god; Watergate; Apollo 11 and Neil Armstrong; the heady days of Led Zeppelin; the ’69 Mets; the first Apple computer; Disco; mullet haircuts; Jaws; the Space Shuttle; Michael Jackson’s lifetime; the fall of the Berlin Wall; the break-up of Yugoslavia and the war in Croatia; Seinfeld; cell phones and smart tablets; the Millennium; September 11th; endless wars in the Middle East; Facebook and memes; the unrealized Mayan prophesies; the first African-American U.S. president…..
Like wrinkles and wisdom, history was now woven into the wine’s fabric. While graševina is not a wine noted for its noble pedigree or ability for long-term aging, the 1963 from Kutjevo winery decisively dispelled any generalized notion about the inability of certain white wines to age. Barely frayed or faded, it was clearly still a living thing, delivering layer upon layer of rich texture, exotic nuance, and vibrant character.
I was not the only one to notice. Judging by the reflective silence and mesmerized faces of those with me, the moment in time we collectively shared while in the throes of vinous enlightenment was truly an enchanting and unforgettable experience.
A wine of such grace and rarity may not come our way everyday. But if you ever have the opportunity to discover an older vintage or indulge in a unique bottle of some strange varietal wine from a far-off land, please don’t miss it. The experience may turn out to be one of those moments in life that you will treasure forever.
IF THIS WINE were a celebrity it would be Meryl Streep: an actress of such grace and charm who grows more lovely, sophisticated and relevant with age. Like Mona Lisa on canvass, on screen Meryl shines with just the right balance of profundity, grace and sass, coddling the soul, providing comfort to the heart, and stoking the fires of imagination – all this while defying the ravages of time with her elegant poise, child-like charms and timeless beauty. (Note to Meryl: I still have one more bottle of the 1963 Kutjevo Graševina in my cellar. Stop by anytime. I’d be happy to open it for you. 🙂 )
This is Part II of our two-part report. For Part I, please click here.
The VIP Guests
Each year the organizers of the Zagreb Wine Gourmet Weekend (ZWGW) make an ambitious attempt to draw international visitors and VIP guests to the festival. Without doubt this is a wise and positive thing for which to aim. Croatia is an exciting emerging winemaking country and it should be blowing its trumpets and utilizing all its tools and resources to draw attention to its fabulous winemaking history and culture.
This year’s lineup was especially exciting, as the guest list included many interesting and important VIPs from the international wine trade and media. Among them, George Taber, author of several wine books, including “Judgment of Paris”; Bernard de Laage de Meux, Commercial Director of Chateau Palmer; Ivo Jeramaz, Vice President of Vineyards & Production in Grgich Hills Winery; Sarah Kemp, Editor of Decanter magazine; Lynn Sherriff, President of the Institute of Masters of Wine; David Gates, Vice President of Ridge Vineyard in Sonoma, CA; as well as the entertaining Flying Culinary Circus, four Norwegian chefs who take catered food service to new heights with fun and innovative performances.
Check out this video from the festival, in which David Gates speaks about his impressions of Croatian wines:
To choose just a few highlights from ZWGW is nearly impossible. I enjoyed every minute of the festival. Such was the abundance of activities and rich schedule of events that I often found myself torn over which ones to attend. My entire 3-day stay at ZWGW was a whirlwind of dashing from seminars to workshops to tasting tables and then off to panel discusses and back to the tasting room for more swirling and sipping….It’s all a blur now. But a few things do happily stand out in my memory.
Rather than point out individual wines that really sang to me (some of these may be revealed in later posts), I think it’s important to note that there were very few bad wines. Technical quality is certainly getting better and better each year. But technically correct wine doesn’t always mean interesting or compelling wine. Oak has been a pervasive and often invasive, overdone fad in Croatia in recent years, especially with certain plavac mali and malvasia istriana wines. I was happy to see some of the slathered wood tamed and/ or eliminated in some of the wines this time around (although there are still some wines that I think could benefit from less or no wood, or at least being held in cellar longer before release to allow the oak to better integrate; and a small few could benefit from more oak treatment).
Teran, a red grape variety from the Istria region, continues to demonstrate great potential as an affordable, food-friendly, and terroir-expressive wine that does not need oak to achieve an earthy, animal complexity.
