A memorable stay at the Kabaj Guest House

In the Kabaj Cellar

After landing at Venice’s Marco Polo Airport from San Francisco, we were less than 2 hours away from the Kabaj-Morel Guest House. The drive took us through the the Veneto flatlands until we reached the Friulian Hills and crossed seamlessly the Italian/Slovenian border. A few more kilometers driving through rolling hills of Brda and we were arrived at our destination: a deep yellow colored house glowing in the sunset, a large terrace overlooking small hilltop villages surrounded by vineyards and a big welcoming hug from Katja Kabaj.

View from our room
The view from our bedroom
Our balcony
Our balcony on the second floor, facing the vineyards

Jean-Michel was busy talking to other guests but suddenly he was in front of us: “Let’s go to the cellar, let’s taste some wine!” he said. And here we are in the cellar underneath the house, with a glass of of golden Tocai — as Friulano is still called in the region. Not a bad way to fight the jet lag!

The Kabaj-Morel house and entrance to the cellar
Fun in the cellar
We’re having some fun in the cellar

Jean — as his family calls him — is a force de la nature, larger than life. He works all day and then at night entertains his guests, sometimes until 3am! He makes his wines in his own image: intense and generous, in a no—compromise style: he will not play the ratings game. But even without trying his wines are internationally highly rated. Jean was even named a Top 100 winemaker of the Year 2013 by the American Wine and Spirits Magazine.

And Jean loves big bottles: magnums, double magnums, jeroboams! He has a humid and cool area in the cellar where he ages these big bottles wrapped in plastic to protect the label. What a feast to be able to taste an old vintage like the 2007 Beli Pinot that Jean opened for us!

An old magnum
The place where Jean ages his big bottles
Cellar Tasting
The 2007 Beli Pinot was absolutely delicious!

But this was just the beginning of the evening. The cellar tasting was followed by a four-course tasting menu showcasing the local specialties:

Flan with Fennel, Prosciutto and Arugula
Barley Risotto
Barley Risotto with Porcini
Grilled Steak with Polenta and Eggplant
Sweet Gnocchi with Cinnamon and Berry Sauce

After a good night of sleep and a solid breakfast of prosciutto, cheese, homemade jam, and a couple of foamy cappuccinos, we were back on the road for a tour of Goriska Brda.

Breakfast is also a feast at the Kabaj-Morel house
The medieval village of Šmartno, cultural monument
An old street
The old streets of Šmartno

The last day, Jean drove us around to see the vineyards. It rained a lot in July and August and the vintage will not be easy but Jean, hedging his bets, owns a mosaic of small lots spread across the hills, with different elevations, sun exposure levels and even one vineyard on the other side of the border.

Goriska Brda and the Veneto flatlands in the background
The grapes are almost ready to be harvested.

“I’ll mostly do big bottles this year.” Jean told us after looking at a grape that showed some signs of rot. “Small quantities and in big bottles, that’s how I see it for this vintage.”

It was time to leave , but not yet! Jean had woken up early in the morning to prepare his famous Goulash and we had to try it! The meat melted in our mouth and the Rebula had surprisingly the right amount of tannins and acidity to go well with the dish.

Our last treat: Jean’s Goulash!

Katja and Jean-Michel, we can’t thank you enough for your hospitality and generosity! And thanks to my husband Matthieu for his beautiful pictures!

Dynamic Duo Of Somló

Istvan Spiegelberg and Bela Fekete

Sometime ago, we drew your attention to this region of Volcano Gods and now we return to delve deeper and celebrate success. We are pleased to report that Istvan Spiegelberg has won the prestigious Wine & Spirits Top 100 Wineries of 2014 award. “His latest releases, particularly this late-harvest juhfark, are catapulting him into the realm of Hungary’s greatest vintners.” noted Wine & Spirits Magazine referring to the 95-point rated 2010 Juhfark Szent Ilona.

Istvan Spiegelberg Top Winemaker

Somló is celebrated for its volcanic past and distinctive mineral-laced wines. The region is almost exclusively white wine territory with a long tradition of extended barrel aging. This lends an oxidative quality to the wines which aids in their ability to improve with bottle aging and stay fresh longer than the average white wine once opened.


