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Land O'Lakes

Importer introduces vintage offerings

Wine connoisseurs are familiar with newer hot spots like Chile and Australia, but Armenia? The Armenian wines are very old but mostly unknown here.

By JAMES THORNER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 18, 2003


LAND O'LAKES -- The mountainous land that became Armenia was, according to historians, the birthplace of winemaking about 5,000 years ago.

But if you run the names Ijevan, Areni and Saperavi by your average enthusiast of fermented grape juice, they will probably search their wine guides in vain.

It's Alex Mesropian's self-appointed task to introduce Floridians to such vinous offerings of his native land. His Land O'Lakes company, Global Access Imports, is the exclusive Florida importer of 10 varieties of Armenian wine.

The names of Armenian wine don't exactly trip off the tongue, but Mesropian hopes they will at least tickle Floridians' palates.

There's Saperavi, a red dessert wine, and Red Ijevan, a fruity dry red table wine. Or how about Khachkar, made with a grape native to the Caucasus Mountains named Areni?

"If it's a good, affordable product and it tastes good, wine buyers don't care where it comes from," Mesropian, 30, said recently from his Land O'Lakes office.

He moved to Florida seven years ago from Armenia, a nation of 3.5-million about the size of Massachusetts. A former republic of the Soviet Union, it gained its independence in 1991.

He and his Armenian-American wife, Tina, share a house in Nature's Reserve, a subdivision Tina's physician father developed north of State Road 54.

The first company Mesropian started in Pasco County is Garni Fine Woodworks on U.S. 41. He, his twin brother and an Armenian friend make custom-built cabinets, bookshelves, entertainment centers and other furniture.

He has since ventured into importing drinks from his native land. Although people have fermented grapes in the Caucasus since the Stone Age, it was only with Armenia's incorporation into the Soviet Union that winemaking went industrial.

With the collapse of the old communist system, Armenia was sundered from its traditional Russian market. Mesropian, taking his cue from wine importers in the Los Angeles Armenian community, decided to cut deals with wineries eager to sell to the West.

"Armenia doesn't have many resources. All we've got is grapes and tomatoes," Mesropian said.

Mesropian's goal is to import 10,000 bottles a month, a quantity that ensures profitability. ABC Pizza, a restaurant chain owned by Greek Americans, has committed to buying 3,000 bottles a year.

He hopes to expand sales to restaurant, liquor store and supermarket chains. No small matter. Wine buyers know their California, French and Italian wines. They've sampled the juice from newer wine-producing hot spots such as Australia and Chile.

But Armenia? Mesropian can laud the grape-growing climate of the Tavush region. Or describe his country's brandies, once a major export to the rest of the old Soviet Union. But it's still a tough sell, made no easier by cultural and linguistic barriers.

One of Mesropian's offerings, a dessert wine made of fermented pomegranate juice, is called "Grenade." Not exactly the type of explosive impression the winery wants to make in the U.S.

Other wine labels, though colorful and attractive, use the ancient Armenian script or Russia's Cyrillic alphabet. It has forced Mesropian to special-order English labels.

One of his proposed side businesses, importing Armenian mineral water from one of the nation's 1,000 springs, suffers from similarly crossed cultural signals.

One green water bottle he displays is labeled "Jermuk," reminiscent of two English words, germ and muck, you might not want attached to water.

"I want them to change the name, but they said they can't. Jermuk is the region the water comes from," Mesropian said.

For Mesropian, the United States is a land of economic opportunity some native-born Americans take for granted. He knew nothing about wood and wine when he came here. And now they're his life.

"Americans should go to the Third World and see what life is like there," he said. "They'd kiss the ground when they returned and realize all the opportunities they have here."

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