The man behind the label KWSELECTION is Klaus Wittauer, who founded the company in 2002. His "Fine Wines from Austria" are distributed mainly on the East Coast (from North Carolina to Maine), in Georgia, in Colorado, as well as in Illinois, and will soon become available in Ohio.
The sommelier arrives for our conversation at the embassy in a black S.U.V. bearing a Virginia license plate stating "Wine - Art" and an "I Like Austria. At The Heart Of Europe" bumper sticker (note: his American wife, Joanne, is an artist).
Wittauer, 54, never slows down, whether he’s just talking about wine or opening a bottle and pouring. Using several avenues to sell Austrian wine, he hosts dinners and wine seminars, spends Friday evenings and Saturday afternoons in wine stores, and takes American customers (retailers, etc.) on exclusive winery tours to Austria. "Getting the wine into people's glasses," he adds firmly, concludes a perfect sales pitch. Plain and simple.
Though Austria’s winemaking traditions date back centuries, the 36 domestic grape varieties – 22 white and 14 red - are little known beyond the region. It is a niche product, mostly sold within Austria. In the 1980s, after refocusing on quality instead of quantity, Austrian wine producers today represent a one-percent share of global wine production, of which no more than a quarter is exported, owing to high domestic demand. The U.S. is the third-largest key market, after Germany and Switzerland. Export figures show that demand is only growing. (Footnote 1)
Wittauer is not shy about broaching obstacles he has to overcome when addressing the American wine-drinking public: “I keep reminding people that Austrian wine is not at all sweet. It’s not all whites, either. And there’s more than grüner veltliner (pronounced: groo-ner velt-lee-ner).”
Austria has excellent vineyards growing internationally known varieties, such as riesling, pinot blanc, chardonnay, merlot, traminer and syrah. As the excitement for rosé these days is shared on both sides of the Atlantic, the Austrian version is made from pinot noir or cabernet sauvignon grapes. Grüner veltliner, the firmly established white and now a staple in many restaurants and wine retailers across the country, tops the list of local grape varieties. But Wittauer insists: "Add other whites like rotgipfler (road-geep-fler) and zierfandler (tsear-fund-ler), as well as the red varieties zweigelt (tsvye-gelt) and blaufränkisch (blouw-frankish) to your Austrian wine bucket list. They are all standouts worth discovering.”
Speaking of the "unspeakable," Austrian wine is paired with complicated names. "People like to purchase wines they can pronounce," Wittauer says. "It works with Romanic wine terms. Cabernet, sauvignon blanc, chianti and rioja flow beautifully from the tongue. Germanic words like zweigelt, blaufränkisch, or gelber muskateller (ghel-ber moose-car-tell-er) do not. But we cannot rename them." Even the Times's wine critic stated 10 years ago: "It’s time to get over it. A little matter like language should not stand in the way".
Wittauer, who represents 14 wineries, started out with a handful of brands by picking wine producers from every region. Although wine is grown all over Austria, wine-producing only plays a major role in the country's eastern part. Specific wine-growing regions have even been designated within the states of Lower Austria, Vienna, Burgenland and Styria.
Wittauer focuses all his energy on a portfolio of wines of quality and value, produced by small, family-owned wineries throughout Austria. "I look for good wines that are affordable, delicious and memorable," he says.
Wittauer grew up in the mountain town of Leogang in western Austria. The sommelier has been all over the world, having worked for French restaurants in Bermuda and the U.S. But one defining moment in 2000 made him focus on wine from his home country: "When I visited VieVienum, Austria's largest wine fair at Hofburg Palace in Vienna, I tasted well over 500 different wines, and which 50 stood out, which doesn't happen very often. At tastings, you usually have 20 excellent wines, but this trade show was different. It represented the crème de la crème of Austrian wine and I liked them all, they were all delicious. Amazing!"
From the beginning, Wittauer’s hit list included Anton Bauer, a producer in Wagram, a region in the Danube Valley just outside Vienna, known for his terrific riesling and grüner veltliner. The local gourmet magazine Falstaff recently named Bauer's operation "Winery of the Year". Wittauer is proud that the fourth-generation winemaker has been in his portfolio for almost two decades, and that he even became a partner in his import company, KWSELECTION.
In 2016, according to Statistics Austria, the U.S. as the world's largest wine consumer imported an estimated 2.4 million liters of wine from Austria, at an average price of EUR 12.02 (or USD 14.46) per liter. And export figures show that the demand for Austrian wine in the U.S. is continuously growing (increase of 7.8% from 2015 to 2016).
Contact Klaus Wittauer:
KWSELECTION "Fine Wines From Austria"
Author: Julia Assl