Imagine the Sunoco station across the street is an ancient stone mansion with a red tile roof and a garden dotted with white peach and pomegranate trees. Close your eyes and believe that hum of traffic you hear on busy Montgomery Road is a crying sea gull drifting over the sparkling Adriatic Sea. Inside the warm and inviting Fine Wine O’Clock in Pleasant Ridge, such visions can almost come true.
Move over, Italy. Make room, France and Spain. Balkan wine has arrived in Cincinnati, thanks to Pere Stojanovski and his wife, Irena.
First, a quick geography lesson. The Balkans refer to a region in southeastern Europe between the Danube River, the Aegean and Adriatic seas, and the Black Sea. Think Bulgaria, Albania, most of Greece, and several countries formed from Yugoslavia’s breakup. It’s where Alexander the Great began his conquests, where an assassination sparked World War I, and where the Bosnian genocide in the mid-1990s horrified the world. It’s also a land of abundant sunshine and grapevines hundreds of years old.
Pere and Irena emigrated to the U.S. from their native North Macedonia in March 2011, selected as part of the annual U.S. immigration Diversity Visa Program, more commonly known as the “green card lottery.” They could have started their new red, white, and blue life anywhere but selected Cincinnati because they knew the priest at St. Ilija Macedonian Orthodox Church in Groesbeck.
“He was our sponsor, and we stayed with him for a few weeks before we got our apartment,” says Pere (pronounced Pair-ray with a roll of the “r” and accent on the second syllable). Wearing a black T-shirt that proclaims “Excellent Choice,” he moves purposefully among the busy tables at Fine Wine O’Clock. Pere sports a welcoming smile that turns into a joyous grin as he approaches a large group during a Thursday night tasting party. Bottle in one hand, he gestures with the other as he offers ready descriptions of the unique wines that line the shop shelves.
Pere is the kind of new American that politicians love to blend into their campaign speeches. He’s a hard worker, typically holding more than one job at a time. He has a long history of self-sacrifice, opting, in his seven years working on Celebrity cruise ships, to take sommelier training instead of going onshore to party with his friends. He married his high school sweetheart, chose to leave his homeland for the U.S., and bought a house in White Oak in order to raise two children even as he and Irena launch their new business.
Pere began his American journey working for AG Mac Import Export Company in Columbus, which imports a variety of Balkan products, from olives and peppers to beer and wine. Once he became a fully certified and licensed sommelier, he was out and about introducing Macedonian wines to southwest Ohio. “But it was my dream to open my own European-style bistro, and my wife always encouraged me,” says Pere, “so we started looking and found this place in Pleasant Ridge.”
The location was just what he was looking for, with a small, walkable business district, plenty of nearby single-family homes, a manageable 1,500 square feet of space, good natural light, and reasonable rent. The building, a former dry cleaner, needed work, but Pere was up to it.
“Pleasant Ridge reminded us both of our hometown,” he says, remembering with fondness his roots in Veles, a city of 45,000 in central North Macedonia. He grew up on one hill facing the Vardar River, while Irena was born and raised facing the river from the opposing hill. They met in high school and haven’t looked back.
When Pere left Veles to travel the seven seas with Celebrity cruises, Irena stayed behind but “was always there,” he says. The cruise ship position opened his eyes to endless opportunities around the world, and he was intrigued. “I’m a risk-taker,” he admits, “and I like to get out of my comfort zone.”
He recalls, emotionally, his now-deceased father advising him to take chances. “He always regretted that he didn’t go when he had a chance to move to Germany with his sister,” Pere says, rubbing his eyes. “He said to me, Don’t be afraid. If you have an opportunity to go someplace else in the world, take it. If you don’t like it, you can always come back.”
If there’s such a thing as North Macedonian national red wine, it’s Vranac. Pere opens a bottle and pours some into my glass. Originating from a nearly black-skinned grape native to the Balkan mountains, the wine is dense and its flavor lingers pleasantly on the palate. A few seconds after my first sip, my brain triggers a memory of the blackberry cobbler my grandmother used to make. Vranec has been grown and consumed since the Middle Ages, but it wasn’t until the mid-1990s that wine producers began exporting it. Pere has the Cincinnati market cornered.
Then there’s the North Macedonian national white, Temjanika, which is native to the Middle East and likely was brought to the Balkans region centuries ago by traders or invaders. Its intense gold color sparkles in my glass, and the fruity, crisp taste finishes with a stab of spice on the back of the tongue. It’s perfect for the warmer weather that’s coming. Pere says the wine in his shop comes from the Kamnik Winery, the most modern small-production facility in North Macedonia. It’s been a consistent medal-winner in competitions all over Europe.
“It’s the soil and the sun that make our wines so special,” he says. “We have an average of 300 sunny days a year, so that allows a lot of additional sugar in the grapes. Our winemakers have to be careful to harvest early so the wine isn’t too sweet or has too much alcohol. The soil has a mineral content that varies from region to region, meaning the taste can vary from one vineyard to another.”
Fine Wine O’Clock offers a pleasant atmosphere in which to enjoy not just these two unique wines but also the more traditional and familiar varieties and blends. The Thursday night wine-tasting experience includes a generous cheese plate with both local varieties and one from Bulgaria. Plans are to occasionally host ticketed dinners with wine pairings.
6223 Montgomery Road, Pleasant Ridge, (513) 429-2822, finewineoclock.com