Interview with an Importer: Erin Grace of Winebow

Austrian wines have exploded on to the wine scene in the past few years which can often leave unfamiliar consumers confused and overwhelmed by the plethora of Grüner Veltiner and Blaufränkisch wines – many organic, most from small, single vineyard plantings. One of the best resources Austrian wine consumers can turn to are those that import the wines – the ones that really know them inside and out, know the market and know the potential each has to become your new favorite wine.

This month we sat down with Erin Grace of Emerald Imports, distributed by Winebow. Here’s what she had to say:

What makes Austrian wine so unique? What makes it stand out from other regions?

    I choose to promote the view that Austria is a desirable source for great wine less for its unique qualities and more for it utility to consumers and buyers that are looking for true value.  It may not be a sound-byte way of packaging Austria but the long term success depends on recognizing all the reasons for Austrian wine to be part of a private or business wine selection just simply based on that fundamental value that the wines offer to the consumer.  Among the reasons we elaborate on a regular basis are: the affinity with varied cuisines, the balance and freshness of the wines, the consistency of the quality, the predictability of the different wine styles, the “green” or sustainable principles of the wine growers, and on and on.  If I had to identify a unique quality I would certainly say that no country of its relative small size produces such a high level of average quality, therefore providing an almost comprehensive guarantee to the buyer.

    What  influenced your decision to work with Austrian wines?

      The wines and the growers we have worked with are so appealing it was irresistible.  Why else does anyone choose to push a boulder up a hill?  There is reward in the knowledge that what you are selling deserves attention and recognition by the marketplace.

      Which producers do you import? Highlights?

        We work with Fred Loimer (Kamptal), Weingut Stadt Krems (Kremstal), Rudi Pichler and Prager (Wachau), Fritz Wieninger (Vienna), Gernot Heinrich, Paul Achs, Szigeti (Neusiedlersee), Neckenmarkt (Mittelburgenland) and the fine artisanal spirits of Alois Gölles (Südoststeiermark).  The highlight for me is the high level of work these growers all do in their respective regions.   It is a pleasure to open the portfolio and demonstrate a great range of what Austria has to offer at the highest level of quality and value.  Plus, they are fun people to work with…every one!

        Which states are you distributed in?

          We currently have general distribution for the portfolio in 40 states.  Not every distribution carries every wine in the list, but we have a pretty strong basic footprint at this point based on our best selling wine, the Loimer LOIS Grüner Veltliner.  Winebow has only been working with these producers for just over a year.

          What’s your favorite Austrian varietal? Region? Why?

            Favorite is such a dangerous term.  Picking a favorite wine or region is not the same as identifying your favorite color.  When one becomes an adult, no longer does it seem mature or appropriate to say “she’s my best friend”, as it shows a favoritism and limits one’s experience to a smaller universe.  So with Austrian wines, I have a circle of close friends that I rely on…certainly Grüner Veltliner – both in her fresh and flirty guise and her serious and intellectual pose, but I also rely on Riesling for those moment when some elevation is called for and when also when purity is what I am craving.   I adore the lively fruit and piquant attitude of Zweigelt, and I am impressed in particular by Blaufränkisch as an insightful grape that speaks of its origin with eloquence.

            What’s your favorite food & wine pairing for the season?

              I have had the great fortune to be involved over the last few years with the Outstanding in the Field organization.  They have partnered with my mother and stepfather’s organic farm in Illinois to feature great local chefs at their farm dinners.  Just a few weeks ago we had Paul Kahan and his team of chefs from Blackbird, Avec and The Publican out for a fantastic event for 150 people and I was asked to help choose the wines from within our entire Winebow portfolio.  The Loimer Grüner Veltliner Kamptal DAC was a glorious pairing with the inventive and incredibly fresh salad courses:  Zucchini & Peach salad, Quinoa with Bitter greens and Candied Pistachios, and Heirloom Tomatoes with Arugula and locally made Feta cheese.  I was really impressed myself and also so pleased to hear raves from the table around me.   It’s still fun after almost ten years to wow people with Grüner Veltliner’s versatility.

              Where do you see the future of Austrian wine heading?

                How could it go anywhere but up?  It is now common to go to the more sophisticated food cities in the country and see Austrian wines by the glass in restaurants.  More importers are adding Austrian wines to their portfolios.  The trend is supported by strong and consistent coverage in the press, and the consumer is beginning to pick up some knowledge.   Next step will be some recognition of the regional differences in Austria and also to educate the consumer in particular on the range of styles available in many of the grape varieties:  from the Classic fresh styles for easy and early consumption to the Reserve styles for the cellar.

                Anything else you’d like to add?

                  Austria will only ever be limited by its small size.  This is a burden and an opportunity.  The opportunity lies in maintaining the best quality and raising Austria in the mind of the consumer as a source for distinct value in wines that are well matched for cuisine.  The only danger lies in pursuing a monopoly branding strategy to promote a simple impression of the country.  We need to resist the temptation to buttonhole the wines, particularly Grüner Veltliner, in order to gain market share.  It would be short sighted to do so, and foster a simplistic view of the county similar to the one formed of New Zealand based on the Sauvignon Blanc boom of the last 10 years.    While it will always represent a tiny portion of overall worldwide production, the grape variety nonetheless has more than one face to show to the wine lover.

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