Importer of the Week
Name: Eric Danch
Company: Blue Danube
Country: United States of America
Some of the labels so far: Demeter Zoltán, Eszterbauer, Gere Attila, Kikelet, Kreinbacher, Patricius, Tornai, Bott Pince, Apátsági, Fekete Béla, Csendes Dűlő, Heimann, J&J Wine Co., Káli-Kövek, Gilvesy, Bodrog Borműhely, Tokaj Nobilis, Samuel Tinon, Peter Wetzer
And arriving this fall: Válibor, Kolonics, Losonci
California – a highly competitive market
– Being the Californian sales manager of Blue Danube, you are in the wine heart of the United States. Are you a fan of Californian wines?
– Absolutely. Much of what I’ve been humbled by, learned from and still love to drink are Californian wines. Equally valuable is the wine community I’m lucky to be a small part of have some great access to. And while not a requirement to import, I think working a few harvests is invaluable and I was fortunate to do so in California as well.
– Is it harder to sell wines in a state that produces lots of wines, or is it easier, because people are perhaps more accustomed to drinking wine in California?
– I believe there are over 4,000 bonded wineries in California alone. So it’s safe to say that it’s certainly competitive, but this is more reflective of how wine is becoming more and more a part of everyday life rather than fighting for retail or by the glass sales. And just as California is grappling with what to grow where, historical regions in Europe are reference points. Hungary is a new exciting one with plenty of history, native grapes, distinct terroir and winemaking traditions. There’s even some California Furmint and Hárslevelű (sweet and dry) being produced.
Family stories with circus, box and Al Capone
– How about the beginning? How did you become a wine expert?
– The beginning is a combination of living abroad for a few years (Copenhagen and Rome) and then spending 6 years working for a 3-hour European cabaret meets Vaudevillian circus called Teatro Zinanni in San Francisco. We always had dinner and wine after the show and the wine always tasted better with a good story. After working a few harvests in California as I mentioned earlier, I was very lucky to be introduced to Blue Danube Wine Co. All of these experiences share a synergy of different cultures, storytelling and personalities adding context to delicious food and wine. Hungary in particular has these qualities in spades.
– Do you have any relatives in the Blue Danube countries?
My father’s side has Hungarian roots. My great grandmother comes from Kálnica in modern day Slovakia, but was Hungary when she was born. My great grandfather was also from Hungary, but it’s been difficult to locate exactly where. When my great grandfather came to the US, he refused to comply with Al Capone’s corrupt police and was reportedly the man who boxed world champion Jack Johnson to a draw. I’m of course a fan of this family history.
“The grapes scream Hungarian the loudest”
– We are a website to promote Hungarian wines, and of course we are the most curious about the acceptance of our wines in the USA. What are your experiences? Do your customers look for indigenous varieties?
– Indigenous grapes have been the focus of Blue Danube from the very beginning. While Hungary can of course produce lovely Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and so on, we’ve been more attracted to the grapes scream Hungarian the loudest. Whether it’s the salt and brightness from volcanic soils, the spiciness of the reds, or the amazing balance of acidity and sugar, we’ve found that most US consumers are open to places they don’t know and grapes they can’t pronounce. We’ve been able to put grapes like Királyleányka, Hárslevelű, Kéknyelű, and Kövérszőlő by the glass for instance. If the story and deliciousness is there, these wines do very well.
– Which Hungarian brands are the most successful and why do you think they are sold better than others?
– There are so many great wines on the market from all over the world. The story (and being able to tell it) is crucial for a successful brand. Farming is also paramount. While it needn’t be certified organic or biodynamic, the health of the soil and land is a make or break for many buyers and very important to us as well. Another key element is having a range of price points. Without a great by the glass wine, it’s almost impossible to be successful on the bottle list alone. This isn’t to say a higher end Hungarian wine won’t sell, but we need to have foot in the door and establish quality at the table wine level, not just the rare single vineyard.
“By the glass” – a rewarding strategy
– What would you suggest to a Hungarian winery, who would like to get into the US market?
– I’ve found that many Hungarian winemakers don’t fully understand the scope of the US market. There are so many wonderful importers and domestic wineries fighting for very few placements. As such, finding a transparent partnership is the first step. Do our expectations match up? Where can we compromise? Where can both invest and share some risk? And while I’m certainly guilty of running behind on communicating with our partners, I hope they all know that I’m always open to talking no matter the topic.
– How do the US wine lovers choose wines? Are they influenced by magazines, wine contest results? If yes, which ones?
– In our experience, magazines, contests and scores are more for the winery than anyone else. For us, simply having a wine go by the glass or on the shelf at a reputable restaurant or wine shop is very validating for consumers. Social media is another form of validation. We also spend quite a bit of time, money and samples teaching classes, doing staff trainings, hosting dinners, and pouring at a variety of events. Just getting in front of people will open that person up to buying a glass or bottle the next time they see a Hungarian wine on the menu.
Eric’ articles about Tokaj