ExpoVino toasts Costa Rica’s growing wine culture

See a photo slideshow of ExpoVino 2011

Alejandro López, 60, and Marvin List, 61, remember growing up in Costa Rica without wine options. They didn’t like it.

“We had two choices back then, Liebfraumilch, a sweet German wine that was horrible, and a bad French wine,” List said. “There wasn’t a wine culture here.”

The two lifelong friends and oenophiles marveled at Costa Rica’s expanded wine offerings at ExpoVino 2011 at Hotel Real Intercontinental in Escazú, in southwest San José.

The event, which took place October 27-28, featured stands advertising sommelier classes, tastings, exotic cheeses, wine-flavored ice creams and products from 200 wineries. Visitors promoted Terroir, ice wines and Malbecs. Ten different countries, including first-time vendors from Israel and the Republic of Georgia, attended the event.

Exhibitor and buyer attendance has remained consistent for the past three editions of the event, organizers said. ExpoVino Director Karl Hempel said the wine industry in Costa Rica grew by up to 30 percent from 2006-2008. Like other industries, the wine trade in Costa Rica took a hit in 2009 due to the global economic crisis. Industry growth for 2010 and 2011 is expected to be 15 percent, he said.

“Consumers are savvier than before,” said Jorge Granados, president of Jorgran Importers. “They take courses, read magazines and go online to find out about wine.”

Granados said he explains details about every wine he vends to consumers, including what different labels mean and the features of each drink. Granados was one of more than 120 vendors to buy a $1,500 booth at ExpoVino.

“It’s a great opportunity to present wines to a public only seen in restaurants,” said Ericka Sibaja, information manager at distributor Alpiste S.A. “People are able to compare different products and prices; when consumers are familiar with a variety of products, they will buy different ones instead of [buying] the same thing.”

Johannes Bornemisza, E & J Gallo Winery’s marketing manager of global brands for Latin America and the Caribbean, said Costa Ricans started drinking wines later than other Latin American countries. But Ticos are catching up with South America, a region with a more developed viticulture due to large wine-producing countries like Chile and Argentina.

More than 50 percent of the wines currently consumed in Costa Rica are from Chile because of a free trade agreement signed in October 1999, Bornemisza said. But other countries are taking advantage of events like ExpoVino to introduce aficionados to different varieties and wine regions. And Costa Rican wine connoisseurs responded well, bringing an understanding about wine that might not have existed a decade ago.

Costa Rican Mauricio Díaz, 41, has studied wine as a hobby for the past 10 years. Díaz, who’s partial to a bold cabernet sauvig-non, came to ExpoVino last year, and introduced a friend to the event this year.

Andrea Alvarado, 27, from Liberia, in the northwest province of Guanacaste, is a bartender at the Four Seasons Hotel. She enjoys full-bodied Italian red wines, but wine in general represents a way for her to relax.

“You can sit in your house and drink a glass of wine without having to pair it with a meal,” Alvarado said.

While Costa Rica has matured in its desire for wine, the country’s collective taste remains relatively cheap.

Costa Ricans typically like to spend $10 on a bottle of wine, said Jim Paniagua, a representative for Haycom Bebidas del Mundo. Most wines introduced to the region have a low price tag, Paniagua said, to make them accessible to most Costa Ricans.

The top brand of South African wine in Costa Rica is Two Oceans, according to Jaime Maurtua, managing director of Distell in Latin America.

“It does fantastic here because it’s affordable at about $10,” Maurtua said.

For those who want to learn more or make a career in the wine industry, two schools in San José teach sommelier classes.

In 2009, Escuela Argentina de Sommeliers set up a branch of its school at Politécnico Internacional in San José. The following year, Universidad Latina also began a sommelier course in the capital.

Virgilio Cantú, director of culinary arts at Politécnico Internacional, said that students run the gamut from 18 to 60. Most students already have a bachelor’s degree, but are looking for a new career.

“Graduates of the program have been successful in finding jobs as wine dealers, in restaurants, bars and hotels,” Cantú said. “There are big opportunities in Costa Rica and almost all of the sommeliers in the country now are Costa Rican.”

Mauricio Zúñiga, a professor at U­­niversidad Latina, also points to additional job opportunities in Honduras and Guatemala, where demand for sommeliers is growing.

But for exporters, the biggest prospect to sell in Central America resides in Costa Rica. Israeli wines made their inaugural appearance at ExpoVino, promoted by the Israeli Embassy in Costa Rica. Embassy Consul Dana Erlich said Israel currently exports to the U.S. and Europe, but now wants to move into Latin America. Israeli wine sellers “would like to penetrate the Costa Rica market,” Erlich said.

Another newcomer to the fair was the Republic of Georgia.

“This is the first time that we are in Latin America introducing wine to the region,” said Teimuraz Roinishvili, sales manager at Thamada. “Georgian wine has been around for 8,000 years and we think it should be known here in Costa Rica.”

Chileans Rodrigo Rojas, director of exports for Ochotierras, and José Tomás Urrutia, export manager at Emiliana Wines, wandered over to the Georgian booth. The two had never tried Georgian wine before the event.

“This wine is better than many European wines,” Rojas whispered.

“I’m very impressed,” Urrutia answered. “It’s great to have the possibility to try it.”