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Vice President Athenee Importers

Monday, December 20, 2010

Flying under the radar - Mercouri Kallisto

For many, when you think of the Mercouri Estate you think of the Foloi or their Estate Red.  Both wines have been in the US for close to 10 years and have enjoyed good sales.  A few years ago while on our annual buying trip to Greece, Mr. Kanellakopoulos, the winery owner, tasted us on a small production white wine called Kallisto.  We were all impressed by it and as soon as he had enough quantity to supply us with a pallet of wine, we brought it to the US. 

Kallisto is a 50/50 blend of Robola and Assyrtiko - both grapes are grown at the Estate.  While both grapes' historically come from islands - Cephalonia for Robola and Santorini for Assyrtiko, in the Peloponnese they show a unique character.  Assyrtiko's nervy acidity is slightly less aggressive and combines nicely with Robola which adds weight and fruit notes to the wine.

It is best when served with seafood, pasta & lighter meat dishes since the minerality and citrus notes compliment those dishes.  For the 2009 vintage, only 4400 bottles were produced - approximately 330 cases of 12/750ml bottles.

Since the production is quite small we have only been able to release it into select markets.  Now that production is steadily increasing, we will be able to offer it into wider distribution markets.  In the December Food & Wine Magazine, the Kallisto was paired Lamb Shanks (p.123).

While production will never be the same as Foloi's, we are pleased to be able to expand the winery's portfolio with the Kalisto.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Oil & Vinegar - the flip side of Athenee

Olive oil & Vinegar are both logical extensions of the wine business.  While this segment isn't a large part of our business, it accounts for about 20% of our sales.

About 10 years ago, the Cooperative of Sitia on the island of Crete, whose wines we import, asked us if we would be interested in bringing in some of their olive oil.  We figured a few pallets wouldn't be too much of a burden.  Fast forward 10 years - we import container loads of Sitia Olive Oil.

Olive trees in Sitia

The Cooperative of Sitia was established in 1933 and represents most of the growers in the region.  Their total production is around 10,000 tons a year.  The Cooperative produces different types of extra virgin olive oils based on their acidity levels - the 0.3, BIO Organic (0.5 acidity) & 0.7.  All of the Cooperatives oils are produced from the Koroneiki olive.

According to the International Olive Oil Council, "when the acidity does not exceed 3.3 degrees (content of oleic acid 3.3%). In reality, olive oil which has an acidity level of no more than one is much better. You should always read the label on an olive oil bottle to see the degree of the acidity. In Greece, there is excellent olive oil with acidity less than 0.5 degrees! The degree of acidity greatly affects the taste".

Greece produces some of the world's finest olive oils - unfortunately, a good deal of the production is exported in bulk to Spain or Italy & blended with their production to increase output, flavor, etc...

About 5-6 years ago, the superb quality of the Sitia 0.3 caught the attention of Le Bernardin's chef/owner, Eric Ripert while he was in Aspen for the Food & Wine Classic.  Since then, Chef Ripert has used the oil in his restaurants and has even shown it on TV when he was on the Martha Stewart show in 2009!!  Since then, many chefs that have passed through his kitchen and have moved onto other restaurants continue to work with the oil.  Some of our customers in the NY area include: Park Avenue Cafe, Quality Meats, The Hurricane Club, Marea, Alto, Convivio, Porchetta, Olea Restaurant, Le Bernardin.  On the retail side, we sell the olive oil via a retail website: http://www.sitiaonline.com/ in addition to the 0.3 being sold at Dean & DeLuca's stores.  Prices range from $10 a bottle for a 500ml 0.7 up to $40 for a 5 liter tin.  The 0.3 ranges from $14 for the 500ml to $20 for the 750ml and the BIO Organic retails at approximately $16 a bottle.

In addition to Sitia's olive oils, we have begun importing on a smaller scale the Mercouri Estate's Extra Virgin Olive Oil as well.  Even though their oil is also extra virgin with an acidity level of 0.3, it is also produced from the Koroneiki olive.  With the difference of climates, soil, terroir, the oils taste completely different.  The Estate's olive tree groves were established approximately in 1895 - the same time as the winery. 
This olive oil tends to be a bit spicier than the 0.3 from Sitia - it's great for salad dressings & dipping good quality bread in.  Of this product, we only bring in about 100 cases a year since the production is pretty limited.  the average retail price is about $16

Of the olive oils we carry, I cook with the 0.7 exclusively unless the recipe calls for a neutral flavored oil like canola or grapeseed.  I use both the Mercouri & 0.3 for everything else that does not involve heating the oil up.

