Just when daydreams of summer sailing, bathing in the crystal waters of the Adriatic Sea, and feasting on fresh fish in a favorite island café seem within reach, Saveur magazine has devoted its entire April 2014 issue (#164) to seafood, with seven full-color, mouth-watering pages about Croatia’s coastal food and wine culture.
By Cliff Rames
“The food is just so scrumptious, which is why I usually come here,” said a smartly-dressed woman to her companion just outside the nicely-appointed yet easily-to-miss building on W. 12th Street in New York City.
“As for wine…I don’t know much. Croatian wines? Oh, I don’t know anything about them.” She paused a moment, skeptical but searching for reinforcements. “I heard they are fruity. But let’s see….”
With those words I followed them through the door into the warmly-lit hall of one of the most sacred monuments to fine dining – a shrine to every serious Foodie: the James Beard House. Inside, Croatian winemaker Ivica Matošević was about to be honored.
“Mystical Malvazija” was the name given to the October 14, 2011 dinner event that paid homage to Mr. Matošević and his success and skill as one of Croatia’s leading producers of Malvazija Istarska, or Malvasia Istriana. Malvazija is the principle indigenous white grape variety in the Istria region of north coastal Croatia.
It was my first-time ever inside the James Beard Foundation, whose mission is “to celebrate, nurture, and preserve America’s diverse culinary heritage and future.”
Needless to say, I was very excited to experience what it would be like to dine in this acclaimed restaurant and be part of an historic occasion: the first-ever presentation of Croatian wines at the James Beard House.
The fact that all 76 seats at the dinner sold-out was no surprise. What I found even more curious was the diverse array of guests in attendance. This was not the same crowd I typically run into at food and wine events. I recognized almost no one. Most guests had purchased tickets based on the merit of the Foundation’s reputation and had come to dine on fine food and – along the way – to discover Croatian wine.
This posed somewhat of a challenge to Mr. Matošević: It would be his job to introduce everyone to Croatian wines, to the wines of the Istria region, and to the Malvazija grape. More importantly, he needed to impress them and win them over.
The evening began in the downstairs reception area with hors d’oeuvre: Foie Gras Pâté with Apples on Brioche; Duck Cracklings with Sunchoke Velouté and Sage, Uni, Lardo, and Soybeans on Focaccia; Fried Oysters with Lemon Aïoli, Caviar, and Dill; Roasted Pumpkin, Camembert, and Rosemary on Sourdough Crostini. To quench the thirst of the arriving guests and wash down the finger foods was the Matošević 2009 Alba Malvazija, a fresh, clean and highly-quaffable wine with discreet floral, citrus and almonds notes.
After the reception, we moved to the upstairs dining room. There, after the formal welcome and introductions, Mr. Matošević addressed the guests and spoke of the diverse influences that have over the years shaped the Istria region and Croatia’s food and wine culture.
“My grandfather was born in Austria”, he explained with a coy smile. “My father was born in Italy. I was born in Yugoslavia, and my son was born in Croatia. And in all this time, we never left our house!”
The room burst into laughter at his allusion to the historical changes that Croatia experienced over many generations. As I figured, Ivica Matošević had no trouble winning over the crowd. Not only does he make great wine, he is smart, intense, yet very charming. He also happens to speak English pretty well. After a few words and personal visits to each table, the ice was broken.
Dinner was stunning. The 5-course menu, prepared by Chef Gregory Elliott of Lockwood Restaurant & Bar at the Palmer House Hilton/Chicago, began with Hamachi Crudo with Asian Pear, Pickled Cauliflower, and Fresno Chili, paired with Matošević Alba Robinia Malvasia 2006, a spicy and smooth Malvazija that was aged for 12 months in acacia wood barrels.
For the second course we were treated to Olive Oil–Poached Chatham Day Boat Cod with Linguiça Sausage, Smoked Fingerling Potatoes, Cavolo Nero, and Clam Vinaigrette. The cod, potatoes and cavolo nero (aka black leaf kale) worked wonderfully with the Matošević Alba Barrique Malvasia 2009. However, the spiciness of the Linguiça overwhelmed the wine.
