November 7, 2018 – Croatia is the home of the original Zinfandel, home to 130 indigenous varieties of outstanding quality, but with no idea how to promote its wines on the international stage. Some lessons from Macedonia.
Although I once spent five years in the wine industry running a small family business in the UK with my father, I am a beer man these days. Perhaps that was the reason that it took me so long to realise Croatia had an incredible wine story that was not being told. In fact, I remember when I first moved into the small house in the old town of Jelsa, a very friendly bearded man who looked a little like Father Christmas knocked on the door and introduced himself in French, before giving me a welcome bottle of rose and telling me he was the next door neighbour. It was several years until I realised that Andro Tomic was one of the most celebrated winemakers in Croatia.
Slowly I started to learn what I had been missing. The island of Hvar had an incredible wine story dating back 2,400 years to the arrival of the Ancient Greeks in 384 BC, and the vines and olive trees they brought with them and planted in what became the UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Stari Grad Plain, are testament to part of that tradition. But Croatia, it seemed, was also the original home of Zinfandel – a fact proven by DNA matching at the University of Davis back in 2001 – and it was a Croat who rocked the snobby French wine establishment back in 1976 at the so-called Judgement of Paris.
I was not alone in my ignorance of the excellence of Croatian wine. The late, great Anthony Bourdain was totally blown away by the Croatian food and wine story when he visited six years ago, and his No Reservations episode on the Travel Channel remains, for me at least, one of the finest pieces of Croatian tourism in history.
A promotion which has not been capitalised on, for six years later, the rich potential of Croatia’s food and wine tourism remains in its infancy.
Interest in, and awareness of, Croatian wine is growing. Indeed, among American travellers, ‘wineries and vineyards’ was the number 5 thing of interest in a recent major survey of tourism interest in Croatia within the US market. Great news, especially as Croatia has such a strong wine offer.
So where is the information for them to find out more? Where is the official website telling the world about Croatian wine?
It doesn’t exist.
I was quite shocked when I learned this a few years ago, and I saw that there was an opportunity for TCN to get into the Croatian wine information market. I asked the tourism gurus and the Chamber of Commerce for help and financial support to put something together. None was forthcoming. But there must be a database of winemakers, surely? If I could get that, I could easily put them on an interactive map, which would help people find winemakers directly.
There WAS a database.
After an epic struggle, the Chamber of Commerce finally sent me their database of winemakers. I was beyond excited. I could quickly put this comprehensive database into map form, and we would have the first ever map of Croatian winemakers.
And then I opened the database.
Just 235 winemakers on the list (compared to more than 500 on the subsequent map I built on Total Croatia Wine).
195 of these 235 had no website details.
106 had no email address.
72 had no phone number.
All businesses in Croatia must pay a minimum of 500 kuna a year to the Chamber of Commerce. Would it be too much to expect to get at least a listing on a database with some basic contact details?
And so Total Croatia Wine was born. In addition to a map of all the winemakers, we created individual wine maps for various regions, a section on the main indigenous grapes of Croatia, profiles of some of the main winemakers and so on. We even started shipping Croatian wine to customers all over the EU, the United States and Japan. I was surprised to learn that, despite being such an important wine region, Dalmatia had no wine road. I asked the Ministry of Tourism why and received this rather spectacular response:
As far as wine roads are concerned, there is a number of websites where wine roads in Croatia can be found, including in Dalmatia, such as the Biokovo Wine Road, the Vis Road, the Brač wine road, etc.
The Biokovo Wine Road? This was a new wine road to me and certainly not one on my Total Croatia Wine map. It turned out that not only had I never heard of it, but neither had anyone else in the wine industry in Croatia.
It doesn’t exist. And while there may be some grapes grown here and there, there are no winemakers, no tourism wine tasting opportunities. The Ministry of Tourism had managed to create something rather unique – a wine road with no grapes. I asked for more details about this Biokovo phenomenon, a link to just one of those ‘number of websites’ – I am still waiting for the answer.
Wineries and vineyards is the number 5 thing of interest for American tourists looking to visit Croatia. And nobody can officially tell you where the wine roads are. I turned to the Croatian National Tourist Board for help. Did they have a map of wineroads in Croatia? They didn’t, but they were very helpful in trying to get the information:
Please find attached the list of wineroads in Croatia which we have collected by county tourist boards. We are still waiting for few replies so we can send you final list when we receive the missing replies.
At least now there is some information available, but only because a journalist requested it.
“Why is this region so crap at promoting wine?” I asked a respected international wine professional recently.
“This region, or Croatia?” came the reply. “Croatia is a special case. But if you want to see how it is done, check out how Macedonia is doing it with their Wines of Macedonia association. And the website info is just one part of it. Macedonia is kicking some major ass with its wine presence all over the world and trade fairs and promotions. Croatia is nowhere to be seen. Perhaps a few individual Croatian producers will come, but they are often under the umbrella of their country agent. But Macedonia? They are united, present together, with winemakers contributing their costs according to the number of hectolitres they produce.”
Macedonia exports 85% of its wines to 38 countries, a business worth 50 million euro each year. And – this is priceless – can you guess which country imports the most Macedonian wine in the world?
Yup – Croatia! Not only can Croatia not tell the world about its wines, or organise its winemakers to market them internationally, but it is also the leading buyer of wines from the neighbours.
To quote from the website:
Wines of Macedonia (WoM) is an organization that unifies the work of Macedonian wine producers, committed to promoting the quality and image of Macedonian wine throughout the world.
The Association is established in April 2010 as an NGO to represent common interests of its members as well as:
• provide strategic support to the Macedonian wine sector including developing the wine and viticulture industry in Republic of Macedonia
• increase export of both bottled and bulk wines
• build an umbrella recognition of Macedonian wines on the regional and international markets
• advocate in front of Government of Republic of Macedonia and other relevant institutions.
What does Croatia have in comparison?
And to finish, a selection of photos from the Wines of Macedonia Facebook page, showing how active they have been all over the world in the last year.
Is it really too much to expect for our tourism and commercial geniuses to come up with something similar?
Congratulations to Macedonia – a wonderful example in how to promote your wine industry.
To learn more about wines from Macedonia, visit the Wines of Macedonia website.
If you are looking to learn more about wines from Croatia, I am really not sure what to suggest, but while I have a think, here is the TCN wine website.