Croatia

Bordeaux Meets Croatia – Josić Ciconia Nigra Cuvee

For the past year we have been importing and selling a very unique Bordeaux-style wine from Croatia, produced by the Josić winery.  We were thrilled when we read a review of this wine on one of our favorite blogs:  Strong Coffee to Red Wine.  With permission, we are excerpting Rick Dean’s evocative write-up on one of our very favorite Croatian wines.

Josić 2013 Ciconia Nigra Cuvée (Red Blend), Croatian Danube Region, Croatia

Bordeaux-Style Red Blends
Croatia Seaside View: Photo by Ivan Ivankovic on Unsplash

I found this bottle on Topochines.com, an online wine retailer. I was drawn to them because of their selection of wines from Croatia. The shop also carries smaller offerings of wines from Italy, Spain, France, Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and the USA. In 2019 they are adding  8-9 wines from Portugal. The offerings are unique no matter the country of origin, so I’m sure I will be sampling many others as well.

Bordeaux-Style Red Blends

But it was this wine that I most wanted to try. All of the others are from indigenous grapes to Croatia but this one is a blend of recognizable, international grape varieties and I thought that would be a good place to start. The few wines from indigenous grapes are waiting for me in the cooler.

Bordeaux-Style Red BlendsThis wine is more accurately an International Red Blend with 35% Cabernet Franc, 35% Syrah, 30% Merlot and 15% Cabernet Sauvignon. It is the use of Syrah that is not considered a Bordeaux varietal that makes this more of an international blend. Regardless of who’s blend it is, it is flipping delicious.

The Experience

The color is deep purple. The wine is bone dry with medium-plus acid. The tannins are soft and lingering. The nose is an explosion of aromas. Never have I smelled so much in a wine before. Dried figs predominate followed by bing cherries. Next is the burn of alcohol and a bit of caramel. After a second swirl came sandalwood, sawdust and chocolate covered cherries. And finally, some cooked black fruits.  This was such an exceptional smelling experience. I could have kept my nose in the glass for hours.

The flavors on the palate were a bit closed off but enjoyable all the same. Mostly was stewed black fruits like prunes and figs; followed by mild licorice and dark chocolate. The finish was lingering with the soft tannins reasserting themselves.Bordeaux-Style Red Blends

I am thrilled with this wine and am so glad I chose to make the purchase. I look forward to the wines from Croatia’s indigenous grapes later this winter.

This wine sells for $31.00 on Topochines.com.

 

If you are not already a subscriber, we strongly recommend that you check out Rick’s blog here: http://strongcoffeetoredwine.com/

Those that are interested in buying this wine can do so at www.topochines.com.  Enter discount code Wine10 for a 10% discount on the Josić Ciconia Nigra Cuvee or any of our other wines. 

Irene Ingersoll

December 22, 2018

New shipment of Croatian wines is in!

In December of 2017 we started selling Croatian wine on our online wine store Topochines Vino Wine Store.  In a few short months we sold out our entire inventory of Croatian wines, most of them produced from indigenous grapes but a few stellar labels using international varietals.  Sadly, we sold out our last couple of bottles right before the commencement of the World Cup and did not have any supply to help our Croatian-American friends celebrate Croatia’s improbable and inspiring run to the Finals.  Today, our warehouse is bursting with Croatian wines – some of the favorites from our initial shipment, but we have expanded our offering to include a number of new varietals, styles (e.g.,we now have several sparkling wines), and some classic Croatian wine producers.

Below is a breakdown of our shipment, “by the numbers”:

  • 24 – unique Croatian wines
  • 17 – red wines
  • 13 – different varietals
  • 12 – unique wineries
  • 12 – wines under $30
  • 10 – different wines featuring Croatia’s “national” red grape, Plavac Mali.
  • 5 – white wines
  • 4 – new wineries not previously on ours site
  • 4 – wines priced at $20 or under
  • 2 – sparkling wines
  • 2 – offerings of “Original Zin,” ie, the wine proven to be the original source of Zinfandel
  • 1 – wine aged under the Adriatic sea

For those already familiar with Croatian wines, this portfolio will contain many known producers and some traditional wine styles and varietals. As noted above, we have 10 different Plavac Mali selections available from multiple vineyard locations and appellations.  Croatian wine newbies would do well to start with any of these Plavac Mali wines as this varietal is as close to a “national” wine as you can get in Croatia.

