Wine is an everyday part of our lives. We have enjoyed tasting the products of the places we have wandered over the past three months, Croatia included. Our encounters here have been hit and miss, however; a few very good wines, several we enjoy, and many we don’t really like. Being in wine country, we thought visiting a couple of wineries would be fun for us and interesting for the children, so we headed out from the little coastal town where we are staying with a vague idea of finding some.
Our first stop was at Vinerija Bartulović. The parking was next to the road, with a path leading through a tunnel of trees to several stone buildings. We wandered in the door to their tasting room following hand-made signs, our arrival signaled by the barking of two large dogs on a balcony above. We may well have been the only visitors yesterday. A woman found us and tracked down open bottles of their Plavac Mali Bartul (red) and Rubatac (white) wines for us to sample, as well as their higher end Plavac Mali Dingać grown on the Western slopes of the peninsula.
This is her father’s winery, and was the first to go into private production on the Pelješac Peninsula after the fall of communism and the independence of Croatia. Under Yugoslavia, all of the wineries belonged to the government. Farmers were paid for their grapes and wine was made collectively. There is still a cooperative of wineries using those facilities, but Bartulović wanted to control all aspects of their production. They use only the grapes they grow themselves, and farm organically. Unfortunately, because of neighboring fields that don’t, they cannot use that designation on any except one of their vineyards, Puncta Bartul.
She told us about the grapes and the soils, and how Plavac Mali, or “small blue,” translated into English, produces much different flavors when grown in the uplands or in the region designated as Dingać. There the soil and weather create conditions where vines grow far less fruit, but the grapes have much stronger flavors. She told us about their desert wine, Prošek, how it can only be produced in some years when the conditions are right and how the grapes are dried in the sun before processing. We left, delighted, with a much better understanding of the region’s wines and several bottles, including some olive oil from their groves.From there, we headed toward Trstenik where the iconic winemaker who put California wines on the map and gained their respected place in the world has returned to his homeland to start a winery and bring his knowledge to the industry here. As we pulled into the Grgić winery, there was a mass of cars and activity. A film crew from Croatian TV had cameras rolling and the tasting room counter was three or four people deep.
We stood to the side, talking about the contrast to having been alone in the other winery. On hearing our English, a woman named Maria introduced herself. She told us about how Mike Grgich (or rather, Miljenko Grgić) had returned to help the Croatian wine industry move from producing local wines to creating world class ones. She shared his story, from his education in winemaking in Zagreb, to his arrival in the US with only a few dollars in his pocket. About having been the winemaker at Chateau Montelena and winning the famous blind tasting in Paris in 1973, making a place for California wines amongst those who believed the best wines could only come from France. We shared the fact that Chateau Montelena wines were our gifts to the groomsmen at our wedding. She told us of his long career, working for all of the biggest names in wine, and finally opening a winery in his own name.Wine samples were brought over and the room cleared. Like water released from a breached dam, the crowd filed out and the room was quiet. Maria introduced us to Mike, and he offered us a tour. He showed us the press, the same one he had used at Montelena, and explained the extraction process. He spent quite a lot of time with us, talking, unhurried, explaining the construction of French oak barrels and the importance of the aging process to remove the resins from the wood. We talked about our trip around the world, and how travel is really the best education.
We learned how Mike was recently able to show, through DNA testing, that Pelješac’s Plavac Mali grapes are related to our Zinfandel, but have been cultivated with tougher skins that reduce the damage caused by ill-timed rain. Maria told us about his funding of the removal of land mines in southern Croatia, and the work of the Roots of Peace organization.
We left with signed bottles which Hannah decided we needed to put down and keep for her and Marlie’s weddings. We left touched that this man who has accomplished so much would leisurely chat for so long with a random family from Oregon. I also believe I left with a new hero.