The third course featured Becker Lane Organic Farm Pork Roulade with Autumn Heirloom Squash, Porcinis, and Cranberry Beans. The zippy crispness of the Matošević Grimalda White 2008 (a blend of Malvazija, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc) cut through the autumn flavors of this dish and cleansed the palate in preparation for each succulent bite.
The Cervena Venison Loin with Celery Root, Concord Grapes, and Thyme, paired with Matošević Grimalda 2008 Red, was an interesting, strongly-flavored dish that the red Grimalda (a blend of Merlot and Teran) stood up to and complimented. The only distraction was the Concord grape reduction, which was a little too grapey, sweet and fruity for the wine.
Mr. Matošević threw in an extra, “surprise” wine with this course: the Matošević Alba 2008 Antica Malvasia, a skin-macerated, French oak and acacia-aged (30 months) delight. Honestly, I don’t know how well the Antica paired with the venison course. This wine was so exquisite that I enjoyed it simply by itself, in deep contemplation and revelry. Well done, sir!
Dessert was almost too pretty to eat: Canalés de Bordeaux with Black Mission Figs and Port Wine paired with Matošević 2000 Alba Divina. Divina is a sweet Malvazija that Matošević produces by hanging late-harvested Malvazija grapes hung to dry on lines of rope tied to the rafters in his winery’s attic. The grapes for the 2000 Divina spent 6 months (from September till March) drying before being pressed and fermented.
While the richness of the canales and wine were occasionally a bit overwhelming, it didn’t stop me from eating every bite. This was magical and not to be missed.
After dinner there was a brief ceremony in which representatives of the James Beard Foundation presented Chef Elliott and Mr. Matošević with a certificate to acknowledge their participation in the event. Chef Elliott then spoke of his motivation behind the event and how he first tasted Matošević wines, thanks to Lockwood’s general manager, Sasa Sinanagic.
Mr. Matošević also took a moment to thank Mr. Sinanagic and the extraordinary work he undertook to introduce Chef Elliott to the wines, plan the menu, and organize and execute the James Beard event. Seeing Mr. Sinanagic in action in New York, it is clear that the Lockwood restaurant is in very capable hands.
Later in the kitchen as the guests were leaving, I had a moment to chat with Chef Elliott. I asked why he chose Matošević wines to showcase his cuisine at the James Beard House.
“These wines are not fussy,” he answered. “They are very food friendly and delicious. For this reason, these wines make it very easy for a chef to pair with a menu.”
My overstuffed belly could not agree more.
(For more photos, please see our Facebook page.)
Text and photos (unless otherwise noted) Copyright © Cliff Rames
In Part 2 of this 3-part report, we went inside the festival to explore the venue, meet the VIP guests, and hear about the round table workshop. In Part 3, we provide some general observations about the wines, offer some “names to watch out for”, and mourn a missed opportunity to leave the festival in style. Živjeli!
[Note: The views presented here are strictly my own and are in no way intended to reflect the views of the festival organizers or its sponsors and partners]
Let me begin by saying, two days was not enough time to taste everything, even if it were not for the crowds and the less-than-ideal tasting conditions. Perhaps the organizers would consider extending the festival by one day next year? Just an idea….
Based on what I succeeded in tasting (see special note below), it was clear the quality of Croatian wines continues to rise. While a few of clunkers could be found here and there, a greater number of delicious treasures could be discovered and enjoyed at nearly every table. Overall the wines were well-made, full of character, expressive of a unique terroir, and very drinkable.
It was also great to see so many of the well-established, bigger wineries investing in new winery technology, newly designed packaging, and updated marketing strategies – thereby demonstrating an understanding that they cannot rest on their laurels if they are to survive in the current market environment.Agrokor Vina, a conglomerate that owns several wineries and nearly 1,700 hectares of vineyards, has recently invested heavily in redefining its brands and market presence. The results are now in bottle: many of their brands are very approachable, value-driven, quality wines with attractive packages offered at affordable prices. This could easily propel Agrokor to the lead as a producer of competitive, value-driven gateway wines, especially for the export market.
Not to be outdone, many of the traditional industry-leaders and well-established wineries have stepped up their games, becoming more active with social media, introducing new wines and labels, and taking steps to ready themselves for the international market.
These key players include: Krauthaker (the man who put premium Graševina on the map and whose TBA Graševina landed a much-celebrated place on the wine list of Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck in London)….