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Plavac Mali grapes from Croatia

For those that prefer white wine, we have several wines made from Croatia’s indigenous Posip grape, one of our favorite varietals because it produces such an aromatic, full-bodied wine.

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Korcula is the most famous spot for Posip

While we have great appreciation for classic varietals and more well-known wineries, we have to admit to having a soft spot for unique blends, creative wine-making styles, and downright batshit crazy inventions.  Our latest shipment covers this entire gamut; here are some highlights:

Griffin Sparkling Rosé – $29.00

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Okay, you’re thinking, what’s so unique or creative about a sparkling Rosé wine? Well, that’s not the interesting part.  What makes this wine stand out from the crowd is the underlying varietal: Portugiser.  This varietal is very aromatic and has lots of fruit flavor on the palate.  In many white wines, aroma and flavor are lost during the fermentation process and it can be difficult to enjoy the varietal’s characteristics.  However, winemaker Ivancic Griffin uses cryogenic maceration prior to fermentation to slow the process and preserve color, aroma and flavor.  We haven’t had a sparkling Rosé like this one – it’s delicious!

Griffin Dark Side Sparkling – $33

Griffin Dark Side sparkling portugizer

This is by far the darkest sparkling wine we have ever seen, let alone consumed.  When we first tried it in The Basement Wine Bar in Zagreb, Croatia, it was described as “Black Champagne.”  Also made from the Portugiser grape, this sparkling wine is ridiculously aromatic and retains the flavor characteristics of the varietal almost as if it were a still wine.  Cryogenic maceration prior to fermentation is also used with this sparking wine.

2017 Feravino “Dika” Graševina – $15

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Chance are you’ve never had a wine from this obscure varietal before, even though it accounts for about a quarter of every wine bottles sold in Croatia.  At $15 a bottle, what are you waiting for?  If you knew how much it cost for us to transport this wine (a) by truck from the winery, (b) to a consolidator’s warehouse in Italy, (c) to be placed on a large container vessel, (d) to cross the ocean to New York City, (e) to get on another truck to cross the United States and (f) arrive in our Napa warehouse – well, you’d wonder how we only charge $15.  Suffice it to say we’re just about giving this wine away.  Feravino’s take on this varietal is crisp, refreshing, a nice blend of fruit and acidity.  This is a very aromatic wine with lots of fruit and flower on the nose.

2015 Feravino “Miraz” Frankovka – $17

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We expect that Frankovka will also be a new varietal to most people, although extreme wine geeks may know it by its other name, Blaufränkisch.  This is a rich and powerful wine.

Okay, these wines are unique, right? Are you ready for “batshit crazy”?  How about a wine that ages under the Adriatic sea and has to be deposited and collected by scuba divers?

2012 Edivo Plavac Mali “Navis” – $149

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You probably have some questions about this wine.  Like, what’s that on the bottle?  It’s what you would expect to be on a bottle that has been under the sea aging for a couple of years – barnacles and other sea stuff.  You might wonder if this wine tastes salty.  Because this wine is not cheap, we only allowed ourselves to “steal” one bottle out of our inventory, but I swear I could smell and taste salinity when the bottle was opened.  After  decanting this sensation dissipated and the wine was truly exceptional.  This is a bottle for real wine geeks who want to try something 100% unique.

We hope this gives you a sense for some of the really interesting wines we have for sale and whets your appetite to go to the website and try some.  Readers of this post can purchase any of the Croatian wines at a 10% discount by entering “Wine10” at checkout.  This discount code will apply to wines from any other country as well.  Cheers!

Irene Ingersoll

August 20, 2018

 

 

Travel to Croatia: Planning the Itinerary

We recently encountered a travel company that has the type of experience in Croatia and surrounding countries that we wish we knew about when we planned our first trip there.  www.AdriaticTours.com.  Read to the bottom for contact information and to obtain a discount on their services for being a Topochines Vino reader!