These are voluptuous, full-bodied whites enjoyed with dishes we may normally reserve for red wine, like red meats. Another tell-tell sign of wines from this region is riper fruits coupled with high acidity and smoky minerality. The five authorized grapes of Somló are Juhfark, Furmint, Olaszrizling, Hárslevelű, and Tramini. Istvan Spiegelberg and Fekete Bela are our “dynamic duo” of producers in Somló, keeping traditions alive and garnering attention outside of Hungary.

Istvan Spiegelberg, former DJ and BMW test driver, founded his eponymous winery in 1993. Making wine was just a hobby for Istvan at the beginning but now his wines are considered cult collectibles. He farms just 3 hectares of vines, mostly by himself, and employs minimal intervention in the winery, crafting wines at his image: unconventional and stylish. We asked Spiegelberg to tell us more about Juhfark and his award-winning wine and this is what he had to say:

Juhfark used to be grown, not just in Somló, but also in Tokaj. The varietal has a naturally high sugar content and is susceptible to rot, making it difficult to grow. Due to this, the grape was prohibited during Communism, a regime that favored high yields with minimal difficulty to produce bulk wine. Only a few in Somló, notably Fekete Bela, continued to grow Juhfark and even prevailed against the ban. Thanks to the work of Fekete Bela and others, the grape was revived and gained notoriety. Juhfark represents “Hungarianism” and is something very interwoven into the culture as a unique representation of the place.

“It’s only every 10 years that you have a good vintage with Juhfark.”

Concerning the 2010 vintage, Spiegelberg went on to explain that this was one of the most difficult vintages due to heavy rain. The relentless rains made most winemakers very anxious, leading them to harvest before the grapes achieved ripeness. He lost a significant amount to rot. October 2nd was the date he decided to harvest and what he ended up with were small yields of shriveled, yet healthy grapes. The sugars had concentrated which produced a semi-dry wine. In the end, just 220 used barriques were filled with the rich, high alcohol wine that is now known as one of Spiegelberg’s best.

Bela Fekete

While Istvan Spiegelberg represents a new guard of Somló winemaking, Fekete Bela is very much the traditionalist. Approaching 90 years of age, “The Grand Old Man of Somló” still tends his 4 hectares of vines himself. Bela purchased his vineyards over 30 years ago, allowing him plenty of time to become intimately connected to his vineyard and understand its true expression. The vines are dry farmed with little to no synthetic treatments. Grapes are picked when they are fully ripe, even if Fekete’s neighbors start picking much earlier. After a long successful career including several Decanter awards and high ratings in wine publications such as Wine & Spirits, Fekete and his wife Bori have decided that 2013 would be their last vintage. This is the perfect season to enjoy his unique Hárslevelű, Juhfark, and Olaszrizling.

Visit our current inventory of Somló wines here.

Georgia Unearthed

Imagine a white wine as rich and complex as any red wine, with an intriguing amber hue. Breathe in and you are at once overwhelmed and delighted by aromas of toasted nuts, herbal tea, warm spices. Now, picture a red wine with intense hues of purple. The smell brings to mind deep earthiness, meatiness, and spicy red fruit. Taste the wine and appreciate the exotic flavors coupled with gripping tannins that beg to be enjoyed at the dinner table. These are the wines of Georgia. More specifically, these experiences are the result of the uniquely Georgian practice of fermenting and aging wines in clay qvevri.


At least 8,000 years ago, Georgians discovered that they could produce a stable wine by fermenting within clay vessels, or qvevri. Georgia is a food and wine lovers paradise with traditions like supra, or feast, where course upon course of stunningly fresh, judiciously prepared food are arranged on a large dining table. The only suitable beverage is copious amounts of qvevri wine!

Qvevri winemaking. Qvevri are used to both ferment and age wines which makes them different than amphorae. The conical shape encourages the seeds, pomace, and other sediment to migrate to the base of the container. The clay also interacts with the wine allowing it to circulate within the qvevri, alleviating pressure and controlling temperatures during fermentation. A marani is the Georgian wine cellar, where the qvevri are buried into the earth which also aids in temperature regulation.

