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Like Italian wine? 🍷 Start thinking about Croatian grapes.

Narona Wine Merchants is a new distributor looking to bring Croatian blends to local wine shops in Rhode Island.

A couple enjoys a drink in D'Vino wine bar in Dubrovnik, Croatia.Dubravko Lenert/For The Washington Post

This story first appeared in Globe Rhode Island’s Food & Dining newsletter, a free weekly email about Rhode Island’s restaurant industry that also contains information about local events, Q&As with chefs, dining guides, and more. If you’d like to receive it via e-mail each Thursday, you can sign up here.

Ivo Krstičević's says most wine drinkers have tasted blends that originated in Croatia, but didn’t know it.

In the mid-1990s, grape geneticist Dr. Carole Meredith found that Zinfandel is identical to Tribidrag, also known as Crljenak Kaštelanski. Tribidrag is the parent grape of Plavac Mali, which is Croatia’s most popular red wine. Those who reach for an Italian varietal should know that “Primitivo” is simply Italy’s name for Zinfandel. And those who drink Negroamaro, which offers a darker fruit flavor and more structure compared to the fruity punch of Primitivo, should know these grapes grow alongside each other in Southern Italy.

Ivo Krstičević is the founder and owner of Narona Wine Merchants, a Croatian wine distributor in Central Falls, Rhode Island.Alexa Gagosz

According to Wine Folly, Croatian and Italian grapes and the soil and climate that nurtures them are similar, as these countries are situated across the Adriatic Sea from one another.

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But why isn’t Croatian wine more popular? That’s what Krstičević, the founder and owner of Narona Wine Merchants, wants to know, too.

Krstičević, 38, whose parents are originally from Croatia, moved to the US from Canada about a decade ago and has been living in Rhode Island for the last year. He’s a manager at a restaurant in downtown Providence, but operates his new wine distribution company out of an office in Central Falls. He works directly with Croatian Premium Wine Imports, headquartered in Boston, to import bottles into the US. Some restaurants and wine shops in Massachusetts and New York have already started featuring Croatian bottles, but finding partners in Rhode Island has been tough for Krstičević.

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”A lot of leads, but only a couple bites,” Krstičević told me after about a month after I went to his office for a tasting. “The market is tough right now with inflation, and shops are being tight with their lines dissuaded some sales from closing.”

He added, “Otherwise it’s been the life of a salesman. It’s still the first steps... I took a chance and wanted to start [Narona] and distribute wine from Croatia because I love everything about the region. It’s my family’s home, history, and legacy.”

Most recently, Krstičević has partnered with a licensed catering company during wedding season — which has generated some business — and The Savory Grape in East Greenwich will be featuring wines from Croatia in their sommelier class later this fall.

”There’s a willingness to fully support and embrace someone trying something different, especially in terms of our food culture here,” Krstičević said of the Ocean State. “We have a business climate that fully embraces individuality and uniqueness, different cultures, and products. It’s not something I can find elsewhere.”

One of his offerings, a 2020 Pošip by Volarevic, is a standout. It’s a white wine that originates from Komarna, a village in Southern Dalmatia, and is balanced with orange peel and citrus on the nose with a rich acidity and almond on the back palate.

For red wine lovers, the 2017 (which was an unusually a harsh year for grapes) Tribidrag by Rizman, a winery in South Dalmatia, has notes of plum, cherry, blackberries that finish with a velvety texture of leather, and a hint of black currant. It is grown from the root stock of the original indigenous red Zinfandel varietal from Croatia. Well, that sure sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

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My advice: Instead of reaching for a Californian, Italian, or other common origin of Zin, ask for a Croatian Tribidrag.

If you have suggestions or need a recommendation, shoot me an email at Alexa.Gagosz@globe.com.

Visit Food & Dining in Rhode Island for more. Because everyone’s gotta eat!


Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.