Matosevic (watch out for his new “Grimalda” wines, a red “Super Istrian” blend and a white Malvazija/Chardonnay/Sauvignon Blanc blend); Kutjevacki Podrum (their “De Gotho Aureus” 2009 Chardonnay just took the silver medal at the 2011 Chardonnay Du Monde competition in France)….
Then there’s: Bura-Mokalo (this dynamic duo of a brother/sister winemaking team are the early pioneers of “cult” Plavac Mali wines; watch out for a new Zinfandel release this year); BIBICh (his new limestone “kamenica”-fermented, long-macerated Debit may take the orange wine category to new heights)….
Caric (produces a lovely, fresh, seafood-friendly white from Bogdanuša, an indigenous variety native to Hvar island; also produces an interesting Beaujolais-style young Plavac Mali called “Novello”; just introduced some very cool new labels too!); and Zlatan Otok (their first-ever commercial production of Crljenak Kašelanski has been scoring very well and is making history as the first-ever commercial production of the “original Zinfandel”).
Even more exciting was to see a new generation of rising-star winemakers who are truly making names for themselves with wines that are clean, well-made, expressive of place, and cleverly and attractively packaged.
Names that come to mind as examples in this category are: Dimitri Brečević (his “Piquentum” Teran and Malvazija wines from Istria are generating a lot of excitement); and Benvenuti (making some very impressive sweet wines from Malvazija Istriana and Muscat of Momjan under the “San Salvatore” label).
Then there’s: Marko Gerzinic (noted for his beautiful stainless-steel fermented Teran and consistently good Malvazija); Franco Radovan (his young Malvazija wine is incredibly pure and fresh; cute label too!)…
Bruno Trapan (with cigar in hand, this young upstart winemaker has rocked the domestic wine scene with a number of recent awards and high scores, especially for his macerated and mature Malvazija wine, “Uroboros”; he recently opened a brand new winery and tasting room in the style of a train depot, called “Wine Station Trapan”)….
Watch out for the “other” white wine of Korčula island (more commonly known for the Pošip grape), made from the indigenous Grk variety (producers Cebalo and Bire are pioneers of Grk wine and are working hard to revive interest in the grape and the quality of the wines); and Grabovac (one of the only producers of sparkling wine in the Dalmatia region, Grabovac is noted for their unique wines made from Kujundžuša and Trnjak – two obscure native grape varieties from the Dalmatian hinterland).
Other names to watch out for: Roxanich (a winery with a rockin’ name, owner Mladen Rožanić is considered the father of the “Super Istrian” red blend; he also makes a wonderful extended skin maceration, wood-aged “Antica” Malvazija that is almost an orange wine;); Moreno Coronica (his ’07 “Gran Teran” is a profound expression of Istria’s native son red grape); Velimir Korak (making elegant Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in the cool Plešivica region); Boris Drenški “Bodren” (for award-winning TBA and ice wines)…
Giorgio Clai (an organic/biodynamic winemaker who produces somewhat inconsistent yet fascinating, terroir-driven wines); Moreno DeGrassi (his “Terre Bianche” blend of Malvazija, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier was the fan favorite at the Gala Dinner).
More names to watch: Leo Gracin (“the Professor”; a consultant and winemaking pioneer of the indigenous Babić red variety of northern Dalmatia; his 2008 vintage was another favorite of Decanter’s Sarah Kemp); Frano Milos (long considered a “traditionalist” among Plavac Mali producers, the increasing involvement of his very attractive, twenty-something son and daughter in his marketing and social media activities has injected new energy into his brand; his “Stagnum” Plavac Mali is a cult favorite)….
Luka Krajančić (his Pošip “Intrada” and “Sur Lie” is taking the native Pošip white grape from Korčula island to a whole new level; world class juice!)….
Finally, there’s Saints Hills , whose “Nevina” and “Dingač” wines are well on their way to achieving cult status (Ernest Tolj’s winery now stands poised to release a new and exciting Plavac Mali rosé this spring, “St. Heels” with a sexy, craftily cheeky and irreverent label depicting a pair of women’s high heel shoes. We also eagerly await the first-ever vintage  Plavac Mali wine from the new “St. Roko” vineyard at Komarna).