While I spent a little time revisiting some old favorite producers (sadly, there were some I missed and regret not seeing), my focus was on wines that I never before tasted, especially those made from native grapes from lesser-known producers. And of course I am always on the look-out for the Holy Grail: those serendipitous wines that reveal true soul, tell a story, and sing a song!
On that note, I have to admit that I was disappointed to find no grk or škrlet producers represented, as well as a few key winemakers absent from the fair (e.g., Clai, Matošević, and Roxanich). But overall there was a satiating amount of wine to taste, and it was loads of fun comparing the various different styles of graševina (young & fresh; oaked and cellar aged), malvasia istriana (young & fresh; macerated & developed), and plavac mali (unoaked; field grown grapes; oak aged; single appellation and single vineyard), as well as babić, crljenak kaštelanski, debit, maraština and pošip.
I even discovered a new grape variety: ulovina! Ulovina is an ancient white variety indigenous to Istria and used as a blending component (along with malvasia istriana and muškat momjanski) in Benvenuti’s sublime “Corona Grande” sweet dessert wine.
Workshop: Zinfandel. Primitivo, Crljenak Kaštelanski: Ten Years After
By now many of us are well aware that the origins of zinfandel trace back to Croatia, and that California zinfandel, Italian primitivo, and Croatian crljenak kaštelanski are all the same grape. However, the opportunity to taste all three of these distinct vins de terroir side by side at one sitting would be a rare and fascinating occasion. Thanks to the ZWGW, the opportunity presented itself at this workshop, one of the truly “do not miss” events in the program.
Guiding us through the comparative tasting was a number of key individuals from the world of “ZPC” (zinfandel, primitivo, crljenak): George Taber, author of Judgment of Paris, the now famous account of the 1976 Paris tasting organized by Steven Spurrier that rocked the wine world and put Napa Valley on the map; Ivo Jeramaz, Vice President of Vineyards and Winemaking for Grgich Hills winery in Rutherford, CA (Mike Grgich was the person who first suggested that California zinfandel and the red wines that his father used to make in Croatia were very similar in character, and he was an early supporter of the research that lead to the ZPC discovery); Professor Edi Maletić and Professor Ivan Pejić from the University of Agriculture in Zagreb, two of the leading researchers behind the ZPC discovery; David Gates of Ridge Vineyards, an iconic California producer of single-vineyard zinfandel wines; Gregory Perrucci, an Italian producer of Giravolta Primitivo; and Croatian crljenak producers Zlatan Plenković (Zlatan Otok); Nevin Vuina (Vuina Štafileo); and Nikola Nikša (Mimica) from Kuća sretnog čovjeka.
My quick impressions of these expressions of the same grape from three different countries?
The Ridge 2008 Geyserville zinfandel was a huge wine, round and richly layered and extracted, viscous and full of black raspberry, plum, licorice and chocolate – a style that is much revered among disciples of zinfandel. The Grgich 2008 was a bit more refined with lighter red fruit and floral notes. The Giravolta 2010 Primitivo was soft and fruity with velvety cherry and raspberry character; a nice wine but quickly forgotten once the crljenaks arrived.
Okay, I know I am a little biased. But the three Croatian crljenak wines really struck my chords and made music with those old familiar notes of dried fig, Adriatic sea salt and roasted herbs, black plum and cherry, accompanied by a little Dalmatian funk.
With crljenak in glass, suddenly I did not miss the rich extracts of California zin.
The 2008 Zlatan Crljenak was the most extracted and a little too tannic yet still fresh; “rough and rustic” I wrote in my notes. The 2010 Vuina ŠtafileoCrljenak was too young and closed up but showed refreshing acid and good tannic structure; slightly alcoholic on the nose, it would benefit from some more time in neutral wood. The third wine was my favorite, the Mimica 2008 Pribidrag (aka crljenak) from Kuća sretnog čovjeka – or, in translation, the “House of the Happy Man”. What a great name for a balanced, delicious wine with ripe Dalmatian fruit character and enduring freshness! Indeed I left this tasting a happy man.
Workshop: Wine of Grace – Graševina
Making me even happier was seeing this event on the schedule: a vertical tasting of graševina wines – vintages 2011, 2010, 1994, 1985, 1970, 1963, 1960 – from Kutjevo winery. To say that this was a rare opportunity to examine the five decade progression of a white wine from Croatia would be imprecise: this was an extraordinary experience during which those of us lucky enough to be there got to taste fifty two years of history in a one hour seating.
