By Madison Gable
Zina Samek, owner of Vinoteka Vintesa, in Zagreb, Croatia smiles as a bottle near the edge of the wood rack catches her eye. She points at the label of a Dingač reading “Bura” and says, “This is the wine that inspired Benmosche,” before she launches into an explanation. Robert Benmosche, President and Chief Executive of American International Group, visited Croatia and fell in love with both the Adriatic Sea and the wine produced on its coasts. Benmosche was also intrigued by the 2001 discovery of Zinfandel’s ancestor grape, Crljenak, being native to Croatia, so in 2006 he imported 1,500 Zinfandel from Napa Valley to grow the fruit in Dalmatia. Benmosche’s story epitomizes the allure of Croatia’s wine to those who are introduced to it. The trick is having the opportunity to be introduced, after which Zagreb’s restaurants, bars, shops and locals themselves will take care of the rest. Zagreb vintners Vinoteka Vintesa, Bornstein Wine Bar and Shop and Stari Fijaker restaurant provide a capital entry point to the world of Croatian wine.
Vinoteka Vintesa harbors its collection of exclusively Croatian labels in a sunny shop tucked away in an alley where it shares its address with a local pizzeria and small hostel. The store’s bright colors are corralled by the three walls covered nearly floor to ceiling in the dark glass of wine bottles. Co-owner, Zina Samek, humbly shrugs, “It’s a shop like any other shop,” yet with a knowing smile adds, “but you have to be able to speak about the wine to sell the wine.” Samek discusses Vintesa’s wine collection with customers meandering through the shop and staring intently at the multitude of labels; she gestures freely with her hands at the wooden racks, explaining that they are organized by region. Above the shop’s lone desktop computer is a map, hand-painted by a local artist, that depicts Croatia’s wine regions in vivid yellows, greens and pinks. Zagreb falls at the converging point of the cool but humid Zagorje, Plešivica and Prigorje wine sub regions of the Croatian uplands, making it central to many vineyards. Samek distinguishes several of the hundreds of bottles that line the walls, pointing out Purger (Zagreb local) favorites such as Korać, Tomac and Šember.
Samek always keeps several bottles open and ready to pour for curious visitors. Merlot streams into a shiny glass at the tip of her steady hand as she lists other shops in the area. She mentions Bornstein Wine Bar and Shop, a name inevitably referenced in conversation about wine in Zagreb. Borsnteins, being the first private wine shop in the entire region of former Yugoslavia, is synonymous with the up-and-coming wine scene in the city and the country as a whole. Owners Ivan and Doris Srpek recognized the importance of the name when they took over the business four years ago. Mrs. Srepk details that “the name was already a brand that stood for quality, service and education.” Bornsteins occupies a 200-year-old cellar with vaulted brick ceilings and dark wood floors in upper town. The building has the air of a timeworn library, each wine bottle containing a story as rich with history and culture as any book. The Srpeks, curators of these bottled stories, serve as interpreters to inquisitive travelers. Their deeply imbedded knowledge of the industry and close ties with domestic vineyards allow newcomers to cultivate an understanding of Zagreb’s wine culture.
On a Tuesday afternoon Mr. Srpek sips a red with patrons as he discusses various Plavac Mali varieties. Mr. Srpek insists, “I don’t like cutting the story short.” He stays true to this philosophy, sparing no detail as he explains the culture of wine in Zagreb. He reminisces on days spent with Croat friends drinking Muscat over ice with lemon and mint, laughing, “We would start around noon and have three or four bottles each.” Mr. Srpek also references gemišt, wine mixed with sparkling water, explaining Croats drink this in the summers, perhaps after a long day of work. He adds that dishes made with cured meats are popular in the region and that the more acidic and refreshing whites produced in the Croatian uplands provide a good balance for salty or fatty foods, making them popular throughout the country. Bornsteins’ business relationships are characterized by a nationally shared appreciation of wine and food. Mr. Srpek describes a visit to his partners at Šember vineyard, a winery only thirty minutes outside of Zagreb, as being concluded with a meal of duck accompanied with “wine and wine and wine.” He explains that another local winemaker he does business with hosts a free lunch every Wednesday, usually offering a hearty stew made by his mother, for those who come to buy his wines.
Both Borsntein’s and Vinoteka Vintesa’s customer bases do not solely depend on individual purchases from tourists and locals; they also conduct business with local restaurant owners. Zagreb’s food and wine industries’ fates are intertwined and their relationship plays out in local restaurants. Tomislav Juras, owner of restaurant Stari Fijaker, further illustrates this essential link. He sits at an old wood table near the back of his restaurant, which is buzzing with customers’ conversation during the lunch rush. The table serves as a makeshift desk, and is littered with papers, keys and a single pack of Lucky Strikes, but he makes room on the table for a plate of štrukli, a traditional Croatian pastry, and a glass of Chardonnay. Juras shares that his family’s restaurant was the first to receive the certificate for serving exclusively “Croatian Authentic Cuisine,” and that he strives to “keep the old spirit of Zagreb” with his business. Juras sells exclusively Croatian wines on his menu, and has been buying his house wine from the same family farm on the Zelina wine road since 1994. Jarec Kure vineyards, named after the owner’s father’s last name, Jarec, and husband’s last name, Kure, has supplied Stari Fijaker with wine served alongside meals made from fresh Dolac market ingredients. Juras laughs, saying the process is “so romantic, but not so romantic at all,” since it’s simply business as usual for him. Juras is yet another path through which Zagreb’s visitors can cultivate an understanding of the role wine plays in the everyday lives of Purgers.
Behind the doors of Zagreb’s Vinotekas, wine bars and restaurants lies the secret to discovering the city: a glass of Croatian wine. Friends, both new and old, tell stories over bottles of Graševina; traditional meals become contextualized by the history of Dingač. A traveler who immerses themselves in Zagreb’s wine culture leaves with something more to grasp than just a souvenir. Tracing your way through the intricacies of Zagreb’s budding wine industry provides a singular mode of experiencing the city and leaves you with a propensity to navigate the city less like a tourist and more like a local. Order a glass, a bottle, listen to its story and revel in the moment that the city unfolds before you.