One of the other little gems that we import in small quantities is 5 year aged vinegar made by GAIA on the island of Santorini from the Assyrtiko grape.  The vinegar is made by taking half the quantity of freshly produced vinegar and boiling it down to half its volume on a copper pot.  This concentrates its flavor & really brings out the acidity.  After this is done, the reduced vinegar is blended back into the remaining fresh vinegar and is then aged for 5 years in oak barrels that were once used by GAIA to ferment and age it's Thalassitis Oak Fermented White wine.

In the winery's facility on Santorini, they have a room, set aside for the aging vinegar.  On a recent trip to visit the winery, Yiannis P joked that they had enough vinegar in storage to dress 5 million Greek salads......

The vinegar is then bottled in 250ml bottles and is ready for release.  This vinegar is not like anything else you have ever tasted-it's got amazing acidity without being over the top.  It also does not have the sharpness of balsamic vinegar.  I like to use it in my salad dressings when I want a milder flavor.  Also, I use a little bit when cooking roasts in order to kick up the dish a bit.

Since this product is sold in small format bottles, we bring in small quantities (50-60 cases) at a time.  We bring in shipments of it during the year and never really run out.  The average retail price for a bottle is $17.

With all of these items, we sell them to select retail locations and then also sell them online through a website called http://www.sitiaonline.com/ which ships within the United States only.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Holiday Entertaining - CSA Style

With the holidays upon us, I have been busy on many levels-planning the Road Show/working, entertaining and getting ready for the holidays.

My husband & I are hosting a holiday dinner party and I am planning a menu that is in line with the holiday season and also compliments the wide selection of wines I have in my cellar that are ready to be enjoyed.

This year in an effort to eat locally and healthier, I have signed us up for different CSA's.  For those of you that are not familiar with this, CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture.  You buy a share in the farm and in return you receive a set pound of product on a scheduled basis.  The farm is located within a 150 mile radius of your home, thereby the food is just picked & in your basket in less than 48 hours. In the winter, we have joined a Winter Vegetable share CSA through The Garden of Eve Farm on Long Island.  This past weekend we picked up our first winter share and I received the following items: cabbage, broccoli, squash, spinach, kale, swiss chard, celery, mesculin greens, lettuce, dill, cilantro, parsley, turnips & carrots.  We also received 1 dozen farm fresh eggs as well.

So far I have made (with the help of my mother) a Greek comfort food for me - Lahanodolmades.  For those of you non-Greeks, it's cabbage leaves stuffed with a beef/rice mixture served with an avgolemeno (lemon/egg) sauce.  In this dish I used my organic cabbage, dill & eggs.  It was very tasty and the eggs made the sauce a very bright golden yellow color - not one that you would get by using commercial eggs. We paired a bottle of Domaine Spiropoulos Mantinia 2009 with it.  The acidity & minerality of the Moschofilero worked very well against the sauce and the delicate stuffing in the cabbage leaves.  It was an added bonus that the wine is produced from organically grown grapes.  Now that it's had a bit of time to develop, the color has turned a deeper hue of blush, which is directly related to the fact that the grapes undergo a pre-fermentation cold soak before crushing.  As a result, some of the grape's color leaches into the juice, giving it its unique color.

The next item I used was my broccoli-I ended up making a broccoli soup which tastes really good.  I had a huge broccoli head and I ended up making enough soup to eat over the next few days in addition to freezing 2 quart sized containers for future use.  I'm not sure what I'm going to drink with the soup - if I decide to thicken it with milk I will most likely break out an assyrtiko to combat the creaminess.

