An American Master Sommelier in Croatia

An exclusive interview with Fred Dexheimer, MS

In September 2015, Fred Dexheimer, one of only 230 Master Sommeliers in the world, visited Croatia and spent four days touring the Dalmatia and Istria wine regions. Wines of Croatia recently caught up with Fred (who moves very fast!) for an exclusive interview, in which he reveals his impressions of the trip and expert opinions on the wines he tasted.

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Wine Wanderlust: 7 Tour Operators in Croatia

Text and photos by Cliff Rames © 2015

It’s inevitable this time of year. Suddenly you notice passenger planes and the drift of jet trails among the clouds. You linger a bit longer than usual in daydreams. Bird songs awaken dormant desires to let loose and fly. You pine; an unsettled, almost haunting feeling settles in your breast. Call it an itchiness of the soul. You sense subliminal messages embedded in the whispers of warm breezes, summoning you: Go, they say. Make plans. Travel!

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Paul McCartney once sang of this condition: “Light out, wanderlust…help us to be free…light out, wanderlust…head us out to sea…what better time to find a brand new day…oh, wanderlust away…”

And just as dandelions and pollen are harbingers of the season, so too are the numerous emails that arrive in my mailbox, sent by intrepid people bitten by the wanderlust bug. Any recommendations for winery visits, they ask. Best wine regions to explore in Croatia? Suggestions for wine tour operators?

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USA Today: The #5 “Best Wine Region to Visit” is Croatia

(Photo: Copyright © Cliff Rames)
(Photo: Copyright © Cliff Rames)

Okay, we already knew it. Anthony Bourdain discovered it (literally, he fell off his chair in wine-fueled amazement). And now the readers of USA Today have confirmed it: the wine-growing regions of Croatia are awesome – among the best in the world.

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Answers to Frequently Asked Questions about Wines of Croatia

From time to time, questions arise: What is the mission of Wines of Croatia? Who is behind the name and logo? What are its goals and future objectives? Does Wines of Croatia sell wine?

Often it is easiest to simply push ahead with business as usual and grow blind to the need for periodic adjustment of course, to the value of connecting with friends and supporters, and the necessity to ensure that the message is resonating with the right people in the right way.

I think you will agree, lately things have been pretty exciting. Last summer (in June 2011) we had the first-ever Grand Tasting of the Wines of Croatia in New York City, a successful event attended by over 200 U.S. wine professionals.

Grand Tasting, NYC, June 2011 w/ Fred Dexheimer MS (r)

Then in September, one of the most important wine magazines in the United States, Wine Enthusiast, published a 10-page color feature about Croatia and its wines. Then in February 2012, Jody Ness broadcast a series of episodes entitled “Croatia Calling” on his Wine Portfolio program.

Jody Ness in Croatia (image courtesy of Croatia.hr)

This year, the spring kicked off with a series of wonderful wine festivals: first the Zagreb Wine Gourmet Weekend and then the Dalmatia Wine Expo, both in April, followed by Vinistra, which kicks off this weekend in Poreč. A few weeks ago, Anthony Bourdain launched Season 8 of his wildly popular No Reservations TV program on the Travel Channel with an episode from Croatia.

Anthony Bourdain in Croatia (Photo courtesy of the Travel Channel)

With so much buzz about Croatian wines and the increasing responsibility I feel to work harder to better represent and promote Croatia, its wines and wine lifestyle, I decided that the time is right to take a moment to reassess and clarify Wines of Croatia’s mission and address a few of the questions I sometimes get asked. Much of what is covered in this post will also appear on the About Us and Mission pages on this blog and will shortly be available on the Wines of Croatia website.

I hope you find this post informative and interesting. Cheers!

Sincerely,

Cliff Rames, Founder, Wines of Croatia

1. Who is behind Wines of Croatia?

Wines of Croatia was founded in 2007 by Cliff Rames, an American of Croatian descent who is a Certified Sommelier and Certified Specialist of Wine. Cliff administers the Wines of Croatia Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest pages, as well as writes for and manages this blog. When he is not spending his time at the helm of Wines of Croatia, Cliff serves as sommelier for the Caudalie Vinotheralie Spa at the world-famous Plaza Hotel in New York City. He also loves to spend time with his cockapoo (and Wines of Croatia mascot), Smokie.

Smokie!
Cliff Rames

2. What is Wines of Croatia?

Wines of Croatia is an independent, privately-funded, and increasingly membership-driven organization that supports, coordinates, initiates and/or conducts ongoing educational and promotional activities and events that raise awareness, expand appreciation and consequently increase demand for quality Croatian wine in the U.S., U.K. and other key international markets.

