Meet Volker Donabaum, who brings tasty Austrian wines (and more) to Houston


Volker Donabaum’s journey to becoming a Houston-based wine importer began with what became a perfect online encounter with his future wife, Sarah. But that only represents the geography part. Donabaum had undoubtedly followed his career since his childhood, drinking here and there sips of wines made by his family in Austria since 1833. His mother, Ernestine, specifically remembers the young Volker, 5 years old at the time, serving what little was left in a bottle he found on the dinner table one evening.

“You can certainly tell that I have wine in my DNA,” he said, noting how his father, Sighardt, had been the first of his generation of farmers in the Wachau region to focus strictly on viticulture. Donabaum’s brother, also named Sighardt, now runs the eponymous winery, although Volker’s company, which started only in 2018, is not the US importer. Why? Because relationships are everything to Volker, and he didn’t want to create problems between his brother and the longtime New York-based importer from Donabaum, which has served the company well.

But it was thanks to this importing company that he landed a job with another importer in New York, the first in a series of Big Apple concerts that gave him the experience and confidence to go it alone. Before New York and its other global destinations, he had served as a cellar rat for winemakers in his hometown of Spitz, then moved to Vienna at age 22 to work in a wine merchant. There he is fluent in English “mainly while watching (the TV series) ‘Friends’ in English with English subtitles, after having watched it several times before in German”.

How did Houston come to fit into the picture? The woman he met via an internet dating service became his wife in 2019, and she was originally from here, having graduated from Kingwood High School in 2003, dated Vanderbilt as a first grade student. undergraduate degree and earned a law degree from the University of Texas at Austin.

After her marriage to Sarah in 2019 – while working as a corporate lawyer, she was moved to New York by her firm, Baker Botts – they concluded her hometown would be more suitable and much less expensive to start a business. family. Baker Botts helped her by transferring her (although she has since gone to work for Cheniere Energy).

Their son, Theodor, was born almost a year ago, and the three of them now live in a century-old bungalow with their beagle Heidi, 2 and a half, who, according to Donabaum, 40, “can” don’t wait to become a cave dog. To that end, he’s cautiously optimistic that a new warehouse with a tasting room / retail store about a mile north of the Saint Arnold Brewery may be ready for visitors by the end of 2022.

“I had been trying to finalize (the purchase of the property) for a while,” he said. “It was difficult, but we have him under contract now. With COVID, everything has been delayed by about a year. We will never see something like this again… hopefully.

Volker’s portfolio is focused on Austria, which sets him apart from other small Houston-based importer-distributors, but he is open-minded about wines from all over, having worked the grape harvest and helped make wine during his time. years of training in France, Italy, California, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. It’s almost easier to list wine regions that he hasn’t experienced firsthand.

Arriving with modest expectations, Donabaum was blown away by Houston’s vibrant food and wine culture.

“It’s amazing, really,” he said.

These days he makes a grüner veltliner in partnership with a friend, although he intends to stay focused on growing his import business rather than investing too much time and capital on the side of the production. He said local restaurateurs have embraced his wines with enthusiasm – besides Austria of course, France, Italy, California and Washington state are in the mix – and many are available at Heights Grocery, in Light Years wine bar and the Houston Wine Merchant. Heights Grocery owner James Havens has been particularly supportive and can handle retail orders from the Volker portfolio.

Although most of the wines are from biodynamic or organic producers, this is not a requirement for Donabaum. What is?

“That I love them,” Donabaum said with a laugh.

Its Austrian suppliers – Claus Preisinger, Hager Matthias, Martin Muthenthaler, Christoph Heiss and the Strehn family – are not just customers. They are special friends. And he would surely say the same of the winegrowers with whom he works elsewhere.

“It’s also about the people who make wine,” he said, “and my personal connection to families. I am sometimes considered to be an Austrian importer, but I like good wines from everywhere.

To browse his full portfolio, see volkerwineco.com.

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