I’ve been looking forward to meeting Flori Uka for many months. He’s a sommelier turned winemaker and along with his father and brothers, is focused on sustainable and organic farming for not only wine grapes but for fruit and vegetables.
After the fall of communism in Albania, a 2-hectare parcel of land outside Tirana returned to his family. His father, Rexhep Uka, who served as Deputy Prime Minister of Albania gave up politics to focus on his true love and passion, entomology, the study of insects. He planted some 200 different varieties of plants, vegetables, and fruits on the parcel and vowed to avoid the use of any pesticide, herbicide, or chemical, and thus began an experiment that continues at Uka Farm today.
Instead, he figured he would let the pests fight themselves and use the parcel as an ongoing science experiment to identify which plants would thrive and which would die. As Flori, his son, explains it, through the use of pesticides and corporate farming gives insects the perfect environment to be our enemy. It seems that Uka Farm aims to explore how to recruit insects to sustain plants.
We sit on a table under a small grove of apple trees as Flori explained that the family urged their father, in the age of capitalism, to figure a way to generate cash flow as the science experiment continued to drain the family’s savings. We taste Uka Winery wines, and a selection of vegetables and cheese as our conversation evolves.
We talked for several hours, and it will be difficult to capture all the nuances and Flori’s contagious passion in this post, so I urge you to return once I’ve had the time to edit and post our conversation.
Tucked into a neighborhood outside the Albanian capital of Tirana, Uka Farm started as an experiment to understand and discover which plants would thrive among others. As Flori explains it, he and his brothers tried to convince their father to use the farm to generate cash flow, rather than burn through it.
The brothers have big ideas, but dad wants merely to experiment. Hanging from a tree on the farm is one of his father’s inventions—and experiments. It’s an organic bug catcher. “Insects are attracted to light,” Flori explains. It’s a conical shaped device topped by a light. Below are a series of fins. When the insects fly to the light, they hit the fin and fall below into a bucket of water and drown. “In the morning my dad knows what insects were here.” This gives his father more data for this some ten-year experiment.
At one point, they convinced a merchant to sell the organic apples at the local market. When the merchant saw the apples, they weren’t pristine, and shiny like those pesticide-treated and perfect looking apples at the market. Instead, the organic apples from Uka Farm looked terrible, with wholes, and visual defects. They offered the apples to the merchant on consignment, and when Uka walked into the market, the aromas of fresh apples permeated and dominated, yet the merchant had yet to sell a single apple. “You can take your apples,” the merchant told Flori.
Inspired by sommeliers who could identify wines by merely looking and tasting them, Flori told his father he wanted to study wine and asked if the local university where his father taught offered such a program. Happy that one of his sons was interested in something related to agriculture, he insisted that if the Tirana University where he teaches doesn’t, he will start one. The university had a newly created program, and Flori was one of the earliest to enroll.
This began his journey into wine by first training to be a sommelier. He then spent three years in Italy studying wine and winemaking. It wasn’t long until Flori earned credentials as both a sommelier and a winemaker.
Winemaking is science, Flori explains. Yes, it starts in the vineyard with good fruit, but the magic happens in the vinification. And Flori treats winemaking with a gentle hand, he touches, smells and listens to the wine from the formation through the bottling process. As he punches down the cap of large vats of fermenting grapes from a harvest just three days before I arrive—Cabernet Sauvignon—he tells me to ignore the fizzing sounds of CO2, but listen and feel the grapes. “These are my babies,” he tells me, “I can feel them.”
As his passion and lust for creating great wines grew, his father suggested looking at a wild white grape he discovered in the hillsides of Albania. This grapevine thrived by attaching to and winding itself around trees. The clusters of grapes were tight and curve-shaped like a banana. The local villagers used the wild grapes over the centuries to make Raki, a brandy-like high alcoholic beverage. “It is bad raki, too,” Flori explained, “they wasted it.”
He convinced the villagers, who lead simple lives but are as wild and lawless as the grapes, to let him harvest the grapes and to make wine. Flori’s passion now is to comb the country for varietal grapes unique to Albania, searching for old vines or forgotten vineyards planted with Kalmet, Pulës, and the coveted wild tree-climbing vines of Ceruja.
After his first vintage, Flori took his wines to restaurants throughout the country. Most of them told him the wine is too expensive. He offered to consign and leave a case or two with the restaurant and suggest they try to sell them.
When he returned to the restaurants, he discovered not a bottle was sold. They opened not even one bottle. Ignorance is the biggest problem, Flori explains. They never tasted, shared or tried to understand. He gave up on the restaurants and never retrieved his wines. “I don’t want to waste my time,” Flori says. They want a bottle of wine that costs two or three Euros. “I’m not interested in that.”
