Talk about down the road to ruin… One stormy evening a very special wine stood on its own screaming at me, “Only wine can do this!”
It was a thundering, stormy night… really!
John (fiancé then, husband now) and I went to Central Europe to celebrate his 41st birthday. We had been stopping in little villages here and there for the night, following the winding wine road near the Croatian border… at least the map mentioned a wine road, but it seemed more like a reference guide. We had stumbled across some old castles and had even sampled wine from the barrel down in the cellar of an old castle with the groundskeeper! It was a grand ‘ol’ time. This part of the world is still happy to see a stranger pull into the drive and ask, “Do you speak English or German? Are you open?” Along the way we had planned to get married at Lake Bled at the fairy tale church on a small island in the middle of the lake with Bled castle perched on the limestone cliff in the background… waaay fairytale. However, carefree planning put us there on one of the busiest weekends and the place was overrun with tourists… not like us of course… John kept talking about the red wine area near the village Dobrovo on the Italian border, and how we can place our car on a train to go directly thru the mountain range and end up within an hour of the village. Okay, we couldn’t totally pass up Lake Bled… the view is like a fairytale with gondolas taking passengers from the shoreline to the church. We rented a room from a nice family and the next morning spent a few hours touring the castle and then renting our own gondola to row out to the church, very romantic… kind of, John rowed us out there and I rowed us back.
We roll into Dobrovo at dusk and John had read that Dobrovo Castle is an inn; not the case but we were directed to the small nondescript building across the street, that’s the Inn. Hmmmm, okay, well, it’s getting dark, we’ll go there.
Dobrovo castle sits on the edge of a steep hill overlooking vineyards and small villages. Many families’ vineyards and cellars are divided by the
Italian-Slovenian border. It’s a beautiful area with a Mediterranean climate, 28 km from the Adriatic Sea, with cool breezes coming off the Soča River.
On our way out of the castle we see the sign … the sign that started the path to ruin. Off to the right is an arching wrought iron sign “Vinoteka Brda” with stairs winding down into the Castle’s cellar. Whoa, we’ll be back!
After checking into the Inn and grabbing a bite to eat, we wandered out into the dark and drizzling night, back across the street to the castle’s Vinoteka! In awe, we walked down the brick stairs and pushed open the heavy wooden door to see an amazing display of wine bottles from all the winemakers in the region, brick archways and long heavy wood tables. Tony, the proprietor, introduces himself and, with a wave of his hand, gestures us to peruse the wine shelves and have a seat in one of the alcoves. It turns out he’s a wine and food writer who started this Vinoteka to showcase all the wonderful wines in the region. Little did we know Tony would play a major role in our future.
Thus the path to ruin is planning for a big road…
I’m not in the mood for wine that night… so I said. Tony starts bringing John tastes of varietals I had never heard of nor experienced, a Posip, Šipon, Rebula, Kerner, Amphora Style wines… the whites were over the top – the aromas and flavors were layered, each long inhale over the glass brought something new like elderflower, cedar and the flavors were smooth and grew on the mid to back palate with lovely lingering finishes – low alcohol, high quality Old World wines. Okay, bring me my own glass.
Next, Tony brings out a common varietal, Merlot, fermented in used French oak and matured in immense 7-food clay amphora that are receded into the cellar floor for one year, then the wine is pumped out, filtered and bottled. Common varietal, in an uncommon amphora-shaped bottle and made by a not so common winemaking process. It was velvety with nice structure, black fruit and then it happened… it turns to black liquorice in the glass. It’s all I could taste, so smooth! There is nothing in the world that can give such different aromas and complex flavors, then mutate into your most favorite childhood candy that wraps around your taste buds and when you open your eyes… it’s Merlot, amphora style… there wasn’t any cellophane wrapped, black swirly rope of liquorice; it was a magical nectar that gave you all the things you dreamed of! Okay, maybe not, but it blew me away! I looked up at Tony, slightly stunned, “It turned to black liquorice… anise!” He looked back at me and read the epiphany on my face and then the biggest grin grew across his face, he didn’t say a word. In my head, “That’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever had!!!”
We stumbled out of Dobrovo Castle into a rip roaring thunder and lightning storm with silly grins on our faces and a mixed case of the most treasured wines!… and the magical Merlot Amphora! I told you it was a thundering stormy night.
Fast forward five years, I’m burned out from the corporate gig, tired of the long hours, leers from colleagues if I don’t work the crazy hours, and my health is starting to be affected. It is not fun anymore… I’m spending significant cash on amazing Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Bordeaux, dry Riesling, Mourvèdre, great food… and I can’t get a great amphora-styled wine or great Central European wine for the life of me! The few wines from that part of the world in the U.S. were just not the quality we experienced. What to do? …
Start a wine import business specializing in Central European wines! Are you kidding?! No one makes a living doing that!
Six and a half years since our first trip to Central Europe, we had come full circle. Jet-lagged and tired from a long drive from Vienna, we rolled into Dobrovo at night to our sacred watering hole on the Slovenian-Italian border… Vinoteka Brda in Dobrovo Castle.
The following morning we met Tony who had lost 50 pounds since we last saw him. It’s his last day at the Vinoteka, he has sold the business to someone and was taking a job as a food and wine writer for an upcoming magazine in Ljubljana… all the circles were closing and new ones were beginning. True to his word, Tony lined us up with some of the best unknown gems in the world. These winemakers have been making wine since the 1700s and 1800s. Aleksij Erzetič, that winemaker who made the magical Merlot Amphora, hasn’t made any in awhile, but wow does he make an amazing Sivi Pinot Amphora! No, it didn’t bring back all the childhood memories of tying knots in rope liquorice and eating the knots first… but images of baking cookies, oh the aromas of nutmeg, clove, baking spices with a hint of vanilla… I was in seventh heaven!
Our Central European import business launched this past February and… the road to ruin is now embarking upon a freeway!