The Saperavi grape

Over 500 native varietals, a diversity of terroirs. There is no other wine drinking culture as rich as the one that exists in Georgia. With over 8,000 vintages, 500 plus native grape varietals, signature natural wine making process, and original root word for wine, it is easy to see how wine is woven into the very fabric of the culture. For more on Georgian history and qvevri winemaking, see our regional profile.

Saperavi and Rkatsiteli are the most popular of the hundreds of native Georgian varietals. Saperavi means “dye” in Georgian and refers to the rich, concentrated purple color of the resultant wines. Rkatsiteli is a combination of two words: rka, meaning “vine shoot”, and tsiteli meaning “red”. The grape is so named because the vine shoot is a striking red color. Some other important white varietals include Tsolikouri, Kisi, and Mtsvane. As for reds, that would be Aleksandreuli, Mujuretuli, and Otskhanuri Sapere.

With 19 identified appellations of origin, Georgia exhibits a diversity of terroir as well as wine styles. Kakheti is one of the major wine-making regions and, as an appellation, is known especially for its dry wines of Rkatsiteli. A few noteworthy sub-appellations:
Tsinandali: a dry white blend of Rkatsiteli and Mtsvane.
Tvishi: a dry to semi-sweet white wine made from Tsolikouri.
Mukuzani: a dry red wine from Saperavi.
Khvanchkara: a semi-sweet red blend of Aleksandreuli and Mujuretuli.

We are excited to introduce Georgian wines into our portfolio. Meet our producers and browse our webshop for a selection of some of the best wines that the country has to offer.

Island Whites

Coast of Croatia
Somewhere in Croatia (photo: Michael Newsome)

The coast of Croatia is a rugged mountainous seascape of 1000 islands. From the barren Kornati to the forested shores of Korčula, these are the jewels of the Adriatic. 3,500 miles of craggy untamed limestone coast, awesome in the truest sense. Only 66 of the islands are inhabited. Krk (Ki-rrk), Hvar (huh-var), and Korčula (Core-chew-la) are three of the largest, and most important wine wise are still very much wild. Each is home to their own autochthonous (formed in its present position) grape varieties—found little or nowhere else on earth, under conditions unique to each island, capable of expressing their position and the culture of those who farm them. The soils vary but are all limestone based. Conditions tend to be wet in winter and hot and dry in summer. Each of these producers is working small plots by hand, the dry windy growing season rarely requires vineyard treatment.

Map of Coast of Croatia

Krk, Croatia’s northerly, largest island has long been famous for wine. Less of the Dalmatian islands are under vine today than historically. The 250 hectares today are a shadow of the 2,500 under vine during Roman occupation. Within Krk’s Kvarner Valley winemaker Ivica Dobrinčić maintains vineyards, a winery and a vineyard nursery dedicated to the re-propagation of nearly forgotten local sorts. Ivica hopes to give his children a reason to carry on their family’s winemaking traditions and preserve the local culture. The once prolific, now rare Žlahtina, or “noble” is the most common variety of Krk. Despite the rocky conditions and warm Mediterranean climate, it typically clocks in at 12% alcohol or less. The current 2012 is a modest 11.4% fully dry. A coastal wine that makes you want to curl your toes in rocky sand (specifically Baška) and drink directly from the bottle while the octopus sizzles on the grill. It is simple but has style, a gentle wine that can be gulped, but also remembered. A wine at once discreet and full of character.

Map of Krk

A few hundred miles, and islands to the south is the magnificent Hvar. Its south coast lined by a mountain ridge speckled with jagged rows of vines. These steep, sun drenched, sea-side vineyards produce some of Croatia’s burliest reds, while 2 miles north, leeward of this range, in the Stari Grad Plain, delicate, light, mostly white wines are the norm. A UNESCO world heritage Stari Grad has been continuously cultivated for more than 24 centuries. The native Bogdanjuša or “God Given” is believed to have originated in the valley. The Carić family farms in both locations and the wines could not be more starkly different. Bogdanjuša produces light, savory white wines with pronounced minerality and edgy acidity. Were it not for the characteristic note of the “sea”, “Friškina” the 2013 Carić Bogdanjuša could be mistaken for something Alpine in origin. Ideally suited for raw shellfish or the local specialty “Forska Gregoda”. A simple stew of potatoes, fish, garlic parsley and white wine.