This coming weekend we are having a small holiday dinner and I'm working on the menu now.  In addition to joining a winter vegetable CSA, we have also joined a meat CSA from the 8'o Clock Ranch located in upstate NY.  All of their animals are grass fed and that is definitely a better and more natural diet for animals.  Unlike the veggie CSA's where shares are limited, meat shares are easier to get into and you have the ability to tailor your share to what you eat.  We are receiving our first shipment this week and based on it I will make dinner for my guests this weekend.  We will definitely have a meat dish and I am tempted to break out a GAIA Estate 1998.  I'm not sure what the meat cut will be.  However, I will finish the meal with individual brownie pudding ramekins.  With dessert I am going to open up a bottle of UWC Samos dessert wine or an Argyros Vin Santo - I'm not sure yet.  I need to see what I have in my cellar.  The key at this point is to have a dessert wine that has enough acidity to hold it's own against the chocolate.  I think I'll serve Spiropoulos Ode Panos sparkling wine as an apertif and then will most likely move towards the Ktima Pavlidis White 2009 for a white wine.  We'll see.

While I'm not an organic nut, you can definitely tell the difference when produce is freshly picked rather than what you get at your local supermarket.  I think that if you really do some research on what kinds of pesticides are used on our foods, you would be concerned.  I read the book Food Inc and while some of what is written is pretty far out there, there are many points that make you think about what it is you actually eat and what you buy.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Holiday madness

Things have been quite busy in Athenee - land between the holidays and ironing out the details for our 2011 Road Show.

Thanksgiving is always a great time to enjoy Greek wines.  My dinner was a small one  - 5 people.  Instead of killing myself with a whole turkey, I prepared turkey rolls with a spiced pecans, mushrooms and bacon stuffing.  Total time (including prep & cooking): 2 hours.  Sure beats hours & hours waiting for a turkey to cook properly!!

At my table our first bottle was the Hatzimichalis Veriki 2009, which is a 50/50 blend of Robola & Chardonnay.  The brightness of the Chardonnay really accentuated the weight of the Robola to make it pair well with our salad & other appetizers.  For the main course we moved onto the GAIA 14-18h 2009 rose.  The berry flavors complemented the cranberry sauce nicely and while the acidity and subtle tannins paired well with the turkey.  Rose wine and Thanksgiving are a perfect match - I highly recommend everyone to serve a dry rose for dinner when you are serving dishes like salmon, turkey, roast chicken or a ham steak.

One of my colleagues in Chicago told me that instead of a turkey, he roasted a 45 pound lamb for Thanksgiving - the most amusing part about that story is that he's not Greek.  He paired the 2009 Vassiliou Ambelones with his lamb and said that it was amazing.  This wine is a blend of Savatiano & Roditis.  While both grapes alone can be used in Retsina production, blending them together is really getting the positive aspects of both grapes-Savatiano for the fruit and Roditis for the acidity.  This is a great for a party-an instant crowd pleaser.

With Thanksgiving under our belts, we have turned all of our attention onto finalizing events, dates & locations for our 2011 Road Show.  Last year our participating wineries were: Thimiopoulos Vineyards, Domaine Porto Carras, Ktima Pavlidis, GAI'A Wines, Domaine Spiropoulos, Harlaftis Estate, Domaine Vassiliou, Mercouri Estate, Gentilini Wines and Estate Argyros.  Turnout for our 3 city Road Show portfolio tasting was better than we could have imagined.  Of course none of it would have happened if it were not for Stephanie & Kayt at Teuwen One Image.

With the overwhelming success of 2010, two more wineries are joining us in 2011-UWC Samos and Estate Hatzimichalis.  This will bring the total amount of wines available to taste to upwards of 120!!!  We are very excited about this development and believe that this will only enhance the value of attending our tastings.  We will now have representation form almost every major wine producing region in Greece at one event.  Furthermore, each winery's winemaker or primary contact person will be on hand to pour their wines and answer all of your questions.

We have also finalized the venue dates & locations (event times TBA):
Monday March 7th 2011: W Boston, Boston MA
Tuesday March 8th 2011: Del Posto, NY NY
Wednesday March 9th 2011: Boka Restaurant, Chicago IL

We are working on incorporating a seminar aspect into some of the venues as well.  Once the final decision will be made we will include it on our website and will post it on Twitter (@atheneewines).  Space will be limited and these seminars will require pre-registration. Additionally, we are going to have a consumer tasting event in Chicago the night of March 9th and more information will be forthcoming on that as well.  The day event will be open to qualified trade individuals & press only. The evening event will be open to everyone - consumer & retailer alike.

