Monday, September 19, 2011

Reimagine Croatian Wine

Croatia has the right tools of a wine-producing region and with entry pending into the EU, it's redefining its international wine image.

Link to RMGT article published September 2011

With a rich history of winemaking that goes back to the fourth century B.C. and a blank canvas on which to rediscover itself since gaining independence 20 years ago, Croatia seems poised for success as a quality wine-producing region.

Add in a Mediterranean climate, indigenous grapes growing in stunningly beautiful landscapes, and a romantic history. Pending entry into the European Union further accentuates its image as an emerging wine region.

Croatian wines are generating a lot of buzz recently. Much of it stems from the social networking and promotional activities of Wines of Croatia, an organization founded in 2009 by New York City-based certified sommelier Cliff Rames. In recent months Croatian wines have been featured at the first ever Wines of Croatia Grand Portfolio Tasting in New York City, at the North American Wine Bloggers Conference, and in a full-color spread in Wine Enthusiast magazine. This year, several wineries partnered with the Croatian Chamber of the Economy to establish the first ever Association of Winemakers of Croatia. The mission of the association will be to support Wines of Croatia and further develop ongoing promotional activities and events to showcase Croatian wines.

Sommeliers, including Chantelle Pabros, owner of Chicago-based VINERA wine consulting company, are spreading the word about Croatian wines. For Pabros, it was love at first sight. In fact, the name of her company originates from the sailboat she was aboard during her first visit to Croatia in 2007.

“Once you have it, you can never forget it,” Pabros says. “When you are a sommelier, you are an ambassador to the farmer. You appreciate the blood, sweat and tears that go into every wine that is made.”

The paradoxical advantage for Croatian winemakers is starting from scratch after gaining independence in 1991, but also having an extensive history. Young winemakers are traveling the world to discover modern technologies and apply them in Croatia. Experimentation with winemaking, such as oak usage or concrete egg fermentation tanks, is allowing them to find their unique style. Indigenous varieties, such as Plavac Mali, thrive in the parched limestone soils of the coast, providing a strong sense of terroir.

Most red wine production is on the southwestern coast and Dalmatian Islands, where Plavac Mali (pronounced plah-vahtz mah-lee) grapes cover the steep slopes overlooking the crystal turquoise blue sea. The narrow, mountainous Pelješac peninsula is four miles wide at its broadest point, and 40 miles long and home to Dingač, Croatia’s first protected wine region since 1961. Hvar Island is known for lush vineyards, rocky terrain, abundant olive groves, and endless fields of lavender. Its wine complements some of the freshest seafood that the Mediterranean has to offer.

The main challenges facing Croatian wines on the international market include lower-quality producers, a language barrier and skeptical wine buyers. There are many mass-produced wines that tarnish the image, similar to what Yellow Tail did for Australia. Croatia is rich with indigenous grape varieties that grow nowhere else in the world and deliver characteristics that many wine lovers have never discovered before. For this reason, Croatian wines must be hand sold by sommeliers and retailers.

According to Daniel Pedisich, owner of Oenocentric, the consumer reaction to Croatian wines is much better than that of wine buyers. The New York City-based importing company carries nine producers from Croatia, including Ernest Tolj’s Saint Hills winery from Dingač.

“Restaurant wine buyers are skeptical that Croatian wine will sell successfully,” Pedisich says. “Nine times out of 10, the wines will be successful as long as you have people backing them and educating their guests.”

Tolj invited world-famous wine consultant Michel Rolland to Croatia to make the best wine possible. Having never heard about or tasted Croatian wine before, Rolland accepted out of curiosity even though he was not interested in taking on any new projects. When he visited Dingač he was stunned by the beauty: sun, sea and soil. He sat on a rock and called his wife to say: “Honey, This is where I want to die!” He turned to Tolj and announced: “I am in! I thought you were crazy, but if I don't make the best wine here, I quit my job!”

The rest is history, or at least history in the making. Saint Hills Dingač Plavac Mali is fermented in large wooden vats and aged in new French oak barrels for 18 months. According to Tolj, when he started making wine he knew his market niche: low yield, high quality, the best terroir and technology combined with Rolland’s knowledge and skills.