[Special Note: To all the winemakers I didn’t meet, I’m sorry! It was impossible to make it to every table, and my selection of who to visit was completely random, subject to the surges of the crowd, and dependent upon how much time I had between meetings in the café. I didn’t mean to miss this opportunity to meet you and taste your wines. For what it’s worth, I am very aware of whom I missed, and I hope to one day have another chance to visit you and taste your wines.]
Okay, how can I put this diplomatically….? I spent most of the time at ZWGF starving.
Starving is an odd way to pass the time at a festival that touts the word “gourmet” in its title. The fact is, there was very little to eat, at least I couldn’t find much. Yes, there were the 16 food vendors with their tooth-pick-harpooned nibbles and bites, and the 15 Kuna sandwiches at the café bar….But it was the “gourmet” part that I needed – and was so sadly missing.
Okay, yes – there was the cooking demonstration tent. A couple of us, lured by the scrumptious aromas coming from within, tried unsuccessfully to grab a plate or two of the gourmet dishes prepared by guest chefs. These small plates were randomly handed out to lucky mouths in the audience (the system for receiving one of these tasty-looking offerings seemed to entail being in the right place at the right time) – but not to us.
Mouths watering and defeated, we went to the information booth to ask about our dining options in the vicinity. The friendly (English-speaking)information desk girl told us to go to the shopping center across the highway, where (we were told) there were surely some fast food places….
Having learned my lesson, the next morning I really filled-up at the breakfast buffet in the Westin Zagreb hotel. For an inclusive hotel breakfast, it was really quite an extensive and satiating spread.
It was not until the festival was over that I realized my greatest disappointment of the trip: I had missed “the Slide”.
The Slide? Is it an art exhibit? A secret restaurant?
Nope. It’s a huge metal tube that corkscrews all the way through the center of the Museum of Contemporary Art Zagreb, traveling down from the 4th floor to street level. Given the opportunity, a person could slip into the shiny tube and slide all the way down to the bottom, where he/she would be spit out onto the sidewalk outside the museum. The slide looks like this:
Riding that slide down and out would have been the grandest and most memorable exit from any wine festival ever, anywhere, anytime! Period.
Maybe the museum is not such a bad venue after all. Maybe the organizers will decide to hold ZWGF there next year.
The crowds? Who cares! The hunger? Never mind!
A good whirl on that giant silver slide would have made all of those things just a second thought…a pesky inconvenience…the price of greatness!
In fact it should be mandatory. Everyone should be asked to leave the festival on the slide. What a hoot that would be!
In a recent article for Wine Spectator, Matt Kramer wrote that “terroir” is no longer enough to sell wine; most wine regions today hold some claim or another to terroir. What we need more of (writes Kramer) is “narrative”. The question then becomes, what “stories” do the wines or wine-producing regions have to tell?
As silly as it may seem, I mention the slide here because (for me) it suddenly became such a wonderful component of Croatia’s somewhat quirky and complex wine story – a memorable detail that sets ZWGF apart from many other wine expos and festivals.
Despite a few minor glitches and lessons learned, ZWGF demonstrated that Croatian wine producers are ready and able to join hands with the world of wine and take the plunge into the future. While the journey has just begun, the twisting way forward – if smartly navigated with poise and passion – promises to be a lip-smacking, exhilarating ride.
Text and photos (unless otherwise noted) Copyright © Cliff RamesIn Part I of this 3-part report, we offered some insights into the story behind the festival’s organization, shared details about the yummy opening Gala Dinner, and revealed who was the winner of the Wine of the Year. In Part 2, we go inside the festival to explore the venue, meet the VIP guests, and hear about the round table workshop….Enjoy!
[Note: The views presented here are strictly my own and are in no way intended to reflect the views of the festival organizers or its sponsors and partners]
Okay, I know: It was too crowded. Too packed. Too small. Too hot and noisy. All those dead-end alleys stuffed with herds of winos, unable to move or escape. Winemakers unable to hear or speak with the guests; sometimes unable to access their stock of fresh bottles when faced with empties; unable to retreat to the bathroom…..
And yes, the coat room would completely filled-up by noon, forcing many guests to carry their heavy winter coats (it was cold in Zagreb!), scarves and bags around the tasting room floor.