 

Some travel is less intimidating than others.  For instance, if we travel to other states in the U.S., this is generally not intimidating because the currency stays the same, everyone speaks the same language, no visa or passport is required, and most of the hotels and airlines are well-known to us. Traveling outside of the U.S. can be more intimidating, but much of Europe feels manageable because of the single currency (Euro), the well-known landmarks (Eiffel Tower, Grand Canal in Venice, Colosseum in Rome, etc.), and the availability of literally hundreds of tour companies and guide books available to make any trip worry-free.

When we decided to go to Croatia at the end of 2016, though, the intimidation factor was pretty high despite the destination being a European country.  Although they joined the EU in 2013, Croatia has yet to adopt the Euro as its currency; the Kuna is still its currency of record.  Further, our familiarity with the local language is as close to zero as you can get, and their alphabet has a number of unique letters and characters that really threw us off.  While there are an increasing number of tourists going to Croatia – drawn by their beautiful beaches, their affiliation with Game of Thrones, and the relatively economical cost of travel – travel resources are not as deep as they would be for Spain, France, Italy or other popular continental destinations.

When we planned our trip, we did so without any assistance beyond what we were able to find out using Google and reading travel blogs.  So much of what we read turned out to be nonsense, including the dangers of traveling by car (crooked police pull over foreigners rampantly and give them tickets, while locals pretend to have car trouble and rob tourists who pull over to help).  We were literally traveling blind, though, because we did not have much reliable information about the places we wanted to visit or stay.  In the end, we managed to have a fantastic trip but we realized that we missed so many beautiful places because, well, we just didn’t know better.

We recently came across a travel company that we wish we had known about when we were planning our first-ever visit to Croatia: Adriatic Travel, started over 44 years ago by Niko Hazdovac, a native of Croatia who moved to the United States.  After a career as a merchant marine officer, Niko started Adriatic Travel to provide those with Croatian ancestry a reliable way to visit their homeland or the homeland of their parents and grandparents.  Today, Adriatic Travel is still a family run travel agency with deep roots in Croatia as well as surrounding countries.

Adriatic Travel has a wide range of services and experiences for travelers looking to soak in everything Croatia has to offer.  For those that prefer to cruise, they offer trips on both sailing ships as well as motorized vessels.  Examples of their cruises include:

  • Venice to Dubrovnik (or vice-versa)
  • Zadar to Dubrovnik (or vice-versa)
  • Round-trip from Dubrovnik to Split
  • Dubrovnik to Porec.

A full list of their Adriatic sea cruises can be found here:  Sea Cruises.

 

For those desiring a bit more adventure on the seas, Adriatic Travel also offers charter cruises priced by the week for small groups of a dozen or so.  Longer charter trips come with captain, sailing crew, chef, and waiters to provide a luxurious on-water experience.  “Bareboat” charters – those with no crew – are available for those that are bold enough to commandeer their own vessel.  Adriatic Travel can set up many different craft charters from catamaran, sail boats, speedboats, and more.  More information on their charters can be found here:  Charter Cruises.

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Of course, not everyone wants to travel by boat when they visit Croatia, especially given the number of sights on land and inland.  For travelers who would like to explore the cities in more depth, visit wineries, and tour some of Croatia‘s stunning national parks, Adriatic Travel offers escorted land tours.  Some of the most intriguing for us are:

  • Croatian Food and Wine Tour, which starts in Zagreb and ends in Dubrovnik. In between, travelers will visit several wineries and partake in the delicious local foods.
  • Dubrovnik to Venice, with stops in beautiful Kotor, Montenegro; a day at the stunning Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia;  a visit to Lubljana in Slovenia;  ending in the magical city of Venice.
  • Belgrade to Zagreb, with many exciting stops in between including Montenegro and Slovenia, along with several stunning stops in Croatia.

A complete list of planned excursions are here:  Escorted Tours

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When we traveled to Croatia we managed to visit Slovenia (for a few hours) and Bosnia & Herzegovina (for two days).  Unfortunately, we missed Montenegro and Serbia; next visit we will make sure to visit both countries as we have heard amazing things about them.

In addition to the various tours and excursions we have mentioned, Adriatic Travel also offers assistance with air reservations, car reservations, and one-way transfers and private excursions with driver.  We rented our own car but we have to say it would have been much more convenient (and safe!) to have taken advantage of an excursion to visit wine country.