Wines of Croatia is the first and leading organization that promotes Croatian wines and the producers that make them, the wine regions wine roads that showcase their vineyards, the native grapes that give up their juice for us, the importers and distributors that enable the wines to reach our tables, and the wine tourism opportunities and agents that wait to welcome us to Croatia.

For more information, please refer to our Mission Statement.

3.  Where is Wines of Croatia located or based?

Wines of Croatia is based in New York City. However, our mission and vision is global and focused on key markets where Croatian wines are in demand by consumers, imported and distributed by private businesses, and sold in retail shops and restaurants. We are in close contact with many Croatian wineries and other wines professionals in Croatia and internationally. Our friends and supporters come from all around the globe and many walks of life. One of the many beauties of wine is that it unites people. Our doors are open to anyone who shares our love and passion for Croatia’s wonderful wines, winemakers and wine regions!

Meet the Winemakers of Croatia tasting, Oak Room at the Plaza, NYC, Nov. 2010

4. Is Wines of Croatia a government agency?

No. Wines of Croatia is an independent, privately-funded, and increasingly membership-driven organization. It is not affiliated with or sponsored by any government agency.

5. Does Wines of Croatia import or sell wine?

No. Wines of Croatia does not directly engage in importation, distribution, wholesaling or the retail sale of wine. However, we work closely with many of these businesses, and we would be happy to advise you where you can purchase Croatian wines in your neighborhood.

6. How does Wines of Croatia fund/sustain itself?

Great question! You may have noticed that there is no advertising on this blog or our website. Whether or not this will change in the future is currently under examination. The harsh reality is, no matter how much we love the wines, it requires quite a lot of time, resources and support to operate as an effective and credible organization and to continue serving as a reliable source of timely information, news, data, and events.

Until now, Wines of Croatia has been self-funded through private resources, mainly provided by Cliff Rames with some help from a couple of generous individuals. U.S.importers such as Blue Danube Wine Company, Oenocentric, Dalmata and VinumUSA have periodically and graciously supplied wine samples. The Croatian National Tourism Board and the Croatian Chamber of the Economy have also provided airfare and lodging support for a few trips by Cliff Rames to visit wineries and wine expos in Croatia.  The Chamber of Economy also provided financial backing for last year’s Grand Tasting in New York City, for which we are sincerely grateful.

From time to time we also offer certain quality items for sale. Sales of these items help to offset some of Wines of Croatia’s operating expenses. Currently on eBay we are offering a video called Croatian Wine Story, which is now on sale for $15. Please check this link for more info or to purchase your copy.

Looking ahead, the challenge of sustainability is an issue we must address. That is why we are planning to create a membership program, and we invite wineries, wine-related businesses, importers, distributors, retailers, restaurants and individual advocates to become members of Wine of Croatia in return for ongoing advocacy and promotion activities. Other options are also being considered, such as advertising, premium content subscriptions, and donations. Individuals or businesses that wish to become a member may contact us via email at info@winesofcroatia.com.

7. When will the Wines of Croatia website be finished?

Now that a new sustainability concept is in place, work on the website will resume. We project that much of the work will be completed in 2012. As new members come on board, content relevant to the members will proportionately expand.

8. Can Wines of Croatia make winery visit arrangements for me or develop an itinerary for my wine tour to Croatia?

Yes, but for a fee. Please contact Cliff Rames at crames@winesofcroatia.com for a consultation.

9. I am interested in importing Croatian wines. Can Wines of Croatia suggest some wineries that may be interested in having an importer?

Yes. Please contact us via email for an exploratory consultation.

10. What is the best way to contact you?

The best way to contact Wines of Croatia is via email at info@winesofcroatia.com.

Wines of Croatia also maintains an integrated social network presence. You may find us and also contact us on Facebook, on Twitter, or via the comments section on this blog.

If there is a question we missed, please don’t hesitate to let us know.

Thank you for your friendship and support! Cheers!!

Anthony Bourdain in Croatia: “Holy S*** That’s Good!”

By Cliff Rames © 2012

”I can’t believe it took me this long….Season 8. It took me to get here. This is f****** awesome.”

Unless you have been hidden away on one of Croatia’s many uninhabited islands (there are over 1,100 of them), by now you have probably heard that Anthony Bourdain of the widely popular Travel Channel TV show, No Reservations, kicked off Season 8 by visiting Croatia.

(Photo courtesy of the Travel Channel)

The episode he filmed in Croatia, called “Coastal Croatia”, was shot over a week’s time back in October 2011 and made its world premier this week on the Travel Channel (Monday, April 23, 2012, 9pm EST).

