How Monika Caha Carved a Niche for Austrian Wine

A nice little mention of Field Blend Selections in this terrific article about Monika Caha on Sevenfifty Daily.

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The Austrian wine guru discusses the importance of strong relationships and the changing perceptions of wines from the country

Although Monika Caha was born and raised in Austria, it wasn’t until she moved to the U.S. that she really fell in love with Austrian wine. “I realized in the U.S. that there’s nothing else like Austrian wine,” she says. Today, Caha is America’s de facto Austrian wine guru, working with importers and distributors like Frederick Wildman & SonsJenny & FrançoisZev Rovine Selections, and Field Blend Selections through her company, Monika Caha Selections. Along with her business partner, actor Toni Silver, Caha maintains a small but choice portfolio of some of Austria’s top producers, most of whom are hands-on, organic, or biodynamic growers working in regions from Niederösterreich to Steiermark. Caha’s portfolio represents classics like Fritschand Nittnaus, as well as natural-leaning producers like Strohmeier and Schmelzer.

Selling wine, though, wasn’t Caha’s first career (or second, or even third). She began visiting the U.S. as a film student in the late 1970s, honing her English skills and subsequently working in the film industry, developing four screenplays while simultaneously starting an Austrian coat importing business to finance her projects. In the 1990s, Caha grew weary of the unpredictable nature of the film industry and switched gears to something slightly less risky—the restaurant business. Her Chelsea restaurant Kaffeehaus, of which she was the executive chef and owner, was one of the first Austrian restaurants in the U.S. to sell high-end Austrian wines during the period it was open, from 1993 to 2000.

Caha was on the verge of opening a new restaurant when the September 11 terror attacks took place just across the street from her downtown Manhattan apartment. The restaurant plans halted, and Caha decided to move back to Austria to regroup. She returned to New York in 2003, armed with a handful of Austrian wines and a knack for developing close relationships within the wine industry.

These days, Caha splits her time between New York and Vienna. She recently spoke with SevenFifty Daily about the evolution she’s observed in Austrian wine—and in the nature of doing business in the wine industry. In the 15 years since Caha started her company, she has seen awareness of Austrian wines grow among buyers and within import portfolios, but she has her sights set on bringing the wines of Austria into a brighter spotlight for consumers.

SevenFifty Daily: How did you break into the business?

Monika Caha: I always had this incredible connection to winemakers. My grandfather made wine, and I had contact with winemakers my whole life. So I went to four close winemaker friends in Austria and asked if I could bring their wines to the U.S. In 2003, I flew to New York and started walking into wine stores, hoping to make contacts. At Acker Merrill, Katell Pleven (who is now both the owner of The Vine Collective and the executive vice president for Verity Wine Partners) was pouring wine for Frederick Wildman & Sons, so I tasted the wines and told her what I wanted to do. She suggested that I call Frederick Wildman and ask if they were interested in tasting my wines. We set up a meeting, put together a presentation, and sent samples—and they said yes to 27 of the 30 wines I poured. It was completely luck. 

What does the structure of your business look like?

When I researched the expenses involved in starting my business, I got nervous—we are a company run by two women, and we didn’t have any financing at first because I was working remotely from Vienna. We did not have the resources or the manpower of most importing companies. But this is common now, with all of the small importers in the U.S. A small importer can’t afford its own warehouse and truck. So I work with other companies to get the wines into the U.S., and I act as the liaison between the wineries and the importers. Beyond New York and New Jersey, each individual wine in our portfolio is available in a number of different states, and we are continuously looking to broaden our reach. The one wine that is available nationally is the Grooner brand that we created to bring greater recognition to the Grüner Veltliner grape.

What’s the most unexpected way you’ve found one of your clients?

I met the Nittnaus family because my mother lives two villages away from them. Many years ago, I would go and taste their wines, and eventually I became friends with them. Then I was starting my company in the U.S., and I asked them to join me. The business relationship developed from a friendship.

