When you are in the wine trade, most people assume you just get paid to drink, and they are essentially right. Sometimes, however, you are not only paid to drink, but to eat as well, and to do it in a far off land. In that case, those people are not only right, but also very, very jealous.
I recently returned from a trip to the Austrian wine country, paid for largely by a wine importer, where I rode on a bus with 15 people who sell wine for a living. We traveled from winery to winery, each more welcoming and wonderous than the next, across a landscape that was a luminous and ghostly gray, through a country where dogs are allowed in restaurants and bathrooms are strange and hard to master. I learned that wiener schnitzel is not a wiener, and that the best cure for jet lag is not excessive drinking. I also learned more about wine in four days then I have in the last three years.
No, it’s not a gulag; it’s the Loisium Hotel and Spa, designed by New York architect Steven Holl, at the Steininger Winery in the Kamptal region near the town of Langenlois. The vines in front are used in a special “Steven Holl” wine.
The Austrian wine industry, with an export value at the end of 2007 totalling a comparatively modest 105 million Euros, was almost completely destroyed, first by World War II, then by communism, and finally by the European antifreeze scandal of the early ’80s, before being reinvented around 1985. As a result, it is marked as much by eager experimentalism as it is by allegiance to tradition. Gleaming, ultramodern wineries sit atop 900-year-old wine cellars, while grapes grown in the shadows of medieval castles yield wine that is slickly packaged and relentlessly marketed.
Austrian wines have a lot to offer. There are around 20,000 grape growers and 6,000 wine producers packed into an area roughly the size of Maine. The whites are crisp and aromatic, but not lacking in richness and power, and the reds, while not big enough to please diehard Australian Shiraz fans (remember, there are no kangaroos in Austria), are diverse and at times excellent. Although international wines are starting to make their presence felt (in a just world, Austrian Pinot Noir would be the next big thing), the real star is the great white grape Gruner Veltliner, found nowhere else in the world.
Gruner Veltliner is made in a large variety of styles while still retaining its unique spiciness. It can be crisp and acidic, or rich and creamy (California Chardonnay fans: Try oak-aged Gruner) and is one of the best food wines you will ever find. A 1983 Gruner Veltliner (poured from grimy, unlabeled bottles at about 1:30am, after a 17-hour day and more wines than I can begin to count) was otherworldly and my favorite wine of the trip.
Professional wine junkets are punishing and brutal. The sheer weight of all that pleasure (an endless, roaring flood of wine!), coupled with lack of sleep (extra-curricular absinthe shots with winemakers’ assistants!); it’s like a forced death march, except when it’s all over, you can’t wait to go back and do it again.
The Austrian Wine Marketing Board, without whom the trip wouldn’t have been possible, is working hard to sell its country’s wine. We were given Austrian Wine messenger bags filled with glossy brochures and branded wine openers. We are put up in nice hotels, fed home-cooked, multicourse meals at exquisitely appointed tables, and basically treated like visiting royalty. This is, of course, because everybody involved desperately wants us to sell their wine, and frankly I’m O.K. with that. I know how easy it is for unique and exciting wine to be ignored, and how much noise has to be made to make people pay attention.
After all, just look at Virginia.