Map of Hvar

Once famous for its red wines, today Korčula is all about Pošip. Pošip is so popular it’s hard to get any off the island. Toreta may be the only small producer presently available in the US. Although we may get a little wine from local super star Luka Krajančić again soon. Frano Banicević of Toreta farms 5 hectares of vines planted in Smokvica where Pošip is believed to have been discovered about 100 years ago. The winery is named for the ancient unfortified stacked stone huts or “Toreta” that have protected vineyard workers on Korčula from the elements for 1000’s of years. Though a young producer, Frano’s approach in the cellar is comparably restrained. By nature a heady wine Frano’s accentuates the subtleties of Pošip. Toreta wines are fruitful without being overly primary, lush, but also mineral and textural. The 2013 Special Pošip, is lighter, simpler, than the 2013 Toreta Pošip Premium (Verhunsko). Both wines are defined by the elemental combination of Mediterranean herbs, thick pine forest, sunshine and sea breeze. Naturally appropriate for sea-fare, pork or even highly seasoned combinations of seafood and pork are appropriate.

Map of Korcula

Visiting Croatia with Eric and Michael: Carić Winery

On their recent trip to Croatia, Eric and Michael enjoyed their visit to the island of Hvar where they met Ivana and Ivo Carić.

Lunch at Kod None
Lunch at Kod None with Ivana and Ivo Carić

It’s a rare occasion to be eager to swim in the area where ferries dock but even more rare that the water there is crystal clear and littered with sea urchins and schools of fish. The moment we drove our mighty Fiat off of the boat, even before walking on solid land, it was obvious to us that this island is pristine and busy with life. We began our journey by meeting up with recent friends Marion and Zdravko Podolski. This couple who usually reside in California also have a house on Hvar and a near encyclopedic knowledge of it — check out their website. We joined up to meet, and beyond just visiting vineyards and tasting wine we circumnavigated and learned the history of the entire island and what makes it undeniably unique.

Stari Grad Plain
Stari Grad Plain

Our first stop was to tour the UNESCO protected Stari Grad Plain. These are agricultural parcels (900x180m) called “Chora” replete with a rainwater collection system, cisterns, and rock walls dividing everything within a maze of stone roads. This may sound typical but it’s been unbroken this way for over 24 consecutive centuries. Walking through, you are surrounded by a crazy patchwork of grapes, olives, onions, fennel, figs, onions, and lavender. The plots are so small that it’s basically a polyculture of everything you want to eat and drink. This is where the Carić family grows their vines of the native white Bogdanjuša. Ivo, who has hands that immediately remind you that you don’t work hard enough, was constantly picking herbs, smelling them, and feeling the various soils; you can tell he spends on inordinate amount of time here and is well connected to this land.

Eric and Michael below the town of Sveta Nedjelja
Eric and Michael below the town of Sveta Nedjelja

We stopped for lunch at Kod None in the town of Svirče, easily one of the most memorable meals of our trip. Pogača sa inćunima (thin crust bread filled with onions, anchovies and herbs), whole baked fish, Ćrni Rizot (cuttlefish ink seafood risotto) and maybe the best calamari I’ve ever had accompanied by, of course, a table littered with bottles of Carić wines.

Pogača sa inćunima
Pogača sa inćunima
Črni Rizot
Črni Rizot

Our next stop was the impossibly steep vineyards on the south side of the island. To get there you need to drive through the unlit, 1.5 km, one-lane Pitve tunnel. When you pop out it’s like leaving black and white Kansas and entering full color Oz.

The hillside vineyards climb up and disappear into the fog ahead of you while behind they descend right down to the Adriatic’s edge. A scene that seems like the Mosel meets the White Cliffs of Dover.

Plavac Mali on the south side of the island
Plavac Mali on the south side of the island

This is also where Ivo and Ivana grow their Plavac Mali. Ivana, constantly juggling a toddler and newborn, is the perfect balance to Ivo’s ceaseless manual labor. She is incredibly patient, knowledgeable and determined to impress the importance of this place upon us as much as possible.

