When I moved to the Bay area last year, I expected to find restaurants mostly focused on wines from nearby California wineries. What I didn't anticipate: a wine community with growing enthusiasm for lesser-known regions, thanks in no small part to Eric Danch, Northern California sales manager for Blue Danube Wine Company, an importer of wines from Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, and other spots in Central and Eastern Europe.
I asked Eric to join our interview series and share a bit of essential info about these unfamiliar wine regions. Shall we start with the part where he joins the circus?
How did you get into wine in the first place? How did you get interested in Central and Eastern European wine, specifically?
Drinking wine with practically every meal started with a year abroad at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. I lived with roughly 500 students in a big building filled with shared kitchens and communal tables. We cooked, talked and drank heroically. Right after graduating college my girlfriend took a one way flight to Italy. I gave chase and we ended up living together in a suburb of Rome for a year making a living under the table teaching English and taking care of children. Money was super tight, but there was always an extra 2 Euro for a bottle to make every meal feel special.
When I got back to the States I was broke and saddled with school loans. I hastily took a job that required face paint, costumes, and choreography at Teatro Zinzanni—a 3-hour European caberet meets Vaudevillian circus paired with a 5 course meal under an antique mirrored tent. This was a tall order for someone who reluctantly went to prom.
For 6 years I became friends with traveling performers from all over the world, but often the ones that made the biggest impression where Ukrainian, Croatian, Austrian, Hungarian, and Russian. After each show we would eat and drink at a long table under the tent accompanied by stories that made everything taste better. Honey-peppered Ukrainian Vodka with whole pickled tomatoes was one of my first great pairings.
Spurred in part by my Hungarian heritage, I have wanted to learn more about these places, who lived there, and what they drank. At the beginning of 2010, the time came to run away from the circus, and I jumped at an opportunity to work the harvest at Donkey and Goat Winery in Berkeley. From vineyard sampling to bottling, I was extremely fortunate and humbled to get some hands-on experience and make industry connections along the way. Among them were Frank Dietrich and Zsuzsanna Molnar, who founded Blue Danube Wine Company. I started working for them in 2011.
What do you think people get wrong about Eastern European wine? What do you wish more people knew about it?
Rather than anything wrong, there is a massive lack of context surrounding these wines. What I hear most often is "they make wine there?" and "I don't know, sounds pretty esoteric." This is tough place to start even though many of the winemaking cultures predate much of Western Europe. The language, food, geography, culture and history of Slovenia, Croatia, Hungary, and Bosnia & Herzegovina are still mostly unknown in the States.
In contrast, most people can say something in French, have had French food, seen French movies, can name a couple of cities, and are aware that France makes quality wine. My wish is that people want to travel to these places, try cooking some regional recipes at home, butcher some grape pronunciations (I certainly do), watch one of their movies, and of course do some armchair traveling by drinking and sharing the wines.
What would you say is the most exciting thing about the regions Blue Danube imports? How would you describe the wines to someone who has never tried them?
When I show people pictures of limestone terraced cliffs overlooking the Adriatic covered in head trained vines, they want to taste Plavac Mali. When I explain how Eszencia is made and that it's so concentrated it's traditionally served on a spoon, people open their mouths. After explaining the Heurigen culture in Vienna, people want to taste Gemischter Satz. When a wine is fermented in a 3500 liter clay coil pot buried in the ground for a year, people are curious.
These are all genuine cultural products that happen to be delicious. These are wines made as a way of life and the winemakers can't imagine doing anything else. The most exciting thing is that we're just getting started and there is so much over there that's never been here before.
Can you make any comparisons between the grapes of these regions and grapes people might be more familiar with? Can you describe some of the major varieties grown there and what to expect?
In the interest of giant blanket statements, the wines of Austria are exacting and bright, Coastal Croatia highlights the briny and the savory, Hungary brims with acid and sugar, and Slovenia marries skin maceration with fruit.
And keeping with the blanket statement theme, there are also many wines that can compare to more well known ones. If you're really into Chenin Blanc, please try some Hungarian Furmint and Hárslevelű from Tokaj and Somló. If you love oxidative Jura wines and sherry, please try some dry Szamorodni from Tokaj.
If you're into Cru Beaujolais and cool climate Pinot Noir, please try some Austrian Zweigelt, St. Laurent or Hungarian Kadarka. Old California Zinfandels? Please try some Croatian Babić or Plavac Mali (both relatives of Zinfandel, itself also from Croatia).
The Slovenian-Italian border is also filled with grapes like Rebula (Ribolla Gialla), Ravan (Friulano), and Sivi Pinot (Pinot Grigio) made in different but complementary styles. All said and done, after a big glass of Hungarian Juhfark, Croatian Teran, Slovenian Pinela or Žilavka from Bosnia & Herzegovina, it might be time to start a new page in the comparisons Roladex.
Are there any good books or other resources for folks who want to learn about these wines?
Sadly not really anything comprehensive to my knowledge. There is no The New Hungarian Wine book yet. However, this is a good introduction to Tokaj, this is a great historical/cultural cookbook for Hungary, the Austrian Wine website is super well organized, and there are increasingly great reference websites for the Balkans like Wines of Croatia and Wines of the Balkans.
For anyone visiting Hungary, there is also an amazing husband and wife team (Carolyn and Gábor Bánfalvi) that lead food and tours called Taste of Hungary which I highly recommend. Carolyn's book and articles in Saveur, Food & Wine, and so on are also great.
What wines are you drinking at home and loving these days?
Like a bad dealer, I'm often prone to dipping into my own stash, so I've been breaking the habit by going to some of my favorite wine shops and putting little samplers together.
A week or so ago I realized I don't really know much about Bordeaux, for instance. Other regions lately have been Portugal, the Northern Rhône, and whatever happens to be the specialty of the shop or buyer.
I also recently moved to Sacramento to start a family and have been able to find a lot of older California wines still on the shelves in older family run grocery stores and corner shops. Often with the original faded price tag, I've been able to try Cabernet, Zinfandel, Charbono, and Sangiovese from the 1980s for a lot less than you'd think. Some were not stored properly or died naturally, but I've had a few that were remarkable.