All seminars cost $30 (except Zraly’s, which costs $50). There will also be two tastings on Saturday afternoon. Tickets for the Grand Tasting, held from 12 noon to 5 pm, with samples from bottles with a retail value of at least $20, costs $75, while the Red Carpet Crus Tasting, from 1:30 to 5:30 p.m., with samples from bottles with a retail value of at least $35 for whites and $50 for reds, costs $120. Throughout the afternoon, participants can meet the winemakers and sample foods from nine restaurants, including the Aroma Thyme Bistro, the Gilded Otter, the Bridge Creek Café and Locanda Restaurant.
A group of soon-to-be-graduating seniors from the CIA will also be serving food and doing much of the presenting. The opportunity to participate in the festival “takes all the stuff we learn and puts it in a real-life situation,” noted student Michael Swift. After a welcoming cocktail-hour reception at 5:30 p.m. on Friday, there will be a live and silent auction at 6 p.m. that will benefit the CIA Scholarship Fund and the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. A food-and-wine gala will follow at 7:30 p.m., with tickets costing $135.
The wine awards, presented on Sunday – open only to the trade – will be based on blind tastings by numerous sommeliers, international winemakers and people from local restaurants, wine stores and other related businesses of hundreds of wines over the past three weeks. “We have 19 categories of awards, and it’s very comprehensive,” Sam said.
He added that the festival is unusual in that it’s located at a picturesque resort, rather than under a tent or at a convention center, as is the norm, which is helping to attract wine-lovers from the New York metropolitan area. Sam, who has visited hundreds of festivals with Dushka over the last 14 years, said that the couple based the format of their festival on what was best about those events. “Usually festivals feature a well-known brand, to get people to come,” he said. “We will have some well-known brands, but we want to give opportunities for small producers. They’re willing to spend their money to showcase their wines and food.” Sam and Dushka have also gotten a lot of support from the community and are most grateful for the help of local volunteers and businesses, sponsors, exhibitors, Mohonk Mountain House and its staff.
How the Ramics settled in New Paltz
The launch of such an ambitious event represents the culmination of many years of hard work and success by the Ramics, who came to the US on vacation in 1991 from their native Yugoslavia and ended up never leaving, due to the breakout of civil war in Bosnia. “We only had two suitcases,” Dushka recalls. “We left all our money in Yugoslavia because we didn’t plan to live here.” However, family members advised them to stay in the US for their own safety.
The couple had met in Dubrovnik, where both were in school earning Business degrees, and after graduating and marrying had good-paying professional jobs. They owned a café in Bosnia called the City, which was inspired by the Manhattan skyline, and also had a six-month-old baby.
Sam, whose connection with wine goes back to harvesting grapes as a teenager – “When it was harvesting season, you went and helped” – had family in the Catskills, and as a student had worked at the Nevele Hotel. Now in sudden exile and staying with an uncle in Sullivan County’s Bloomingburg, the 28-year-old father went back to the Nevele, working 12 hours a day in the kitchen. He slowly worked his way up, working in the convention department, as maître d’ and finally as director of catering.
Dushka, who within a year gave birth to a second child (eventually they would have three) went to work part-time at McDonald’s in Ellenville. “We were willing and capable to do whatever needed to be done, and we did everything,” she recalled. Meanwhile, the couple visited a lawyer and obtained their legal citizenship.
Dushka’s Business degree and previous experience working as a regional manager for a cosmetics company in Zagreb eventually helped her get her career back on track (as did the fact that both she and Sam knew how to speak English). In 1996, she became an account executive for Christian Dior, traveling from her home in New Paltz to Macy’s, Nordstrom and other accounts, as well as on occasion to the Dior headquarters in Manhattan. Meanwhile, Sam had moved from the hospitality industry to Coca-Cola, working as an account manager in New Windsor.
In 2000, based on their extensive business experience and Sam’s knowledge of the wine industry, which he had learned about from his experience in the hospitality and beverage industries, they decided to quit their corporate jobs and start their own wine-importing business. In 2003 they opened Wine Worldwide, expanding into wholesaling and distribution, which gave them more control over the product and was a way to expand their customer base.
Many wholesalers had gone out of business due to consolidation in the industry, so it wasn’t easy; the couple successfully competed “by controlling the quality of the product and the price,” said Sam. They started International Wine Masters as way to educate their retail customers, who are based throughout New York State and in upper New Jersey.
They specialize in smaller vineyards, which tend to have a better quality of wine – partly because they’re not using additives, Sam said. The challenge is marketing an unknown brand, given that “It takes a long time to establish a brand in a market.” The Wine & Food Festival of New Paltz is designed to help those better-quality, lesser-known wineries develop their brands with US customers. They hail from Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, Macedonia, Bosnia, Croatia, Greece, Argentina and from California, Virginia and especially New York State.
The Ramics have lived in New Paltz since 1997 and built their warehouse for their wine wholesaling business on North Putt Corners Road in 2009. “When Sam was breaking into the business, the first container came to our garage, and we just took out each bottle by hand,” said Dushka. Today they have a fleet of trucks and 17 employees working for Wine Worldwide, including salespeople, drivers and warehouse workers; an additional five work for International Wine Masters. An elegant tasting room, furnished with an enormous table crafted from barn wood, is located above the warehouse for tastings and classes.
They plan to expand their educational events to groups and individual consumers. The launch of the Wine & Food Festival of New Paltz represents a giant step in that direction, and their goal is nothing less than to establish the mid-Hudson Valley as a center of wine culture.
Wine & Food Festival of New Paltz, May 30-June 1, Wine & Food Gala, Friday, 7:30 p.m., $135; Grand Tasting, Saturday, 12 noon-5 p.m., $75; Red Carpet Cru Tasting, Saturday, 1-5:30 p.m., $120; seminars, Friday/Saturday, $30/$50; Mohonk Mountain House, 1000 Mountain Rest Road, New Paltz; (646) 527-9500, (888) 976-0785, www.internationalwinemasters.com.