Even more astounding, graševina is not a variety that is noted for having a noble pedigree or ability for long-term aging. In Croatia and in many other regions along the Danube River basin, graševina (aka welschriesling) is a simple table wine meant for everyday quaffing and even mixing with mineral water to create a summer sipper called “gemišt”. Often a maligned workhorse grape, when not properly managed in the vineyard it can wildly overcrop and produce thin, acidic wines that are sold on tap, in one liter bottles with metal crown caps, or as boxed wine. In better examples, it is normally a 2-3 year wine that expresses apple and tree fruit character, a piquant finish, and refreshing acidity.
But here it was, dating all the way back to 1960, getting deeper gold in color as the years retreated beyond my date of birth, evolving along the way into richer, nuttier, honey and candied fruit aromas. The 2011 from Kutjevo was fresh, lively, and savory with a delicate apple blossom note. At the other end of the spectrum, the 1960 was starting to show signs of being tired and past its glory. But in ensuing years between, magic was brewing.
My favorite by far was the 1963. I first tried this “Archive Wine” last year at the winery and was blown away. I cried. Cried from happiness. Overwhelmed by the mysteries of the universe; by the inexplicable ways that wine evolves in bottle; by the time that has passed, leaving its marks on my face and in this beautiful wine.
While that graševina laid quiet in that old cellar in Kutjevo, many things outside happened: the Beatles conquered America and the planet; I was born; the Vietnam war; Korea; Jimi Hendrix; Led Zeppelin; Watergate; Space Shuttle missions to space; the first Apple computer; mullet haircuts; Michael Jackson’s lifetime; the fall of the Berlin Wall; the break-up of Yugoslavia and the war in Croatia; cell phones; 9/11; endless wars in the Middle East; Facebook; the first African-American U.S. president…to name a few.
The point is, all of that history – like wrinkles and wisdom – was somehow sewn into the wine’s fabric, with almost no fraying or fading. Judging from the mesmerized faces and stunned reactions of others at the tasting, drinking this treasured wine was truly an enchanting and righteous experience. Thank you Kutjevo winery for sharing!
I will try to write more about this tasting in a future post in order to do each wine justice. For now, suffice it to say that events like this one are an effective selling point for ZWGW and will certainly entice me – and hopefully more international visitors – to keep coming back.
Okay, despite my strong desire and best efforts, I was unable to attend any of the film screenings that were part of the weekend’s schedule of events. A pity! But I was told by people who attended that it was a nice respite from the surge outside and the films were well done. I like the dynamic that this dimension added to the program, and hope that the organizers keep it next year. For a full list of all the films shown at the festival, please consult the ZWGW website.
Meeting Trevor Long and Judith Burns
I have to admit, prior to arriving at ZWGW, I heard about and frequently came across on social media the husband and wife team who operate Pacta Connect and import Croatian wines into the U.K. and Ireland, Trevor Long and Judith Burns. However, I had never met them personally or knew them well enough to understand their motives and mission. Frankly over the years I have grown weary and disheartened by random so-called “experts” who present themselves as authorities on Croatian wine after just one or two trips to Croatia. Some of these folks do more harm than good to the Wines of Croatia brand through misinformation, less-than-transparent agendas, and shoddy business practices.
To be clear: Trevor, Judith and Pacta Connect do NOT fall into this category. Trevor and Judith are two very passionate and professionally-minded people who take the business of importing and promoting Croatian wines very seriously. Not only do they take great pleasure and care to represent the wineries in their portfolio with enthusiasm and coherence, they have also invested years of time and resources in the pursuit of learning more about each one by visiting the vines and spending days and weeks at a time with the winemakers. They hand select each wine for their portfolio based upon a criteria of artisanship, sustainability and authenticity. They also possess a keen understanding of their market and sharp sense for marketing and connecting with potential customers.
At the moment Pacta Connect is perhaps the most important and trending importer of Croatian wines in the U.K., and Trevor and Judith are certainly leading pioneers and worthy colleagues in our joint mission to tell the story and share the love for the wines of Croatia. It was a true pleasure to meet them at ZWGW and to hear their stories (Trevor used to manage rock bands!), their vision, and their love and respect for the wineries they represent.