And the last shuttle bus of the festival, in the cold night after a long day of tasting, apparently never showed up – forcing several guests (including me) to chase down taxis back to the hotel….
It’s all been said already.
But let me add this nugget: The festival was a victim of its own success.
The Museum of Contemporary Art Zagreb, where the festival was held, is a lovely facility that was barely adequate to accommodate the crowd that turned out to discover the wines within. Interest was obviously high, and it seems likely that the organizers underestimated the potential number of attendees. While open to the public, tickets were not cheap (150 Kuna, or about $30 – a lot of money for many Croatians), thereby screening out many (although not all) individuals who might otherwise see the event as a great way to have a drinking party with pals and buddies. Nonetheless, hundreds of people paid the money in exchange for a chance to taste some awesome juice and meet the faces behind the labels.
A recommendation for next year: Reserve 2-3 hours in the morning exclusively for accredited members of the trade and media to walk through, taste, chat with winemakers, and network with like-minded peers without the throng of public attendees (who could be admitted afterwards). Many tastings and expos I have attended over the years are organized in this fashion. It seems to work well.
To their credit, the organizers DID on the first day try to offer a solution by scheduling a 3-hour “by invitation only workshop” for “foreign wine journalists and wine buyers”. I was invited but honestly forgot about it in the swirl of activity and meetings. I also wonder who attended it, since most of the action and winemakers were out on the public floor.
The Café Bar
A refuge from the sensory overload and crushing grind of the tasting hall was the museum’s little café bar, a quiet place where exhausted refugees huddled to recharge their palates by drinking coffee, sparkling water – and beer. The little café was also a popular spot to hold business meetings (I had about 6 of them there), as well as a reliable source of fast, cheap eats in the form of sandwiches at 15 Kuna each (more about the general food situation in Part 3).
The VIP Guests
Each year the ZWGF seems to become a little bit less insulated and more outward focused. And that’s a great thing, as Croatia is an exciting emerging winemaking country that should be blowing its trumpets and utilizing all its tools and resources to draw attention to its fabulous winemaking history and culture.
This year was especially exciting, as the guest list included many interesting and important VIPs from the international wine trade and media. Among the VIP guests were Sarah Kemp and Christelle Guibert, respectively the Publishing Editor and the Tasting Editor from Decanter magazine; Gabriella and Ryan Opaz, founders of Catavino and the European Wine Bloggers Conference; Peter Moser, Editor-in-Chief of Falstaff; Dr. Josef Schuller, Master of Wine; Lynne Sherriff, Master of Wine and Chairwoman of the Institute of Masters of Wine; and Nicolas Joly, legendary French winemaker and current godfather of the biodynamic movement, who conducted a fascinating seminar called “Biodynamics in Wine Growing”.
[One note for the record: Somewhere in the official ZWGF press materials and program booklet, I am listed as “Master Sommelier”. I am NOT a Master Sommelier but rather a “Certified Sommelier”. Out of reverent respect for the brilliant and hard-won achievements of real Master Sommeliers, my conscious demanded that I make this correction. I am, however, a master at consuming large amounts of wine; a master of procrastination; and master at a few other nasty habits. Yet a Master Sommelier I am not – but I hope to become one when I grow up.]
The Round Table Workshop
Another really interesting event at the festival was the Round Table Workshop, scheduled for the morning of Friday, February 25th. Unfortunately, the space for the workshop was again inadequate for the large number of people in attendance. It was also very noisy (one side wall was open and funneled all the noise from the main tasting hall into the workshop room). I found out afterwards that a number of people in the rear of the room could not hear the presenters, despite attempts to use a microphone, and left in frustration.
That is a pity, because the subject of the round table – “Perspective and real Potential of Croatian Wine and Wine Tourism” – was very important and interesting. Presenters included an eclectic mix of trade professionals: Saša Špiranec, Croatian wine reviewer and writer, gave an overview of Croatia’s wine regions, annual production, and grape varieties; Sarah Kemp provided perspective on the world of wine and how Croatia could become a player on the international market; Mr. Tony Hodges, Chairman of the London-based P.R. firm, brandstory, spoke of the power of storytelling in marketing; Duro Horvat, Managing Director for Agrokor (one of Croatia’s largest wineries), and winemaker Ivica Matošević provided some perspective from the viewpoints of their respective large and small wineries; Mr. Matošević also spoke of his marketing success as president of the Association of Winegrowers and Winemakers of Istria, Vinistra; and Ryan Opaz from Catavino spoke about the importance of social media in the wine trade.
