After a simple breakfast of fruit, fresh muffins, and homemade bread and jams, Tomaz fro Scurek picks me up and takes me to one of the steep vineyards where today his brother and crew and full-throttle into the harvest. Afterward, he brings me back to my bike, and I return to the Kabaj Guesthouse where I meet professional Slovenian photographer, Dragan Arrigler who is working on a project and shooting photos at Kabaj and harvest. Together we walk a kilometer down the road to capture the harvest action in one of the Kabaj vineyards. He sneaks a few snaps of me in action—a rare peek as I’m usually behind the camera.
After Katja invites me to join her and the vineyard and cellar crew for lunch. Sitting on a deck outside the guest house, I joke with them about my helping in the vineyard. It’s tough work, hunting over and snipping clusters of grapes off the vines. It’s hot, and the grapes look ripe and ready.
After lunch Katja’s husband and Kabaj winemaker, Jean-Michel runs panicked on the crush pad and in the cellar. One pump doesn’t work. IT’s critical to get the grapes and juice from the de-stemmer and press into the fermentation tanks. I wander around but stay out of the way. He seems frazzled, always a cigarette dangling from his lips.
In the cellar, another worker watches over a corking machine. Except he is pulling corks out of bottles. Jean Michel tells me that the corks are good, but they are poorly seated. So he must replace the corks on an entire pallet of bottles. This will take time.
Jean Michel grew up in France, studied enology there and in Italy where he met Katja. He fell in love and married soon after. He’s lived in Slovenia for nearly thirty years. They have one daughter who I met this morning in the vineyard.
I snap a bunch of pictures while Jean Michel flicks a switch on and off, then on and off again. It’s not working. Hoses and tubes like noodles cover the floor. Another tractor full of grapes waits to be unloaded. The sound of pumps, motors, and that corking machine create a racket. It’s bustling with energy down here. People move quickly from one task to another. It seems chaotic.
“We don’t have enough space,” he tells me. Kabaj produces about 100,000 bottles of wine each year. This year he’ll produce about two thousand bottles of sparkling wine under a different label for a client. He motions me closer while washing grape must off his hands in the sink. “It’s quiet here.”
He lights another cigarette. “I’m not drinking for forty days now,” he tells me. “I will stop drinking for one year, I think.” He did this three years ago. It’s easy, no problem for him.
“What about cigarettes?” I ask him, “Will you quit those.” He doesn’t flinch or hesitate.
“No,” his voice reverberates off the walls. “I’ll smoke anything.”
Around the cellar stacks of boxes, cases of Kabaj wine line the walls. Tucked between and around them are small barrique barrel and wooden crates. Reflecting on his space challenge, he tells me he must store four years of vintages in this cellar. I noticed stacks of wooden crates, each filled with different wines and vintages.
“I don’t drink wine from 2017, that’s not wine.” He has strong opinions and exhibits some of the same passion I felt from Ales at Movia. “No, I bottle wine. That’s too young, it’s like Fanta, Coca-cola, or some other alcoholic beverage. It’s not wine.”
“Some people say 2014 is too old. For me it’s fresh. When I take wine from the barrels, it’s fresh. Who says it’s old? Taste it.”
“My current release of Merlot right now is 2012,” he tells me. “Next year we will bottle the 2013.” Today, the youngest white wine Kabaj offers is 2014. For reds, it’s 2013.
He points to two large terra-cotta vessels in the cellar. They are the same as the clay qvevri containers used in Georgia for thousands of years. “I have nine of these. They hold three thousand liters each,” he explains. One is aging a 2016 and the other 2017—a blend of three white grapes, Rebula, Malvasia, and Ravan which is what he calls Tocai Fruliano. They are on the skins, he explains, during fermentation, the cap is on the top, afterward the cap sinks to the bottom. The wine will sit this way for two or three years before he opens them.
“This is an eight-thousand-year tradition of making wine,” he tells me referring to the use of such pots and the natural production of wine with skins and without using sulfur. “Technology has changed and advanced, but we use the same ecology and the same biology to make wine today.”