So there you have it-we've been busy bees!!! Please mark the above dates on your calendar and we hope that you will be able to join us in any of our Road Show cities.  Registration will be up & running in the early part of 2011.  We will also advertise the events in each state's Beverage Journal with all relevant info.

We are looking forward to building on our success and making the 2011 events even better than this year's.  We would also like to thank those people that attended our events this year and helped make them the success that they were.

Stay tuned for more exciting developments in our world.  On behalf of myself, Giota & Chris, we wish all of you a Happy Holiday season and a healthy 2011.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Gentilini wines flying under the radar - part 2

When we talk about Mavrodaphne, we automatically think of the sweet, often poorly produced Mavrodaphne of Patras.  Very few know that there are certain parts of Greece that produce dry wines from this grape variety.  Cephalonia's red wine appellation is called Mavrodaphne of Cephalonia and requires the grapes to be grown in specific zones on the island.  Dry styles of wine made from this grape are made in small quantities and the majority of the wines are produced in the Western part of the country.

In 2002 when Marianna & Petros took over control of the winery from Marianna's father, the estate was planted with 3 hectares of Sauvignon Blanc & Chardonnay.  In 2006 the couple decided to remove these vines and replant them with Mavrodaphne of Cephalonia.  This was done primarily to keep with their vision of promoting local varieties while highlighting their potential.

For a small winery, this decision was a risky ones since the vineyards had to sit inactive for 2 years until they were able to replant in 2008.  After the vineyards were replanted they had to wait an additional 3 years for the new vines to crop, vinify, mature, etc.... In all the lead time until the first vintage was released was 7 years!!

In order to begin production, Marianna & Petros decided to buy top quality grapes from a specific producer within the appellation zone.  In 2008 just a few days after a lunar eclipse, the first grapes were picked, thus giving birth to the name.  The wine was tasted by professionals from around the world and all were enthusiastic about its potential.  The 08 production was sold out within 3 months of its release.

According to Marianna, "The 2009 is looking superb. It was bottled a few days aging and will be released towards the end of 2011".

Gentilini Eclipse 2008
For the inaugural vintage, the winery bought the Mavrodaphne grapes from a single vineyard site within the appellation zone near the village of Lixouri.  The Mavrodaphne grape is grown on clay soils with no irrigation.  Yields are extremely low - 3 tons per hectare.  The winter on the island was quite rainy then followed by a hot & dry spring & summer.

Vinification: After harvest, all grapes are brought to the winery for vinification and bottling.  The bunches are de-stemmed and crushed.  Both fermentation & extraction takes place in open stainless steel vats.  Every 6 hours the wine is pumped over and punched down in order to extract the desired color and flavor from the skins and to develop complexity.  Additionally, the fermenting skins are pressed and the juice is added to the fermenting vat where it completes fermentation.
Malolactic fermentation is then induced and the wine is transferred to French barriques and let to mature for 12 months.  Once cask maturation is complete the wine is transferred to bottle and is left to age another 23 months before release.

In 2008, only 1700 bottles were produced.

Tasting notes: I was able to taste this wine as a barrel sample earlier this year but it was still too young to form any lasting opinions on it.  Its potential is definitely there and since I do not have too much experience or exposure to 100% dry Mavrodaphne, I will revisit the samples I have in my cellar over time to see how they progress.  I do hope to get my hands on some 2008 to try in the near future....

According to the winery, this wine is inky black in color with complex, intense aromas of red fruit and notes of licorice and wild mint.  In the mouth it is rich & complex with soft, round tannins and a persistently long finish.  It is recommended to pair with rich meat dishes and aged cheeses.

Since 2008 was the first bottling & release, its aging potential isn't known yet.  All we can do is wait and see how it develops over time.  In early 2011 a small quantity will be sold through New York's Molyvos Restaurant. Hopefully Petros will have some sampels for us during the 2011 Road Show.....

Gentilini wines flying under the radar - part 1

In the Ionian Sea lies Cephalonia.  It's an mountainous island with many vineyard areas still unaffected by phylloxera.  The island's most important grape variety to date is Robola, which is not to be confused with Italy's Ribolla Gialla - they are not the same grape.  Since the early 2000's we have been working with the Gentilini Winery importing their Robola and more recently their Aspro, Syrah and Red.

