At the inaugural Greek Wine Happy Hour, held in February at the upscale Kellari Taverna on K Street, Charalampos Papadopoulos, second secretary of economy and commerce at the Embassy of Greece, said he wanted to “create a scene” depicting wines from his native country. “Wine itself is a culture,” he said.
It can also be a vehicle for cultural exploration.
“We want to get people to try them and hopefully to like them, not only in Greek places but in general,” Papadopoulos, who goes by “Babis,” told The Diplomat.
At the bar, Babis introduced me to Yani, whose full name is Ioannis G. Tsapos, founder and owner of Dionysos Imports, one of the major importers of Greek and Portuguese wines in the Maryland-Virginia-D.C. region. Yani, who came to the United States when he was 20 and worked for years as a computer specialist before founding his import business in 1991, took me aside to a table where we could taste the four Greek wines, vintages 2008 and 2009, being featured at the happy hour.
We started with the Tetramythos Roditis, an organic dry white wine from Diakofto-Kalavryta in Northern Peloponnese, which is light in color and has “green apple and lemon flavors,” according to the info sheet on the featured wines. Yani told the story of this new winery, owned by four cousins who “decided to put all their dreams and efforts into winemaking.”
“The first results are extremely promising,” he said. I have to agree.
On the back of the info sheet, Yani sketched a rough map of Greece, not the easiest country to draw. He marked the spot from where the wine originates and described the geography of the area. Due to the vineyards’ elevation, at more than 1,000 feet above sea level, and the ocean breeze, the vines never rot, he explained.
“It’s very scenic,” he added. “You can see the northern part of Greece, and the deep blue water.”
In 2007, the catastrophic wildfires that scorched large areas of Greece destroyed the brothers’ winery, but spared the vineyards themselves. Yani recounted how neighbors helped out with the wine harvest and even offered use of their equipment to produce that vintage. In the meantime, the winery has been completely rebuilt.
The intoxicating tour of Greece continues with descriptions of the landscapes, soils and microclimates, or terroir, that produce the distinct characteristics of the country’s wines, as well as the stories of the people who make them. As we tasted another vintage, Yani explained the ancient Greek practice of diluting wine to varying degrees depending on the type of event. Krasi, which referred to the diluted admixture of wine and water, is the modern Greek term for wine, while oenos, the term for undiluted wine, forms the root of the English word “wine.”
It’s clear that wine, so much more than a beverage, can be a window onto another culture. And with its rich calendar of embassy events showcasing wines from around the world, Washington is a hub of wine diplomacy — and promotion. Some missions use national day or other receptions to feature their national wines, introducing them to American audiences, while others make it their business to help promote key brands — donating them to galas and other major functions, for instance, or directly staging tastings and other promotional events.
Yani goes to Europe two to three times a year to maintain relationships with vintners, take clients on tours, sample the wines, and find ones that “make sense” to import. This means the price must be in proportion to the quality. Overvalued wines will not sell, he says, as Americans have become more knowledgeable about the industry. By the same token, Yani is striving to promote undervalued, lesser-known wines, such as those from Greece, in the greater Washington area.
The task isn’t easy, admitted Tom McKnew, wine manager at Calvert Woodley Fine Wines & Spirits in Van Ness. In addition to being the city’s largest wine retailer, the popular store on Connecticut Avenue is also an importer of wines, particularly those from Bordeaux.
The store’s selection of European wines focuses on the global wine-producing powerhouses of France, Italy and Spain, as well as Germany, although Calvert Woodley does carry a handful of wines from other European countries, including several Austrian wines and a Hungarian Tokaj wine. McKnew explained that for reasons having to do with price, customer knowledge and sheer volume of production, it’s difficult from a business standpoint to stock wines from nations that are generally less well known among Americans.
Importing wine directly from France allows him to offer top-notch wines at a competitive price, McKnew said — something he cannot do when going through the “three-tiered system” of importer, wholesaler and retailer.
“If we bought the exact same Bordeaux from a wholesaler that bought it from a négociant [wine merchant] and the whole system, the price would be well over our cost, maybe 50 percent higher,” McKnew pointed out.
At the same time, the high demand in Washington for European wines from the major wine-producing countries means that he can carry a greater selection of these wines than stores in other places.
“You go out in the suburbs of Virginia and Maryland, and their drinking habits are a little different.” McKnew said. “I think the palates are a little sweeter, fruitier. I mean a $15, $20 Bordeaux might not sell so well in Baltimore or Richmond or something like that. You may see more cabernets from California.”
The economic downturn did restrict some buying habits, although McKnew says the American wine market is generally healthy and has rebounded from the financial crisis.
“People are still drinking wine,” he told The Diplomat. “Whether it be two nights a week, or three nights a week, or a half bottle … they cut back not so much on their consumption, but the amount of money they pay for wine.” He added that the upper end of the market has also returned. “People are starting to buy some wines at $100, $150 a bottle now.”
Although comparatively speaking, D.C. wine consumers are a worldly, sophisticated bunch, McKnew said he doesn’t see a trend toward people looking for wines from the smaller European winemaking countries. He mentioned the example of Switzerland, whose wine, in addition to being very expensive, is mostly consumed by the Swiss. “There’s not a whole lot to export,” McKnew said, noting that Calvert Woodley carries one Swiss wine now; in the summer, it will carry two.
Indeed, for average European winemakers, their main market will be domestic, or neighboring countries where exporting their wines is fairly easy.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a demand — however small — for unique wines from new, undiscovered locales. After all, years ago wines from New Zealand or Chile were considered relatively obscure in the United States. Today’s internationally prized vintage from Australia or Argentina could very well be tomorrow’s wine from Hungary or Moldova.