Pacta Connect’s Twitter page (@pc_wines) says it best: “Living & breathing & loving good wine! Importers of great Croatian artisan wines, grappas & oils to the UK & Ireland. Social media fans.”
If you haven’t yet had the chance to follow Trevor and Judith’s endeavors, please do say hello. They are working hard to make a difference, and I for one am amazed by and grateful for all they have done.
When asked by the organizers of ZWGW to moderate a two hour session devoted to Twitter, I have to admit that my blood went cold. As much as I enjoy Twitter and understand its mechanisms and benefits, two hours is an awfully long time to talk about it, even if we would be adding a live blogger tasting of three wines to demonstrate one of Twitter’s many and livelier functions: the Tweet-up. A Tweet-up is a gathering (usually at different remote locations) of Twitter users, all tweeting about a common subject (in this case wines that they were tasting).
Our ZWGW guest panel of “twixperts” (Twitter experts) and winos included Lada Radin and Nenad Trifunović of Taste of Croatia. Our guest star was to be Marcy Gordon, an experienced travel and wine writer from California who operates the excellent Come for the Wine blog. Sadly, Marcy ran into a series of unexpected and unfortunate travel glitches that resulted in her having to cancel her trip after spending nearly 12 hours in the airport. We certainly missed her and hope she can make it toCroatia again soon!
At ZWGW Marcy planned to share her story of how she discovered Wines of Croatia through Twitter, which led her to Frank Dietrich at Blue Danube Wine Company in San Francisco, which inspired a successful blogger tasting of Blue Danube’s portfolio of Croatian wines, which resulted in Marcy being invited on a press trip to Croatia last year, and served as the basis for which she was invited as a VIP guest to ZWGW this year.
Marcy’s “twittertrail” experience – following the threads and connections of contacts on the social network – was the perfect example of the magic and power of Twitter. With over 175 million users, Twitter offers businesses, wineries, importers, wine writers, wine sellers, and PR and marketing agents a huge opportunity to reach large numbers of potential customers. To reveal and explain that benefit was the message and purpose of the Twitter tasting at ZWGW.
To show Twitter in action, we asked several U.S.-based wine bloggers to taste along with us the same three wines we tasted at the session inZagreb: Krajančić 2009 Pošip, Terzolo 2009 Teran, and Miloš 2008 Plavac. As they tasted, the bloggers tweeted their impressions and comments; their tweets were projected onto a big screen in the auditorium in Zagreb for ZWGW participants to see and read. To track the action, we employed a hashtag (a # symbol) before the key word that flags the term and makes it easier to search and track. The hashtag was #WoCroatia (for Wines of Croatia).
Other hashtags that we threw in for good measure were #winelovers and #zwgw. And in the heat of the action, a new hashtag (thanks to Nenad Trifunović) was born: #teranslut.
The session was fun and hopefully useful to the attendees. I was disappointed that more winery personnel did not attend. Many Croatian wineries do not use Twitter, and this session was mainly designed to encourage them to discover Twitter and start using it to market their wines.
For any Twitter users out there, here are the user names for the panel and blogger participants at the session. Please follow us!
Despite a few glitches and the acclimation period required before you can successfully navigate your way to the many hidden tasting rooms and off-site seminar locations, ZWGW was an educational, interesting and exciting wine event – one not to be missed if you are serious about discovering what Croatia has to offer.
Each year ZWGW gets better and better, and I applaud the organizers for listening to feedback and attempting to address the issues and adjust the plans for the next year’s fair. This willingness to avoid a “cut and paste” process and repeat the same show over and over again is encouraging, keeping things fresh and pushing the boundaries further outward towards discovery – and hopefully less hungry bellies!
The focus on drawing an international audience is essential, especially in light of the need to brand Croatia and a complete tourist destination, not just a wine destination. Perhaps an idea for the future would be to invite representatives from tourist agencies that operate in the corresponding wine regions to present the other features and offerings of those regions – the hotels, the restaurants, the tourist sites – to create a full immersion impression of the area?
Overall, the 2012 Zagreb Wine Gourmet Weekend was an excellent and enjoyable event. If this is the blueprint going forward, then the ZWGW will surely continue to rank as one of the most important annual wine events in Croatia. At least until the next Big Bang. 😉
For more photos from ZWGW, please check our Facebook page HERE.
We leave you now with the official video produced by ZWGW showing some of the action. Enjoy!