Label Grand Karakterre 5
I'm walking down the aisle of Hall E by the Museum of Modern Art MuMoK in Vienna, the fair in full swing, and I spot Billy, sommelier at Ved Stranden in Copenhagen. He gives me a huge warm hug, we talk about just how bad/good our hangovers from last night are and decide to go taste some wine like a couple of old chums. He’s an Englishman, so using the word pals wouldn’t do it justice. How long had Billy and I known each other at that point? Less than 24 hours.
I became aware of the Label Grand Karakterre wine festival shortly after I started following one of its co-founders, Marko Kovac, on Instagram. A man who travels the world and shares insightful, important and sometimes forgotten stories about farmers, winemakers, restaurateurs and everyone in between. Stories of people that base their lives around sustainable growth and great energy. A true ambassador of honest living and passionate choice. When I found out that he and his two partners in crime - Niko Dukan and Primož Štajer - put together an annual festival dedicated to natural wines in Vienna I knew that I had to go. Was pretty much a no brainer.
In the days leading up to the event, I became really nervous. It was going to be a concentration (and if I had really known what kind of a concentration I probably would have been crazy anxious) of people surrounding this community from all over the world. A part I already knew and was very happy to know – members of the local community from Czech Republic and Slovakia that I will introduce in a separate article – but a large part were people who I had “only” been following online through Instagram or other channels, people whose work I admired greatly and was inspiring to me in forming my (hopefully) future career pursuits.
It was relatively a simple numbers game – there would be very very many wines to try. Marko and his team managed to get together more than 90 wineries from all over the world together in one room, a deeply impressive thing in itself. Also, since I was asked by the lovely Vlado Magula, Slovak winemaker, to substitute for him in his booth for a majority of the day because of issues home in Bratislava, I knew I wouldn’t have time to taste everything, let alone everything I wanted to. I’d like some of the wines, love others and not be a fan of a couple too. That’s the way it always is. So at the end of the day, I wasn’t going to wallow about not enough time and turned my focus on the people attending in combination with the wine. It’s people who help guide the wines to fruition after being born from the soil and nature after all.
I wondered – would these people who I genuinely admired from afar turn out to be ‘false prophets’? I always say one should not have expectations because they’re a breeding ground for disappointment, but in this case it was virtually impossible. I couldn’t help myself but be excited. What was the result in the end? I’ll let the stories of the people I met or got to know better over the weekend speak for themselves, because they deserve to be told and heard. I hope you find them and their work interesting and inspiring. I know I did. In no particular order. Spoiler alert – I think there is a statistically disproportionate large amount of really tall men in this community. May have something to do with the wine.
Marko Kovac – For me, meeting Marko was a little bit like meeting your favorite rock band in person. I’ve been to a fair share of wine festivals/events in my time – whether ones organized by the Decanter magazine in London, smaller scaled things all around Europe etc. Never have I seen a leader that was more involved than Marko. Always running around, saying hello, hugging people, his presence was everywhere and everyone seemed genuinely grateful and happy to see him. At the end of the day on Saturday, he and the team were picking up trash, folding tables, dragging cartons around. Just like the voice that comes across in his content, he was very hands on himself. Whether as a result of fatigue or just focusing on one thing at a time, there was a point where it seemed that he wasn’t aware of what an extraordinary accomplishment he and his team achieved. I hope the realization has sunk in by now.
Niko Dukan – It was Niko and Marko that came up with the idea of the festival essentially overnight 5 years ago, the first version being held in Zagreb. A man with a deep voice, playful blue eyes and a wonderful energy, he is one of my “Instagram friends” that supported me even before we officially met at the festival. Always on the road, Niko has been involved in the wine world for years and has the most impressive and entertaining stories. For example, I was duly surprised to find out that he’s been attending Bordeaux en primeur for 17 years now! And that's just the tip of the iceberg. A person with youthful energy that makes you feel like you belong to the ‘gang’, inclusive of everyone and extremely generous. The world needs more people like him. Also, together with Primož below, they are “owners” of the very entertaining Instagram hashtag #terroirtalksbullshitwalks. Self exlplanatory.
Primož Štajer – The best dressed wine merchant you will ever meet. A man with the most infectious resonating laugh and good energy, Primož met Marko and Niko through the festival if I remember correctly. The chemistry was undeniable and today, he too is heavily involved in running the festival. A man who gives great earnest hugs, there is one thing he said over lunch on Sunday that I will never forget. Capable of going from belly aching laughter to a very clear moment of serenity and somber seriousness, he spoke about how a lot of the times, things in life can be difficult – work, relationships. The people around you don’t understand you, you struggle. But then you experience days like these, days like the festival, and it’s one hell of a strong reminder of why dedicating yourself to such a community is worth it even if it may be difficult. And I am very grateful that these reminders exist and that you keep on persevering.
