By Grace Williamson
Five minutes after meeting Ivan Srpek, owner of Bornstein Wine Shop and Bar, he says to me “Please sit, would you like a glass of wine?” Mr. Srpek walks behind the long, wooden bar and removes two glasses and a bottle of Šember Sparkling Brutê. In quick, effortless pours, he fills our glasses. As he sits to join me, we begin what would turn into hours of conversation.
People traveling to Zagreb (the capital of Croatia) know the sites they want to see and can check them off their list as they snap a picture—the Cathedral, St. Mark’s Church, and the National Theater—but to those who wish for a more enriching tourist experience, they must see the people. Mr. Srpek’s story is one of intrigue because it shows a passion for culture. In this lies the appeal of traveling to Zagreb: meeting the people who cultivate rich experiences unique to the city, specifically in the way of wine. People fill the cafes on any given weekday in the city, sipping glasses of reds and whites amongst friends or colleagues.
Mr. Srpek has the mindset and personality for hospitality, making him the perfect ambassador for the wine industry in Zagreb. He welcomes guests as they walk down the stairs leading into the cellar and answers the phone with an unfailing enthusiasm as people call with various wine inquiries. He explains his business mentality figuratively, as he puts it, “There’s a box at the door where you leave your junk, and you pick it up on the way out.” A focus is placed on quality of service in order to create a warm, intimate environment for people to unwind. As for the wines, the quality reveals itself, leaving lasting impressions on guests and empty bottles—souvenirs of a good time.
The perpetuation of tradition begins in the very walls of Bornstein, built 200 hundred years ago to begin the commercial wine industry in Zagreb. Exposed brick pillars met the lofted ceiling; every wall was lined with bottles, and the stairs leading down into the cellar are bathed in light from the open front door. The cellar was first owned by a Jewish man named Vlado Borosič. During the second World War, his family had their last name changed form Bornstein to Borosič as a way of protecting themselves from Nazi Germany. Years later, he named the shop Bornstein, paying tribute to his father, who was a famous architect. Mr. Srpek bought the Bornstein name four years ago and has kept it as a way of preserving the history and tradition associated with the title.
Mr. Srpek is passionate about the small businesses of Zagreb and is active in working to promote their wines. Srpek’s wife, Doris, is equally as ardent about wine culture, and they share a chemistry for this reason, she laughs behind her black framed glasses, “Me and my husband are a bit of romantics.” Mrs. Srpek has created a map to show guests the wine regions of Croatia—Slavonia, Croatian Uplands, Istria, and Dalmatia—discussing each in such detail, one feels they are navigating the rolling hills north of Zagreb, where Pušipel Classic is produced, or wiping the ocean spray from their face on the Dalmatian island where Plavac Dingač is made.
Laughing through a mischievous smile, he swirls what is left in his glass of red zinfandel, “Am I allowed to tell that at all? I think it was illegal.” Mr. Srpek began falling in love with wine at the age of 12, while growing up in Adelaide, Australia, where he would sneak glasses amongst the house guests his mother hosted in the evenings. Originally, he was drawn to Zagreb seeking “a connection with my family, with my genes,” as his relatives were from Croatia. He soon felt a deep sense of belonging in the culture, particularly in the wine industry: “What I love about culture here is people are very warm.”
For the last four years, Mr. Srpek has owned and operated Bornstein in such a way that shows his connection to family—and not just his own. Šember (a personal favorite of Srpek’s) is one of many local families who stock the shelves with delightful, unique varieties of wine at Bornstein. Their family business has been passed down through the years and the current owner, explains Srpek, “took over from his father; he is the fourth generation.” Reputable amongst Croats for their sparkling rosé, Šember has grown in popularity with the help of Bornstein. A mutually beneficial relationship forms when small business owners support one another, Mr. Srpek elaborates, “We’re a small business, and we like to support small businesses.” Forming such bonds is one of the reasons he loves Zagreb, “It is such a close-knit community; we are living on top of each other.”
With Zagreb in the middle of the youngest wine region (The Croatian Uplands), there are a number of budding wine makers. By recognizing the upcoming generation and promoting their products, Mr. Srpek guarantees, in future years, people will be able to enjoy exquisite tastes from around Croatia. The most popular white wine in Croatia—Malvazija Istarska—is made by a young gentlemen, Claudio Tomaz, living in Istria. Bornstein’s shelves are scarce with these bottles come summertime as Croatians migrate to the coast, where sipping on this light, dry white is perfect with a seafood dish. Since its beginning, Bornstein has served to educate people about wine and is therefore the perfect platform for producers such as Tomaz.
“Excuse me just second.” Srpek leaps up from his seat under the shade of our umbrella-covered table to speak with two ladies, aimlessly wandering around the corner. He returns soon after, “Sorry, they looked a bit lost. Where were we?” As Ivan Srpek and I continued talking, I watched his expressions and the light in his blue eyes while he discussed that which mattered most to him: family and wine. Beside us, Mrs. Srpek brought a bottle of wine to a table of workmen who were resting after making deliveries in the surrounding stores. Smiling, I left that day with a warm, satisfied stomach and a bottle of Malvazija Istarska.