Asked if embassies or foreign wine merchants looking to promote their wine in the United States ever approach him, McKnew responded immediately.
“Yes, there is one in particular — and that is directly related to the ambassador of Malta — he is out there promoting his products,” McKnew said. “So we actually now import two wines ourselves.”
Those two wines, a white and red, have been available at Calvert Woodley since April 2010. They are products of Maltese Ambassador Mark Miceli-Farrugia’s personal wine estate, Meridiana, located in the central Mediterranean island’s agricultural heartland.
During an interview at the Embassy of Malta, the ambassador, who goes by “Mark,” recalled how he founded Malta’s first “world-class” winery.
Having marketed beverages in Malta, Canada and Italy over two decades, Miceli turned to winemaking following a conversation with a Bordeaux oenologist in 1985 who convinced him that Malta had all the right ingredients for making high-quality wine. That includes excellent soil, a temperate Mediterranean climate and other favorable weather conditions specific to Malta, such as no frost or hail during the country’s summertime harvest, a problem experienced by other wine-producing nations further north.
There were two reasons Malta had not previously tried its hand at wine: a lack of regulations stemming from a legacy of the British rule, which lasted from 1800 to 1964, and a lack of local demand for top-tier wines.
The ambassador’s timing in developing his estate during the early 1990s, coincided auspiciously with Malta’s preparations for joining the European Union (it acceded in 2004). Miceli had already been preparing his wine according to higher European standards, and the eventual access to the EU market helped pave the way for Meridiana’s success.
By 1995, the vines were bearing fruit, ahead of schedule. Miceli had to rush expensive stainless steel fermenters and other equipment to Malta to accommodate the harvest.
“We produced a reasonable quantity, which I sold during the very first Christmas cocktail party immediately following the harvest, which was incredible. Afterward I went around, gave them to my distributor, and he said you’ve sold more than we’re producing. And I said, ‘Oh, that’s good news.'”
The ambassador is proud of the result, which took years of winning over skeptics: “What we achieved is we convinced not only the banks, but also consumers that Malta could produce a good wine. That hadn’t been the case before,” he said. “Today, now that we’re in Europe, people are beginning to see the benefit. But it took some years. I’m glad to see that they’re finally on board.”
Miceli — who has organized wine-related events at the University Club, Cosmos Club and other places in Washington — noted that one byproduct has been indirectly highlighting the island itself and all that it offers. “Maltese wine basically promotes everything that is agricultural in Malta — because even though we produce very little agriculture, whatever we produce is unbeatable in flavor.”
Despite Malta’s growing reputation as a wine-producing country, most of the wine today is still consumed domestically. The same is true for other smaller European countries with proud winemaking traditions but whose wine is comparatively unknown outside the country itself.
Take Slovenia. Tucked between Italy, Austria and Croatia in a prime wine-growing climate, the country has around 25,000 hectares of vineyards and produces 100 million liters of wine from its 14 wine-growing districts annually.
“Wine is an indispensable element in the fabric of our food culture,” said Ma_a _iftar de Arzu, second secretary at the Embassy of Slovenia in Washington. “It signifies our identity in a geographical and cultural sense.”
“The quality of wine,” she added, “reflects the quality of life of the people who take great pride in producing it.”
Even so, the vast majority of Slovenia’s wine is consumed domestically, with less than 10 percent exported, according to _iftar de Arzu.
Among exported Slovenian wines, those from the Movia winery were the most successful in the United States in 2010, with six of its wines receiving more than 90 points in Wine Spectator magazine. Many other Slovenian wineries, with names like Batic, Edi Simcic, Santomas, and Kabaj, have a strong presence in the United States as well.
An even smaller European country — with all of 35,000 inhabitants — but one with a centuries-old winemaking tradition is Liechtenstein, which represents the possibilities, and challenges, of wine as a vehicle for cultural diplomacy.
Matthew Keller, senior political adviser at the Embassy of Liechtenstein, told The Diplomat of his efforts to raise the profile of the tiny principality, highlighting aspects beyond the industrial products such as Hilti tools and ThyssenKrupp Presta steering systems for which Liechtenstein is more typically known.
Starting in 2003, when there was a “proliferation” of Austrian wines in the U.S. market, Keller began the process of preparing to import Liechtenstein wines to America.
“I always thought it would be great to have a product from Liechtenstein that people could have in their homes,” Keller said. “For a country the size of Washington, D.C., it’s also a way for us to discuss the history of Liechtenstein, and say there’s more to Liechtenstein than you might think.”
Most of Liechtenstein-pedigree wine is in fact produced in Austria — a seeming anomaly explained by the history of the royal family. In 1436, Christoph von Liechtenstein bought vineyards about 25 miles northeast of Vienna. Though the family fled to Liechtenstein proper in 1938, the winemaking on the Hofkellerei, the princely estate near Wilfersdorf, Austria, continues to this day.
Keller’s campaign to market Liechtenstein wines in the United States reached a zenith in 2007, when a Washington Post review featured wines from the principality and senior vintners from Liechtenstein’s two major wine operations came to the DC Food and Wine Festival. Up until about 2009, several area wine stores were also stocking Liechtenstein vintages. But shortly after the success began, “logistical bumps” put a halt to Keller’s marketing push, including a rising euro, competition from cheaper Austrian wines, and relatively small volumes.
Although it’s no longer possible to buy wines from Liechtenstein in Washington-area stores, Keller is still a believer in the value of wine in the service of diplomacy, particularly for smaller countries competing for attention with their larger counterparts.
“We have to find unique ways to give people a memorable experience,” he said. “Wine is really a good tool to open people’s eyes to Liechtenstein. You use it as an icebreaker, start drinking, talking, and they’re interested to learn more.”
About the Author
Jacob Comenetz is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.