When we first scouted locations for our Moravian wine tours and talked to smaller winemakers who made natural wines and who had a great reputation here in Prague, one name in particular kept coming up: Bogdan Trojak. His recently established group of winemakers who made natural wines without any additives, “Autentiste”, started to make waves as something new and exciting both here in Prague and clearly in the Moravian wine country, as well. All of the winemakers we met talked about him and his efforts with the highest respect.
Bogdan is now one of the most recognizable figures on the wine scene here in Prague as the owner of the wonderful Veltlin wine bar in the Karlin district that sells natural wines made in what used to be the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He’s also the person to go to if you want a great natural wine without any chemistry added, a winemaker and - last but not least - a recognized poet who won the 2005 Magnesia Litera award for the best book of poetry in the Czech Republic and who is now writing a children’s book where the villain adds additives to food. Oh, and he is a really nice and personable man, and we like his style, too.
We sat down on a late August day at the tables in front of the Veltlin wine bar under the trees in the Karlin district to have a little chat.
How did you end up being a winemaker?
I am from Cesky Tesin in North Moravia. No wine tradition there. But my grandma is from Styria in Southern Austria, so there is some wine in my heritage. During my studies in Brno, the capital of Moravia, I fell in love with the atmosphere of the wine cellars. I worked at Host, a literary magazine, and I published books, mostly poetry. Then I began to consider making wine but it seemed unrealistic. I had no idea what and how to do it. After I graduated, I found a place to live near Brno and I found an opportunity to rent a vineyard in Vinicne Sumice, the northernmost wine village in Moravia. They used to have terraced vineyards there like in Mosel, Germany. So I began to make wine there, advised by the owner. My first wine (in 2003) was “sour as a stone”. But I needed a cellar. And I found one in Boretice. But transporting wine from the vineyard to the cellar was harder than I had naively thought, so at the last minute, I bought some land in Boretice, just as we were entering the EU. I planted the vines on the day of our entry, 1 May 2004. And I first harvested wine in 2006.
So you could plant vineyards freely before we entered the EU?
Yes. No regulations at all. Today, Czech winemakers may not plant new vineyards. There are only some “reserves” available. If you are not awarded a piece of the reserves, you have to buy the “title to plant vineyards” from another winemaker who has to close his or her own vineyard. At the moment, the government has a grant program for winemakers below 40 years of age. They want to reintroduce vineyards in the former imperial towns, e.g. Prague, Litomerice and so on. This is still pending approval by the European Commission, but I think it will pass. It’s about reintroducing wine in areas that compete with no-one. It’s more about entrepreneurial support than winemaking support. I have been eyeing this for some time because I would be still eligible.
Did you do natural wines from the start?
No. I did use chemistry for the first two years. I was learning from my neighbors who did the same thing. But I felt I depended too much on chemical substances: I was just buying stuff and spraying things I did not personally like on the wine. So I decided either to do it the natural way, or not do it at all.
I began to search things online and visited some Italian natural winemakers during the Villa Favorita event by the Vin Natur association in Vicenza, Italy. They were ahead of us as regards natural wines. I also began to write for Vinarsky obzor, a professional magazine, and that gave me the opportunity to meet winemakers who pushed me forward, e.g. professor Kraus, who, having reached 80, made a return to natural wines, and he liked what we did.
So I thought, why not create a group of like-minded winemakers - just like in Italy - to share experience? Because nobody took us seriously at the time. So I came up with the “Authentiste” and the “A” brand, and we started persuading winemakers to join us. Some people did change their ways and joined us, and today winemakers call us to join. We started to use the brand in 2009. Today we have 12 winemakers, including three Slovaks, so it’s international. We are on the way to achieve our ultimate goal: to unite winemakers from what used to be the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Veltlin really started as a service organization to sell the wines of our group. We started with a small space in Vinohrady, but then I met Kamil of EMA Espresso Bar and Cafe Lounge and he suggested his father's place in Karlin for our bar. I liked the place, but Karlin? I was skeptical at first. But despite the tough beginnings we are now, two years later, doing well. We don’t have to subsidize the bar. We want to open a second bar in the centre with natural wines outside of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that we like but cannot sell here. We have the name and the concept but we are still looking for the right space.
Why would people drink natural, Authentic wines?
That is easy. Wine is often described as one of the healthiest beverages in the world. But because of globalization and long-distance trading and shipping of wines, producers put so much sulphur and stabilizers in the wine that the essence - wine as a healthy drink - got absolutely lost. That is why we call our wines “authentic”: only spontaneous fermentation and no chemistry in the vineyard or the cellar. Some people would call this “organic”, but many winemakers actually shy away from that label because there is so much paperwork involved and for some people it is not the right image.
When we adopt new members, we tests their wines for residual substances that will clearly show whether chemistry was used in the process, and we are very strict with testing. Our latest member was Milan Nestarec, who’s getting better and better with his wines. He is the guy I call whenever I think of a new idea, like our spritzers or the non-alcoholic sparkling wine for children, Sam-pan. He’s up for anything. We want to get Sam-pan to every organic store here because the fizzy drinks they sell to children in shops have perhaps 2% grape concentrate content. We want to add a comic strip for children that will feature Sam-pan as the main character. We have a “wine development” division that comes up with new products like Sam-pan or the spritzers.
What is your ideal Saturday or Sunday?
That depends if I am with my children or not. We love to just leave the town and visit a castle in the “Ceske stredohori” region in Bohemia. We have a summer house in Zernoseky, a wine village in the Bohemian wine region. The property includes a farm house and I hope to buy a vineyard there and turn the farm house into a wine cellar. The ideal day is to visit an old ruin of a castle, have a look around and then walk down and possibly have a nice meal somewhere below the castle.
When my kids are away, I like to go out for beer. Me and my friends often go for a few beers at U Hrocha - it’s our futile attempt to become “regulars” somewhere. I like the classic places: U zlatého tygra, U Jelínků and so on. I love the Unetice brewery just behind Prague. You can just ride a bike along the Vltava river, cross it via boat and continue from there. I do home brew but I am a novice. Still didn’t have much success with lagers because I do not have the equipment but I have made a few top-fermented beers and even bottled one production run.
I also love to walk. I wake up in the morning, have something small at Paukert deli, which has improved a lot recently, and then just walk around the New Town. I absolutely adore the area around Karlov, the Ztracenka garden, where I go to write the latest book I am writing at this moment, then go back to Albertov and continue on to the Emmaus monastery. The Vysehrad fortress is also fantastic… and nearby. I love the history of the places around Karlovo namesti and Karlov.
Where do you go to have a meal in Prague?
My partner and I regularly, well, from time to time, visit Cafe de Paris in the Lesser Town. We have their signature dish: entrecôte with Cafe de Paris sauce and French fries. I also often visit restaurants of the Ambiente group of restaurants, sometimes for work because we supply wines there. I like Cafe Savoy, for instance, or the newly opened Lokal Hamburk here in the Karlin district. I also like Nota Bene. Good beers and really good food, too. And La Finestra of the Aromi group. I actually like Aromi’s places, too. Oh, and I should not forget Krystal Mozaika Bistro here just around two corners! It’s really good. I am not saying this just because we supply wines there. I really love to eat there.
We know you love Linzner cookies. Where are the best ones in Prague?
I love the ones at Simply Good here in Karlin. They use some strawberry or raspberry jam. But I really like the cookies they sell at Paukert. They use apricot jam and I like that better.