Ivo Carić and ownrooted Plavac Mali
Ivo Carić and ownrooted Plavac Mali
Ivana Carić
Ivana Carić

To that end, every time I drink Plavac Mali from Hvar I can smell the wild sage, rosemary, lavender, salt air, see the little towns tucked into the canyons, and the marvel at the head trained vines burrowed deep into the rocks. It’s an impressive place to grow grapes and we are grateful to everyone who made this visit possible. We will be back, and in the meantime we’ll drink the wines and attempt to recreate the food we ate.

Eric Danch & Michael Newsome

Curious to taste the wines from Hvar and smell the aromas of the island? The Bogdanjuša and Plavac Mali from Carić are available on our website.

Croatian Holiday with Adventures Croatia

Town of Korčula, Korčula Island

It looks like this summer everybody I know is going to Croatia. This includes my sister, who should be crossing the Croatian border as I write these words, my friend, who is taking her kids on a Game of Thrones Tour along the Dalmatian coast, and then in September, my husband and I will be spending a week in Istria, just the two of us!

I don’t think it’s a coincidence. Since the end of the Serbo-Croatian War, Croatia has become an attractive touristic destination with a reputation of being one of the most romantic getaways in Europe. This is not surprising: with more than a thousand islands and a 3,600 miles of coastline, Croatia is full of natural and historic wonders including Roman ruins, Byzantine mosaics, Venetian towns, and a picturesque hilly interior covered with olive groves, vineyards, and medieval villages.

Now if you need help organizing your Croatian Holiday, we recommend Adventures Croatia. They have a team of knowledgeable travel consultants that can assist you with your itinerary. They’re particularly specialized in designing tours for honeymooners as well as couples seeking a romantic getaway.

They will partner with you to design a great travel adventure based on your interests, budget, and travel style. And don’t hesitate to request a visit to our wonderful wine producers.

Curious & Thirsty – Slovenian Wine Goggles

Drinking Teran
Team Blue Danube Wine Co. and team Štoka drinking sparkling Teran

Historically vineyards have covered much of Slovenia’s countryside. In them you find grapes brought over the thousands of years of human movement. Coupled with the diversity of climate, topography, wine production methods, and localized taste, Slovenian wines are extremely different region to region. In the US we are largely unaware of this. Blue Danube Wine Co. — the company I am a part of — has been working for close to ten years to change this.

For me wine is more than beverage, it is the ultimate lens to view Slovenia through. It is made in some of the country’s most beautiful locations, accompanies the best food, and attracts interesting people. Both those who make it and drink it. I return repeatedly to enjoy of course the wine but also the atmosphere, the cuisine and my friends there. It has taught me the value of returning to a destination. Slovenia is a place I would like to one day call a second home.

For those who like to Travel Curious Often and want to learn more about Slovenia and its wines, read the full article here.

Visiting Croatia with Eric and Michael: Miloš Winery

Michael and Eric with Ivan Miloš
Michael and Eric with Ivan Miloš

Not too long ago we had the privilege to host a significant part of the Miloš family: all three of the next generation. It was a pleasure to get to know Ivan, Franica, and Josip and learn more about the wine their father Frano creates back home in Croatia. Enjoy this next stop on the tour!


In a world that seems trapped in time, the amphitheater of Miloš vineyards spreads out beyond the boundaries of peripheral vision. Bright white stone reflects more sunlight than most Californians ever experience and between this abundant sun and stone live thousands of head trained Plavac Mali vines. Truly a magical place, the land is covered with rock walls built from the creation of these family tilled vineyards.


The wonder of this place is only surpassed when compared to the visionary that created it, Frano Miloš. One of the memorable things Frano told us is that he’s aware that his wine-growing and winemaking are both at odds with the current pace of the world. And while he admits to sometimes driving with one hand and eating a sandwich in the other, making and drinking his wine is an opportunity to live a more fulfilling pace of life.