He moves a hose on the floor and dries his hands. We walk out to the crush pad.
“We make wine in the vineyard,” he says, “not here.”
Kabaj recently hired a new distributor in the United States, Black Lamb Wines. He hopes they will build on his past efforts to bring awareness to the wines from this part of Slovenia. I’m surprised when I learn that today Kabaj exports over ninety percent of its production, mostly to the United States and Asia.
Kabaj began making wines in a garage in 1993. “I miss the time of working in the garage. Fewer people, less wine, fewer problems.” He’s reflective about his experience in growing his business. After the worldwide financial crisis in 2008, his business struggled. So he packed a suitcase and traveled overseas to present his wines—face-to-face and in person.”
“I like making wine,” Jean Michel explains, “Some people say it’s easy to make wine, or it’s hard. But you must enjoy it. Making wine is easy when you like making wine. If you don’t enjoy, it’s difficult.”
“The same goes for selling wine. When you enjoy selling wine, it’s easy. It’s hard if you don’t. It’s not a potato, it’s not a tomato. It’s wine. I try to make the best. I’m happy.”
He shows a rare smile for this day has challenged him. I sense that energy here in the cellar. But talking about his love of making wine settles him—if only for a moment.
Kabaj produces about ten different bottling, two reds, and the rest white—or orange. Yet if he started over today, Jean Michel tells me he would produce just four wines: Ribola, Revan, Merlot, and a Cuvee or blend. “Four grapes I just have four problems. Ten grapes I have ten problems.”
He tells me he’s not interested in expanding. He’s happy. Though as we talk, I wonder if really wants to go back to the garage.
“We make Pinot Blanc,” he tells me. “Not many people make Pinot Blanc. But people make Chardonnay and Sauvignon (Blanc). Okay, so you can. But buyers don’t want a Slovenian Chardonnay. They want White Burgundy or somewhere else. Same with Sauvignon, if they want they buy from New Zealand.” He makes three thousand bottles of Sauvignon. “That’s enough, I need not make more. This is plenty.”
Jean Morel is not only a relentless winemaker, but he’s also an unrelenting salesman and promoter. It’s no wonder he exports over ninety percent of his wine, he spends six months every year traveling. I tell him that because of his ten years of promoting his wine, he’s also been selling Slovenia. He shrugs this notion off.
He doesn’t take part in a local consortium of local wineries. “I’m a foreigner here, I will always be the foreigner.” He explains referring to his roots in France. Some wineries tout their heritage with some proclaiming history to the 1700s. Jean Michel doesn’t buy into this. “How do we know what goes on back then, we have church records? Sure. We know Kabaj family has a long history here. And we know Katja’s great grandfather bottled a small amount of wine and sold it the Austrians in the mid-1800s. But I will not claim this estate has been around since then. I have no document.”
“I first bottled wine here in 1993. And that’s our story.”
Authenticity and transparency are essential to Jean Michel, as are personal connections and relationships. Kabaj doesn’t take part in international wine fairs and expositions. He feels these are impersonal and only serve large conglomerates or huge wineries. Instead, he meets with prospects in person. He gets to know them, they get to know him.
He sees the same thing for retailers who sell wine. “I will never sell in a big shop,” he says referring to large grocery stores or box retailers like Costco.
He feels that producers who craft wine don’t and shouldn’t sell wine in a big shop. “They do not recognize my wine in these places. They don’t sell wine, it’s just another product in a bottle.”
He’s right. Wine shops are owned and staffed by people who know, love, and live wine. In a wine shop staffers can share the story of the wine, what to expect from the wine, and describe it. Where a large retailer relies on brand names, shelf talkers and scores to sell wine. This is not how Kabaj sells over ninety percent of his wine outside his home country.
“You get personal attention at a wine shop,” he insists. “They show, present, and explain about the wine.”