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If you are thinking of making a trip to Croatia or any of the Balkan countries (Slovenia, Montenegro, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Serbia), consider Adriatic Travel.  You can contact Peter Hazdovac at peter@adriatictours.com.  Friends of Topochines Vino will receive $100.00 off per person when they book any tour or cruise with Adriatic Travel.  Let us know if you are planning to travel to Croatia or if you already have we would love to hear about your experience.

John & Irene Ingersoll

April 10, 2018

Wines of Croatia, Part II: “Original Zin”

We read an article recently in a reputable publication that proclaimed Zinfandel as California’s “heritage grape,” and went on to describe this grape varietal as “a quintessentially American phenomenon.  It’s zesty, rugged and loud, challenging to rear, a lover of barbecue.”  This characterization of Zinfandel is not uncommon and we have even heard more casual wine consumers refer to Zinfandel as “American’s wine grape.”  As charming as this characterization is, it does not stand up to reality or, more importantly, science.

 

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Some people take their grapes really, really seriously!

The story of original sin involves a fruit and a man named Adam; in his case, the fruit was allegedly an apple.  In the case of “original Zin,” a man and a fruit are again involved, but in this case the man is named Miljenko and the fruit is a grape.  As Adam was fascinated by the apple, Miljenko Grgic (Americanized to Mike Grgich when he came to this country), had a deep fascination with grapes.

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Meeting the legend himself at Grgich Hills

In 1959 Mike Grgich arrived in Napa Valley and started working at Souverain Cellars & Vineyard where he encountered Zinfandel grapes on their property.  Studying the canes, leaves, clusters, berry color and size, and, eventually, the juice the grapes produced, Grgich was convinced that Zinfandel was anything but a “quintessentially American phenomenon.”  To his eye, Zinfandel and the indigenous Plavac Mali grape from his native Croatia were one and the same.  Zinfandel, therefore, originated from his native Croatia.  For many years, he steadfastly maintained this conviction and shared it with anyone who would listen.

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Okay they do look alike …

In 1990 Mike Grgich made his first return trip to Croatia since leaving the country thirty-six years before in 1954.  To him, the similarities between Plavac Mali and Zinfandel were still apparent during this trip and he remained convinced they were the same grape varietal.  On his next trip, in 1993, Grgich stepped it up a notch and actually took Napa Valley Zinfandel clusters, leaves and canes with him to Croatia to do a literal physical side-by-side comparison.  His conclusion?  The same grape.

Almost 5 years went by before Grgich took a step that would settle the question once and for all as to the relationship between Plavac Mali and Zinfandel – a step that would prove Grgich both right and wrong.   This step involved connecting with Dr. Carole Meredith, a professor in the renowned Department of Viticulture and Enology at the University of California, Davis.  Her area of expertise was – and yes, this really is a thing – grape genetics.  As a grape geneticist, Dr. Meredith studied the genes of grapes to understand how those genes contribute to making the grapes and vines they way they are.  She had a particular interest in the history of wine and understanding where specific grape varietals came from, which made her a perfect investigative partner for Mike Grgich.

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Professor Meredith receiving the Order of Danica Hrvatska medal from the Croatian government

In 1998 Carole Meredith and Mike Grgich got together and he shared with her his opinion about Zinfandel and Plavac Mali.  This visit inspired Carole to go to Croatia herself that same year to see for herself if she could definitively solve the Zinfandel-Plavac Mali puzzle.  She took samples from over 150 Plavac Mali vines from vineyards in the most renowned growing areas of Croatia, including the Peljesac Peninsula (where Mike Grgich has a winery today called Grgic Vina) and the island of Hvar.  Upon returning to U.C. Davis with her samples, Dr. Meredith performed a series of genetic tests on them and reached a definitive conclusion:  Zinfandel and Plavac Mali were not the same grapeWhat she did discover through her tests, though, is that these two grapes are related.  As she put it, Plavac Mali is the “son” of Zinfandel; in other words, Zinfandel and another grape together produced Plavac Mali.  So after nearly 50 years of believing Zinfandel was his native Plavac Mali, Mike Grgich turned out to be wrong.  But something interesting would happen soon after that would make him right again, sort of anyway.

