It is important to highlight the many people in the background in the wine world who are often overlooked. Importing is an art and science and a fundamental belief in wine and the product selected to distribute. It is not for the faint of heart. The U.S. is the world’s largest wine market and certainly there is no close second when it comes to the very large number of alcohol beverage control laws.
Just generation ago it would have been very difficult to find wines from Greece, Republic of Macedonia, Croatia, Slovenia, Hungary, Uruguay, Lebanon and even Austria; now it is becoming more accessible in the retail setting as well as on-premise. More available in larger markets like New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago. I would expect the availability to be more widely distributed throughout the United States in the next few years.
In this interview, I wanted to highlight Frank Dietrich; Frank and his wife Zsuzsanna Molnar founded Blue Danube wines in 2002. Their principal portfolio is true to name–follow the Danube and you will find wines that the Dietrich’s import.
Currently the portfolio includes:
- Eight Austrian producers
- Two Bosnian-Herzegovinian producers
- Ten Croatian producers
- Sixteen Hungarian producers
- One Montenegro producer
- Five Slovenian producers
Frank and team have astutely added producers over time and have a sterling collection of high quality, artistically integrated and well priced wines. Each team member has presented Blue Danube’s collection across many on and off-premise establishments and have helped to not just present wines but educate about wines to optimize the dish ahead.
I will never the first bottle I picked up at a wine merchant in San Francisco (Dingač)–I couldn’t believe I had a Croatian bottle in hand. I quickly called a few friends to let them know of my discovery. I thought what an amazing testament to wine culture today. We live in amazing wine times–the best ever. No better time for great quality and excellence in a glass and wines coming from lesser known wine producing countries.
I soon meet Frank and have talked with him about his philosophy to forge a path that is not necessarily easy but one that is consistent and impeccable
The big story is that Hungarian wine is not just for Hungarian food and for that matter that extends to Croatian, Austrian, Slovenian wines and so forth. Imagine if we could only pair wines with the countries they were produced we would not have a wide diversity of possibilities at the eating table. I’ll admit that I had to break out of the mold of only country identified wines with the respective cuisines.
Even though I believe in diverse food-wine pairings–I am still working on my Paprikás Csirke (Paprika chicken) and hope to perfect this someday and share with Hungarian wines.
Blue Danube Wine Company’s wines are fun and playful and approachable for any mood, occasion and any time of year. I do think the wine list is changing restaurant-by-restaurant and we’ll see a greater diversity not just in our own homes but in our favourite restaurants and wine merchants.
For your next dinner party be adventurous–try a Kövérszőlő, Vranac, Grüner Veltliner, Hárslevelű, Sankt Laurent, Cserszegi Fűszeres, and so forth. Don’t let the diacriticals or pronunciations persuade you to not taste and try these countries wines. What you will garner and appreciate are these wines are unique, yet familiar, delightful and certainly enchanting.
1. Q. How did you get into the wine import business?
After our return from a multi-year assignment in Austria and Eastern Europe my wife and I wanted to make a career and life style change from Hi-tech. We turned tables from representing American technology in Central-Eastern Europe to representing the wines from that part of the world to the American consumer.
2. Q. How did you select central Europe as your portfolio target?
Living in Vienna and Budapest we encountered the renaissance of wine making after the Austrian wine scandal and the collapse of Communism first hand. We realized that these were ancient wine regions which were just starting to re-invent their viticulture. It was clear to us that there was a tremendous upside potential just waiting to be ignited. We feel that our early predictions have been confirmed and even surpassed.
3. Q. What was the first wine you tasted and enjoyed?
We lived in a small village outside of Vienna where we often had dinner at Unter der Linde, a local restaurant with an excellent wine list. We were surprised how joyful and refreshing the Veltliners tasted, regardless whether they came from the Wachau or the Weinviertel. We also had many Austrian red wines which were making a rapid transition from relatively simple table wines to premium quality wines at that time. One wine that stood out was the Vulcano cuvee made by the late Hans Igler, a pioneer of serious Austrian reds. We visited him in Deutschkreutz, Burgenland, where we tasted in his garage which doubled as the playpen for his grand kids. There were no fancy architectural tasting temples at the time like you see today all over the place.