Some markets have been quicker than others to jump on the Croatian wine boat. Arthur Hon, wine buyer at Sepia restaurant in Chicago, says he has always found current emerging European wine regions fascinating, including Croatia’s.

“Part of the reason that they really pique my interest is because I find these areas obscure the stereotypical wine distinctions between ‘Old World’ and ‘New World,’” Hon says. “The practicality of Croatian wines I have listed work really well with a wide range of dishes.”

Croatian wines to look for include Plavac Mali grown on Hvar Island and Pelješac, including Dingač and Postup; Malvasia from Istria; Babić from Primošten; and Pošip from Korčula Island. Vlado Krauthaker, Alen Bibich, Ivica Matošević, Andro Tomić, Korta Katarina, Saint Hills, Bruno Trapan, Luka Krajančić and Zlatan Plenkovic are just a few examples of cutting-edge winemakers and wineries in Croatia.

“Restaurant owners and beverage directors should always look at ways to make their wine lists more interesting and ‘buzz worthy,’” Rames says. “Croatian wines add an element of coolness, diversity, and off-the-beaten-path open-mindedness to a wine list.”

Monday, August 15, 2011

Wine Lists Go Digital

Link to RMGT article published August 2011

This is my second column for RMGT (Restaurant Management) Magazine. It was difficult to compress all the information into 750 words after I interviewed roughly a dozen companies. My goal was to write a go-to column about software available for digital wine lists, not to market one company over another. Since its development, companies providing digital access have been born (practically) over-night leaving the restaurant owner weeding through promotional jargon to discover which system is best for them. When it comes down to it, it depends on the amount of information you want to provide and if you use an iPad- versus a tablet-compatible program. The pricing varies based on the level of customization, troubleshooting and set-up assistance provided.

I look forward to hearing your feedback.

Amy Payne

Friday, July 1, 2011

My First Article as a Wine Columnist

Link to RMGT artcle published July 2011

This has been my favorite article to write and research yet. Riesling is hands down my desert island wine, so it was easy to make a case for why it is a great summer porch pounder. I am very well aware it is much more than that, but the more we get the word out there that it's more than simply sweet syrupy blah, the better. Riesling, more than just your grandma's sweet wine. I hope you enjoy it and look for my column next month!

Amy Payne

Riesling, More Than Just Your Grandma’s Sweet Wine

With the many intricacies that Riesling has to offer, calling it merely a summer wine is almost a slap in the face. But with recent consumer awareness and the backing of the sommelier community, it is a wine you cannot neglect on this summer’s selections.

“It goes with everything” was the marketing campaign that Blue Nun used to storm the U.S. markets in the mid-1980s, selling 1.5 million cases in its peak year. They got one thing right; Riesling is one of the most versatile wines to pair with food. But they also tainted the consumer opinion of the grape.

Many consumers today associate Riesling with the mass-produced, semisweet Liebfraumilch, a blend of primarily high yielding grapes such as Sylvaner and Müller-Thurgau. Exported German wines have come a long way since ‘grandma’s sweet wine'. Riesling is finally starting to get some credit, despite Blue Nun.

Riesling dates back to the 15th century in Rheingau and is nearly every sommelier’s desert island wine.

“I always get a raised eyebrow when I tell people my favorite grape varietal is Riesling,” explained Alpana Singh, Master Sommelier and Director of wine and spirits for Lettuce Entertain You in Chicago. “People usually think it is a cheap wine. The average consumer has been trained to stay away from sweet wines, thinking they aren’t sophisticated.”

Eddie Osterland, America’s first Master Sommelier, attributes a 1966 Jos. Jos. Prüm Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling feinste Auslese to his career choice in wine, coining it as his light bulb wine. “It grabbed me by my senses and said slow down,” exuded

There are two different kinds of Riesling drinkers: the white Zinfandel sweet wine lovers and the true wine geeks. The dichotomy between consumer and professional opinions leaves Riesling as one of the best kept secrets in the wine industry.

Damon Goldstein, owner of San Diego-based German wine importing company Truly Fine Wines Inc., says his biggest challenge has been defeating the consumer misconception of the varietal.

