Wolfgang Puck will release his first Austrian wines in the fall and he knows full well the audience to target: Diners who are unsure of which wine to pair with the food in his bistros, Spagos and cafes.
“People know to trust the food, and they like the pizzas and the salads,” said Puck, noting that, in regard to wines, he has previously put his name only on those made in California. “This is a name they can trust.”
Puck, speaking after a 10-course dinner at his new WP24 restaurant in Los Angeles, was a bit cagey in giving out many details beyond an arrival date — October/November — and the extent of the line — two Rieslings and two Gruner Veltliners. All will be entry level.
That Puck sees an opening in the marketplace drives home the point that Austria has yet to create an identity in the U.S. marketplace even after two decades of attempting to get Americans to drink, let alone pronounce, Gruner Veltliner or their dry Rieslings. That’s the power of a celebrity endorsement — something has been lacking.
Mozart in a glass
In the late 1990s, Austrian wineries attempted to draw parallels between Gruner Veltliner and the Sauvignon Blanc-based wines of Sancerre, noting the minerality and citrus elements. It grabbed some attention, but since then wineries turned to a marketing plan based on celebrating Austria’s history in the arts, evoking a bit of celebrity in turn.
Willi Klinger, the managing director of the Austrian Wine Marketing Board, remembers an event in Toronto at which he extolled the pleasures of Gruner Veltliner while seated at a piano performing bits of Mozart’s Sonata in C major.
“The slogan was ‘Taste Culture.’ They [translated that] to ‘Mozart in a glass,'” noted Klinger, a native Austrian who previously worked the international marketplace for Gaja wines in the Piemonte region of Italy. “Now we talk about Austrian wines and [their common traits], the balanced acidity, dry, airy and light in character, complementary to food. But it’s still complex and not a superficial wine.”
If that sounds familiar, consider the model for the newest marketing tactic, the campaigns for Albarino wines of Rias Baixas in Spain. Over the last three years, Albarino marketers have made significant inroads in the U.S., positioning the wines as a food-friendly option beyond a night of tapas and Mediterranean cuisine; it’s now seen as perfect summer sipper that will not break the bank.
Their efforts to give the media a nudge have paid off. Albarino and its producers were covered — and touted — in several articles in The New York Times in 2008, the year after the campaign began, the first time Alabrino had been covered in eight years in The Times. From one of the newspaper’s tasting panels, wine writer Eric Asimov complimented the best of the Albarinos for “combining crisp floral, citrus and mineral flavors with a snappy, tangy liveliness that sort of lifts one up with each sip.” Negative comments, and they were limited, were reserved for the winemakers who manipulated grapes away from those elements.
In a 2009 tasting, Gruner Veltliners did not fare as well. A good many of the wines were dismissed for being heavy-handed and not possessing “an almost electric jolt of bracing acidity.” The region has been covered considerably less than Spain.
Austrian vintages on the WP24 wine list
Yet Austria has done quite well internationally even with the U.S. slow to guzzle the Gruner, with Scandinavia being a particularly ripe market. In 2009, Austrian wine exports hit 70 million liters and were up 5.3 percent in value and 16 percent in volume. The Austrian wine exporting business is pulling in $158 million.
Josef Gansberger of the Stift Goettweig winery in Kremstal in Lower Austria said only about 25 percent of his wines leave the country. And in terms of revenue, Holland, Switzerland, Denmark and Norway are the biggest spenders, he said. To keep distributors happy and to expose the winery’s three wines — an extra reserve is bottled in superior years, the last being 2007 — Gansberger spends four months per year on the road, making three or four annual trips to the U.S.
Klinger and Gansberger, whose winery dates to 1083, were hosts of a recent dinner to explore the food friendliness of Gruner Veltliner and Riesling. The newest restaurant in the Puck empire, the all-Asian WP24 in the L.A. Live complex in downtown Los Angeles, was the setting and rather than bring in selected wines, they ordered from WP24 list, keeping the bottle prices at a moderate level.
The Stift Goettweig entry level Gruner Veltliner — the 2008 “Messwein” that retails around $18 — hit the profile perfectly in its refreshing crispness and paired smartly with several dumplings. A 2007 Knoll Riesling from the Wachau region — with some marvelous label art of St. Urban — displayed more complexity and married well with pork belly and spicy chicken. On the Gruner Veltliner high end, Nigl’s 2008 Privat ($40-$52) and the Brundelmayer Alte Reben (“old vines”) from the hot vintage of 2006 ($52 in stores) displayed Burgundian qualities in roundness and depth of flavor. The lone Austrian red was far less inviting
Is Puck enough?
While it is Klinger’s job to promote a multitude of wines, he might have made his point best when he spoke as a diner sampling the Nigl and boiling down the essence of Austrian wines to a single sentence. “We like balanced wines.” A table of professional diners nodded in agreement.
The question remains, though, will Wolfgang be enough? Whether its Mozart or Puck, the general American audience enjoys a guide into unknown territory. Once the restaurateur has his own label on the list, Austrian wine may start to get more of a foothold in the white wine marketplace. Like it or not, that’s the potency of celebrity.
Phil Gallois an entertainment journalist who writes about music, television, theater and film in addition to food and wine.