Severine Perru – Wine director at The Ten Bells, a natural wine bar in New York City, Severine is one bad ass woman. Beautiful, a raging force with her many tattoos, fiery red hair and French accent, she started out her professional pursuits in the area of sustainable agriculture in France. From there, it was just a step away from the world of natural wines. Other than her many activities in New York, she also took on the role of head somm for the Raw Wine fair with editions in New York, Berlin and London. If you’re even in New York, you should definitely go visit her at The Ten Bells.
Billy Ward – Sommelier at Ved Stranden in Copenhagen, this handsome Englishman has done it pretty much all – worked as a gallery technician in London, made wine in Burgundy, worked with wine in New Zealand. He moved to Copenhagen because he visited the city, loved the atmosphere and asked the boss at Ved Stranden if they have any openings. More people should be so instinctual in pursuing their wishes. Because.. why not? A mischievous sense of humor and a great head of hair, he also loves to fall asleep in public places and is apparently impervious to tickling. A heartbreaker. We’re apparently getting married so I’ll send you all the invitation once the date is set.
Bo Bratlann & Jenny Lofgren – Bo, the most impressively tall man out of them all, and his beautiful fiancé Jenny were one of the sweetest couples I’ve met in a long time. I love it when you see two people together who actually look happy to be together – I find it’s a rare thing these days. Both former employees of Noma, Jenny now works in PR and Bo, one of the best somms in the country, works as the head sommelier and restaurant manager at restaurant Amass in Copenhagen. The philosophy at the restaurant is absolutely fantastic – very focused on environmental sustainability as well as educating the community that they are a part of on sustainable practices. Can’t wait to visit the place, hopefully soon. Recommend for anyone who visits Copenhagen.
John Wurdeman – A painter, a winemaker and a fantastic orator. Although I only had a few moments with John – during which he said I have eyes the depth of which will take a lifetime to figure out – his persona is even bigger than the legend that surrounds him. In a good way. Co-founder of Georgian winery Pheasant’s Tears that gets it name from an old Georgian folk tale in which the hero claims that only a wine beyond measure could make a pheasant cry tears of joy, he presented his wines at the festival as well as facilitating an absolutely fascinating and amazing Georgian dinner for those who stayed after the festival. To say he and his team risked a lot to provide us with the experience is an understatement. The food was so rich, soulful and interesting that it makes one want to immediately pack their bags and travel to Georgia to find out more. His speech after dinner in which he spoke about the community, about Marko and his team, the winemakers present was so incredibly moving that a lot of people, including me, cried. But they were happy tears. Thank you John and hopefully I will get to visit your winery one day. God knows I want to.
Primož Lavrenčič – Winemaker at Burja winery in the Vipava valley in Slovenia, a supporter of Label Grand from day 1. One of my favorite white wines in the game, I was stunned to see the beauty hidden in his Pinot Noir. With devilish eyes and an incredibly charismatic persona, he is passion personified. He disliked my overt use of the word 'awesome' but maybe he's right :-) During John’s speech, a couple people in the back were (unfortunately for them) not listening and talking amongst themselves, essentially interrupting. Everyone kept looking over their shoulder but it was Primož who at one point looked back and shouted very briskly and loudly “Shut up” and the room went silent for John. Simple as that.
Janko Štekar and his beautiful wife Tamara – When I first had their Re Piko 2009 a couple months back, I was like what the what?! I’ve heard so many good things about this family – including the fact that they have the most beautiful farmhouse (and best breakfast) where one can stay and explore the area – that I was looking forward to meeting them. And you know what? They were the most humble, sweetest people. Tamara is absolutely stunning – I think it’s the wine and fresh air that keeps her looking so fresh – and they looked like people who are more at one with their soil and their grapes than big wine festivals. Also, the 2004 Beli Kos Merlot… Holy shit, it’s been positively haunting me in my dreams since last Saturday. Just a beautiful showcase of how varied the natural wine world can be.
Stefano Menti – Italian man in a denim jacket, with the aura of a rock star but with a distinct Italian flair. Working in the family winery Giovanni Menti, to say that I love their wines is an understatement. The Sui Lieviti Omomorto – dios mio! All day everyday please. For me a perfect example of what an Italian sparkler should look like.
Benoit Tarlant – Without a doubt one of my greatest revelations of the entire festival and weekend. Everyone who knows me knows I’d choose a good sparkler over anything else. With winemaking tradition dating back to 1687 (!!!), this Champagne house has stayed in the family for literally centuries and the products are f a n t a s t i c. Ben, the current generation representative with a calm, quiet presence and kind eyes let the wine speak for itself. What was the biggest revelation for me were the Bam! – a cuveé of lesser known allowed varieties in Champagne of Pinot Blanc, Arbanne and Petit Meslier, very unique on the nose and the Argilite which fermented in amphoras. Yup – you read right. Insane stuff and I can’t wait to get my hands on some more in the future.
Mario Bernatovic – Man who cooked the most delicious goulash for lunch. A professional chef - formerly at the head of one of the best restaurant in Vienna Kussmaul - and electronic music enthusiast with a great sense of humor, he is opening a new restaurant in Vienna on Bäckerstraße this month. We had the chance to see the place – and taste his homemade ham that was out of this world – and it is amazing. Absolutely breathtaking cellar area, homely atmosphere and the fooood! I know where I’m celebrating my birthday next year, anyone in Vienna should definitely check it out.
