The Joy of Wine in an Empty Room

by Justin Wuycheck
Here’s something we like: A darn good way to use an old pot - cornflower blue, scratched handles nestled against divots in a blond wood counter, a drain at its bottom - it’s all the sink one could need in a holiday apartment.

A friend of many years, Petr Očenášek, and his investor Vladimír Štekl, are creating a corner of Moravian heaven with a new pension / wine venue called the DEGUSTARIUM:

The DEGUSTARIUM’s goals are ambitious:  Vinously, the wine cellar desires nothing less than to be the ambassador of Mikulovska wines, specifically those made around the Pálava Hills; and more, they want to identify the best climats (“vineyard climates” or “parcels” – vinice in Czech) of the region and codify them in a manner echoing legendary regions such as Burgundy, Barolo, Tokaj, or Champagne.

The pension (an hour’s drive from Vienna or 2.5 hours from Prague) aims to be an elegant compliment to the wine cellar, but also a place of rest and beauty whether one enjoys vino or not.  And while it will take years before we know if the DEGUSTARIUM hits its wine targets, it’s already a marvelous place to stay.

Vladimir Štekl (SHTE-kl) does not seem like a man who requests all-capital letters when writing “DEGUSTARIUM.”  When we meet in the wine cellar, Petr introduces him as “Mr. Štekl.”  This is waved off: “Call me Vlad.”  He is quiet, reserved, nearly shy. His demeanor proves one does not have to be brash to be a very successful lawyer.  As he leads me to a room, he explains the pension’s goal.  “Calm.  No TVs in the rooms.  We just want people to enjoy the view [of the Pálava Hills].  Calm.”

Three apartments created this year invite a person to “Calm” with pale, but unvitiated, color schemes.  Simple and antique, the furniture stands sparsely on brick tile and blond wood floors.   It would be wrong to state the rooms are empty, but rather, they are filled with space.  Freed from excessive stimulation, one sees details gently emerge:  The humorous pot as a sink, ceramic insulators as curtain-rod ends, old-fashioned lightbulbs.  The beds have simple wrought-iron frames or elegantly modified antique doors that serve as head- and footboards.  The beds seem to whisper, “sweet dreams.”  As a whole, rooms welcome people and the views from their windows encourage a person to explore the landscape beyond, the village, the vines, and the rocky hillsides.

The rooms on the upper floor of the pension are of a different style: The colors are brighter, the beds are new frames, the furnishings more Scandanavian.  Not as enchanted with this older design, Štekl plans to refurbish these rooms in the next two years.  Still, the upper rooms have wonderful views of the Pálava Hills.

Walking out of the pension, we pass by the herb plots in the front yard, the bees active in the late-spring sunshine. We can see the woods and white limestone of the UNESCO-protected  Pálava Hills, a castle ruin overlooking tracts of vineyards. We turn right at a 100-year-old pear tree, and walk into the cool of the sklep (wine-cellar).

If the pension is the soul, then in the sklep beats the heart of the DEGUSTARIUM.  The room is dominated by a 4m long table, the top, two thick, solid pieces of wood.   Though new, it evokes a durable tradition, and a long history.  It will be here that people meet, sit, taste the wines and local cheeses.  At the far end of the room a corridor descends into the cave.  Next to this entrance sits a custom-made stove, Štekl’s dream:

It’s good to have beautiful dreams.  Especially beautiful dreams that can cook breakfast:

The atmosphere of the sklep exudes warmth and comfort, while not distracting from its greater purpose – experiencing the local wines and food.  To which we now turn…

Petr Očenášek is a good guy.  This ex-body builder turned wine vendor brings with him ambition, knowledge, and above all, care for his family’s region, the Pálava Hills.  In his thirties, he is old enough to remember the communist years when much of the Pálava region was the restricted border between East and West.  He lived with his family here, drinking the wines of his grandfather.  The personal connection with this land is impelling him to promote the Pálava Hills wines beyond Czech Republic.  The codex that he is now creating of the region’s best vineyards is the work of a man inspired by his passion for the remarkable fruit of this unique landscape.

A great word, codex: “An ancient manuscript in book form that replaced scrolls or wax tablets.”  Or, archaically, “A list of statutes or codes.”  The word evokes a stature and history that the Pálava Hills has and nearly lost.  The rich history of the vineyards goes back at least 1800 years – once the wines were so well-regarded that Austrian winemakers pleaded with the Habsburgs to block their sale – but the Communist regime nearly ripped out the traditions and habits of quality-conscious wine making.  Voluminous mass-production of weak wines was that government’s order.  Since the Velvet Revolution of 1989 vintners have faced the poor quality of their commercial wines – some have risen to the challenge and some have shrugged their shoulders and slurped another glass of watery, semi-sweet Chardonnay.  Those vintners intent on making quality wine now have the task of selecting which grape varieties work optimally with their vinice, and indeed, rediscovering which terroirs are actually best.

To facilitate the understanding he has created a map of the growing region with all the parcel names, the elevation, and the underlying geology.  We won’t show it yet – it hasn’t been released – but it rivals any map we’ve seen of French vineyards.  Just gorgeous!

In the end, Očenášek hopes through tasting the Pálava Hills wines at the DEGUSTARIUM over the course of years, if not decades, he and the other winemakers will be able to rank the vineyards – and create this codex. 

Some parties are quite against Očenášek’s plan.  Currently, the Czech wines are categorized by the amount of sugars in the unfermented grape must, and so many people (consumers and vintners alike) associate a level of sweetness with quality.  Očenášek’s plan would do away with that idea, attaching more importance to the terroir and healthy, ripe grapes.

To achieve all their goals, Štekl and Očenášek need your help, dear readers.  They need you to come, taste wine, see the beautiful landscapes, and sleep in convivial, restful rooms.  They need you to experience firsthand the renaissance of Czech Wines at the DEGUSTARIUM.

They have extended an offer just for us.  If you visit their DEGUSTARIUM with PATHWAYS, they will provide complimentary breakfast during your stay.  This means eggs and bacon cooked on that wood stove, coffee or tea, and all sorts of local delicacies crowding your plate.  We look forward to exploring the Pálava Hills with you.
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