Friday, February 6, 2009

Day One in Austria

I’m outside the NH hotel across the street from the Vienna airport. It’s Saturday morning 9 AM and Klaus comes up to me with his charismatic big smile and a firm handshake. I think he says hello in Austrian (German) and I confess, I really don’t understand what he is saying to me. His disarming smile and hurry up let’s go attitude set the tone for the next four days. We have lots to cover and the work will be fun. I climb aboard a luxury tour bus and meet my spiritual wine brothers and sisters for the journey. We will pretty much be eating and drinking together day and night until Wednesday.

The trip to Austria is an entirely different set up. The group totals about fifteen in a combination of wine buyers of some sort, such as retailers and restauranteurs, and a few wine wholesalers who represent Klaus’ wines in Virginia.  This trip was organized by Klaus Wittauer and his company, KW Selections. Klaus was born in Austria and worked in the restaurant industry before coming to the import and wholesale business. He represents eight Austrian wineries and soon he will be bringing two additional properties (more to come later in the story) to the US market.

Our bus driver, Christian, speaks no English and this is his fourth trip with Klaus touring Austrian wineries. In time we get to know Christian and even with the language barrier, he is a nice guy and clearly a talented driver as he guides our behemoth through small passes and around mountain vineyards. Christian lands the great white whale at our first stop, Netzl winery in Burgenland.  
Netzl is one of the two new producers coming to the US and truly a family business. Franz and his wife Christine along with their two daughters, 
Christina and Anna Marie, run the estate. Franz greets us with Christina acting as translator and his presence carries gravitas. With a dark fedora style hat and big black bushy mustache, his hands are large and rough, clearly those of a working farmer. With two young daughters, I feel for their boyfriends having to meet this man before a date. Netzl owns 25 ha of vineyards with the red variety Zweigelt (ˈsvī-gehlt) being his most important. I am amazed at how flat the vineyards are in the area with no mountains in sight and rows of vines in open fields, easy to see. We take a tour through the vineyard to see his vines and discuss the pruning. And, no the weather is not any warmer in Austria as we stand on the frozen ground looking at the vines for about 30 minutes. The plus side to this deep freeze for Germany and Austria is that some of the bug populations will be reduced naturally. Some farmers had joked that if the warm winters continued, soon you would see scorpions around the vines!

The tasting commences in the winery’s tasting room with its glass windows overlooking the vines. The style of Netzl is clearly more modern and international. The reds enjoy a good bathing in oak and their top bottlings are intended to compete on the international market employing a high alcohol, oaky, fruit bomb approach. We taste traditional Austrian varietals like Gruner Veltliner and Zweigelt, but also get a dose of Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah.  My reaction favors their white wines and the traditional varietals for Austria vs. the heavy handed international blends. One of the hits at the tasting is a dryish rosé called Rosanna. It’s a play on “rosé” and the daughter’s name “Anna.” This is definitely on our list to bring to Durham for Spring 2009.

We work through a dozen or so bottles and then we get our first goulash! The Hungarian influence is felt throughout the trip with many variations on this dish for lunch at the wineries. I can’t help but think there is a business opportunity back home. Goulash in a cup? A mobile goulash truck similar to the taco trucks of Durham? Why isn’t anyone doing that back home?

Lunch is enhanced by “getting to know you” conversation as the group sits and we tell our wine life stories and where we are from. Once again wine brings people together. The group is made up of wine veterans and neo-oenophiles, with some having been on this exact wine trip multiple times. We have a Virginia journalist for a small paper and wine shop employee writing a travel/leisure style piece about Austrian wine. We have two young wine buyers from a large retail grocery chain on the east coast and a specialty department buyer for wine and cheese in a separate chain. The table is complemented on the restaurant side by Chef Bret Jennings of Elaine’s in Chapel Hill and a woman sommelier from a fine dining restaurant in Virginia. The overall group is a great one and fortunately we don’t have any knuckle-heads on this trip. All of us can tell at least one story of an inappropriate traveler on one of these trips who came because they thought it was drink-fest. No, this trip we all have our pens, notebooks, cameras and lots of questions firing away all day long. After lunch we head to Michlits/Meinklang winery to see “the eggs.” -Salamanzar