Never one to give up, Carole Meredith continued her work, having connected with two professors from the University of Zagreb who were looking for help in using DNA tools to understand better the indigenous Croatian grapes and how they would be impacted by modern development and globalization.  The three professors continued to search for the elusive connection to Zinfandel and, lo and behold, they found it!   Near the port town of Split on Croatia’s Dalmatian coast, nine Crljenak Kastelanski vines were found that DNA testing determined to be a 100% genetic match to Zinfandel.  As it turns out, Zinfandel was not Plavac Mali but it was indigenous to Croatia.  Subsequent historical research has shown that Croatian Zinfandel (also known as Tribidrag) was planted as far back as the 15th century.  What the Italians call Primitivo is also Zinfandel, having originated from the Croatian Tribidrag and been imported to Italy some 200-300 years ago.

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Crljenak/Tribidrag grapes growing in Croatia

We were so intrigued by this story that we made a trip to Croatia in late 2016 and soaked up as much wine and vineyard knowledge as we could.  We trudged around the Peljesac Peninsula where Mike Grgich’s beloved Plavac Mali grows on steeps slopes just meters from the sea.  Over the course of 2 ½ weeks we tasted dozens of Croatian wines and fell in love with the character, depth, and complexity of their wines.  Our favorite?  Crljenak Kastelanski (or Zinfandel if that’s easier to pronounce).  We loved this wine so much that we are now importing a Crljenak Kastelanski produced by Vina Matela.   We recently tasted this wine with an 86-year old winemaker partner and he proclaimed: “This is one of the best wines I’ve ever had.”  We have to agree.

Wine consumers that are looking for “California Zin” should ignore the Vina Matela offering as it will not live up to expectations.  Frequently fans of California Zinfandel use terms such as “jammy” or “fruit bomb” to describe their favorite wine.  Matela’s Crljenak Kastelanski has nice fruit on the nose and the palate but is a much more complex, rich, and balanced wine.  Fruit aroma and flavor are matched with a strong earthiness driven by the unique conditions of the mountain soil in which the grapes are grown.

You can purchase Matela Crljenak Kastelanski at www.topochines.com.  Click on “Countries” and then “Croatia” to find this wine along with our complete range of white and red Croatian wines for sale.  Readers of this blog can enter “Friends15” at checkout for a 15% discount.  For those interested in a broader exploration of the Croatian red wines, we also offer two different Plavac Mali wines, one from winemaker Tomic and the other from Edivo.  We will provide a deeper review of each of these wines in Croatian Wines, Part III.

John & Irene Ingersoll

January 11, 2018

Croatia Wines: Part I

We import white and red Croatian wines and make them available to U.S. consumers at our Topochines Vino online wine store: www.topochinesvino.com.

 

In late 2016 we made our first ever foray to the Balkans, a trip that was planned more or less on a whim and without any goal in mind but to explore the countries that make up the former Yugoslavia.  When this former communist country imploded in the early 1990’s, a number of countries formed out of its ashes – either six or seven, depending on whom you ask.  Yes, in that part of the world, everything is up for dispute.  At a minimum, the former Yugoslavia now comprises Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia and Macedonia.  For reasons too complicated to explain here, Macedonia is usually referred to as the FYROM – the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.  Counting Macedonia, there are six countries that have sprung from the boundaries of the old Yugoslavia.   We’ll save the story about Kosovo for another day, but you can see on this map that it is considered an autonomous province of Serbia.

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There is a lot going on in this region!

On our 2 1/2 week trip we visited half of the countries that make up former Yugoslavia – Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia & Herzegovina.  During this trip – which originated in Venice – we met wine makers and other wine experts that opened our eyes up about this truly fascinating region. We were somewhat familiar with the history of the region, going back to the murder of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo that sparked WWI, extending all the way through the recent Balkan war.  A very important detail, though, had escaped us:  the region’s viticulture and enology.