What was the U.S. market for Austrian wine like when you started Monika Caha Selections?

The Austrian wine business was still very small, with only a few people—mostly in New York City—selling Austrian wine. We hosted one of the first real Austrian wine dinners in the city at Kaffeehaus in 1994, and we worked primarily with Lauber Imports (now a division of Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits). Lauber distributed Vin Divino, which was a pioneer for Austrian wine in New York in 2003. Now their Austrian portfolio is mostly at Winebow. Michael Skurnik at Skurnik Wines & Spirits was basically running the show with Austrian wine soon thereafter, but there were a couple of others importing Austrian wine then too. The category exploded in the 10 years after I founded my company, with a lot of people getting into Austrian wine. For me, it was an opportunity, because all of a sudden people were quite interested in Austrian wine.

Name one thing that has been essential to your business over the years.

Personal connections were key to our success. From the beginning, it was like a chain reaction, with one relationship leading to the next. From that first introduction to Frederick Wildman, to the enthusiastic sales reps who are now importers themselves, it has been important to maintain those relationships over the years. Back then, it was a more personal time; very few people even had cell phones, so people were still going to tastings and speaking with one another in person.

How did you build and maintain those relationships?

It was really about the people and creating experiences to showcase the wines. Since I was the executive chef of my restaurant, I combined my knowledge of Austrian food and wine to host tastings. I invited people over in the evenings to taste our portfolio with the food that I would cook. It was kind of like a party, but we were selling wine.

How has doing business changed as technology has evolved?

Technology has taken the personal touch out of the wine business. Things have become a little too distant, and it’s harder to maintain relationships these days. When we host tastings and events, we promote the events and ask sales reps to mention them to buyers. We do mailings, but people are overwhelmed because there are too many wines and too much going on. With the amount of information out there, it has become more, “I don’t need to taste—I know all these wines.”

How is Austrian wine perceived by the consumer?

Austrian wine has never really reached the popularity with the consumer that wines of other countries have. That’s why it’s important to develop enthusiasm with sommeliers and buyers, so that when the consumer is at a restaurant, the sommelier will want to pour them a glass of Austrian wine. The problem is that these wineries come from family names—how can the consumer remember them? The labels are not visually memorable, either. That’s one of the reasons we started our own brands.

Tell us more about the inspiration for the brands that you’ve created.

We wanted to create a way for the consumer to be able to remember the grape or the label of the wine. It was my partner Toni’s idea to spell the name of the grape phonetically on the label, starting with Grooner for our Grüner Veltliner. I also asked a friend of mine to design an eye-catching label with Toni as a cartoon, and we packed the wine in 750-milliliter bottles. With the right price and the right packaging, we started having success in retail stores, so we created Zvy-Gelt and Rozay as well.

What strategies do you use to move wines in this changing market?

Nowadays, you really need to be active in every aspect of the industry, constantly reinventing yourself and doing new things. I think it’s important to reach consumers directly, since Austrian wine is still new to most Americans. I started using Instagram on a regular basis so that more people can get to know me that way, and I also do business with wine clubs. That’s a great opportunity because the wine club delivers a set selection of wine to consumers, and they have a chance to taste Austrian wine for the first time. But I still believe in the old-fashioned way of doing business—developing personal relationships. You have to use every talent you have, so I lure people in with my food for our dinner party tastings! I still think it’s effective—people meet you, like you, like your wines, and share them with others.

What do you know now that you wish you knew then?

If I knew then what I know now, I would have picked up a couple of wineries that I don’t represent! You never know what people will like. I also would’ve made better contracts with some people. But overall, I probably would’ve done things about the same. 

What do you think about Austrian wine trends these days?