He points to several pallets of wine stacked nearby. “This one is going to Brazil, to Recife. And these five pallets here will go to the USA.” On top of many stacks of crates and pallets is artwork—paintings. He tells me that Kabaj sponsors young Chinese artists. School professors pick a group of emerging artists, and they spend two weeks in Slovenia. They create their art at Kabaj, tour the country, and experience food and wine here at the guesthouse.
“They are happy, we are happy, it’s good.” He tells me they have no room in their home for the paintings, so they join the wine down in the cellar.
We walk to the rear of the cellar where many more barriques filled with older vintages line the walls. There’s another sketch with several signatures hanging on one wall. He tells me it is from and signed by the Korean superstar girl group “Red Velvet.” They shot a music video here.
Jean Michel shows me a bottle and amphora that he used to age wine buried in the sea. This is a particular project he does for one of his best Asian customers. The bottle and cask are caked in barnacles and look like they are hundreds of years old. Very cool.
The work he does traveling and selling is paying off. I wonder if perhaps Kabaj is more well known in China and Korea than in Slovenia. It’s a stretch, but evidence points to a growing taste of Slovenian wine in Asia thanks to smart business moves—and connections.
The Slovenians winemakers seem to be good at both business and making wine. This where something some passionate artists or winemakers fail. Kabaj is not only recognized in Asia but for the past three years US-based Wine & Spirits magazine named Kabaj in its list of top 100 wineries—joining Movia as the only other Slovenian winery to make the list.
I snap a few portraits, but Jean Morel is self-conscious—he’s been battling pumps, grapes, and a mess in the cellar all day. “Look at my shirt,” he says. I tell him don’t worry. You look fine.
Keeping things clean is critical in the winery. Especially since his is a natural approach to making wine—without sulfur. Bacteria, the bad kind could find a lovely home in the cellar—and the wine. “We spend over two, maybe three hours every day just cleaning.”
We walk to a table cluttered with loose labels, half-full bottles of wine, dog-eared notebooks, and empty espresso cups. “I know right now it looks disorderly, but we work here. Every day.” I know before his crew leaves here, the place will be spotless, only until tomorrow when they’ll attack the business again.
He pours me a taste of his 2014 Kabaj Pinot Grigio. It’s amber in color, as he made it with extended maceration or skin contact. It’s crisp with good acidity and a hint of minerality.
I try to the Rebula. It’s more robust, more tannic and yet clean and fresh. He tells me it spent thirty days on the skins. Then I get to taste the Pinot Blanc, with two weeks on skins, it has flavors of honey, elderflower, and herb. Then a white wine blend of Rebula, Ravan, Pinot Blanc, Malvasia and Sauvignon. It’s the 2011 Kabaj Luisa Prestige. He tells me they opened this bottle a week ago. Though I detect no oxidization and it’s still alive with fruit—flavors of citrus, green apple, and almond-like nuttiness.
“Yes,” Jean Michel says with a smile, “It’s still fresh—2011 open for a week. Most wines after a few days you cannot drink. This wine is still fresh.”
For Kabaj making wine naturally means never using sulfur or herbicides. And this is something producers in this region—on both sides of the border—are known for. I see this as a trend—a good trend. Wine should be crafted, not manufactured. It should be from the soul, not industrialized.
In October Jean Michel will be in the states. We promise to stay in contact and perhaps we’ll connect—face-to-face—again on the other side of the Atlantic. He tells me I should also connect with his distributor as I plan to visit Georgia next year, where he visits twice a year. Both of them will provide me with connections and contacts.
Later that evening, I try more of the Kabaj wines and dine in their restaurant—which is only open a few days a week. I’m lucky tonight the chef is in the house!
The Kabaj wines and Kabaj Guesthouse is a perfect place or base-camp for exploring Goriska Brda and its lovely villages. Here you get a taste of the best of Slovenia—wine and food—with a little of Italy on the side.
Guest House & Winery Kabaj Morel
Domačija Kabaj Morel
+386 05 39 59 560
+386 041 454 002