26 Sept 2012

Message In A Bottle: Trevor Long and Judith Burns

DOUGLAS Blyde talks to Trevor Long and Judith Burns, the team behind Pacta Connect, importers of Croatian wines and olive oil.

What was your Damascus sip?
TL: In Croatia, drinking a jug of the local house malvazija in an old kantina thinking: when I’m in Brighton, why can’t I find wine half as refreshing, decent, tasty and good as this?
JB: Probably drinking Moreno Coronica’s Gran Teran 07 with him. He decants it the day before. It’s the personification of Istrian wine: it comes from the soul. Moreno’s family have been on the same land for 600 years. It went on to be crowned best wine in Croatia by Time Out and Moreno sold out. We’ve one magnum left.

What did you do before?
TL: Technically, I retired from school at an early age. After that, I was a tour manager and band manager in the music industry world-wide.
JB: I studied French and History of Art (UCL), then started my business career in music during the early days of punk - then in PR for Shandwick. I set up my own company then, a business service where I was also a floating PA for associations, charities, organisations and self-employed people, from politicians to pop stars.

What makes Croatia’s climate particularly suited to viticulture and olive oil?
TL: The Four Seasons. On the coast it’s like the South of France in summer, with warm winds from the Adriatic, then the Bura in winter. Interestingly too, Slavonia can have hotter summer days than the coast.
JB: Istria produces incredible wines, oils, honey and lavender with its Mediterranean microclimate; Slavonia’s similar to Austria and Hungary, and for Dalmatia, think intense heat and Adriatic coastal vineyards. It’s a great climate that produces an eclectic range of wine.

What are the misconceptions of Croatian wine and cuisine?
TL: That it’s all ‘Eastern European’ in the worst sense. We’ve had mixed reactions from the trade. “But that’s the Balkans!” from one; “No, I can’t contemplate Croatian wine, I had a bad experience with Greek wine a few years ago” from another (that retort came from a well established merchant). And when it comes to food, most people lump Croatia again, in the worst sense, in with Eastern Europe – so they think sauerkraut, boiled potatoes, pickled gherkins and red peppers. It’s nothing like that! We’ve had scallops as big as my fist, delicate sole, stuffed Adriatic squid, tender venison and wild boar.
JB: That it’s cheap. In fact, the best Croatian wine is expensive, even in Croatia. Food-wise,  many people who went to Dubrovnik and Split in the 70s remember it as such, and even now they fly South as tourists and often get the ‘chicken ‘n’ chips’ experience that they associate with package holidays. Of course you get that in every country – I live in Brighton and we get it more than most! But Croatia has defined seasons – think wild asparagus, cherries in spring, or white truffles and wild mushrooms in autumn, with wines that complement its amazing cuisine.

Do you think the future lies with indigenous or international varieties?
TL: It must lie with both. In many cases the international varieties open the doors for us to sell the indigenous varieties, so we could never favour one over the other. Any wine merchant will tell you how difficult it is to shift wines from an unknown wine country with unknown indigenous grape varieties. That’s why we always arrange tasting events with wine merchants to educate the consumer. One way of making our wines accessible to the British consumer is via international grape varieties. If someone loves Merlot we have Croatian Merlot; if they love Chardonnay, we have Croatian Chardonnay. If they’re more adventurous they’ll take the leap of faith and try a Malvazija, a Muškat, a Borgonja, Plavac Mali or Graševina...
JL: We organised a tasting some few years ago and listened to a well known journalist discussing this question with a top sommelier – the journalist felt that indigenous grape varieties were Croatia’s only future in the UK, but the sommelier argued that other countries produce both and the Croatians produce some superb international wines, so why not? In our portfolio we have superb Merlot, Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. We need Croatian winemakers to keep experimenting, to find their future with us.

What is Croatia’s biggest hangover?
TL: Their biggest hangover? The pre-90s throwback that everyone has a job but not everyone necessarily works. Shape up, you’re about to join the EU!
JB: The fear of new people coming in to take over (as they see it); sometimes Croatians don’t want advice from people who – heaven forbid – may know more than they do. They don’t realise that people can be there just to help. But they can also be quite easily led. Let’s say they haven’t yet realised that all that glitters is not necessarily gold!

Do you consider yourselves ambassadors for Croatia?
TL: I know the Ambassador, we share a mutual love of history, and I like him very much so no, I’d never consider myself in his shoes. Mind you, I’d love his Hampstead residence!
JB: We’ve been told this by several Croatians and we’ve very honoured. But we never set out to be. One of the biggest problems we’ve had to overcome has been lack of knowledge about Croatia so selling the wine encompasses a huge educational programme for us; perhaps that’s why people have said this. We’ll talk to anyone who listens about Croatia and for every one person we meet we hope they’ll tell ten about Croatia and its wine.

What does the UK market mean to you, and what are your ambitions within it?
TL: We’d like to see our wines in more British independents, and on more wine lists in bars and restaurants. Ours are not ‘supermarket wines’ with huge volume and cheap prices; some of our winemakers produce only a few thousand bottles. Our ambition is to stop Croatia being stuck on a shelf under “Rest of the World”; It has a right to a shelf of its own.
JB: It’s a twofold question. For us, the UK market means putting Croatian wine on the international map for good in high quality merchants and restaurants and not just as a new ‘fad’. For our winemakers it also means the kudos of the British drinking their wine – this is very important to them, that their wines don’t just appeal to other Croatians. Our ambition is to hear the British wine drinker walk into a merchant or a wine bar and ask for a Croatian Malvazija or Grasevina.

Where can we find your wines?
TL: We have what is considered to be the top 5% of the winemakers in Istria in our portfolio, and now some great Slavonian and Dalmatian wines too. So where you won’t find them is on the supermarket shelf, but you will find them in select on and off-trade, specialist shops and independent restaurants. We’ve found some merchants with terrific foresight such as Stuart Rathbone at The Vineyard, Ramsbottom. He’s been a champion of ours from the early days.
JB: Some top sommeliers have had good vision and can see our wines’ potential. Independent restaurants, wine bars (particularly those with an emphasis on organic and natural wines), The Aumbry, Hakkasan and Hibiscus for instance. We’re working hard to get them in as many interesting merchants as possible, backed up by our training programme and calendar of tasting events, fairs and wine dinners that is taking us through to 2013. We’re working closely with journalists and wine educators in the UK too, which may be a slow process but we believe it’s the only way to build a solid foundation for the future of Croatian wine in the British market.

For Harper's Wine
Images of Croatia at Visuals