There is more organic farming in Austria than anywhere else in Europe, so the wines that we are bringing in are often organic or biodynamic, made really close to nature with little intervention. But in the past couple of years, there has been more sommelier interest in wines with no or very low sulfur, to the point that some buyers won’t even taste a wine if they don’t like the technical analysis of it. I understand that industrial wines have destroyed the image for wines made with sulfur, but I think small, family-made biodynamic and organic wines that use sulfur should not be pushed into the industrial category. We need to be particularly careful with wines from Austria because they aren’t as well known as those from France or Italy. Without sulfur, aromatic varieties like Riesling and Grüner Veltliner taste completely different—interesting, but different. 

My worry is that if sommeliers focus only on natural wines, we will lose the other style, and that would be bad for Austria. I love all of my wines—the natural ones as much as the ones that are sulfured and filtered—and I love them too much to lose half of them. We should become a little more flexible, particularly among the younger generation of sommeliers, and focus on judging wines on how well they’re made and how good they are, without getting bogged down in technical details.

Courtney Schiessl is a Brooklyn-based wine journalist, educator, and consultant who has held sommelier positions at some of New York’s top restaurants, including Marta, Dirty French, and Terroir. She has written for Forbes.comVinePair, and Wine Folly, among other publications, and she is currently pursuing the WSET Diploma in Wines and Spirits. Follow her Champagne-fueled adventures on Instagram at @takeittocourt.

Massaging Primitivo with music therapy - Can Primitivo Age

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Walter Speller  - 13 Jun 2018

For the complete article and scores, visit jancisrobinson.

Last March I found myself in London at the same time as Pasquale Petrera of the Puglian estate Fatalone. He was there to present a flight of Primitivo going all the way back to their first official bottling of 1988, with two even older vintages, bottled for family use only, 1981 and 1977. From the start of the presentation, organised by Doug Wregg of UK importer Les Caves de Pyrène, it was clear that Petrera was on a mission: to show that Primitivo (the variety known as Zinfandel in California) can age. In his case more than 30 years. 'We want to show how Primitivo performs', Petrera exclaimed, 'and I'm very much against the idea that it needs to be drunk within five years'. 

That Primitivo has the capacity not just to survive in bottle but gain in complexity is not a given. Most exported examples are full-throttle, fruit-driven, ready-to-drink wines with quite a bit of alcohol. Most of it comes at very convenient prices simply because there is so much of the stuff. Italy's plantings of Primitivo  total 12,000 ha (3,000 acres) at the last count in 2010. The abundance of vines producing the raw material for a huge number of bargain bottles makes it hard for producers to invest in higher quality, which also obscures the fact that Primitivo is much nobler than its low-cost reputation would have you believe.

Primitivo has been planted all over Puglia, but historic documents from the eighteenth century plants it firmly in Gioia del Colle, a series of rolling hills south of Bari. It comes originally from across the Adriatic (see The politics of Zin). Fatalone's history begins at the end of the nineteenth century when Petrera's great-grandfather, Nicola Petrera, decided to plant Primitivo in the highest, windiest parts of the Gioia del Colle in the contrada of Gaudella. With thirty bottled vintages behind them, the fifth generation now running the estate has transformed it into a reference point not only for long-lived, complex Primitivo but also for organic viticulture. Fatalone is one of the first Italian estates to be carbon-neutral, with all the energy they need supplied by solar panels.

While Puglia is readily associated with a very warm, southern climate, Fatalone's vineyards are on the highest point of the Gioia del Colle hills at almost 400 m (1,310 ft) and about 50 km (30 miles) from the coast. 'Between our hill top and the sea there is nothing higher and hence the coastal breezes have a mitigating influence on temperature', Petrera explained. 'The vineyard soil, high in limestone and with a portion of water-retaining clay, results in the wine's elegance, and [provides evidence] against the idea that southern Italian wines are fruit bombs. Primitivo is very sensitive because of its thin skin. This is the key for all the decisions we make, either in vineyard or cellar.'