Over the past few years on our trips to Greece, Marianna & Petros have been showing us new/experimental wines for our feedback.  Two of the most recent releases are the Robola Cellar Selection & Eclipse.

According to Marianna (winery owner), the main philosophy behind the decision to produce these two wines was to take the island's most important varieties - Robola & Marvrodaphne - and vinify them in a way to show their maximum potential.  After lengthy experiments with different yeasts, vinification techniques, barrel types and months of aging, they were satisfied with the results and decided to release them.

Gentilini Robola Cellar Selection 2009
Robola is a rare, ungrafted low-yielding variety that thrives on the poor limestone and gravelly soils of the island's mountainsides.  Robola is considered one of Greece's finest white varieties.  It is known for its weight and for its distinct aromas of stone fruit and citrus.

Grape Origin: Robola for the Cellar Selection come from a specific vineyard that is located 800 meters above sea level in the area of Fagia.  the vines were planted back in 1956 and are ungrafted.  The vineyard faces due south and is extremely steep.  The extended ours of sunlight, limestone (rocky) soil and low yields (2.5 tons per hectare in 2009) contribute to the intense flavors and aromas present in this wine.

Vinification: All aspects of vinificaiton are performed at the winery.  After harvest the grapes are chilled overnight to 7C and is then the whole bunch is pressed so that only 60% of the juice is extracted. This juice is then inoculated with a specific yeast and is then left to ferment for 6-8 weeks at 15C.  Once fermentation ends the wine undergoes battonage (lees stirring) for two weeks to promote the development of the wine's body and aromas.

20% of the must is fermented in French oak barrels which adds to the complexity of the wine without making it "oaky".  Once all fermentation is complete the wine is blended, stabilized and filtered before bottling.

In 2009, only 1400 bottles were produced.

Tasting notes: I originally tasted the 2008 and really liked it.  While I'm personally not a fan of oak at all in my whites, it added subtle vanilla notes that complimented the weight of Robola nicely.  The 2009 has more intense minerality to it.  It is fresh, crisp and aromatic, yet not over the top.  It has aromas of vanilla (very subtle), white peach and lemon.  It's weight is medium + with balanced acidity and a long finish.  This wine reminds me in some aspects of Chablis and would be amazing with oysters, sushi and crudo plates.  While this wines is really unique, it will never become a major presence in the US market simply because so few bottles are produced annually.  At this time you can enjoy it in New York's Molyvos restaurant on 7th Avenue between 55th & 56th streets.

We hope to have the 2010 available to taste during our 2011 Road Show....we'll see if it's ready!!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Who we are - a brief history

Athenee Importers was established by my parents, Tony & Giota Englisis back in the late 1970s/early 80s. Back then wines out of Greece we mainly bulk wines with a pretty low quality threshold.  They decided to part ways with their business partner (who wanted to focus on French wines) and focus on Greece's emerging wineries.  With this thought in mind, they began working with Boutari.  Back then you really only had a few big players in the market and everyone else sold their juice to them.

After about a decade of working together, Bourtari & Athenee parted ways.  Afterwards, my parents decided to turn their backs on the big boys of the Greek wine industry and focus their time & efforts on the smaller, boutique producers that were starting to make a name for themselves.  Their first major winery that they worked with was the Hatzimichalis Estate.  The estate is located about an hour and a half north of Athens and is situated between the Bay of Evvia and Mt. Parnasos.  Here is a link to the winery's website: http://www.hatzimichalis.gr/en/our-philosophy.

While many like to turn their cheek to the winery and criticize it for it's emphasis on International grapes, if you think back to the wine drinking population in the 1980s, anytime they thought about Greek wine (or much of anything else for that matter) retsina would immediately come to mind.  For a winery to be producing international varietal wines that were good said allot. All of their efforts back then helped make the road easier for those who came after them.  As a result, the name Hatzimichalis holds a place of respect in many people's minds for what the winery helped establish.

As the market began to realize that there were better quality wines beginning to come out of Greece, demand grew and the company's portfolio began to grow and the market started to change.