Dimitri Brečevic, his beautiful wife and son Bastien – To quote Marko “What it takes to produce organic wine in Croatia – an 80 year old vineyard, an Italian water cistern from WWI and a Frenchman.” Dimitri, who has worked in places like Domaine de Chevalier and Canterbury Wine House in New Zealand, grew up in France but moved back to Croatia to produce the country’s first commercial low sulfur wine under the brand name Piquentum. Both the Malvasia – a grape variety that I have a soft spot for – and the Refosk were absolutely lovely. And their new label! Ingenious, depicting monthly variations in rainfall for that vintage. So simple but ingenious. I got to meet Dimitri’s wife and his gorgeous son Bastien who had more energy than all of us put together and they are the loveliest family. Dimitri, who when speaking English had a vague French accent, is incredibly well educated in all things wine, energetic yet humble and so kind. We talked for quite some time about production processes, vinification and I learned a ton. Visiting their winery is top on my list now. Also, born in 1978 on the same day and year as Mario above – a fact I know only because we celebrated with a bottle of 1978 Barolo that Niko somehow magically whipped out of his car upon finding out. Also – thank you to Dimitri and Mario for helping me fish out my phone in the lost archives of Mario’s new restaurant bar. A night to remember.
Niklas & Nadja Peltzer from Meinklang – Another incredible couple. I love Meinklang wines – hello Foam – and definitely plan on visiting the winery very soon. These two however, were a revelation – Nadja has the most beautiful sunny smile and together, they look like lovers who just fell madly in love two seconds ago. Just being around them made one smile. A sensation that definitely translates into their wines.
Florian from Unchained Selections – Natural wine, sake and American football enthusiast, Florian is an Austrian importer of beautiful wines and the owner of natural wine bar Momentum in Ybbs an der Donau. To open a natural wine bar in such a location, you really have to be an enthusiast and slightly crazy, in the best possible way. His work is definitely worth watching and I can’t wait to visit the bar soon. Roadtrip!
Gian Luca Tribo – Gian Luca, a man with hypnotic blue eyes and an overwhelming presence, his background is not in wine but finance and he sort of looks the part too. But don’t let the dashingly well groomed looks deceive you – he runs one of the best restaurants in Zurich, the Artisan, and is one of the most avid promoters of natural wine in Switzerland. I haven’t been but if Niko says so, I’m taking it as a fact. Smart and articulate, he is so passionate when talking about pretty much anything that more fragile souls would probably break under the intensity of conversation, but this is an engine that everyone should do their best to keep running because he has so much to offer. Cannot wait to go to Zurich and spend an evening eating good food, drinking wines and talking about all things transcendent and important. Like he said – it’s important to care and not care at the same time.
Pontus from Wine Waves – Pontus, the Ken to the Barbie that is natural wine. Handsome with a complexion that makes him look younger than me, he is an importer with focus on Eastern European natural wines to Sweden. A truly niche focus, but all the more amazing. Very poised and articulate, and I would expect nothing less of a man with a regal name like his, he was a pleasure to talk to and I’m very grateful that he is promoting “our” wines in more distant lands. Looking forward to our paths crossing again soon.
Chiara de Lulis Pepe – The entire time while I was pouring wines on Saturday, I asked each visitor what their favorites were. The most frequently cited name was – Emidio Pepe. Representing this Italian natural wine family legend was their granddaughter Chiara. Impeccably dressed and beautiful, the wines she poured out for me were spectacular. I definitely want to taste some more of their production in the future because as far as my taste buds are concerned, it’s something to watch out for.
Alberto Farinasso – Lean, charming Italian man, he is one of the most prominent figures of the slow food movement in Italy. As a testament to his charm and worldly ways, he took us to a secret cocktail bar in some random looking building with no sign for drinks on Friday before the festival. They served amazing cocktails as well as homemade fernet branca. Gotta count on an Italian man to show you around Vienna.
There were no doubt many more people worth talking to and meeting but two days only last so long. The weekend surrounding the festival was without a doubt one of the most inspirational, enlightening weekends packed with good energy that I’ve ever experienced. I’ve been thinking about the idea of how everybody has this innate need to “be seen” – for others to see and appreciate us for who we really area. Despite how much we try to not care about what the world around us thinks, sometimes it’s inescapable. A sensation so ephemeral but one that people spend a lifetime chasing. Always reminds me of lyrics from the immortal Adele's song "I'm scared to death if I let you in that you'll see I'm just a fake". However that weekend, all I felt was humility, positivity, love and the feeling of overcoming challenges despite obstacles. I felt completely accepted, appreciated and loved and for that I will always be grateful.
Thank you to each and every one of you and for all those not involved – becoming a part of a wonderful thing sometimes only takes one glass of wine. To great wine and great people.
Thank you Primož Štajer for letting me use photos from the festival. Much love.