When I first started selling wines from Croatia and Slovenia nearly four years ago, the myriad of Italian restaurants almost mocked me as I rolled my bag down the streets of New York City. Very often their food and quality of service were just begging to be married with the flavors and level sophistication of the bottles I had on hand. Yet, to get the Sommelier to even consider tasting was nearly impossible. “Sorry, Italian only wine list, no exceptions.” It’s not as if I was trying to pawn some New York State Riesling or Merlot onto their focused and curated list, these were wines that had an equally long tradition in the same regions as everything on their menu and these were the flavors that were meant for their food.
Italy, perhaps more than any other country, embodies a strong sense of regional pride. All 20 regions have held fast to their gastronomic cultures, preserving their distinct styles of wine and food. Over the centuries the regions formed their unique cuisines based on what was available in their land. This is why ingredients like truffles are hallmarks of Piedmonte while a dish like veal Marsala is unmistakably Sicilian. It’s no wonder that serious Italian establishments in one of the cultural capitals of the world seek to preserve these regional essences. What’s not so clear is that modern political borders should shape the centuries old traditions.
It seemed to me that in an attempt to preserve the Italian culture, many sommeliers were missing an opportunity to be authentic by incorporating traditional grape varieties and styles. At the time when the regional food and wine cultures were forming, many of the current political borders were not in place. Even so, political borders are just that, political. Especially in an area like Collio and Brda, both meaning ‘hill’ in Italian and Slovenian respectively, it is the same hill, and the vines do not recognize the theoretical boundaries.
Keith Beavers, owner of In Vino, an Italian restaurant and winebar in NYC’s East Village, recalls the moment the scale tipped for him:
“I was tasting wine with Stetson while I was eating, and he poured me a glass of Kabaj Rebula, I took a bite of risotto and a sip of this wine, and I thought, there’s no reason not to have these wines on the list. We started talking about borders and terroir, and of course I knew Slovenia was right around the corner, but it wasn’t until the moment I tasted them together I realized I had to celebrate these wines on my list and that political borders do not define terroir.”
Almost paradoxically, by incorporating wines from just beyond the borders of current day Italy, a more authentic profile of flavors is achieved. Since incorporating Blue Danube Wines onto his Italian list, In Vino now features at least one white and one red by the glass from Croatia and/or Slovenia and will soon be dedicating an entire section of his list to these extended regions.
At the Northern tip of the Adriatic, Slovenia, Croatia and Italy converge, sharing terroir and centuries of history. Blue Danube has always focused on sourcing the best wines in their traditional styles from all of the regions they represent. Not surprisingly, this makes many of the Croatian and Slovenian selections ideal for Italian focused restaurants.
“For our restaurant, Danube wines are a natural match. Our chef, Nick Balla, lived in Hungary during high school and our menu shows Eastern European influence in the cuisine. Blue Danube offers the most meaningful selection from this part of the world.” Mary Christie of Bar Tartine in San Francisco.
Another attribute of these wines is their relative value compared to wines from regions that have more name recognition, and therefore command higher price points. Both buyers and customers have been pleased to find a high quality to price ratio in these off-the-beaten-path varieties and styles.
“Blue Danube’s book is a treasure trove of gems from Croatia and Slovenia. The wines are vibrant, pure, well made and exciting. And there are many great value wines that work well with our mostly by the glass list. They give our guests an opportunity to try something new and exciting that really highlights and compliments the food.” Ben McGroarty of Superba Snack Bar in Los Angeles.
“The quality of the products are top notch and yet the wines cost a fraction of what I am paying for the more esteemed appellations of Italy, France and Spain. People commonly say “Wines from Slovenia? …No way!” Which I find funny as these regions are just as ancestral in their winemaking traditions as say Burgundy. At the end of the day, it is nice to be able to offer affordable indigenous wine flavor in a world clogged with expensive and homogenized wine style. This is especially true if the wine flavor is delicious.” Maxwell Leer of Bestia in Los Angeles.
Ultimately these wines appeal to people and establishments that embody an enthusiasm and passion for educating their customers and offering something new and exciting.
“As Americans enter a new phase in our wine drinking, I find that more and more people have the courage and confidence to explore regions and grapes unknown to them. It makes for a lot of learning and a lot of fun!” Mary Christie of Bar Tartine in San Francisco.
I’m delighted to see that nearly four years later, it is not uncommon to see Slovenian and Croatian wines on the bottle and glass lists of Italian “only” and Italian focused restaurants and winebars. In fact, I’d say it’s becoming the status quo.