By Cliff Rames © 2012
Once there was a Big Bang. The resulting release of energy and matter went hurling out into the dark undeveloped universe, where it swirled around aimlessly for a while. Eventually these building blocks organized themselves into neat systems where Life could take root. Order was created. Man was born. Grapevines grew. The hand of Man eventually discovered how to make wine from grapes. An industry arose and prospered. Festivals and expositions unveiled the many ways Man could pay homage to and revel in the magic of wine. Glasses were raised in salute (or is that “salut”?) and song.
In the living yet still nascent system of Croatian wine festivals, three entities eventually emerged as the reigning forces for vinous celebration. Call them the Big Three: Vinistra; the Dalmatia Wine Expo; and the Zagreb Wine Gourmet Weekend.
Founded in 1994 as a platform to showcase the wines from the Istria region of northern coastal Croatia (particularly malvasia istriana), Vinistra is by far the most mature, successful and important wine festival in Croatia. Each year it attracts even greater numbers of international visitors and hundreds of producers (not just from Istria). This year Vinistra will be held May 11-13, 2012 in Porec, Croatia.
The youngest and self-proclaimed “most charming” festival is the Dalmatia Wine Expo. Having just concluded its second annual presentation, the DWE is the only significant wine festival in the Dalmatia region of coastal Croatia, held each April in the lovely seaside town of Makarska. While showcasing a series of seminars, workshops and over 150 producers of wine, olive oil and other delicacies, DWE is (for now) the least “international” of the three events, seemingly more focused on regional participation and raising the standard of quality wine awareness among domestic consumers and home-grown hospitality professionals (which is actually a very good thing, but that’s another subject for another time).
Throughout Croatia a smattering of other smaller, regional wine festivals – such as PosaVina and the Festival Graševine – are equally passionate about presenting their local wines and culinary specialties but none have yet to wield any influence or gain international attraction.
Only four years old, the Zagreb Wine Gourmet Weekend is quickly and forcefully establishing itself as a primary contender for the most “international” and perhaps most important wine festival in Croatia. Not a regional presentation, ZWGW has smartly positioned itself to be the Place where Croatian wines from all wine-producing regions of Croatia can be showcased and put in context alongside quality wines from neighboring countries and better-known regions such as Bordeaux and Napa Valley. The organizers also take great care to invite international journalists, bloggers, and VIP wine professionals from important foreign markets.
This year’s Zagreb Wine Gourmet Weekend was held April 13-15, 2012 and featured over 130 producers of wine, olive oil and other delicacies representing over 200 premium brands. Croatian wineries of course formed the majority of exhibitors, with nearly 70 producers on hand and every Croatian winemaking region represented. Most were pouring their new vintages, although treats could be found on occasion as some winemakers discreetly offered older vintages. Frano Miloš, a poet winemaker from the Pelješac peninsula, made me quiver when he poured me a taste of his 1994 Stagnum Plavac Mali, a wine that beautifully debunked some theories that Plavac Mali is incapable of long-term aging.
Interspersed throughout the tasting halls was an impressive assortment of other regional and international wine producers from countries such as Slovenia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Italy, Austria, France and South Africa. A half dozen or so distributors were also present.
While the brains and brut behind ZWGW is the dynamic team comprised of Dražen Lazić, Festival Director; Tomislav Ricov, Vice President of the Organizing Committee, Ingrid Badurina Danielsson, who was last year’s ZWGW director and has now taken on the role of Director of International Relations, and Irina Ban, International Public Relations Manager.
Official responsibility for the organization went to Digitel Group, a Zagreb-based marketing and communications firm. You can read more about the ZWGW organizers and official partners in this press release.
This year’s event was obviously a massive undertaking and logistical nightmare, and an event of this magnitude is bound to suffer from hiccups and oversights. But in general I give Digitel and their team high marks for a pretty enjoyable festival that was marked by just a few glitches. Most complaints that I heard were – like last year – related to the venue.
The Glyptotheque building of the Academy of Arts and Sciences was an interesting and okay (I think) venue. It is a sprawling old ivy-covered brick building in the upper reaches of the old town in Zagreb, about a 15-minute walk from the city center and Trg bana Josipa Jelačića square. Inside there were many different room on a number of different floors accessible by lots of stairs. At first it was a bit confusing, and I have to admit that I missed some events and tasting rooms because of wrong turns and distractions along the way. But eventually the layout made sense, although I feel that too much time and energy was spent figuring out where to go.
What made things more confusing was that key seminars and workshops were located in an annexed space at an adjacent shopping mall, the Centar Kaptol. As perplexing as it seems, it is true: discussions of terroir and other high-brow wine topics were occurring in shopping mall conference rooms and a movie theater. To get to these events, one had to navigate escalators filled with shoppers, meander past Fossil and other luxury goods outlets, dodge the lady who was enthusiastically spraying passersby with perfume samples, and resist the café bar with the alluring aroma of fresh brewed expresso.
It was a surreal experience. But I eventually accepted it all and took it as a challenge: Find the seminar. Don’t get lost. See what is behind this door, up those stairs, around that corner….I felt like I was on a treasure hunt, and indeed there were many treasures to be found once I learned to navigate the various levels and locations. 🙂
For what it is worth, my only advice for the organizers would be this: If you decide to hold the 2013 ZWGW at this venue (which is a good idea for the sake of consistency and proximity to the city center and hotels), everyone should receive a more detailed map as part of the welcome package. While this year’s packet did include a color-coded map, it was small and didn’t really give me a good sense of the relationship between the different spaces in terms of distances, direction, and importance. For example, it was not until nearly the end of the festival that I found the hall where the specialty food vendors were located (and by then I was already half-starved). And judging by the low attendance at the panel discussions and seminars held in the movie theater, it seems likely many people either could not find them or didn’t know where they were, being so far removed from the tasting room halls.
Overall I liked the Glyptotheque venue. It allowed for good flow of the crowds and a diversity of programming (such as a series of wine-related films in the Centar Kaptol movie theaters). Better maps and directions would help to save critical time and hopefully improve attendance at some of the more off-site events.
Maybe it was me. Perhaps I was too busy, too distracted, a little too overly saturated with wine. But I could not find anything to eat at this so-called “wine gourmet” festival. Yes, there were vendors selling fig cakes and hand-made chocolates and rustic cured meats and sea salt. All great stuff! But I needed some wholesome and hearty sustenance. A burger. Soup. Some fried calamari perhaps. Something to ward off the encroaching effects of too much wine.
This week I attended the Wine Spectator magazine “Grand Tour 2012” gala tasting in New York City, where over 200 of the world’s finest wines were flowing. At the back of the main tasting hall was a large area full with buffet tables: cheeses, prosciutto, braised short ribs, grilled vegetables, gnocchi in a tomato cream truffle sauce, Asian dumplings….You get the picture. Where there is much wine, there must also be much food.
Perhaps hot food vendors should be allowed to set up stands and sell their products at the next ZWGW? Just an idea to consider…. I know I would have happily stopped in between tastings and seminars to pay a few Kunas for a quick bite of something substantive to eat.
(to be continued…)