New maraština plantings overlooking the ocean
New Maraština plantings overlooking the ocean

With this in mind, Frano and his three children (Ivan, Franica and Josip) work the land tirelessly and with the fruit that they harvest, make a wine that is not only among the top Croatian wines but easily stands aside the great wines of the entire world. Plavac Mali is a grape with surprisingly high tannins and at Miloš they know how to tame them with extended barrel ageing. It is no surprise that when tasted blind, these wines bear a striking resemblance to single vineyard Barberesco and Grand Reserva Rioja.

Michael Newsome & Eric Danch

Dinner with Frano, Ivan, and Josef
Michael and Eric enjoying dinner with Frano, Ivan, and Josef

Learn more about Miloš and its wines here.

Visiting Croatia with Eric and Michael: Suha Punta Winery

We continue our adventure with Eric and Michael in Croatia at Suha Punta winery. Thank you for following along thus far!

As guide books and Google searches are keen to remind you, George Bernard Shaw wrote about the staggering number of rocky islands off the Croatian coast as “On the last Day of Creation God wished to crown his work and he created Kornati out of tears, stars and breath.” This may be true for the Kornati Islands, but when you see the rocky vineyards just south on the mainland in Bucavac, it looks like God lost a bet.

Michael in Primosten
Michael as we approach the town of Primošten

Even as you drive towards to the nearest town of Primošten, there are just piles of rocks and old rock walls coating the hillsides. Topsoil doesn’t seem to apply, there is little to no tree cover, and the “Bora” and “Jugo” winds relentlessly pummel the area.

Bucavec vineyards
Bucavec Vineyards

Growing grapes here at first glance seems like losing a bet as well. Not surprisingly, this is Croatia’s smallest appellation and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since it has been under vine since the 8th Century B.C. Illyrians. When you see these vineyards for the first time, it’s less about: how is this possible? But rather: why would anyone ever subject him or herself to it in the first place? In order to battle the overbearing winds, the impossibly rocky soil is broken up and used to form “Vlačica,” or small 6-meter square rock wall boxes to protect the vines. When a whole row of these is formed, they are called a “Tirada.”

Eric along the Tirada
Eric walking along the Tirada

Seeing these Tirada climb up and down to the Adriatic is a testament to our drive to ferment grapes. Old vine arms are held up by carefully placed rocks, no green harvesting is necessary, and the cool night air keeps acidity remarkably high.

Leo Gracin
Leo Gracin in the vineyard

Leo Gracin and his Suha Punta Winery are championing and evangelizing this place and the Babić grape indigenous to the area. Nothing makes sense at first, but all of sudden you are drinking pungent red wine with shellfish; it’s refreshing, and it’s a wine built to age.


lunch and babic

This is a place designed to challenge the mainstream paradigms of wine and truly taste something that cannot be recreated elsewhere. It is also delicious.

Eric Danch

Learn more about Suha Punta and its wines here.

Visiting Croatia with Eric and Michael: Coronica Winery

If you follow your GPS on the way to find Coronica, you will end up on a lovely tour of the city of Umag, but not at his winery. Head just a few miles east of the village onto a small road named Koreniki (the old spelling of his surname) and you will find him there. Even though the land is the same, Moreno’s grandfather was Austro-Hungarian, his father was Italian, he is Yugoslavian, and now his children are Croatian. He still has a stone tablet from 1764 with the family name carved into it.

Stone Tablet
Moreno Coronica showing an old stone tablet from 1764

Nevertheless, the vineyards have always been planted in Istria’s famous Terra Rossa. Moreno tends his vines with focus, care and minimal intervention. At the winery, grapes are chilled down before fermentation to ensure a pure expression of the vineyards. The intense red soil here perfectly reflects Moreno’s own temperament.

Terra Rossa
Istria’s famous Terra Rossa

Rich with iron, and with a strong capacity to hold moisture it will make impression on you and your shoes that will spread everywhere you walk the rest of the day. It is in this soil that Teran and Malvasia grow as they do nowhere else — even the walls in the winery have this soil built into them. Bright acidity and mineral focus is consistent throughout the wines, whether they are vinified in stainless, or barreled down for the grand reserves. Moreno and his wines are a perfect blend of Istria’s tradition and modernity.

Michael Newsome & Eric Danch

You can learn more about and purchase Coronica wines here.