During our trip we learned that grape growing and wine making in Croatia, for example, go back 2,500 years to the time of the Ancient Greek settlers.  All along the Dalmatian coast of Croatia, grapes were planted and quality wine was made for both domestic use as well as export.  In more recent times, private wine production was hampered by the communist Yugoslav government, resulting in much of the wine industry being cooperatives, with private ownership discouraged.  After the collapse of Yugoslavia, private ownership of land once again emerged and the commercial production of wine once again became vibrant.  For the uninitiated, here is a quick primer on Croatian wines:

Wine Regions.  While there are 300 recognized sub-regions in Croatia, they can be broken down into two broad categories:  Continental and Coastal.  Historically, much of the hype has come from the Coastal region as it encompasses the well-known Istria region (very similar in many ways to Tuscany) and the Dalmatian coastal and island vineyards that produce some of the best wines in Croatia.  However, in the past several years producers in the Continental part of Croatia – primarily Slavonia and Plešivica – have begun making wines that are getting international attention.  We have recently tasted some of these wines, including some delicious sparkling wines, and plan to import them here to the U.S. and offer them on our Topochines Vino online wine store.

Even with the recent surge of quality in the Continental region, the focus in Croatia is still on the Coastal regions of Istria and Dalmatia.  Many visitors to Istria compare it to Tuscany, both for its physical resemblance as well as the quality food and wine available.

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Stunning views of Istrian vineyards in Croatia

Both red and white wines are produced in Istria, and vineyards feature both indigenous and international grape varietals.  The most common indigenous white grape grown in Istria is Malvasia; the most common red varietal is Teran.  We are offering a crisp, refreshing Istrian Malvasia from producer Benvenuti:  Buy Malvasia. 

Farther down the coast of Dalmatia one encounters some of the most famous regions and vineyards in all of Croatia. most of them producing wine from indigenous Croatian varietals.  Dalmatia breaks into three geographic sub-regions:  Northern Dalmatia, Interior Dalmatia, and Central/Southern Dalmatia.  These regions are largely dedicated to producing indigenous Croatian white varietals such as Bogdanuša, Debit, Grk, and Ninčuša and red varietals including Crljenak Kaštelanski, Dobričić, Plavina and Plavac Mali.

Geographically, the vineyards and wineries in Dalmatia are stunning and unlike anything we have ever seen.  One of the places we visited was Grgic Vina, the Croatian winery owned by Napa winemaking legend Mike Grgich (of Grgich Hills).  Their winery is a literal stone’s throw from the Adriatic sea and their vineyards a few hundred meters up the slope from the sea.

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Grgic Vina on Croatia’s Peljesac Peninsula in Croatia

Along the coast, many of the vineyards can be found on unbelievably sloped hills, some of them with upwards of 45 degree slope with vines running straight up and down the hill.

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Plavac Mali vines in Dingac (Croatia)

Obviously, harvest must be done by hand and in most cases the pickers have to be harnessed and tethered due to the extreme slope.

In all of our travels to U.S. and foreign wine regions, we have not seen anything quite like the Dalmatian region of Croatia.  While many vines are on the mainland close to the sea, some of the most famous vineyards are on islands and/or peninsulas:  Hvar, Brac, Korcula, Vis, and the Peljesac Peninsula that houses the Dingac vineyards above.

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Island of Korcula, home to Grk and Posip (Croatia)

 

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Island of Hvar  (Croatia)

 In our second installment on Croatia wines, we will go deeper into some of the wines that we think are most special and give more information about some of the most important indigenous varietals.
John & Irene Ingersoll
December 29, 2017

Making a small fortune in the wine business

You’ve heard the old joke, right?

Q:  How do you make a small fortune in the wine business?

A:  You start with a large fortune and lose some of it.

A clear sign of our dubious sanity is our decision to become wine importers and online retailers, despite not staring with a large fortune.  Today we are launching an online wine store at http://www.topochinesvino.com.

What would compel two (relatively) reasonable wine bloggers to abandon the comfortable world of drinking wine, visiting wineries, and writing about it, and jump into the competitive world of wine importing?  As the Grateful Dead sang, “what a long strange trip it’s been.”  In truth, though, the trip has been more strange than long.

