Zack Armen pictured in the NOA of Areni vineyards in Aghavnadzor, Vayots Dzor, Armenia1 Credit: Zenith Photography

Storica Just Wants You to Try Wines from Armenia — You’ll Love Them

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BOSTON — If Zack Armen, the cofounder of Storica Wines has his way, wines from Armenia will be as popular as those from France, Italy or Napa.

“My journey to discovering Armenian wine is a good example of how I think Armenian diasporans can and should pay attention to the wine history and culture of Armenia. Not only is it exciting and positive and high quality, but it’s a great way to share our story with the outside world and that was really my motivation in starting Storica,” he said.

Armen wants everyone, not just Armenian-Americans, to try the wines.

Armen, who cofounded Storica in 2018 with his friend, Kevork Derkevorkian, and his father, Garo Armen, said that many wines in Armenia are equal to much more expensive vintages but since the country is not a part of the traditional elite wine-producing countries, he has to make people try the wines to convince them.

“There is always apprehension because there is a preconceived notion that if the wine is from a place that someone doesn’t know, it’s not going to be good wine,” he said. “That’s why our big focus is getting lips to glasses, getting people to try it. The wines are very cleanly made, in the style that is familiar to the discerning wine palate.”

Among the wines that Storica is distributing are wines “in the style of those in France, Italy and Napa. There are stylistic similarities to wines we know and love, but there are distinctive qualities to the wines because they are coming from a different grape, a different soil, a different vineyard, a different climate. It’s a great combo of some familiarity but some uniqueness. That’s what people look for when they try a new wine,” he said.

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Storica imports 19 different wines from Keush, Noa, Oshin, Shofer, Van Ardi, Voskevaz and Zulal. The wines distributed by Storica are currently available in 600-700 stores and restaurants around the US.

It’s not just Armen who is singing the praises of the wines; the wines have won gold and silver awards in the Los Angeles International Wine Competition as well as Texsom Awards starting in 2018.

Clay pots, or “karas,” the ancient method of wine fermentation, are used in the “Karasi Collection” of Voskevaz Wines; here pictured at the Voskevaz Winery in Ashtarak, Armenia

New Idea

In terms of quality vintages, the tide in Armenia turned in 2013-14, Armen noted.

Armen said he has been visiting Armenia at least once a year for years and it was during one such visit that the idea for Storica began to germinate.

“On my trip in 2017, it seemed all of a sudden there was all this really good wine around Yerevan, and it was served in Yerevan in the restaurants and the cafes and it was all Armenian and I had never been aware that we had been a wine producing country,” he said.

His entry into Armenian wines was through meeting vintners Vahe and Amy Keushkerian, the founders of Keush, who were part of the “renaissance” of the Armenian wine scene, and later, Varuzhan Mouradian.

“Vahe was someone who had worked in the wine industry for 30 years in Italy, France and the US,” he said.

“Varuzhan Mouradian of Van Ardi was not a person who worked in wine,” he said. “He taught himself how to make wine and brought in bunch of consultants from Germany and the US and other places to help him produce really beautiful wine on a piece of land he bought.”

“They came in from wherever they lived and they discovered that there was this palette, a blank slate of really high-quality ingredients to make great wine: the climate of Armenia, the elevation of its vineyards, the soil, the grapes themselves that are indigenous to Armenia. All of these are quality attributes to make great wines,” he noted.

What Vahe Keushkerian said to him, Armen said, really drove home to point: “For Armenian wine to be a thing, meaning for it to truly matter, for the country, from an economic perspective, for the broad culture and the recognition of our culture, it needed to create its place in the US market. The US is the largest market for exported wine, by an order of magnitude, like $7 or 8 billion worth of wine exported into the US annually. This is on top of Napa being a $4-5 billion industry in and of itself.”

“All the wine experts, the senior sommeliers, the highest end wine collectors, the vast majority are concentrated in the US,” he added.

Curious, he said he asked Keushkerian who was trying to bring Armenian wines to the US.

He explained, “I very quickly realized what was happening wasn’t good enough and I decided I needed to build a company and find investors to help me finance what was going to be a very expensive and difficult project to go find people who knew how to go create the sales, marketing and distribution infrastructure and story and make this a successful endeavor. And that is what Storica is.”

“We did a little homework and saw no one is really doing this. No one is building a national-scale sales, marketing and operationally thoughtful and comprehensive effort in the US,” he said, “which is what I realized is the necessary thing to do.”

