Mate and Dragana met, he recalls, quite accidentally. It was four years ago, after Mate spent time on Fruška Gora, where he met local winemaker Miroslav Kovačević and made friends.
“It was immediately after Miroslav stepped forward into wine magnates and purchase of Iriški Cellars, which took him overnight from producing 300.000 litres to an incredible 2.5 million litres annually. I enjoyed his Chardonnays and did not hide my exhilaration. Then, Dane and Dragana came to my company in Zadar to buy a central heating system for their countryside home. It was arranged quickly and when I came to install it, I was surprised by bottles of Kovačević’s wine I saw there. I commented out loud, as I couldn’t get over the surprise of seeing wines I recently enjoyed on Fruška Gora. Dragana listened to me very carefully, not hiding her pleasure of listening to commendations I had for the Chardonnay. She also listened as I demeaned his most known red wine, the Aurelius coupage, which I said is worth nothing and could not understand why Kovačević is in red wine at all. When I said all I meant, she introduced herself as the former chief oenologist in the Kovačević winery up to four months ago and these wines were her product! I turned red, wanted to disappear, but she told me it is okay to say something is not good, but that behind every wine, even the bad, is great effort, commitment and love and it doesn’t necessarily mean the winemaker is at fault, there are many factors. And then, after so much energy, someone degrades it all with lump statements – it is not easy to listen to. But, she said she liked me and that I have a certain energy about me and advised me to always treat wines with decency,” Mate remembered the beginnings.
The story, however, did not stop at commenting Kovačević’s wine. Mate explained Dragana saw in him a great passion and desire, while she had just come to the birthplace of her parents, fell in love and decided to stay in Ravni Kotari , asking him upfront if he would like to join her in a wine story. His answer was yes. He says “it was all agreed in literally five minutes, after which everything came naturally on the wheels of enthusiasm and good vibes.”
“We named the winery Degarra, describing it as a small, dedicated and superior production – Vin de Garage, and as such garage winemakers, we wanted to find our place. We agreed to produce limited quantities and not place ourselves in the position to produce grapes by quantity. People are quite fragile, and I don’t mean just physically, but psychologically and emotionally. A person doesn’t need much energy to be drawn to somewhere where they don’t want to go. This is why I named the winery Degarra, as I wanted the name to stop money and increased production to take me where I didn’t want to go. Then the name would be sullied too. Dane and Dragana agreed too, not to turn this into a business but only a life passion to enjoy.”
Hence the Degarra winery got its recognisable label with only three circles, which according to Mate, represent the cycle of life – “all that begins also ends in the circle,” or “you reap what you sow.”
“The circles depict what we wanted to tell our customers, as we claim wine is not only a liquid but a living being always in motion,” said Mate.
The circles are made of words: “Degarra, Zadar winery, fine wines, limited editions,” “Controlled geographic origin, coastal Croatia, Zadar,” and in the innermost circle “passion, desire, devotion, labour, admiration, pleasure, ecstasy.”
“The winery proved to be our perfect escape from daily routine, where we seek peace, we live with the winery, sharing all the gained energy with our wine friends. Simply, we try to live in accordance with our label, coming down to a good wine forming a good man,” explained Mate somewhat philosophically.
However, Degarra is not only a life philosophy, bur also serious work, not matter how much Mate tries to avoid wine as a business. In the first year they sold out 8.000 bottles and felt like they had reached the top of the world, but in the next their conviction was shaken, as they had sold all 18.000 bottles despite their disbelief. In the third they sold all 30.000 and wowed to keep this amount for now, at least until they complete a new cellar which would merge all three locations they use, cementing the Degarra production to 50.000 bottles.
“This year we also produced 30.000 bottles of superior wine, we simply live with our wine, as we don’t know any other way. After the first four harvests we are more determined to stay a small and controlled production which can give the best results. Wine is an extended personality of the winemaker, in this case of me and Dane. You have to live with the wine, which is impossible if we go into industrial spheres!”
Starting the Degarra winery was, as Mate claims, only a matter of time, as ever since his grandfather took him to the vineyard as a child, it only took “one last click.” And that trigger was Dragana, also in some luck upon returning to her parent’s region. Besides the effect of love, a great role was played by Duško Jokić, a winemaker from Lišani Tinjski, who was starting up a winery at the time and needed an oenologist. So Dragana married Dane, became production director in the Jokić Winery and her incidental meeting with Mate Pestić turned into another great wine story from Zadar.
“We inherited a vineyard from our grandfather, but it was neglected, we were too busy living just for the bank account, power, strength, cars, employees and not for ourselves! On the other hand, my father used to say all the time there was such glow in my eyes when we talked of food and wine, as if I was destined to live this life. My best man, Frane Žuvela, renowned Hvar caterer who unfortunately died several weeks ago in a car crash, used to say when visiting my place, he was coming to the temple of gastronomy! As I did it all, cooking and preparing and entertaining guests. Frane was like my second brother. We met in college, clicked and went through everything together since. He was also in fishing, had his own purchase stations and around 200 employees. One time we were in our konoba, eating and drinking and he brought two St. Pierre’s fish of 2 kg each. While they discussed whether to grill or cook them, I let them talk and secretly did my own thing. I decided to put them under the baking bell. I crusted the potatoes and then placed the fish on them for just ten minutes. While they were still talking, I prepared everything, and they thought I was making side dishes. When they realised what I brought to the table, they were astounded. Frane only asked: “Am I worthy of ascending to your gastronomy temple?” And I answered: “Is it possible the catering guild president of Hvar town could ask me something like that?” In any case, Frane made the dish part of his offer, copied by other Hvar caterers… On St. Vincent’s day Frane and I were due to visit Vlado Krauthaker and Mihalj, followed by a visit to Kovačević Winery. What happened to him, I will describe as fate, everything else is too much to comprehend.”
In his wine range, with Pošip, a Plavina rose, Bonterro (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah coupage), sparklings Degarra Primo (from Pošip!) and Degarra Brut Rose (from Plavina!), a specialty is the Bomary, aromatised coupage of Bonterro and Maraska wine, recognised by Falkensteiner in Zadar as a strategic product in their offer. Bomary is an acronym for Bonterro, Maraska and Yoy, supposed to be with a J, but “we wanted to wine name to include joy, so we changed the letters, and yet, to sound like Madame Bovary…”
“We truly pour all of our energy into wine, which is for us the true joy of life,” concluded Mate.
For the original and more from Vinske Priče blog on wine, click here.