4. Q. The central European wine category is expanding in the US — year over year — it is no longer a question of what is Croatian wine but do you have producer X or Y or a specific variety – right?
At the risk of making a blanket statement, Central European geography, culture, language, food, and history are all still mostly unknown to most people. Although there are a few producers who people are beginning to ask for and or recognize, the vast majority of what we do is still simply getting the wines in front of people. Grüner Veltliner, Blaufränkisch, Plavac Mali, and Furmint are somewhat well established, but there are many more grapes like Kadarka, Žlahtina, Királyleányka, Hárslevelű, Graševina, Juhfark, Kövérszőlő, Irsai Olivér, Pošip and so on that are still unknown and or unpronounceable to many experienced buyers. Part of the excitement of working with these grapes and places is a mutual discovery that can passed on to the consumer.
5. Q. It seems there is considerable opportunity for growth in the US on and off premise – what regions in the US are growing in terms of their love of central European wines?
In the past two years I’ve seen significant growth in the Bay Area. That said, these wines still account for a very small percentage of by the glass pours in restaurants and rarely have their own section in wine lists or retail shelves. While most of Western Europe can be broken down to country specific appellations, our wines are often relegated to the “strange whites,” “interesting reds,” or hidden within a tasting menu. In addition to growth, there is a crazy amount of range within our portfolio. We have many wines in small ethnic liquor stores as well as Michelin starred restaurants. The price point to quality ratio is killer once you get past the diacritical marks.
6. Q. Central European wines are quite varied and present a significant opportunity for food and wine pairings–can you describe some of your success stories?
These are products with a point of view stretching back thousands of years. They are also cultural products that are a part of a lifestyle that involves drinking everyday. As such, a healthy majority of our wines have low alcohol, bright acidity, and are fermented in used oak or stainless steel so they are priced and built for the table everyday. This is not a trend they are chasing; it’s what has always been done. The dry wines of Hungary’s Tokaj for instance, come from land locked volcanic soils that are ironically amazing with seafood. Along with great fruit, the volcanic terroir imparts a smoky, briny and mineral richness that brings out the sea regardless of preparation.
7. Q. Central Europe has such a great storehouse of both producers and varieties–can we expect more wines from these regions?
Absolutely, I firmly believe that we have only seen the early beginnings of developments which will continue to produce more and better wines. I’ve just returned from a trip to Dalmatia and Bosnia & Herzegovina where I visited many old but also many brand new wineries equipped with modern technology and run by very competent enologists. There is also a very important shift in attitude and sentiment underway: after trying to emulate and copy western style wines they are now striving to find their own identity. These means that native grape varieties and traditional wine styles are receiving the attention they deserve. It’s easy to predict that more wines will be produced here which are unique and will contribute to a constantly growing spectrum of flavor in the world of wine.
8. Q. I would expect to see many more wines from Central Europe to find their way to a nice diversity of restaurants – Mexican, Indian, North African, etc. Do you see this as an opportunity?
It’s certainly an opportunity, but many of these cuisines are not yet focused on wine or have someone passionate about building a list that pulls from smaller suppliers like us. There is your Slanted Door, Ler Ros and Aziza type places, but they are anomalies in respect to the majority of Vietnamese, Thai, or North African restaurants in the Bay Area. This is bound to change and will be great for everyone in the wine business.
9. Q. Is the consumer expecting more indigenous varieties v. international varities in both their dining and wine buying experiences?
