Is it naïve to think one person can use wine to change a nation’s fate? Perhaps, but that is just what economist-turned-importer Indira Bayer has set out to do. The country called Bosnia and Herzogvina has a small, 12-mile strip of craggy coast on the Adriatic sea, a mountainous center that mellows into hills, then flatlands up north. The climate is moderate, and continental. Simply put, a promising region for growing grapes, but also a region with a tragic past and an uncertain future.
The beauty of the wine world today, is that it’s easier than ever to discover far-away lands and cultures through the glass, without ever leaving home. While I’d love to taste these wines in Bosnia one day, I discovered them on Instagram, began a correspondence with Bayer, and jumped at the chance to taste through her portfolio at my local wine store (Sage Wine & Spirits) when she was on one of her many tours of bottle shops around the Northeast.
Bayer, a Bosnian native, believes that when “wine crosses borders, it can create bridges.” Bridges that will lead to people who never even knew Bosnian wine existed, never mind actually considered drinking it, and to economic relief for a country still grappling to rebuild itself from the rubble of war almost 30 years ago.
“I couldn’t not do my part to help, after successfully putting my life back together as an immigrant to the US,” Bayer says. “Especially after returning home and finding just how much work still needs to be done.”
Bayer came to the US in 1996 when she was 29 years old, “barely speaking a word of English.” She threw herself into mastering the language and creating a life from scratch. Within eight years, Bayer worked her way up from a bank-teller to Vice President in small business banking at Bank of America. Meanwhile, she says, her homeland’s economy was in shambles.
“I was so focused on creating a life here, I didn’t realize how dire the situation had become back home,” Bayer recalls. “When I returned to Sarajevo with my husband Jim Bayer, who is a Foreign Service Specialist with the U.S. State Department, I took a job at the embassy as an assistance coordinator and saw in person the incredible brain drain Bosnia was facing, with 43% unemployment overall and an astounding 67% unemployment for young people.”
Boiling down the recent territorial disputes and history of the land Bayer came from into a few neat sentences is like wedging the Bible into a nut graph, but here goes: she was born in the former Yugoslavia, which was set up as a federation of six republics after World War II: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia.
A vicious ethnic war raged there again through the 90’s and the Former Yugoslavia split apart. All former federal republics were declaring independence. Dissolution of Yugoslavia ended in 2006, when Montenegro split away from Serbia. In 2008, the Republic of Kosovo declared independence from Serbia, making it the seventh country created from Former Yugoslavia. The war affected the entire region—the whole world, really—but the international armed conflict reached its horrific apotheosis in Bosnia and Herzegovina between 1992-1995, and the number of refugees and displaced persons in the former Yugoslavia was estimated to be more than 2 million during that time. By 2001, about 650,000 Bosnians were still uprooted because of the wars.
When your home is on fire, you leave. But when that fire gets put out, what happens next?
“I am so grateful to America, my new country, for aiding Bosnia in its recovery,” Bayer says. “In 2010 when I returned to Bosnia, they were pouring $49 million annually into infrastructure, economic recovery and rebuilding State institutions. But it felt so slow. As an economist by education, I knew that opportunity comes through job creation. No one wants handouts. And so, I decided that I would do what I could to contribute.”
When her husband’s job called them back to the U.S. in 2014, she began exploring options more seriously. After considering the handful viable export options—honey? Potatoes? Wine?—she settled on wine, because it embodies what she sees as the region’s vast historical and cultural heritage, and the market for it is inherently global.
And wine, as it turns out, has a long, though mostly unknown, history in the region. Evidence of winemaking in Bosnia and Herzegovina dates back more than 2200 years to Illyrian times, and wine has been a staple there for hundreds of years. The Vienna Habsburg empire replanted royal vineyards there with native varieties such as Blatina, Zilvaka, Plavac and Vranac, still grown in Bosnia today, Bayer explains.
Bayer had no formal wine training, and had never launched a business. But in 2015, after traveling extensively throughout the region, meeting winemakers and talking to ex-pats and Americans working in the region, she decided to just go for it.
She partnered with one brand to begin with, and used her network of contacts to help cut through the bureaucratic red tape involved in exporting goods from one country to another.
A New Beginning
“Honestly, I didn’t really know what I was doing, but my training working in small business banking, and my knowledge and love of both America and Bosnia made me believe I could make my vision a reality,” she recalls. “It was probably naïve.”
Yet, she was onto something. If, 10 years ago, she’d tried to penetrate the American market with a wine made from grapes no one can pronounce without the phonetic guide she provides on the label from a country most famous in the U.S. for its crimes against humanity, she would have likely been met with a blank, if not horrified, stare by most consumers.
Since the Bosnian War, which ended in 1995, more than 50 people have been convicted of war crimes, including genocide and ethnic cleansing. Many are serving life sentences. Meanwhile, the economy is still in tatters, and many consumers, experts say, have come to understand that using the power of their purse can make a real impact in the way both their economy and their culture are rebuilt.
“The demand for socially conscious wines is growing,” says Daniel Levine, a global trends expert and founder of the Avant-Guide Institute, explains. “While it’s unlikely that a Bosnian wine will be at the top of anyone’s list here for everyday drinking, there is absolutely a place now for unusual bottles with meaningful backstories.”
