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Slovenian wine is fast gaining recognition in US

It has centuries of tradition, ranging from Batic - an estate where monks first made wine in 1592 - to Vinakoper, which started as a collective cellar under socialism in 1947

New York

SELLING Yugoslav furniture in America prepared Emil Gaspari for an unlikely life as a wine promoter.

After two decades of perseverance and a leap in quality, his native country of Slovenia is gaining recognition in the US, the world's biggest market. It is heading into the 2020s with a spot on the wine list at New York's Hudson Yards, a luxury dining and residential complex where a seven-room penthouse is listed for US$32 million.

Making the cut alongside US$1,950 bottles of Chateau Margaux and a US$1,150 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon at what New York magazine called a "billionaire's fantasy city" is an added bit of cachet for one of Europe's smallest wine producers.

"It's definitely bragging rights," said Jordan Sekler, the sommelier at Queensyard, a Hudson Yards restaurant that is serving Slovenian wines. They are at the lower end of the price range, and Mr Sekler said that they are a chance for customers to try something different.

Smaller than New Jersey and in a neighbourhood of rival producers such as Italy and Austria, Slovenia is not just the birthplace of first lady Melania Trump. Long overlooked behind bigger eastern European wine nations such as Hungary and Bulgaria, it is also climbing the ladder as a food and wine destination.

Ana Ros, whose restaurant sits in an Alpine valley, was named the world's best female chef in 2017, and Slovenia is getting its own Michelin Guide next year. Wine Spectator magazine said the country is coming into its own with a generation of producers who put quality ahead of quantity.

Socialist Yugoslavia's collapse opened the door in the 1990s, allowing winery owners such as Ales Kristancic and Marjan Simcic to build personal brands and whittle away a reputation for bargain exports that often were lumped in the Italian wine section.

Slovenian-born Mr Gaspari helped with the rebranding, shifting his focus from a longtime job as US representative of Yugoslavia's chair industry.

It began with US furniture customers who were impressed with the wine when they visited Slovenia, he said. In the 2000s, he "knocked at the door" of a now defunct New York restaurant owned by chef Alain Ducasse and sold the beverage manager on Slovenian wines. He helped get them into the five-star Peninsula Hotel on Fifth Avenue, a connection that led to the Hudson Yards wine list.

Wineries in lesser-known regions such as southern Italy have moved up by focusing on "quality rather than making bulk wine or wine to carry on a family business, while embracing local grape varieties", said Olivia Mason, awards marketing manager at Decanter magazine. "Slovenia has taken centre stage" with a similar approach "as the attention to quality continues to rise and impress".

Like many other newly globalising wine regions, Slovenia has centuries of tradition. Queensyard is featuring a US$75 Cabernet Sauvignon rosé by Batic, an estate where monks first made wine in 1592. An US$85 Shiraz comes from Vinakoper, which started as a collective cellar under socialism in 1947.

If scarce means exclusive, that is true of Slovenian wine - most of it is consumed domestically by the country's two million people. Italy's annual production is about 70 times bigger, according to European Union data.

"We export only 10 per cent of all production," Mr Gaspari said. "The rest we drink, from birth to death." BLOOMBERG