If we had to identify the start of this strange trip, it would have to be the fall of 2016, which was marked by a series of encounters with wine makers across the globe.  Just over a year ago, during a trip to Willamette Valley in Oregon, we met a fantastic grape grower and winemaker.  In the course of several hours of conversation, we talked a lot about the challenges facing wineries.  We guessed his biggest challenges would be weather; bugs; mold and mildew; or any number of other pestilences conjured up by Mother Nature.  Uh-uh, our friend told us.  His biggest challenge?  Distribution.  Given how many distributors and retail outlets there are, we figured it would be easy for a winery to get its product into the hands of clients through restaurant, retail or online channels.  Apparently, though, finding reliable partners that are in it for the long term, and want to grow with the winery, is not as easy as it should be.  We left Oregon with the distribution problem in the back of our minds but still not thinking about a life-changing shift to becoming importers or sellers of wine.

Next stop, Europe!

About three weeks after the Oregon trip, we embarked on a long trip through some of the oldest wine growing regions in the world.  Our first stop was Italy – the magical city of Venice to be exact.  At a rooftop restaurant overlooking the Grand Canal, we had dinner with a young couple who are grape growers and vintners from the wine region of Abruzzo.  They shared several of their wines with us and we enjoyed them so much we asked where we could find them in the United States.  They told us that they do not sell their wines in the U.S. because their small production, artisan wine making approach would not interest the “big guys.”  Our next stop was Slovenia, where we tasted some truly unique and fabulous wines made from indigenous varietals and using traditional methods that go back generations.  With a few exceptions, most Slovenian wines do not make it to this country either.  By the time we made our third stop, in Zagreb, Croatia, a theme was starting to emerge:  there are some very impressive and unique wines to which the American consumer does not have ready access.  In Zagreb, we stopped at the coolest wine bar in the city, The Basement.  Their proprietor, Dario Drmac, poured quite a few wines for us, some of them traditional Croatian varietals and others made from varietals that are more international.  Again, we were shocked to hear that none of the wines we tasted was available in the United States.  Three weeks later, after driving the entire length of Croatia and half of neighboring Bosnia & Herzegovina, it was time to go home.

As we boarded our plane, we turned to each other and said, “We have to become wine importers and sellers.”  While it may sound corny (okay, it IS corny), we fell a little bit in love with the people we met, their personal stories, their love and passion for wine, and their dream to share their wines with consumers in America.  In a way, we feel like we did not choose importing, it chose us.

While we had some idea of the complexity of setting up this type of business, we severely underestimated the many steps involved, the volume of paperwork, the layers of Federal and state licensing, tax rules and regulations, and the logistics of getting wine from Point A to Point B, especially when Point A is 7,000 miles and another continent away.  If we had known the extent of the work required, we might not have even started, but in this case, ignorance has definitely been bliss.  We took each chunk of work/activity one step at a time and that is probably what saved us from folding up our tent and throwing in the towel (to mix a couple of metaphors).

The ABC’s (and TTB’s) of Wine Importing

In order to import wine into the U.S., one must learn a new set of alphabetic acronyms:  ABC, TTB, COLA, FDA, CBP, BOE and probably others we have yet to encounter.  The very first and most basic requirement to be able to import wine into the U.S. from other countries is to obtain a Federal license – referred to as a Federal Basic Permit.  If said importer wants to sell those wines to other wholesalers or retailers, an additional Basic Permit is required.  We decided to pursue both an importer and a wholesaler permit and filed our application with the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau – the aforementioned TTB that is one of the ingredients in our alphabet soup of federal, state and local agencies.  We had never heard of the TTB before; it turns out they are part of the Department of the Treasury, and they have become quite an important part of our lives this past year!  After a couple of months, we were granted our Federal import and wholesale permits and proceeded to apply for our state permits. You see, the Federal permit gives you the right to bring wine into the U.S., but each state has its own requirements for importing the wine into the state.

Getting a state license required us to leave behind the TTB and embrace the elementary sounding (but in reality very complex) ABC – California’s Alcohol and Beverage Commission.  This state agency regulates almost every aspect of alcohol production and sale, including licensing.  To support our business plan – importing wine, selling wine wholesale to restaurants and stores, and selling wine online directly to consumers – we needed three California licenses, all of which we now possess.  Probably the most amusing part of this process is that we needed to post a giant sign on the front of our house for 30 days with big block letters stating “Public Notice of Application to Sell Alcoholic Beverages.”  Everyone has seen one of these signs, most commonly on the front door of a bar or restaurant seeking a liquor license.  We were wondering if one of our neighbors was going to see this sign and freak out, thinking we were opening a bar or on-premises wine store in our garage.  Fortunately, we live in Napa Valley and this is probably a very common sight.