What Storica is trying to do is get buyers to see Armenian wines in the vast sea of available wines.

He added, “What Armenia is competing against are very well entrenched wine categories: Italy, France, Argentina, Napa.”

He wrote a business plan in 2020. “I was fortunate to meet an Armenian from the wine industry, Ara Sarkissian, who helped us really understand what it would take as far as going and pitching our portfolio to distributors, who are the middle men in every state, and get them to not only take us on but get behind our portfolio,” including training their own distributors so that they could “do the selling.”

With the business plan in place, he said, he felt comfortable to go and find investors.

He still has his “day” job at Agenus, founded by his father, but the rest of his time is dedicated to Storica. He graduated from Johns Hopkins University and later received an MBA from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The biggest markets for Storica are Boston and LA, he said, followed by New York City.

“The fourth highest selling state for us is Alabama, the fifth is Nebraska and the sixth is Minneapolis,” he said.

100-year-old wine grape vines at 1750 meters above sea level, located in the Khachik village, Vayots Dzor, Armenia

Ancient Winemaking History

While Armenian wines may be new to the European and American palates, wine has a deep history in Armenia. In fact, Armenia may be one of the first wine-producing regions in the world; tests reveal that there is evidence of wine making in the Areni-1 site, a cave in Armenia, dating back to around 4100 BC and 4000 BC.

Said Armen, “By ancient standards, it’s a well-entrenched wine producing place. If you go back in history to the era of the Roman Empire, the Babylonian times, the Urartian kingdoms, Armenia was always looked to as a place with high quality production of wine. Armenian merchants were among the only ones allowed up the Euphrates River in a certain direction because they had the best wine that all the Roman Empire higher-ups wanted,” he added. “There’s a whole lot of proof points that says Armenia has been a place of high-quality wine production for thousands of years.”

During the Soviet era, all that changed and the government focused only on the production of brandy and wine became secondary and therefore inferior. Those lower-quality wines “were not really reflective of the quality of Armenia and its terroir. The whole wine culture was lost, both in the country and the recognition of Armenia  by contemporary standards as a quality producing region was just not known.”

Things began to change again after Armenia’s independence, he said, when groups of diasporan Armenians came and started exploring winemaking.

“Now, these wines are all of the quality and taste profile of old-world wines from France Italy, Germany, Napa wines, wines of Argentina. We’ve seen that validated by a lot of the reaction we get in the US market,” Armen said.

When Armenian vineyards started becoming a bigger industry, many winemakers expanded into Artsakh. With the horrifying 2020 war, most of those vineyards were taken over and absorbed into Azerbaijan.

None of the wineries that Storica worked with were affected.

“I actually remember having breakfast that Sunday morning in Boston when the war broke out with a Providence-based Armenian whose family was from a village in Artsakh and he had built a winery there. He got a call from his winemaker who basically said we’re under attack. This is not looking good. Unfortunately, a few weeks later, the winery was taken over. He and I were having a conversation about having the wine brought into our portfolio,” he said.

Younger vines planted at the Zulal vineyards in Areni, Vayots Dzor, Armenia

Trying New Wines

So a discerning oenophile wants to try a Storica wine and wonders where to start.

He suggested the Keush Origins, which is a sparkling wine made in the way traditional champagne is made in France. It is Storica’s best-selling wine.

“It’s about $25 per bottle … and  would compare to a $50-60 Veuve Clicquot or Taittinger. We have a vintage sparkling wine that is like $40 that you can compare to a $100-150 champagne,” he noted.

According to Armen, “As far as red wine is concerned, that is the Zulal Areni wine, which is just the Areni grape fermented in a stainless-steel vat, which means all you are getting as far as the taste and aroma is the grape. Or the Van Ardi Estate Red Blend…. That’s also a beautiful red wine if people like more earthy, structured wines. If you like fruitier wines, like a pinot noir, you start with the Areni.”

For whites, he suggested Shofer Voskehat, which won silver and bronze this year at the Los Angeles International Wine Challenge and Texsom.

Later this month, Storica will be launching a wine club. Those who enroll can sign up for different levels, such as four or six wines every three months, as well as participate in some winetasting events.

“I see Armenian wine as a way to create a durable impact of Armenia in the hearts and wines of people,” he said.  “Wine is something people create an emotional connection to” by connecting it to emotion.

“Very few products that a country can produce itself are agricultural oriented, service oriented and manufacture oriented, and wine is all of them,” he said.

There are store locators on website, but Armen said the best way to buy wines is to online.

 

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