“Riesling is a polarized grape consumed by the top 5 percent and bottom 5 percent,” said Goldstein. “The 90 percent in the middle don’t know the first thing about Riesling.”

Riesling used to fetch higher prices than first growth Bordeaux. In 1890 a case of Château Lafitte sold for 40 shillings, while a case of wine from the Bernkasteler Doctor vineyard sold for 63 shillings.

According to the Pacific Rim Riesling Wine Rules pamphlet, Riesling exports from Germany have been on the rise since 2001, with the U.S. becoming its second largest export market. Sommeliers are the front runners of its resurgence.

“It’s really not just one grape, it’s a bunch of different grapes depending on the style that you are playing with,” said Shayn Bjornholm, Master Sommelier and Education Director of the Washington State Wine Commission.

Riesling is classified as a noble varietal due to its diversity, age worthiness, complexity of aromatics, expression of place, historical relevance, acidity and food pairing qualities. It has the widest range in style of any other white grape: from sparkling to still wine, bone dry to ice wine and tba, and between 6.5 percent and 14 percent alcohol.

“There are not many 20 dollar wines that could age for 100 years,” said Geoff Kruth, Master Sommelier and Wine Director of Sonoma’s Farmhouse Inn. “What you get for your money is remarkable.”

According to Kevin Zraly of Windows on the World wine school, 90 percent of wines produced today are meant to be consumed within one year of bottling. Riesling is one of the few white grapes that come into its own with age, developing secondary tertiary aromas. It makes for a wise investment as a buyer because you don’t have to worry about selling it quickly.

The Germans make their wine like they make their cars: with precision. Twenty percent of Germany’s vineyards are planted with Riesling, most of which are on steep mountainside slopes to increase sun exposure. This demands hand harvesting and makes rich soils scarce due to avalanches from rain.

“It is noble because it’s a diva and needs the right conditions to grow well,” said Singh.

Because Riesling needs the perfect conditions to thrive, there is not anymore area to expand production in Germany. The majority of winemakers only produce 50-75,000 bottles a year, which is mostly consumed locally or throughout Europe. The laws of supply and demand would say that Riesling is a hot commodity.

Unlike any other grape, Riesling expresses a unique place. Fernando Beteta, Master Sommelier and Education Director for Chicago’s Tenzing Wine and Spirits says it serves as an amplifier of terrior, meaning it is a blank canvas for the soil and climate to express itself.

Riesling is also known for having lower alcohol and piercingly high acidity, food pairings best friend. We have all heard of pairing Riesling with complex, spicy cuisines like Thai Food,but it’s time to start thinking out of the box.

“Its structure lends itself to different foods more than any other wine,” said Kruth. Try Korean barbecue and beef short ribs. The Riesling cuts through the fat and complements the charred flavors, mirin, soy and brown sugar. Other pairing ideas include bright summer sauces, grilled vegetables and barbequed meats or salty pork dishes.

The first 100 percent Riesling vineyard was planted in 1716 at Schloss Johannisberg in the Rheingau, thus the origin of the term, Johannisberg Riesling. It is hard to classify a grape with such a strong history as simply a summer quaffer. But the lower alcohol levels make it an optimal choice for drinking under the sun.

“Riesling can make a good porch pounder,” said Bjornholm.“The higher acidity leaves you feeling quenched and lifted up instead of weighted down.”

To target the 90 percent of consumers that are still out of the Riesling loop, you must know your audience. The two largest groups of wine consumers are the baby boomers at 77 million and the millennium generation at 70 million. Zraly says that of the two, the millennium is consuming the most.

According to Kruth, the best way to appeal to the consumer is to either use appropriate pairings or sell them old enough so the sweetness is not as obvious. He also says it is important to not push Riesling on the wrong people.

“Once they get it in the glass, the majority of folks usually dig it,” explained Bjornholm.

Riesling is grown in many regions around the world. Although Germany is often considered the benchmark, other regions to look for include Washington State, New York, New Zealand, Austria and Alsace.

