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Austria’s Traditional Cuisine

Jasper James Inside the Mohnwirt dining room, where dried poppies hang from the rafters.

Photo: Jasper James

Johann Donabaum’s mother was stirring an eight-gallon pot of apricot jam when we interrupted her in the kitchen of the family winery in Spitz. For the crazy price of $35 per person per night, she lets out a few plain rooms with pretty mountain views, and the jam—soupy but vibrant—was for the breakfast table.

Opposite the kitchen in a 16th-century vaulted room was the Heuriger, the name in Austria for a seasonal tavern that offers only the most recent vintage and, here, cold plates of the pork loin—flavored with juniper, garlic, and coriander—that Frau Donabaum salts and smokes herself.

It was the wrong time of year for the Heuriger, and I punished everyone by sulking until Johann opened a bottle of his 2005 Riesling Offenberg Smaragd. Monika described it as “creamy and lush yet strongly mineral, with a brothy, savory finish and a saline quality that stains the back of the palate.” Toni nodded in agreement, as she would many times on our eating and drinking tour of Niederösterreich, the northeastern province wrapping Vienna, where Monika is from and lives part-time. One of the wonderful things about being a wine person is that you get to use extravagant language that would get you fired as a magazine writer.

However much they know about the Austrian table, which is a lot, Monika and Toni are friends first to me and connoisseurs second. There is no record of Toni and me trading cookies at milk time in second grade in 1962, but carefully preserved ticket stubs show that we saw the “new” Supremes together at the Schaefer Music Festival in Central Park eight years later (for $1) and the Fifth Dimension at Forest Hills tennis stadium in 1972. Now Toni’s image decorates the funny green label on thousands of bottles of Grooner, a new easy-pouring Austrian white created by Monika to take a bite out of the colossal Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc market in the United States.

How did this happen?How did my high school confessor and best girlfriend become the face of a wine whose name is spoofed (the real name is Grüner Veltliner) so Americans can pronounce it?Well, Toni and I did lose touch for a while. I moved to France for two decades and the Lovely and Talented Miss Toni Silver (as she bills herself) became a serio-comic performer of one-woman shows like A Cab Is Cheaper Than a Funeral, the title borrowed from her mother’s exhortation, when Toni first moved to Manhattan in the David Berkowitz era, not to take the subway at night. To pay the bills Toni has also worked as Lauren Bacall’s PA (one of her jobs was to inventory all the soap the actress collects when she travels) and as a barmaid in the VIP lounge during Barbra Streisand concerts at Madison Square Garden.

By the late 90’s I began spending more time in New York. Except for the sound track, my adolescence was frivolous and I dislike being reminded of it. So even with all the affection I felt for Toni, I was ambivalent about restarting our friendship. But she pursued me, I was flattered, and she wore me down. What I discovered is that our relationship had rich midlife possibilities. For one thing, she knew interesting people I would not have met on my own. Her great pal—her sidekick and soulmate, really—was the bossy-adorable Monika Caha. Having imported loden coats and capes from her home country, Monika, at the time of our introduction, was trying on another way of making money that made use of her Austrian-ness: cooking and serving the food and wine she grew up with as the owner of Kaffeehaus, later the Candy Bar and Grill, in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood.

The closing of Candy Bar was a noxious experience; Monika might have said goodbye to the food and beverage business forever. But she bounced back with Monika Caha Selections, an exclusive portfolio of 10 boutique Austrian vineyards for which she acts as U.S. agent, working in some states with Frederick Wildman and Sons as importer and distributor. One of her star producers is the precocious Wine Spectator darling Johann Donabaum, whom the magazine awarded 94 out of a possible 100 points for his 2006 Grüner Veltliner Smaragd Spitzer Point. Monika does the high-low thing very well. Her own Grüner, whose label pictures Toni in a yodeling cap calling out “Grooner” as if from a Sound of Music hilltop, sells for as low as $9.

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