Award-winning winery Pfaffl has helped establish Austria’s signature Grüner Veltliner on the daunting American market.
Good as they are, Austrian wines often go unnoticed outside the country, especially with giants like France or Italy hogging the limelight. Even large producers can have a hard time making it internationally. The family-owned Pfaffl winery in Lower Austria is among the few that have, culminating in an award for European Winery of the Year by the American magazine Wine Enthusiast in 2016.
Walking into their showroom, the prestigious award glowing from a place of honor, we were greeted by Roman Pfaffl Sr., who founded the winery with his wife in 1978. With his children Heidemarie Fischer and Roman Pfaffl Jr. in charge, he had time to show visitors their wine cellar and production facility, with its towering 60,000 liter steel tanks.
Even with such capacity, developing export channels is no small feat. “Especially after the Weinskandal, buyers could not forgive Austrian winemakers or trust them,” Pfaffl Sr. explained. The great Wine Scandal of 1985 was a watershed in the history of Austrian wine – the year the authorities discovered diethylene glycol (DEG), a key ingredient in antifreeze, was used to sweeten wines. Undetectable even to the trained palate, it can be toxic in large quantities.
Rebuilding a Reputation
What could have meant the death of the industry, however, ended up renewing it. Vintners pressed for an Austrian wine marketing board to regulate designations of origin and labeling, additives and procedures. By the time Austria joined the EU in 1995, its wines were holding their own against the best European labels.
But going international is another story altogether. For Pfaffl, it was the luck of timing. He was manning their stand at an international fair when a buyer stopped to taste his Grüner Veltliner. Happenstance and business savvy helped take advantage of the growing American interest in wines from Germany, Austria and Switzerland, making Pfaffl’s peppery Grüner Veltliners an attractive prospect.
Still it was and remains far from simple. The foreign trade section of the Austrian Economc Chambers reports that the U.S. is “one of the most difficult [wine markets] in the world.” With so many big players, marketing for smaller vineyards can be almost impossible. As a result, points systems such as those in Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate or awards by Wine Enthusiast have an outsize influence on what people will buy.
Handle with Care
Marketing wine in the U.S. requires an importer – often exclusive – and regional dealers for distribution. Special licenses are needed for shipments and moving spirits across state lines. It is also illegal to ship wines to the U.S. by mail, so private couriers have to bridge the gap.
Six years ago, the Pfaffls found a U.S. importer expanding its Austrian portfolio; now Pfaffl wines are sold in every state, making up 6% of their exports. Their availability, high quality and fine peppery and mineral qualities caught the eye of Wine Enthusiast, which nominated them for the award.
“We didn’t believe it at first,” director Heidemarie Fischer explained. It took a phone call from the editor in chief before she was convinced. She and her brother Roman traveled to Miami last January to accept the award for the family, and help put all Austrian wines on the American map.
Additional research by Manfred Winkler