Reaction to the episode, based on the early buzz and online chatter, has been ecstatic and overwhelmingly positive. Love him or hate him – Bourdain can be a divisive, acerbic personality with a raw, uncensored sense of humor – the “Coastal Croatia” episode is an extremely entertaining, informative, and well-produced piece of travel journalism. It is also quite infectious viewing; I still find myself watching it over and over again. You can too, thanks to the Travel Channel, which now has the full episode online here.

Certainly Anthony Bourdain’s own reactions to his experiences in Croatia fueled much of the elation mirrored by his viewers as we watched him suck on briny oysters and garlicky mussels; hunt for Istrian truffles with “Shotzy the Wonder Dog”; skewer sashimi tuna; gorge himself on shark liver pate, fish tripe and lobster; drizzle “amazing spicy Croatian olive oil”; carve succulent slivers of Paški cheese; savor slow-simmered Skradin risotto; and swirl and swallow several liters of local wine. Often Bourdain could not contain his amazement and surprise, exclaiming over and over again, ”Holy s*** that’s good”.

(Photo courtesy of the Travel Channel)

And over and over again I found myself cheering Bourdain on, perched on the edge of my seat in anticipation of his next move or discovery, and of course wishing I was there too.  🙂

Bourdain is now famous for his often hilarious, sometimes offensive yet always entertaining one-liners. Rather than repeat them here, many of the Bourdainisms from the Croatia episode have already been documented for your enjoyment in this post by Eater.com.

Bourdain’s “Coastal Croatia” travels began in Istria, where he visits Rovinj and Motovun. Our friends at Taste of Croatia have graciously mapped out Bourdain’s itinerary for you here.

In one scene at a seaside restaurant, Konoba Batelina, the wines of Bruno Trapan are on table, clearly being enjoyed by the group. While Bourdain had planned to visit Trapan winery, in the end he had to bypass it due to time restraints. Which is too bad, because Bruno Trapan is quite a rock star among Croatian winemakers and has many admirers at home and abroad. His boundless energy, wild enthusiasm, intense passion and maturing skill as winemaker would have been quite a match for Bourdain. I’m sure having the two of them in the same room would have resulted in a revolution of some sort.  🙂

The Dynamic Duo: Istrian winemaker Bruno Trapan and Dalmatian winemaker Alen Bibich. (photo by Cliff Rames)

The journey then continued to Dalmatia, where Bourdain visits Boškinac hotel and winery on Pag island in central Dalmatia – “an amazing, crazy-ass spot”. There he is treated to Boris Šuljić’s delectable cooking – a multicourse extravaganza that – I know from my own visit there last year – is one of the finest culinary experiences in Croatia. All dishes were paired with Boškinac’s “awesome” wines, which are produced from Šuljić’s vineyards in the fields across from the hotel. I am especially fond of his Gegić, a fresh, salty white wine from the locally indigenous grape of the same name. The Boškinac red blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot is widely considered to be one of the best Bordeaux-style wines in Dalmatia.

Bourdain at Boškinac hotel & winery (photo courtesy of Boris Šuljić)

From Pag, Bourdain traveled to BIBICh winery in Skradin, where, simply put, he seemed to have the time of his life, asking, “Why, oh why, is there so much amazing wine in this country?”

(photo by Cliff Rames)

Not surprising at all. I have visited BIBICh many times over the years and despite my futile efforts to remain faithful to a spit bucket, maintain dignified self control, and sustain a guise of “professionalism”, I have never left sober or unfazed by the man’s charm, incredible hospitality, and deliciously fascinating array of family wines.  🙂

I also regularly recommend BIBICh to travelers in the area, and I have never heard a bad report from anyone who has visited him. Alen BIBICh has always been miles ahead of the game in regard to an understanding of wine tourism, wine marketing, and wine exports (he exports the bulk of his production and was one of the first Croatian wine producers to find success in the United States, where his R6 Riserva red is a best seller).

Often the unsung hero behind BIBICh’s success and ability to please any number of visitors or VIP guests is his wife, Vesna. The woman is a culinary genius, and she possesses a superhero’s ability to whip up on short notice a gourmet tasting menu that is not only delicious but perfectly complements the wine that Alen is pouring. It is simply astounding, and anyone who has ever had the privilege to enjoy some time with Alen, his wines and Vesna’s food pairings will never forget it and may also find him/herself exclaiming, “Holy s*** that’s good!”

One of Vesna Bibich's culinary creations (photo by Cliff Rames)

A few viewers have been asking about the food that Bourdain ate on the show. Many of the dishes are local specialties with recipes that vary by region and village-to-village. You can get some ideas from the Taste of Croatia book by Karen Evenden. Esquire also just posted a recipe for the grilled sardines, and you can view that here. Croatian Cuisine also offers a smart phone app that contains many traditional Dalmatian recipes.

