Jost von Hopler, general manager of the top Austrian wine supplier for the U.S. market, is quick to give his country's latest wine joke while sipping
from a glass of his best-selling wine, a 1979 Blauerburgunder Pinot Noir.
The general manager's joke has to do with a little boy who was allowed to accompany his dad on a nightly wine-drinking round. After an evening of quaffing, the father was leading his son home when the youth asked him how one would know when one had drunk too much wine."Well, it's this way, son," the father said. "Look ahead down there. Do you see those two men walking in front of us? If you see four men there instead of two, then you know you've had too much wine because you're seeing double."
Nodding his head, the boy replied: "Yes, papa, now I understand. By the way, there's only one man there."
Mr. Von Hopler's company, Klosterkeller Siegendorf Weingut, is headquartered in Siegendorf, a small Burgenland wine town five miles from the Hungarian border. The company sells its line of some 200 wines to 18 U.S. states.
Also high on Mr. Von Hopler's and any Austrian vintner's list of subjects is the 1985 scandal of Austria's tainted wines. Dozens of brands were doctored with an illegal sweetener, diethylene glycol, a toxic chemical used in automobile antifreeze).
When the tainted wine news made headlines all over the world, Austria's foreign sales nose-dived from a previous 44.6 million liters a year to 26 million liters.
Wine-makers here agree that it will take many years to repair the damage to the industry. During the first six months of 1986, only 2 million liters of wine were exported - a small fraction of the 1984 figures before the scandal hit the newspapers.
The wine industry puts financial losses at between $35 million and $55 million. This drop in sales no doubt was made more severe by a nearly 40 percent increase in prices, traceable in part to a bad 1985 harvest and the drop in the value of the U.S. dollar.
Following the disruption in wine sales abroad over the tainted wines, when all Austrian wines were removed from stores in countries around the world - including the United States - the Austrian Parliament passed a new wine law, considered the toughest of any country.
Most vintners here do not like the new law, saying it puts most of the farmers under severe and time-consuming regulations. Under the new law, wine- makers also have to keep detailed records that are examined monthly.
"The law provides for strict labeling," says Johann Stadlmann, president of the Federal Wine Growers Association, the chief organization of producers.
"It provides, in addition, quantity and quality controls and aims to restore prestige and confidence abroad, especially in Germany where our vintners ship about two-thirds of their wine exports. Sweet wines, like other high-quality wines in the German-speaking world, are graded by sweetness - and sweeter wines quite simply do bring higher prices."
Along with the law came a new marketing company that began its operations in September. The Austrian government controls 51 percent of the company. Extra steps are being taken to boost export sales and rebuild the image of the Austrian wine industry.
"We literally are starting from the bottom," says Hermann Katzler, chairman of the Federal Wine Wholesale Trading Union. "During 1987 and 1988 we will be doing everything we can to publicize the advantages of this excellent product through an active, aggressive marketing strategy," he said.
Several of the people awaiting trial for the scandal are wine chemists and wine traders, on whom the farmers in the Burgenland place most of the blame.
Neither the town of Siegendorf nor the nearby city of Rust was involved in any way in the doctoring of wine, though the area of Rust, bordering both sides of the Neusiedler Lake, was given prominent mention in many of the press reports.
Scandal or not, the people of Austria, who are big wine fans and know their wines as a Vienna concert pianist knows the heady music of Mozart, drink up most of the their own production. The rest is exported.
Last year, production totaled 250 million liters. The harvest comes from 60,000 vineyards, most of them in the eastern part of the country. About 87 percent of Austria's output is white wine, the remaining 13 percent are Rose types.
Mr. Von Hopler's agent in the United States is his sister, Mrs. Rosemarie Scully of Belmont, Mass. The U.S. outlet accounted for the sale of 90,000 liters of wine in 1986 (as compared to 171,000 liters in 1985) with the sales figures coming to $240,000 in 1986 and $584,000 in 1985.
Among the Klosterkeller Siegendorf labels that Mrs. Scully markets are an 1984 Pinot Blanc Kabinett wine that is a steely dry Chablis-type, an 1984 and 1985 Sommerhof Rose Kabinett that is a Blaufrankisch dry wine with herb intonations, and an 1985 Sauvignon Blanc Kabinett that is a racy, piquant wine that reminds one of green paprika.
The Jost von Hopler Selection, as the wines are promoted in North America, has been served on Austrian Airline planes since 1979.