The subject of my piece of the round table presentation was entitled, “The Openness of the U.S. Market to New Wine Regions” – like Croatia. You can watch a video of my presentation here on YouTube.
According to the ZWGF website, the festival featured over 130 exhibitors and included “crème de la crème” among Croatian wine and culinary stars (the official ZWGF roster included 76 Croatian wineries).
Over 500 wines from eight Croatian wine-growing regions were presented, as well as a selection of wines from Austria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Germany, Italy, Montenegro, New Zealand, Slovenia, and South Africa.
In addition, about 16 vendors of food products and delicacies were among the exhibitors. From them I was able to secure a few slivers of prosciutto and salami when I was starving (which was always), washing them down with a cube or two of bread dipped in olive oil.
Next: The wines….
End of Part 2. Part 3 will follow very soon. Stay tuned!
Text & Photos (unless otherwise noted) Copyright © Cliff Rames
Much has already been written and posted about the 35th Annual Zagreb Wine Gourmet Festival (ZWGF), held February 24-25 in Zagreb, Croatia, but a little more attention for such an important and well-attended event can’t hurt. So, without further adieu, and recognizing that the window for timely discourse is quickly closing, here are a few short observations from the ZWGF, presented here for posterity and – hopefully – your enjoyment.
[In full disclosure, I must state here that the organizers of ZWGF funded my trip to Zagreb. In return, I agreed to be a presenter at a round table discussion regarding the international potential and marketing of Croatian wines (see below). The views presented here are strictly my own and are in no way intended to reflect the views of the festival organizers or its sponsors and partners].
The Organizers & Sponsors
At several points during the two days I spent at ZWGF, I unexpectedly found myself being asked by a number of guests to explain who had organized the event.
Apparently, this question was the catalyst of some minor confusion, which I suppose is understandable, since most of these guests were non-Croatian speakers who had only recently touched down in Zagreb for the first time. Since many of them knew me as the chap behind Wines of Croatia, and ZWGF was clearly not a “Wines of Croatia” event, then the question of who did organize ZWGF was somewhat reasonable.
So, here’s the story: ZWGF was sponsored by a consortium of public/private partners, some of which were government ministries and agencies, along with a few private corporations.
To their credit, the organizers DID print a list of the sponsors and partners on the back cover of the official ZWGF program booklet. The primary sponsors included: The Croatian Ministry of Tourism; the Ministry of Agriculture; the City of Zagreb; the Tourist Office of the City of Zagreb; the Croatian National Tourism Board; Privredna Banka Zagreb; PBZ Card – American Express; and Generali Insurance. Media sponsors were Gloria and Jutarnji List. More information can be gathered at the festival’s website.
As for the grueling work of actually organizing such a monumental event, that job went to Laniva d.o.o. “1001 delicija” and in particular, the dynamic duo of Ingrid Badurina Danielssson and Irina Ban, who also received assistance from sommelier Željko Bročilović Carlos. Without doubt, the task of organizing such a large event was surely enormous.
While there were a few minor glitches and complaints to be found here and there, in general the event was well executed and presented. The sheer number of Croatian winemakers, wines, international guests, break-out sessions, and visitors could have easily overwhelmed a less capable team. Bravo to you, Ingrid, Irina and Željko!
The Gala Dinner
To celebrate the official start of the festival, about 200 invited guests gathered on the evening of February 24, 2011 in one of the stunning ballrooms on the 17th floor of the Westin Zagreb hotel for the Gala Dinner. Large glass windows provided us a bird’s eye view over the Zagreb skyline and added to the festive spirit of the occasion, and the selection of amuse-bouche appetizers prepared by Chef Deniz Zembo of Le Mandrać restaurant set the stage for a an evening of culinary exploration and delight.
The 5-course dinner was a classy, delicious affair full with delicacies and dishes prepared by a stellar team of chefs from Croatia, Slovenia, Italy, France (via the French Mission to the International Organizations, Vienna), and Sweden, each presenting one of the courses.
