Bosnian immigrant hopes to bring Balkan wines to Connecticut
Waterford — When people think of regions that produce superlative wines, what comes to mind is often France, Italy, Australia, Argentina and Napa Valley. When people think of common wine varieties, they may land on sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and pinot noir.
But Indira Bayer wants Vranac, Blatina and Plavac Mali to become household names. These are grapes from Bosnia and Herzegovina, which, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, was ranked 54th for wine production volume in 2014.
"My goal is to teach people how to pronounce these new varieties," she said. Per laminated information sheets she has, that's Vrah-natz, Blah-tee-nah and Plah-vatz Mah-lee.
Bayer has distributors in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and she is trying to sell her wines in Connecticut. She has been talking to a couple distributors but also is considering applying for her own license.
"It's hard to get somebody to add my wine to their portfolio and sell it, especially something unknown like these wines are," she said.
In June, Bayer moved from Austria to Waterford to be near her older son, Adel Terzic, who works as an engineer at Electric Boat. She owns Wines of Illyria, a company she founded in 2014 to import and sell wholesale fine wines from Balkan countries. The company is named for Illyria, an ancient region in what is now the Balkan Peninsula.
Bayer grew up in Yugoslavia in the small mountain town of Priboj, where most people worked at a factory that manufactured tractor-trailers. With the dawn of the Croatian War of Independence in 1991, she found herself unable to leave what had become a poverty-stricken country.
She moved into her basement so she could rent out her apartment to make ends meet — and the man who rented her apartment ended up becoming her husband.
Jim Bayer came as a contractor with the U.S. State Department.
"I would come from the bank, he could come from work, we would sit outside," Indira Bayer said. "He was learning Bosnian; I was learning English."
In 1995, she married him, and they immigrated to the United States with Terzic, then 8 years old. A few years later, the Bayers had a child together, Edward, who just started his freshman year at Nazareth College in New York.
Upon moving to the United States, Bayer immediately enrolled in English as a Second Language classes at Burlington Community College in New Jersey.
She was determined to speak English well and to assimilate into American culture.
"I married American, so I was kind of thrown in the fire. You swim or you drown, and I was not going to let myself drown," she said. "When I came I felt like I had no brain whatsoever, when you can't communicate."
While taking courses through the American Institute of Banking, she worked as a teller at First Union. And while getting her bachelor's degree in business administration at Saint Leo University in Virginia, she worked at a bank full-time.
After growing up under socialist rule, Bayer was impressed with the banking system in the United States, and with how many people own their own small business. She was amazed at the opportunities she saw for somebody to live a life with more than one job in more than one place.
Bayer spent the past decade working for the U.S. Foreign Service at embassies in Serbia, Bosnia and Austria. She taught at American University in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a country where youth unemployment is among the highest in the world.
"The biggest problem that Bosnia and Herzegovina had as a country is brain drain, young people leaving because there's no jobs," she said.
She founded Wines of Illyria in 2014, partially with the goal of helping people in Bosnia and Herzegovina by selling something "that they can produce really well." Her students designed the labels.
She named her Blatina reserve Teuta, after an Illyrian queen.
Her younger son, Edward Bayer, worked at Wines of Illyria while living in Austria. He helped with the website, led wine tastings, and sold hundreds of cases of wine to clubs and restaurants in Vienna.
The experience has been good for his résumé, and his mother and her business inspired him to study marketing in college. Edward Bayer said of his mother, "She is an incredible woman, and one of the hardest workers I've ever met."