September 18, 2006

A Day in Czech Wine Country

A personal tour guide, cowboys, wine tastings where wines can't be bought—and an escape from the tourist crush.

Michael Myser

"Heeeeey!" Josef's call echoes through the empty Penzion San Marco at 9 a.m., into our room and deep into my brain. It hurts. Our wine tasting last night in Mutěnice, a tiny village in the south of the Czech Republic, got out of hand, as our host broke out nearly a dozen bottles of local reds and whites, topping the night off with vodka.

Michael Myser
Scenes of Mutěnice, from top: The Penzion San Marco hosts Czech city dwellers and the occasional American tourists; this house, which like others in town incorporates the wine and vineyard motif, stands just behind the Penzion; and Josef hosts a wine tasting in his cellar beneath the Penzion.
My wife, bless her, musters the strength to get out of bed and negotiates for a couple more hours of sleep. Josef is Josef Zimolka, owner of the pension, who's also become our de facto tour guide, driver, and day planner. Though his 20-room hotel will be packed over the weekend with yuppies from Prague, he's got just two yuppies from the States to contend with during the week, and he's taken us under his wing.

We arrived in Mutěnice (pronounced Moot-ya-neetz-a), in the heart of the Czech wine country, two days prior. Hearing Prague had become overrun with tourists, I found intriguingly little information about Mutěnice via a travel wiki, and simply followed the directions out of town. After several fruitful nights in Prague, the start of our Eurotrip, we hopped a bus to Brno in the center of the country, which is when things got interesting. Taking a local bus out of this bustling city into the countryside, we had no Czech language skills to help us reach our destination. Sure enough, I got us off at the wrong stop. Moutnice, not Mutěnice—the vagaries of the Czech language are quite maddening.

Fortunately, with hand signals, a back-of-tour-book glossary, and the assistance of a kindly elderly gentleman, we waited just 45 minutes and got on the next bus to the correct town. Upon arriving, we walked around the village and realized we were likely the only tourists in town, and certainly the only Americans. Which is precisely why I'd picked it. At first, it didn't come across as incredibly scenic, with its out-of-service factories—remnants of the erstwhile communist economy—on the outskirts. But with the rows of pink- and orange-stuccoed homes lined up seemingly to mimic the rows and rows of grape vines in the surrounding hills, there is a certain symmetry. And again, there were no tourists. Also, Josef found us wandering through town, and within 20 minutes, we were tasting wine at his friend's cellar. That's hospitality.


On Friday, we've finally roused at noon, and Josef has our day planned. First, he drives us two towns over to what may well be the only jewelry store within 120 kilometers. His son's girlfriend works here, and my wife is a big fan of diamonds. It's a gorgeous drive through green hills swathed in grapes and soybeans on a sunny 80-degree day. Fifteen minutes later, more pink and orange homes, and big bright churches interrupt the greenery and we pull up to the jewelry store to peruse the wares. The store is not much different than mall jewelry stores in the states, with watches, rings, earrings, and other baubles in glass cases throughout the store. But it's surprisingly crowded with young couples and mothers buying pieces for their teenage daughters. The only real difference is you get a nice deal by paying cash, and Josef is glad to drive me to a nearby ATM as my wife picks out a ring and set of earrings. Somehow I'm not entirely comfortable buying diamonds in a strange land, but we are on vacation.

After that "success," Josef takes us to a nearby, recently renovated chateau, now a gorgeous hotel. He seems to know everyone in the area, so despite an empty restaurant, he walks into the kitchen to find a server, who cheerfully greets the three of us. Over coffee and mineral water—still hung over, yes—he tells us in his endearingly broken English that his daughter is actually trying to get a job at this hotel. It will pay her better than he does. She's 24 now, and living and working with mom and dad, he admits, can take its toll. Though a bit distressed by the idea, they could probably stand a bit of distance. We finish our drinks and settle up the bill as Josef cheerily says goodbye to the chateau's staff.

We're soon on to the deep countryside, as we pile into a jeep for a jaunt through the Mutěnice backcountry. Driving around wetlands, which keep the vineyards watered, we come across ducks, swallows, and a Great White Egret. Somehow, after weaving through another set of vineyards and fields, we end up at his brother-in-law's horse farm. Who knew there were Czech cowboys? Sure enough, he's got a dozen or so horses, grows much of his own food, and lives, for the most part, disconnected from the tiny town just a couple of kilometers away. Josef says they haven't seen one another in months.

By 4 p.m., we're famished, and Josef, who's also looking a bit worse for the wear after last night's tasting, drops us back at the pension on his way home. At the restaurace down the street, we grab an early dinner of goulash (a beef stew with bread dumplings), and chicken and peaches, another Czech specialty. Finally refreshed, we amble through the hillside neighborhood, home to an amazing collection of some 500 wine cellars in town. These miniature houses, each uniquely painted, and often decorated beautifully with family coats of arms, or even cheesily with large, wine-themed murals, are the weekend projects for Mutěnice residents and home to gallons upon gallons of wine. This is what draws weekend visitors to the region.

And this being Friday, there's a buzz in the village as tourists arrive from other parts of the country. In fact, Penzion San Marco expects 30 guests. Tomorrow, wine tastings will be held up and down the new cobblestone streets, which Josef says were paid for by the Czech government, presumably to encourage that wine tasting. But interestingly, private vintners are forbidden to sell their wine directly to consumers. (This newish capitalism thing sure is wacky). We snap a few photos—this part of the village is, in fact, quite scenic—as the evening cools down, and head back to our room to pack and watch World Cup soccer games on the miniature TV. We crash early to catch a train tomorrow to Vienna. Josef's already promised to drive us to the station.

Michael Myser is a freelance writer based in Morristown, New Jersey. He's written for Business 2.0, ESPN, Wired, Wired News,, Popular Science, and others. Read more of his work at Want to hang out with Josef? E-mail his son Marek, who manages Penzion San Marco at

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