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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.