Ante Pižić, the gentleman who prepared the Skradin risotto at BIBICh winery, will not reveal the recipe, saying only that it is a family secret dating back over 200 years. He did however tell me that tradition dictates that only male members of the family can prepare it, and the whole process takes four days, 12 hours of which are spent over a fire, cooking and stirring. The Slow Food movement is a traditional way of life in Croatia.

Skradin risotto

No doubt, Anthony Bourdain No Reservations “Coastal Croatia” is by far one of the best promotional pieces for Croatian tourism, food and wine to emerge in a long time. It is also a perfect example of how smartly done, “hip” marketing can resonate across the globe and lead to practical benefits. Word is, since the episode aired the phones of Croatian wine importers in the U.S. have been ringing off the hook.

To commemorate the occasion, Blue Danube Wine Company tapped into its cellar reserves and released two older vintages of BIBICh wines, the 2004 Sangreal Mertlot and the limited release 2006 Sangreal Syrah. Needless to say, BIBICh wines are now hot, and we are happy to report that Blue Danube just received a new shipment and several new vintages are now available in the U.S. (unfortunately Boškinac wines are not exported at the moment).

Perhaps – and hopefully – this is a tipping point for Croatian wines. Certainly Boris Šuljić and Alen Bibich have gained some well-deserved attention and recognition for their talents. As for the many excellent Croatian winemakers not featured in this program: I firmly believe in the old adage: “A rising tide lifts all boats”….

While No Reservations has generated a lot of buzz and attention for Croatia and its food and wine scene, it would be foolish for any of us to rest our laurels. With his show, Anthony Bourdain has blown open the doors of imagination, of possibility, of opportunity. Now comes the hard work of delivering on the promise and sustaining the momentum….

(Photo courtesy of Alen Bibich)

Yet for now we can certainly bask in the glow and smile, knowing that many more people will soon be discovering Croatian wines and enjoying what we have always known: the wines are great, the winemakers all have great stories, and Croatia is an amazingly beautiful country with a rich food and wine heritage.

In the words of Anthony Bourdain,”this is world class food; this is world class wine; this is world class cheese…. If you haven’t been here yet, you are a fucking idiot”.

And even if you are not an “idiot” or have already been to Croatia, then perhaps – like me – you watched Bourdain as he relished in the marvels and beauties of Croatia and knew one thing for sure: that you must go back as soon as possible!

I have a feeling that the Croatian National Tourism Board was just handed a brand new marketing slogan: “Croatia – Holy S*** That’s Good!”  🙂

(Photo courtesy of the Travel Channel)

Images from the Wine Roads of Croatia #6 – BIBICh

“Palate Paradise”

Tasting room, BIBICh winery, Plastovo, Pirovac-Skradin wine-growing hills, Northern Dalmatia sub-region, Coastal Croatia.

The BIBICh winery tasting room is a “must visit” stop along the wine roads of Croatia. Alen Bibić, proprietor and winemaker, offers customized tasting tours during which guests are treated to perfect pairings of scrumptious local specialties (prepared by Alen’s wife, Vesna, who is a culinary genius) with BIBICh wines especially selected by Alen. It is a magical experience that is highly recommended. In fact, wine blogger Mattie John Bamman, after his recent visit to BIBICh winery, wrote that it was ‘the best culinary experience” of his 5-week press trip.

Also watch for BIBICh winery in the new season of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, scheduled to air in spring 2012. Mr. Bourdain visited Alen a few months ago, indulged in the tasting menu, and reportedly had a blast – some of which (lucky for us!) was captured on camera for the show.  🙂

Wines produced by BIBICh include R7 Riserva (a blend of babić, lasin & plavina); Debit; Debit Lučica; R5 Riserva (a blend of debit, maraština, pošip, pinot gris & chardonnay); G6 Grenache; Sangreal Shiraz; Sangreal Merlot; Harlekin (a blend of syrah, babić, & plavina); and Ambra, a dessert wine made from dried grapes. BIBICh also produces excellent brandies and grappa, extra virgin olive oils, and other local delicacies.

To inquire about visits to BIBICh winery, please contact the winery directly at vinabibich@vip.hr. You can also book a customized tour and tasting through Culinary Croatia.

BIBICh wines are imported to the U.S. by Oenocentric.

Related links:

http://comeforthewine.blogspot.com/2011/10/croatia-series-part-1-bibich.html

http://www.vinologue.net/crush/vina-bibich-the-wines-of-bibich/