So Flori and his brothers shared the wine with friends and families at a modest table and outdoor grill. Friends would gather, and Flori would cook, open his wine, and they all laughed and shared stories, often until late at night, as we were doing on this evening we met.
Flori figured instead of just cooking for friends and for free all the time, he opened a restaurant with his brothers. They would use all organic produce from the farm, sell the wine that other restaurants refused to try, and provide a gathering place for young and old to share ideas, connect and learn.
And where his wine could shine, and people would have the opportunity to experience a genuine expression of Albanian wine and food and the truest farm-to-table restaurant I’ve ever been to. And he now has a place to let his wine shine, and he can price it for its real value.
In the beginning, Flori did everything. Waited on the tables, cooked the food, and collected the money. As word got out, Uka Farm Restaurant grew in popularity. The operation had to get more organized and serious. His older brother who studied hospitality business in Switzerland provided the core of management and training. His twin brother who studied engineering and architecture designed and built the building and infrastructure, while Flori focused on the food and wine.
Today Uka Farm boasts a large dining room sitting among the grape and other plants, a covered gazebo tucked under apple and olive trees, and intimate tables tucked under a small grove of apple trees, where he and I shared wine, grilled vegetables from the farm, cheese from small producers in the north of the country, and grilled meats.
“I know everyone, and everywhere this food comes from,” Flori tells me.
The oven roasted goat, cooked for hours in its own fat and juices is divine. Later we try over roasted lamb, and sausages made right on the farm.
Our conversation continues through the night. Flori shows me a video of a seven-meter python a villager shot near where he hopes to harvest a new vintage of Ceruja. He’s apprehensive and doesn’t want to run into such snakes, which are not indigenous to the area.
He explains it’s difficult dealing with the villagers, who by there nature trust no one outside their tribes, or clans. Last year he hoped to harvest six tons of grapes, but when he arrived the villagers had already harvested and made their nasty raki. He ended up with less than a ton.
I don’t have enough to sell, he tells me, I think I keep this all for my family and friends. From a small stainless steel again tank he pours me a taste of the wild vine Ceruja from the minuscule 2017 vintage.
Flori believes that Ceruja can lead to some of the most exceptional white wines in the world. And that’s his mission. It’s rare, has a great story, and crisp acidity, beautifully fruit flavors and a luscious mouthfeel.
We take a walk through the Uka Winery’s dusty cellar. Spiders are good as they eat bugs that might eat the corks, he tells me as he brushes the dust and cobwebs from a bottle of 2010 Kallmet, perhaps the indigenous grape that could well define the identity of Albanian wine.
“The last time I opened a bottle of this wine was almost two years ago,” he tells me. “When the prime minister was here.” He explains that he only opens these early vintage wines for presidents and prime ministers. I’m honored that he will open and share a bottle with me this evening.
The restaurant is alive with energy from big groups, all with a bottle or two of Uka wine on the tables. We take refuge away from the crowds in a large covered patio area near the apple orchard.
Servers bring vegetables, oven roasted lamb and goat, cheeses, vegetables and more. It’s an Albanian feast, and we taste the rare and coveted Kallmet, the first I taste in Albania. Intensely dark, full-bodied, and layered this fragrant wine is youthful and has good structure and complexity.
Flori smiles as I swirl my glass, smell, and sip the Kallmet. “For presidents and prime ministers,” I say while raising the glass for a toast. We are like old friends, sharing stories and an appreciation for well-made wine.
After, we imbibe in a tasting of Uka Winery’s raki, or brandy, made from grapes, apples, pear, and quince. They are smooth, even at 30-40% alcohol. Then he pulls out a box of unique cigars from Indonesia. Flori explains a friend picked them up at a duty-free shop in western Europe. We fire up the stogies, dip the ends into the raki and relax, with good wine, good brandy, and beautiful cigars.
It’s 2 AM when we both resign to call an end to the evening. I would rather not get on my bike and ride. It’s dark, late, and I’m tired. But Flori has called a friend who owns a hotel in Tirana. It’s a twenty-minute ride on a good and well-lit road. “You will like it there,” he tells me, “the owner is a wine lover.”
Farewells, hugs, and promises to stay in touch and see each other again, and I’m off.
It’s almost 3 AM when I pull into the Dinasty Hotel in Tirana and meet the owner, “Jimmy.” The dining room is elegantly decorated, and they stack wine, wine boxes, corks, wine gadgets and more on a large round table at the head of the room. He hands me a glass of rosé wine and says “welcome drink.”
Welcome to Tirana.