Elli Benchimol, a sommelier at Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steaks & Stone Crab in Washington, D.C., concurs.
“We are all more interested in the provenance of our wines now,” Benchimol says. “It’s much easier for me to sell bottles to guests with grapes they haven’t heard of, especially when I can share an interesting story. But it has to be good for me to want to sell it, and for people to ask for it again. A backstory won’t prop up a bad brand.”
Bayer started with Bosnia’s largest family-owned winery, Vinaria Citluk, because she loved it, and so did the expats she’d gotten to know. She began importing their line of premium wines made from native varieties. In 2016, she exported to the U.S. 600 cases of three of Carski Vinogradi’s wines under the Wines of Illyria brand she created, with a label she designed. She and her husband were living in New Jersey, and she focused on launching Wines of Illyria in her neighborhood. Literally.
“My first stop was my local liquor store down the street from my house,” she says. “I tasted the owner on the wine and he loved it, and I went from there, door to door, making phone calls, getting in my car and just asking people to try the wines.”
After hand-selling the wines to a buyer, Bayer would schedule tastings at the store, knowing that consumers were unlikely to buy a random Bosnian wine on their own. Over the next three years, Bayer, the brand’s founder, CEO, visionary, brand ambassador, secretary, head of sales and fixer, all rolled into one, expanded to New York, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Missouri.
This year, she added another winemaker, Carski Vinogradi, whom she believes has the best naturally produced wines.
“They’re family owned and operated, and they embody the tradition of Bosnian winemaking, with a focus on native grapes,” she says. All told, they have 47.5 hectares of grapes under fine, and produce 150,000 annually.
After a small start at her local in New Jersey, she’s ramped up distribution to eight states, and has increased her imports from 600 to 2,500 cases of Vinaria Citluk wines with the Wines of Illyria label. Last year, began bringing in small quantities—less than a pallet each—of wines from other brands in Bosnia (Imperial Vineyards Mostar), Croatia (Vina Laguna), Macedonia (Smederevka Tikves), Serbia (Vino Zuna) and Slovakia (Apimed Mead).
Janine Sacco, a buyer for The Wine Thief chain of stores in Connecticut, says she was skeptical, but intrigued by the idea of Bosnian wine, so agreed to meet with Bayer.
“I love trying indigenous grape varieties, and working with ones I like,” Sacco explains. “To me, encouraging consumption of delicious fringe varieties ensures their future. The Blatina is one of the wine geekiest things I carry. It’s the only female cultivar in the wine world; I had always thought that only hermaphroditic species were selected for propagation, and learning that this grape exists and is delicious just blew my mind.”
Robert Eckard, luxury wine buyer at the bureau of product selection for the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board says that in Pennsylvania, consumers are “much more interested in the unique varietals” Bayer’s wines offer.
“The reception has been fantastic,” Eckard shares. “Pennsylvania has a large population of Balkan immigrants, who are happy to see familiar wines. I just got back from visiting the region actually, and even 20 odd years later, you can still see evidence of the conflict. Having met some of the wine producers we feature in our stores, as well as citizens outside of the industry, it feels rewarding to know that my purchasing decisions are impacting them in a positive way.”
Bayer’s next coup—she hopes—is to persuade the U.S. government to spur the growth of the wine industry by allowing producers to export their wines into the U.S. tax-free. A (likely) bureaucratic blunder resulted in sparkling wine being approved for tax-free status, but she’s working with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to have still wine approved instead.
“We don’t really even produce sparkling wine in the region,” Bayer explains. “If we could export still wine without an excise tax, it would reduce costs for consumers significantly. Instead of buying a wine they’ve never heard for $23, they’d be paying less than $20, which is a big difference psychologically. And wouldn’t that it better to give us a tax break instead of millions of dollars in aid annually?”
Let’s pose another rhetorical question, just for fun: how can you help revitalize the Bosnian economy? Try the wine. Suggestions below.
Five Bottles to Try
WINES OF ILLYRIA STONE CUVEE — A blend of 90% Zilvaka and 10% Bena, indigenous white grapes. Clean, elegant, with flavors of green lychee and honey, balanced by chamomile and a mineralic heft that cuts the sweet. Drink with grilled shrimp or roasted vegetables and grains.
WINES OF ILLYRIA PLAVAC MALI — Made from 100% Plavac Mali, a relative of Zinfandel. Refined flavors of ripe pomegranates, plums, almonds. Well integrated and balanced. Pair with steak or pasta.
WINES OF ILLYRIA ZIVAKA — A native white varietal that displays subtle aromas of citrus and lemon peel. It harbors a vibrant acidity, white currants, tropical fruits, herbs, a beautiful structure. Drink this with roast chicken or pork, or a crab dish.
WINES OF ILLYRIA BLATINA – A rare, fickle, native varietal that grows only in Herzegovina. Lush cherry notes, ripe plum, chocolate a juicy acidity, soft tannins. Drink with grilled meats or seafood paella.
CARSKI EMPORIA ROSÉ — Made from native Blatina grapes hand-picked at dawn and fermented in medium-toasted barrique barrels, there are flavors of strawberry and vanilla, with a hint of tannins. Refreshing and lovely. Drink with aged cheese.