Reflections on the 2012 Zagreb Wine Gourmet Weekend – Part II

(Text and photos Cliff Rames © 2012)

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.

Ivo Jeramaz of Grgich Hills conducting a tasting seminar.

Check out this video from the festival, in which David Gates speaks about his impressions of Croatian wines:

 

Highlights

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.

The Wines

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 Štafileo Crljenak 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.

“Happy Man” wine!

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!

Judith ponders the 1963.
Darko too!

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.

Film Screenings

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.

Twitter Tasting

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.

(Photo by Igor Nobilo)

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!

Wines of Croatia: @WinesofCroatia

Blue Danube Wine Company: @BlueDanubeWine

Marcy Gordon: @marcygordon

Richard Jennings: @RJonWine

James Melendez: ‏@JamesTheWineGuy

Taste of Croatia: @TasteofCroatia

Mattie John Bamman: @ravenoustravelr

KimberleyLovato: @kimberleylovato

ZagrebWine Gourmet Weekend: @ZWGW

Goran Zgrablić: @manjada

Conclusion

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!

 

 

Reflections on the 2012 Zagreb Wine Gourmet Weekend – Part I

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.

(photo by Cliff Rames)

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.

(photo by Cliff Rames)
(photo by Cliff Rames)

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.

Frano Miloš (left)

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.

Let the tasting begin! (photo by Cliff Rames)
(photo by Cliff Rames)

The Organizers

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.

Glyptotheque building (photo courtesy of ZWGW)

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.

Masterclass with Ivo Jeramaz of Grgich Hills (photo by Cliff Rames)

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.

(photo by Cliff Rames)

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.

Food

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.

Chocolate!

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.

You?

(to be continued…)

(photo by Cliff Rames)