So finally we had our two federal and three California licenses, and quite a few wineries that wanted to send their wines from foreign lands to us. What next?  Before wines can enter the United States, the foreign winery must register with the FDA – the Food and Drug Administration.  Yes, really, wine is considered a food and a foreign winery is classified as a “food storage facility.”  Hey, who are we to argue, some days wine is the only fruit we consume.  Once the foreign winery is registered with the FDA, the TTB (remember them?) enters the picture again.  Every single wine label for every single bottle must receive the TTB’s prior approval of the front and back labels on the bottle.  There are quite a few rules for what must be on the label (and what cannot be on it), and after multiple submissions and re-submissions we could give seminars on the COLA process (Certificate of Label Approval).

Okay, all foreign wineries registered with the FDA? Check.  All labels approved? Check.  A temperature-controlled warehouse to store the wine when it arrives? Check.  So how do you get the wine to the United States?  If you are thinking airfare – think again!  It costs about $1,000 to ship five cases of wine. Let us save you the math – that is $17 a bottle just for the shipping.  Imagine what our wine would ultimately cost if we shipped it via air.  No, our goal is to make our partners’ wines affordable, and the only way to do that is via containers on giant shipping vessels.  Which means we needed to find a trans-Atlantic shipping company.  We secured a shipping partner and finally felt like we were all set to bring some wine to the U.S  We placed an order with our Croatian and Italian partners for one pallet each – 112 total cases of wine (or 1,344 bottles).  We figured if we never sold the wine to consumers, we would slowly drink it ourselves; even if our business were a total flop, we would have enough wine to last a lifetime!

We had a few hiccups along the way.  Trying to ship in August was one of them: somehow, we forgot that August is a vacation month for most of Europe but literally all of Italy (our departure port is in Livorno).  Our wine sat in a warehouse (air conditioned, at least!) for almost a month before the dockworkers were back in action and ready to load the wines on the container ship.  Before they could, though, the port city of Livorno suffered some of the worst flooding in over a century as over 10 inches of rain fell in just two hours.  When all was said and done, six people died and there was massive destruction to property in the city.  Oh, and total destruction to 56 cases of our wine.  All of our Croatian shipment was spared, apparently because it came in later and was stacked higher.  Most of the Italian wine sat underwater for days until the waters receded.  Due to the miracle of insurance, our wine was replaced at no cost to us, other than lost time.

Our Croatian shipment made the safe voyage from Livorno to New York City in mid where we encountered another alphabet acronym:  CBP (Customs and Border Protection).  All shipments have to clear customs and we must pay applicable taxes and duties on the wine (calculated according to alcohol percentage).  Once through customs, the wine was placed on a truck and made its way across the entire continental United States, ending its journey in our Napa Valley warehouse.  The Italian wine arrived just a bit later and is sitting safely in our Napa warehouse.

Now that we have this wine, what do we do with it?  While we will make some wine available to restaurants and retail stores, most of the wine is being made available direct to consumers via our wine store.  We spent several months researching platforms to help us sell our wines – front end, back-end web store, payment processing, inventory management, invoicing, sales tax, shipping, etc.  In the end, we have built out an online wine store we are proud of:  www.topochines.com.  In addition to the Croatian and Italian wines, we are offering a luscious Spanish wine from Rioja; a sparkling Cremant de Bordeaux from France; a few Napa Valley wines; and a delicious red blend from Sonoma County.

All of the wines on our site are similar in that they are small-production wines from producers we know personally, and the winemaking approach is very similar:  respect for the varietal and the terroir in which the grapes are grown.  We will be adding wines that meet these criteria as demand from our customers grows.  We just returned from a trip to Oregon wine country to see old friends and meet new ones; we bought some fantastic wines on the trip and they are now available for sale on the wine store.

Irene Ingersoll

December 1, 2017

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