Yes and Yes. Young wine lovers are very open to making new discoveries. Today the internet allows for a rapid exchange of what we have known formerly as “Word-of-Mouth”. Within short time spans unknown grape varieties can go viral and become the trendiest hits to search out. Just witness the recent raise of interest in Sherry, Gruner, Riesling, etc. We start seeing great interest in dry wines form volcanic regions such as Somlo and Tokaj in Hungary. We also see a very strong resonance to the recently discovered Croatian heritage of Zinfandel which triggered an explosion in interest in the story but also relative like Plavac Mali and other Croatian grapes.
10. Q. I am a huge fan of Sankt Laurent, Pinot Noir from unexpected places (Italy, Austria, Hungary, etc) Hárslevelű, Furmint, Blaufränkisch, Grüner Veltliner, Plavac Mali and so forth–these varieties are gaining a foothold in the US but have a great opportunity for growth–is that a fair assessment?
Yes, see above but also keep in mind that we live today in the age of the sommelier who can guide guests to make new experiences. It also helps to have so many wine bars where you can often make your first encounter by simply ordering a glass of a wine with which you are not familiar with. Or you taste a flight of wines arranged to let you travel to distant and unfamiliar places in the wine world.
11. Q. What is your favourite food and wine pairing?
One of my favorites is Teran with blood sausage. Teran is a grape from the Kras region in Slovenia and in Croatia’s Istria that is often grown in iron rich “Terra Rosa” (Red Earth) which complements in the iron in blood. Along with very little tannin and high acidity it’s one of those combinations that makes you a believer. A couple of our producers (Piquentum and Stoka) even hang curing legs of Prosciutto right above open top fermenters to start the relationship as early as possible.
Another –somewhat surprising – pairing was offered by wine maker Judit Bott when she poured one of her dry, voluptuous Furmint while she served a baked baby goat at a dinner at her home in Tokaj. I suggest that we should pair more often white wines with different kind of meats. Some actually work much better than you would expect.
12. Q. If someone wants to dive into Central European wines where should they start?
Every country has great $10-$15 red and whites to get things started. Plavac Mali and Graševina from Croatia, Blaufränkisch and Grüner Veltliner from Austria, Kékfrankos and Olaszrizling from Hungary, and great one liter blends from Slovenia. In general, try all wines made from native grapes and see which one you like. You can’t go wrong and only gain more experience, school your palate, and develop your personal preferences.
13. Q. Central European wines have a very long lineage and have worked hard to work through their recent history. There is a testament to not just survive but a desire to produce world class wines… why do these wine producers do what they do?
It’s easy: Often times this is what their parents and grand parents did, and so they follow in their foot steps knowing quite well that this is a special time in which you can be part of a vinous revolution. Others join the viticultural efforts in their countries because it is one of the areas which can shine and have a lot to contribute to defining a new socio-cultural identity. And there are some that realize the commercial potential of viticulture in this region and invest.
14. Q. What are some thoughts or things that are important for the wine appreciating public to know about wines from central Europe?
Drinking these wines is the easiest way to travel to these parts of the world. Find some recipes and music and find some new flavors. Even in big cities, finding a Croatian, Hungarian, Slovenian or Austrian restaurant is difficult, but all the ingredients are here if you want to make it happen.
15. Q. Any other thoughts on wines from the regions where you import wines?
As wine moves away from points and towards the story, these are new and exciting stories to tell. These are also grapes and places aren’t on most of the exams or credential programs, so even within the wine community they are unexplored despite being ancient wine cultures. When I read about Terry Theise or Kermit Lynch barely able to sell what are now highly sought after wines 30+ years ago, it’s exciting to be potentially apart of something similar that will result in lifelong personal relationships and financial success both at home and abroad.
Interviewed: Frank Dietrich and Eric Danch
Demystifying Wine…One Bottle at a Time from all wine regions around the world.
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© 2013 James Meléndez / James the Wine Guy— All Rights Reserved. All Other Materials, photos and interview responses courtesy of Blue Danube Wine Co. Paprikas Csirke photo owned by the Domestic Man.
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