Even though I was always exposed to the business, I didn't get involved full time until I graduated college.  The first few years were a HUGE learning curve.  Trying to get a grip on the laws of the industry, the way things were done, and learn about wines was pretty intense.  After a few sales calls on wine people, I quickly realized that I needed to get some formal wine education under my belt so I could be taken seriously.  As a result I decided to take classes through the New York chapter of the WSET.  All of the education culminated in my receiving the Diploma in Wine & Spirits in 2005.  The Diploma is a great foundation but you always need to keep on tasting to keep your mind & palate sharp.

The late 1990s through the early 2000s were a period of intense change.  Many of today's top wineries came into fruition then and our portfolio kept growing.  A perfect example is GAI'A.  I remember meeting Yiannis P at a wine tasting at Milos in 1996-97 when they had just released their first vintage of Thalassitis.  A wine of that caliber had never been seen before and there was a great buzz behind it.  We have been fortunate to work together for so many years and make a joint name for ourselves in the market. You can read more about them at: www.gaia-wines.gr

The 1997 vintage was an excellent one in Greece.  Once the wines were being released into the market, people began to pay attention to us and the wines.  Where we could only sell Greek wines to the ethnic establishments, some of the more adventurous sommeliers started seeking us to taste and work with the wines.  It was an uphill battle however to get more mainstream people to taste the wines.  Many a door was shut in our face when we walked in.  However, for every 10 rejections, there has always been someone interested, positive and willing to learn.  Those are the people that "get it" and have helped us get to where we are today.

The 21st century has seen immense change for our company.  In 1997, Anthony Englisis, my father, passed away while on vacation.  While it came as a great shock, we kept on moving forward.  I am proud to say that Athenee Importers is owned and operated by my mother and I.  In addition to running the day to day operations, we are always looking out for new and exciting wines and wineries to add to our portfolio.  The internet has also been a great tool to keep those interested in our products updated on our events and happenings.  Our website is quite comprehensive and has info relevant for both the consumer and professional alike.  Twitter & blogging are now the next layer of getting the message out there.

On the distribution side, we have been fortunate to establish partnerships with some of the leading distribution houses across the United States.  This had given credibility to our cause and has helped to establish Athenee Importers as the leading importer of quality products from Greece.  Our focus is on educating the public while consistently expanding our distribution network so we can get more of our products into the hands of more consumers.  We expand into a new market when we feel we've found the right partner.  We prefer to be out of a market for the right reasons than be there for the wrong ones - those decisions only end up as a headache.

2009-2010 has been interesting to say the least.  It's amazing to have demand for products in the middle of a financial crisis and not being able to fill the orders.  The strikes in Greece really did a number on our ability to increase sales simply because we could not get product here.  On many occasions people ask me what is the most difficult part of what I do and one of the top 10 responses is getting product to the US.  Another difficulty that all importers face is product compliance.  Since our laws in the US are so different than the rest of the world, many find it hard to believe that they need to have separate labels for the US with all of our required info on them.  With the internet it makes life easier to get labels approved and keep on top of it.  However, there are still times when I get the random e-mail asking whether or not we need an approval for a major change.....

With 2010 pretty much wrapped up we start to plan for 2011.  We are currently planning our 2nd annual 3 city Road Show.  We will be in Boston, NYC and Chicago in March.  While there have been other tastings organized in the past, the largest criticism on them is that while there are many wineries present, the quality of the wines were all over the board.  I like to think that our producers represent some of the best that Greece has to offer and that when an attendee stops at each table they will find at least 1 wine that they like and can relate to.

We also will be working on expanding our distribution network.  Just last month we entered the Illinois market with Winebow of Illinois.  We work with them in their other markets and we feel confident that this relationship will be a good one for us.  There is also allot of opportunity to expand our presence within our distributors portfolios as well.  Overall it will be a busy 2011 for us.

Stay tuned!!!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Inaugural Blog Post

While I consider myself technologically savvy, in the past year I started Tweeting & now I think it's time to put some of my thoughts, tasting notes and tidbits of info passed along to me by the wineries out there for all of you to read.

This blog will be a place where I will post my thougts on new vintages, wines and stories behind the wineries we represent.  I hope that it will be informative and give you a better understanding about Athenee Importers and our goal of educating the public about great Greek wines that are avaialble in the US.

Stay tuned and as I get more used to this blogging thing, I will begin posting to the site.

Here's to a leap forward into another form of social media!!