Primitivo has a tendency to pass quickly from perfectly ripe to overripe. This is why the last grapes they pick have always dried naturally on the vine. But this is in no way undesirable according to Petrera. If not more than 20–30% of them are added to the fermentation tank, then the result is not a stewed character but Primitivo's most essential aroma, that of toasted almond. 'You notice a long, bitter taste on the palate long after you have swallowed the wine. This is a typical characteristic of Primitivo from Gioia del Colle', averred Petrera, who claims that truly overripe fruit doesn't display the almond character, just stewed fruit.

Primitivo's other peculiarity is that its secondary buds are fertile. The bunches that grow from these buds are not cut off, as is normally the case, but left on the vine. Petrera called these bunches 'key fruit', because once the main bunches are perfectly ripe, the vines will no longer transport nutrition and water to these bunches, but to the secondary fruit, which become the raw material for a more-than-decent rosato. 'They [the secondary crop] are a certain control on the main crop, and we preserve acidity', Petrera explained. At between 6 and 6.7 g/l, the natural total acidity is exceptionally high for a red wine, not just one from the south, and brings out Primitivo's rarely seen vibrant side.

At the beginning of the flight of wines he presented, Petrera pointed out that during fermentation they do not keep the wine for very long on the skins. With the alcohol easily reaching 15%, the skins would completely dissolve, but the total maceration time is still a remarkably long two to three weeks. He doesn't believe in ageing the wine in new oak, preferring used Slavonian casks of around 7 hl instead. 'Oak will only smother Primitivo's delicate aromas'. The wines are fermented by indigenous yeasts and aged for only 12 months in cask. Any longer would lead to premature oxidation of the wine, according to Petrera. But this risk of premature oxidation is not inherent in the variety itself but is apparently the effect of too much 'music therapy'.

During those 12 months Petrera pampers his wines with 'soft new age and classical music enriched with sounds of nature (wind, rain, leaf movements, water flowing and chirping of birds), based on the idea that these soft vibrations improve the activity of the microflora present in the wine and support its breathing when in casks.' (This is how Fatalone's website describes it.)

I know, I thought the same, but the idea is not as insane as it may sound at first. Petrera has studied physics and has a keen interest in sound waves. He explained that the sound waves of classical music are a kind of massage of the wines, in which the casks become a sort of membrane and this massage magnifies the micro-oxygenation. This is the reason Petrera doesn't leave the wines any longer than 12 months in cask. He mentioned that to prove it he once conducted an experiment with two casks of the same wine, one with and one without music therapy, and they turned out differently. He did, however, admit that the difference could not be explained by the presence or absence of music alone.

Whatever the effect of sound waves, the 16 wines below more than convinced me of the ageing capacity of Primitivo as well as its complexity, provided it is in the right hands.

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João Tavares & Marguerita Bornstein

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Excited to have the Quinta da Boavista Rufia wines back in stock, including the new Orange, made from a field blend of seven varietals and left on the skins for one week. The clever artwork for the Rufia wines is done by a local (to NYC) artist named Marguerita Bornstein, pictured with @joaotavaresdepinawines at #rawwinefair in November, Joao was the only Portuguese producer at the NYC RAW.

Marguerita was born in Sydney, Australia in 1950. The only child of two holocaust survivors, she grew up Brazil, where she lived from 1954 and started her career in drawing at a very early age. In 1970, she moved back to Australia where she worked for television, in animation and studied drawing. Her work has appeared in newspapers such as O Estado de S. Paulo and Journal da Tarde, as well as in several magazines. For the Polish magazine Krakout she created the comic 'Zyg & Mea' She moved to the United States in 1976 and settled in New York. See more of Marguerita's work at http://bit.ly/2iGncDj and here. Find more info on Boavista here.

 

Our First Portfolio Tasting!

Please join us for our first ever Portfolio Tasting! This is a joint tasting between Field Blend Selections and Bon Vivant Imports. We will be hosting 25 winemakers from around the world. 

When: Thursday, March 9th 11AM-4PM

Where: Tribeca Grill Loft - 375 Greenwich St. (at Franklin)

Featured producers include:

Please RSVP to info@fieldblendselections.com