“People are starting to understand the grape and trust sommeliers. I am looking forward to the future of Riesling blowing up,” stated Bjornholm.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Michelin and A Mom

Check out my first blog with Chef Jason McLeod recommending wines for his take on Fish n Chips. I started off by offering three choices to show people that there isn't always just one option for pairing wine. It isn't a science, it's a subjective art.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Soda Fountain Dispensers Get a Facelift

Link to Medill article published May 24, 2011

Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo Inc. bring their fountain dispensers to the digital age.

It is like an i-Pod married to a fountain dispenser. That's what consumers at the National Restaurant Association Hotel-Motel Show at the McCormick Place were saying about Coca-Cola Co.'s new vending machines.

The new Freestyle self-serve soda fountain offers hundreds of Coca-Cola beverage options, including 96 caffeine-free, 72 with low or no calories, 52 non-carbonated and 82 beverages that are exclusive to Freestyle. The unit uses an interactive touchscreen interface and allows people to use credit or debit cards. There is no upfront cost to install the machine, but there is a small monthly fee.

The new technology offers features that make daily maintenance easier for business owners, according to the company. The machine tracks consumer behavior through the BevLogic reporting system.

Jeff Drake, co-founder and president of Go Roma has had the Freestyle fountain dispensers in four of his six Chicago locations since November 2010. He says the BevLogic system helps the managers with inventory management based on calculations of previous history.

Coca-Cola promises a 10 to 15 percent increase in beverage sales for businesses that upgrade.

“Since installation, our sales in beverages sold per entrée increased about 15 percent,” attested Drake. “There has been a lot of positive feedback. It has been interesting to see how different age groups and demographics respond. I was afraid that the older generations would be turned off by the technology. But people are pleased by the variety.” 

Dr. Pepper lover Sophia Dimapoulos agreed that the machine is very user friendly. “I am just floored how the new model integrates our futuristic society,” she said.

“It’s like sliced bread for the beverage industry,” raved consumer Dianne Samartizis. “It really tapped into the right market.”

This month marks the 125thanniversary of the soda giant, and it has stepped up to the occasion, introducing 19 new products. They have been available at more than 400 outlets in 25 markets across the U.S. since May 8. A few of the new products include Coke with lime, Barq’s vanilla and Hi-C raspberry lime. “Thinking of new ways to please guests and help operators deliver a better beverage experience is at the very essence of who we are as The Coca Cola Company,” said Gene Farrell, vice president of Coca-Cola Freestyle, Coca-Cola Refreshments USA. “Coca-Cola Freestyle’s 125 brands honor a 125-year legacy of creative development and give you a glimpse of where we’re headed in the future.”

Passersby were able to interact with the new dispenser and taste the new products at the NRA, the restaurant and hospitality industry’s most comprehensive trade show, at McCormick Place May 21 through 24. The convention attracts about 60,000 visitors to the city of Chicago, as well as 1,700 displays that unveil new products.

Coca-Cola is not the only soda company to take fountain dispensers into the digital age.

PepsiCo Inc. announced its Social Vending System in April. Using the touchscreen interface, customers can purchase a soda for a friend from across the country. The machine sends a text message with a unique code that the recipient can use at the nearest Social Vending System. There is also an option to further personalize the gift with a short video recorded right at the machine.

“Our vision is to use innovative technology to empower consumers and create new ways for them to engage with our brands, their social networks and each other at the point of purchase,” said Mikel Durham, chief innovation officer at PepsiCo Foodservice. “Social Vending extends our consumers’ social networks beyond the confines of their own devices and transforms a static, transaction-oriented experience into something fun and exciting they’ll want to return to, again and again.”

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Wine Consumption Reveals Slowly Rebounding Economy


A better glass of wine a day could keep another recession away.

This was hands down one of my favorite articles to write so far. I feel like my background in wine and education at Medill finally came together in harmony for the first time. It is also my official second by-line!

Summary: Some people use the U.S. gross domestic product to gauge the health of the economy. But wine consumption trends may be a more appropriate indicator of people's spending habits. People are starting to spend more on wine, industry experts say, but rising gasoline prices are slowing the economic rebound. Industry experts, such as Rachael Lowe from Trump Hotel and Chris Pawlisz from Table Fiftey-Two, share their insight.