Hey, New Yorkers, it’s time to discover something new!
Meet the CEO of Citadella Imports, US
Alexandra Damanis came from Eger wine region, Hungary, and works hard to make Hungarian wine widely known in her new home, on the East Coast of the USA. First the bureaucracy, then the Pandemic – however, nothing can stop her.
Labels so far:
The most diverse portfolio of 100% Hungarian wines on the East Coast
– Citadella Imports is the name of your company, so do you only import some brands to the US or do you do distribution as well?
– The name of my company comes from the Citadella in Budapest. It’s Hungary’s equivalent to “The Statue of Liberty” here in NY. It’s a symbol of liberty and freedom for Hungary and for me as a young woman trying to accomplish my dreams while being proud of where I came from. The wine we import comes from many vineyards around Hungary and we also do distribution as well. I personally sell to liquor stores, restaurants and wine bars in New York, New Jersey, and Washington DC. I’m also licensed to sell in Connecticut so I’m planning on fanning out there very soon.
– You graduated as a social worker and have a dental technician certificate – two rather different jobs. No wonder, you had the courage to start a third one, but how about the bureaucracy? How do you get on with all the licenses, documents involved in the wine business?
– As we say in Hungary I always wanted to stand on multiple feet, and I was looking for my true path during this time. Unfortunately, I had one more class left for me to graduate in Debrecen University as a social worker but moving to the US changed my plans. As for bureaucracy and licensing, in no way was it an easy path to create my company. It was started in early 2019 and we didn’t have a single bottle of wine to sell until the end of 2020. It took a lot of hard work, research and of course some money is necessary to start any company. During this time, I obviously made mistakes, but it only made me stronger.
– You choose all the wines of your portfolio yourself. Do you travel to Hungary often?
– Yes, I told myself I can only work with the wines I like myself and I think would work well on the American market. Since I’ve started my company 2 years ago, I’ve only travelled once because of COVID. I’ve reached out to the wineries I thought would be a great fit and they sent me the samples that I tasted, and I put the portfolio together. When I first visited Hungary since starting Citadella Imports, I was already working on selling the first shipment from them. Hopefully this will change when we are finally over the pandemic.
– Your portfolio is not too wide, but in fact we can find exciting volcanic whites, experimental wines, elegant red wines and majestic sweet wines. What is missing, is the easy drinking line. Aromatic wines, roses, sparkling wines. Do you think that in that segment there is too much competition?
– I would argue that with a little over 20 unique products, I have one of the most diverse portfolios of 100% Hungarian wine on the East Coast. Competition and pricing are always something to think about. I think the competition is actually a big concern for experimental wines and elegant reds also. It’s more like, at first, I wanted to be on the safer side as much as possible since rosés are pretty much seasonal, but I am planning on working with them again soon! We do carry aromatic wines like Bolyki’s Sauvignon Blanc and his Királyleányka. Most importantly, everything I sell is quality. Nothing is bulk. I work only with winemakers that are proud of what they make and always work to get the best out of the grapes. I won’t settle for less.
Spend just a little more and avoid a headache
– Who are your customers? Are they educated wine lovers or average wine drinkers?
– Probably both although Hungarian wine requires some hand selling and education from each store to people looking to discover wine they never tasted before. Hopefully this will change soon. The one thing that keeps me up at night is why so many Hungarians in the USA are still buying cheap sweet Hungarian wine. That wine is still being made the way they did in the communist days. Added sugar, so many sulfites, they get the most yield from the vine and there is no way the $9.99 sweet Furmint from Tokaji should even have the name Tokaji on the bottle in my opinion. I feel like it cheapens the brand and makes Hungarian wine look like it hasn’t progressed at all. What I always tell people is spend just a little more if they can and buy something they can be proud of. For a few more dollars, at least they won’t wake up with a headache.
– Do you organize tastings for your customers?
– Yes, I do. All the stores I sell to taste the wine before they buy it. We schedule tastings for their customers to try sometimes as well. The hard part for me is trying to be in two places at once. If I am doing a tasting, it takes me away from the time I have to do more sales. I plan on enlisting a friend to help with this. There are events and fairs that I want to participate in as well but due to the pandemic, these shows consistently get canceled. I am also going to be working with the help of the Hungarian embassy in Washington DC and the Hungarian Consulate in NYC, to organize some tasting events. I hope to have more information on that shortly.
– In another interview you mentioned the popularity of Pinot Noir and that it helps sell Kékfrankos and Kadarka. Are there any similar reference points? How do you recommend Furmint or Olaszrizling?
– Furmint is one of the most popular Hungarian grapes and since many people do know about Hungarian dessert wines, I always let them know that Furmint is one of the grapes that make up our best dessert wines. Furmint and Hungarian wine in general is also gaining popularity in England from Carolyn Gilby and O.Z. Clark of Decanter magazine. It pairs extremely well with sushi and spicy Asian food. Olaszrizling is a great easy drinking wine with lots of stone fruit notes that many wine drinkers love.
Juhfark and Hárslevelű are yet to come
– Do you plan to get new wineries in your portfolio?
– I would like to grow the wine selection in my portfolio and customers are always eager and excited to try new wines. Growing at a steady pace is key. What I want to do is look for specific wines we do not carry and grow the number of wine regions we represent. Single variety grapes that are native to Hungary have been accepted easier than blends. I have been wanting to introduce Juhfark and Hárslevelű to my portfolio and have been in talks with a few wineries to have some samples delivered.
– How about the pandemic era, how does it influence Citadella Imports?
– I’ve started Citadella Imports in 2019 right before the pandemic and started selling while it was in its worst phase. The saddest part was probably that I couldn’t travel to Hungary and meet all the great winemakers. This made it a bit difficult since we had to organize a sample shipment with each of them and taste without them. This required lots of early morning phone and video calls and emails, since we have a 6 hour time difference. The second biggest problem was the delay at the ports with the shipments, something we are having an issue with as I answer this question. Before the vaccines came out wine buyers in stores weren’t allowed to do tastings. As soon as it was allowable to get a vaccine, the stores invited us in once again. The only positive was that more people locked up in their homes started to drink a lot more. I think people also start to think about how many times they open the same bottle of wine before saying, “I want to try something I’ve never had before”. That’s exactly the kind of customer we are looking to connect with.
The wildest dream
– You are very active on social media, especially Instagram. Do you find it useful? Can you find new clients through these channels?
– It’s definitely a big help since we are living in a social media world. It helps connecting with new clients and customers. Also, there are a lot of Facebook groups for Hungarians living in the US that helped me gain a bigger group of customers as soon as we started selling. So many people reached out asking where they could buy wine. Although I can’t sell directly to them, I always send them links to stores we supply to that would ship the wine to them.
– Your husband is American? Do you often have Hungarian wine at home? And Hungarian dishes?
– He is Greek-American and loves to take in as much culture as possible. He is my biggest supporter, and he is helping me a lot with the business. I very much appreciate it since he has a background in finance. Of course, we often have Hungarian wine at home. We like pairing them with all kinds of food. It’s a learning process. I think seventy percent of the time we cook Hungarian dishes. We even have a “bogrács” (a traditional Hungarian pot) that we use all the time. My husband makes the best “Halászlé” (traditional fish soup).
– How do you imagine Citadella Imports in your wildest dream in 10 years time?
– Well, I’m a hopeless dreamer and a very positive person, so if I say that in 10 years Hungarian wine is going to be a must have in most of the restaurants in the USA and equally popular as Californian, French or Italian wine, is that wild enough? Hopefully that will become a reality that Citadella Imports can take part in.