By Molly • Molly Walker • 

Croatian team studies area wine industry

Marcus Larson/News-RegisterStoller Family Estate Winemaker Melissa Burr serves barrel tastes to the Croatian team including, from left, Mislav Kasner, Nina Jurinjak, Team Leader Zdravko Turk and, back, Sasa Bernobic.
Marcus Larson/News-Register
Stoller Family Estate Winemaker Melissa Burr serves barrel tastes to the Croatian team including, from left, Mislav Kasner, Nina Jurinjak, Team Leader Zdravko Turk and, back, Sasa Bernobic.

Bernobic was a member of a team of young professionals from Croatia which spent the long Memorial Day weekend in the heart of Oregon wine country. They were hosted locally by McMinnville’s morning and noon Rotary clubs.

The visit was part of a vocational program sponsored by Rotary International and the two Rotary Districts — 5100 in Oregon and Washington and 1913 in Croatia — known as a Group Study Exchange. A team from Oregon spent the month in Croatia as part of the program. (See related story, below.)

While Croatia is a relatively young country, having declared its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 and secured it in 1995, following four years of war, both its history and wine history run centuries deep.

Bernobic said he didn’t know what to expect when he arrived. Croatia’s wines are predominantly white, while this area is known for its high-quality Pinot Noir.

“I found really beautiful wines here — and beautiful people,” he said.

Team member Mislav Kasner, an information technology specialist who develops software for the wine industry in addition to running a small family winery, praised the hosting clubs for their guidance.

“I learned a lot about marketing, promotion and telling stories around wine from beginning to end,” Kasner said. “It was very compelling.”

For Nina Jurinjak, an enologist at Vina Prelac in Momjan, Croatia, the experience was nothing short of life-changing.

“I’m going to go back home and be a little bit different person,” Jurinjak said. She said the exchange not only imparted a lot of new knowledge about wine, but also fueled a desire on her part to help foster lasting international friendships.

“This will further my career,” she said. “I’m lucky to be a part of that.”

Jurinjak was impressed with the countless hours local winemakers spent with them.

“Oregon is growing fast,” she said. “I expect in the next few years it will be famous.”

Zdravko Turk, director of a medical supply firm in Zagreb, served as the team leader for Rotary.

Each night, team members stayed with host families. Locally, Dr. Bruce and Kathleen Dickson, Richard and Donna Weed and Tom and Marion Vail handled host duties.

During the day, the visitors kept busy learning about wines and experiencing the area.

Friday, after touring the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum, they visited Hyland Estates and the NW Wine Company in Dundee, where general manager Robert Moshier took them through a tour, followed by tastings and a reception and presentation from their home country.

Saturday, their day started at Stoller Family Estate, where winemaker Melissa Burr described the many energy-efficient designs built into the facility, the first LEED gold winery in the United States. The team then followed the gravity-flow processes down into the cellar for barrel tasting.

“The 2012s have intense color,” Burr said. “This year, I think we’ve got something special.”

About two miles away, the visitors listened to owner Paul Durant describe his Oregon Olive Mill. He explained some of the obstacles he faces with growing olives, including acidic soils and wet weather.

He took the group through the small processing plant and the team finished by tasting the various oils. 

That afternoon, the host was winemaker Rob Stuart of R. Stuart & Co. in downtown McMinnville. He told them, “We’re always experimenting and trying new concepts.”

Stuart offered tastes from barrels, noting the various AVAs where the grapes had been grown, including Dundee Hills, Amity-Eola Hills, Yamhill-Carlton and even Southern Oregon’s Umpqua Valley. He explained how the various soils affect the aroma and complexity of the wine, while producing flavors like black cherry, cinnamon, berries and plum.

On Sunday, the Croatians and their hosts were invited to the Vails’ Calamity Hills Vineyard in Amity, which bills itself as Oregon’s smallest legal producer of pinot noir and pinot gris, for winetasting and dinner.

On Monday, the team’s last full day in the Yamhill Valley, Ken Wright took the group to one of his vineyards, then to his winery, Ken Wright Cellars. He showed them the dramatic results of the early warm weather on this year’s vines.

“It’s been spectacular, an amazing spring,” he said.

At the vineyard, Wright told the Croatians, “Pinot noir is the variety responsible for our success. All other varieties are hobbies; they don’t make money. Pinot noir makes money.”

He explained how the grape’s success is due to the area’s soils and climate. “All of the conditions for pinot noir to succeed are right,” he said.

With Croatia set to join the European Union in July, Bernobic hopes the contacts made will facilitate importation of Northwest wines to Croatia as well as exportation of Croatian wines to the Northwest.

He also felt the area held good potential for olive oil production. Croatia is one of the world’s top olive oil producers, so that also holds possibilities, he said.

Kasner said the group would take home not only souvenirs, but “a lot of experiences, memories and good things that are in our hearts.” He noted that no member of the team had been to the U.S. before.

“We only know your country from the movies,” he said with a laugh. “We saw some things we’ll remember.”

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