Thursday, October 13, 2011

Wine n Bike...

For one of our full day excursions in Dubrovnik, we found a Wine and Bike tour on the Peljesac peninsula through Culinary Croatia (  They also offer cooking classes, but Croatian food is known to be lacking, so I figured I didn't need cooking classes to learn how to prepare mediocre food (I can already do that on my own). 

Everyone we talked to about this excursion told us it sounded good in theory, but not so much in reality considering the logistics of drinking wine and then attempting to mountain bike.  After a minor setback in meeting up with our tour guide / winery owner, Mario, (we were waiting for him at the wrong gate outside the Old Town - who knew the "hole" we were waiting next to was not one of the 3 grand gates?), we were on our way to the Peljesac, a 1.5 hour drive from Dubrovnik.

On the way, Mario revealed that he had been a soldier for the Croatian army during the war.  He was about 35, but had experienced so much in that gruesome war.  "There were many unneccesary atrocities committed" he said, "many of my friends now suffer from PTSD".   

In addition to the war stories, he gave us a whole history lesson on the region during the drive, particularly what it was like living in a land that changed hands so many times throughout its history. He told us his 90 year old grandmother had 7 different passports from 7 different countries, but never left her little village.   Throughout the history lesson he sprinkled in the benefits of living a wine-filled lifestyle even commenting that his grandfather last drank water when he was 17!    

On the way to the Peljesac, Mario said, "I like this, no schedule. We can do whatever we want" as he pulled over to invite us for a cup of coffee in Ston. 
Ston was a major fort of the Ragusan Republic whose defensive walls were regarded as a notable feat of medieval architecture. The town's inner wall measures 890 metres in length, while the Great Wall outside the town has a circumference of 5 km.
According to Mario, the wall surrounding the city of Ston is second only to the Great Wall of China in terms of length and grandeur.  

Shorty after we finished our coffee, we stopped in to the Grgich Winery.  Per Wikipedia, "Mike Grgich (born Miljenko Grgić on April 1, 1923 in Desne) is a Croatian American winemaker in California.  He was born into a winemaking family in the town of Desne on Croatia's coastal region of Dalmatia. He is notable for being the winemaker behind the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay that bested several white Burgundy wines in the wine tasting event that became known as the Judgement of Paris. In recognition of his contributions to the wine industry, Grgich was inducted into the Culinary Institute of America's Vintner's Hall of Fame on March 7, 2008. The tribute comes at the same time that Grgich is celebrating his 50th vintage of winemaking in the Napa Valley."

Mario confirmed that story, and told us that thanks to Grgich, Croatian wine is on the map.  Grgich bought his winery in Croatia from the government after the war, as it used to be a fort.  The winery was in a beautiful setting, but inside it was 3rd world minimalist.  The wine was actually delicious.  There is something so earthy about Croatian wines, it's as if you can almost taste the soil. 

Grgich Winery
After completing our tour of the Grgich Winery and sampling some wines, we arrived in Mario's home / vinyard located in a 21 person village.  He pulled out the mountain bikes and we were on our way.  The Peljesac Peninsula is very mountainous, and the vineyards are planted on the side of the mountains.  This makes picking the ripe grapes a challenge, because it all has to be done by hand.  But, the resulting wine called Plavic Mali, is worth all the trouble. 

Now I know...never toss un-eaten grapes from a vine, much love, attention and passion are required to grow even the tiniest grapes...I think Mario nearly had a heart attack when I threw the remaining grapes onto the ground.

Mario's family had owned the land, and lived off of it, for 500 years.  The only reason that the government never seized their property throughout the various wars or the Socialist regime is because the government knew they could not maintain the vineyards or put the hard work it took in order to harvest the grapes. So land owners were allowed to keep their land, so long as they kept harvesting grapes.  The one caveat was that they could not produce their own wine, only the government was allowed.  Mario described how difficult it was to produce wine in the Peljesac in that time, particularly when there were no cars or roads going to the little villages. He had a phrase that he used that translated to, "no pride". It took a typical land owner 12 days to harvest all the grapes, so by the time he could complete the harvest, a great portion of the grapes would be spoiled. So, all neighbors from the various villages came up with a schedule to help out.  Cousins, friends and feuding neighbors all joined together with "no pride" and their donkeys in tow, to help harvest each others' grapes.  Small reservoirs (they looked like small, square, empty pools) were built in various villages, where all grapes from the entire region were stored.  Once the reservoir was full, the government would send their trucks to pick up the grapes and take them to the Cooperative Vineyard, where the government's wine would be produced.  The government to this day operates the Cooperative, and several land owners still sell their grapes to the government, but the Croatian wine has garnered so much recognition that the Cooperative can't compete with the wines produced by the land owners. 
Mario's love of wine was reflected in every word he spoke.  He told us that "wine is about the company and experience of drinking the wine over a meal, rather than the taste itself."  While true, I think he discredits how amazing Croation wine really is. 

The day ended beatifully with a typical Croatian meal prepared by Mario's sister, and more wine than we could drink! 

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