The detailed list of chefs and the full menu with wines are available here.
My favorite dish of the night was the “Stracotto” of Boškarin Beef with a potato and truffle cream, served with a whole salted, roast onion. This fabulous dish was prepared by Chef Robert Perić of LF Catering in Pula, Croatia, and was notable for two reasons:
1) Boškarin beef is an ancient, protected breed of ox native to the Istria region of Croatia. The animal is marked by long, lyre-shaped white horns and a huge, thick neck. Once a beast of burden used to pull plows, modernized farming and an impure gene-pool nearly drove the ox to extinction (in 1994, there were only 112 remaining animals). Luckily, swift action by an alliance of Istrian cattle breeders and government agencies saved the Boškarin, and the ox is making a comeback as an indigenous agro-tourism curiosity and source of flavorful, “slow food” meat from animals raised on mother’s milk and Istrian meadow grass.
2) The whole salted roast onion (see photo above). What a curious creation! The onion was roasted in its skin, dusted with a crackle of sea salt, and served with the skins still attached. It was the most unusual, profoundly scrumptious thing that I tasted in recent memory.
The ONE criticism of the night (and I am not the only one who was disturbed by this fact) is this: Only three of the six wines that were paired with the appetizer and 5-course dinner were from Croatia. The other three were Italian.
Being the certified wine hound that I am, I normally would not mind being served a little Franciacorta sparkling wine or Italian red with dinner, and the Italian selections were certainly tasty.
But here’s the issue: This was the Gala Dinner for the Zagreb Wine Gourmet Festival, attended by some of Croatia’s most important winemakers, members of the government, President Josipović (see below), and – more importantly – international VIP guests who were there to discover what all the chatter about wines from Croatia is about. Yet there they were, being served Italian Chardonnay with the artichoke and scampi risotto, and (gasp!) Feudo Antico-Abruzzo rosso with the proudly Istrian Boškarin beef entreé (instead of, let’s say, a nice Istrian Teran).
Forgive me, but really – it should have been an all Croatian wine line-up. Why so many worthy Croatian wines were passed over for the wine pairing in favor of Italian wines, we’ll probably never know. But it’s missteps like this that make the difficult job of promoting Croatian wines in the world even harder. To make others believe that Croatian wines are fabulous and worth seeking out, we Croatians have to believe it first – and shout it from the mountain tops at every opportunity!
Thankfully, my stellar line-up of companions at Table #3 distracted me from dwelling too long on this missed opportunity to showcase Croatian wines with world-class cuisine. “Thank you” to Ivica Matošević, Moreno DeGrassi, Frank Dietrich, Stetson Robbins, Daniel Pedisich, Dee Radovich, and Siniša Škaberna for being such great dinner companions! It was a blast!
At one point during the dinner reception, there was a commotion in the room, and I turned to see Croatian president Ivo Josipović standing about two meters away from me, with a flute of Franciacorta poised in hand.
Having never met the president before, it seemed like a good time to thank him for his symbolic support of initiatives by Croatian winemakers to garner government funding for wine marketing activities.
Disregarding any obvious or implied protocol, I began the difficult task of elbowing my way over to him, smiling at a few security agents on the way. The president (I noticed) was being chaperoned by the indomitable Ingrid Badurina, who (happily for me) noticed that I was circling about, vying for the president’s attention; she halted him with a tug on the elbow and introduced me (thank you, Ingrid!).
It was obvious that the president’s mind was a million miles away, occupied with complex Affairs of the State – or perhaps a particularly lifting refrain from some distant piano concerto (he’s a classically trained pianist and composer). I quickly spit out a few words to draw his attention to the herculean task of promoting Croatian wines in the world. He nodded and smiled, murmured a few words of understanding and support, took my card, glanced at it, and stuck it in his pocket. Then in a blur he was whisked away by another guest (who surely needed to advise him on more urgent matters of the homeland).
So it goes.
Wine of the Year
The gala dinner program included a number of small side events, one of which was the announcement and presentation of the “Wine of the Year”. This year’s award went to the Tomić 2007 Plavac Mali “barrique”, a red wine made by winemaker Andro Tomić, whose vineyards and winery are on the southern Dalmatian island of Hvar.
End of Part 1. Part 2 will follow very soon. Stay tuned!