Tasting Vis

A couple of summers ago we visited the island of Vis, Croatia. We had a great time and this story is what I have remaining from that trip.

Tasting Vis

I am sitting at Grandovac Beach with a beer in my hand and the sun in my face. I have one week in Vis, Croatia, escaping Berlin city life and the crush of people. I simply need some down time: see another way of living, another way of doing things. Berlin is a beer town. Vis is a wine island. The current beer is just for the afternoon. Tonight, I need Vis wine. Wine that is the most famous, at least in the eyes of Vis residents, in Croatia. It is by far, the best way to become acquainted with a place and its people: through their wines.

I leave the little village of Kut and walk into Vis town to book a tour. Vis wine is diverse and extremely personal, and I understand it is difficult to arrange visits and tastings so I need a knowledgeable guide. One who knows Vis wine and viniculture intimately.  I found what I was looking for with Josip and his Local Vis Tours. Local Vis Tours offers kayak, city, island, and as I had hoped, winery tours. His promotional photo album promised a ‘wonderfully picturesque and romantic wine tour, visiting the best, yet unknown wineries Vis has to offer.’ I already know Vis is picturesque and I am in no need of romance but I decide to book with them.

I approach the sales assistant standing off to one side. She is attractive and happily low-key in an island kind of way. Maybe I am in need of romance. But I keep to the tour. She sells me the tour including visits to small wineries and vineyards, tastings, and a dinner at the end of the tour. Sounds good. It’s booked for six this evening with Josip.

Josip is late. While I wait I think about what I have done this week in Vis. A circumnavigation motorboat ride of Vis with a lunch visit to the smaller island of Otok Veli Budikovac. A bike ride into the fishing village of Komiža, the city on the opposite side of the island, for lunch. Lots of beach visiting. Vis has plenty of beaches and beach bars. Perfect to relax and enjoy the view.

Six-thirty. Josip appears with an introduction but no apology. No problem. I had a good time reminiscing. Josip is wired, like a four year old on Christmas morning. Manic, jovial, good-natured. Tells me to follow him. I follow down narrow, serpentine streets to his place of business. Once inside, I am overwhelmed by the confusion and clutter of the place; it is a mix of an office and a shut down dilapidated bar. It is full of old nautical equipment, signs, and dated maps of Vis. Very cool. Empty wine bottles everywhere. More bottles of different sizes, shapes, and various colors of liquids fill many bottles. Clear liquid like fresh mountain spring water to nearly black liquid the quality of a black pearl. Reminds me of a medieval apothecary shop.

Josip insists on giving me a drink and promises to arrange the tour after my first indulgence, which makes me immediately think that he has not seen the same photo album I have seen. I think he should have the tour arranged already but I accept the offer of a drink. Josip studies the shelf above the opposite wall with his forefinger on his lips, pulls down a bottle filled with an amber hued liquid. He pours and assumes I am familiar with Prošek. I assure him I am not. Josip explains that everyone on the island makes his or her own Prošek. His upstairs neighbor makes the one I am drinking. No vineyard of her own. Buys the grapes and makes the Prošek.

He begs me to not confuse Croatian Prošek with Italian Proseco, which apparently is a big problem. He assures me the two are very different and cannot be compared at all, regardless of what the European Union thinks. He emphasizes that the two wines look different, are made through different techniques, and taste incredibly different.

I do not know Italian Proseco but I know that the Prošek I am drinking is incredibly tasty. It is warm and sweet and I enjoy it as Josip is busy in the back room, another cluttered room overrun by chaos and Josip’s frantic behavior. He returns with an unopened bottle of something he says is a secret, and a small wooden box holding two wine glasses.

We head out the door and through more narrow winding streets to his clearly overused, aged Suzuki Samurai. The Samurai is a small version of his office: weathered and cluttered. But I fit comfortably. And so does he. We head inland to places I have not yet explored.

For conversation I tell him about my bike ride to Komiža and my taxi ride back. Long downhill coast into Komiža. Then fish soup for lunch. Taxi ride back to Kut but with a stop at the taxi driver’s winery. Tasted an enjoyable white wine and purchased a bottle for later in the week. Also enjoyed his Prošek but he had no bottles to sell. Josip assured me I could buy lots of Prošek tonight. He knew the driver. Edo is his name. Good at driving and at producing wines he tells me.

Finally, Josip stops just atop a small rise with an olive grove just below us. A Zen garden laid out for olive trees. Circular rake marks surround each tree and circles meeting in-between the rows and columns. Each tree an identical height and manicured to perfection. I want to meet the owner but Josip explains that he sells the olives locally and makes olive oil for local consumption but he does not like visitors. Especially outsiders. He will occasionally show his operation to a local but that is rare. Josip has seen it but not many others.

Back to the Samurai and a little further upland to a spot that looks over the island of Budikovac where I had lunch earlier in the week. A very small island inhabited by one family; they raise goats, they have a vineyard, and they make wine. Lunch was fresh fish from the grill with lemon and olive oil. Fishermen had dropped it off hours before my arrival. Slavenka, one of the owners, shows me how to eat the fish by deboning it, picking up pieces with my fingers, dipping it in the olive oil and lemon juice, and popping it in my mouth. Don’t know how I will ever eat fish with a fork again. I enjoy this view Josip offers and remember the lunch as well as the complex Plavac Mali that was served with the meal. The island looks rather peaceful. Wish I could be enjoying a dinner there right now. Josip assures me I will eat and drink well throughout the evening.

Back in the Samurai, we head down a roughly paved mountain road. Josip stops in the middle of the road and leaves the vehicle. He yells out for Ranko who does not answer. He tells me Ranko is the owner and winemaker in the vineyard. Josip keeps calling but still no answer. I see no one. Josip gets back in the car. Tells me that many local winemakers do not cooperate with him. They produce enough wine for themselves and a little to sell on Vis. They have no desire to increase production or to welcome tastings and strange foreigners. Josip is of the opposite opinion: allow tourists, share what they are doing on Vis, and allow tastings. Right now, I support his yearning. I am, after all, on a wine tasting tour.

As we drive onward, Josip explains his frustrations with local winemakers. They are stuck in small production. He appreciates their old methods of grape growing and wine making but he wants the wine business to expand. Move outside Vis. He is talking nonstop. He is passionate. But then he stops and leaves the vehicle again. Another vintner friend. Josip gets his attention this time but he wants nothing to do with a visit and a tasting. This is repeated three or four more times. It’s as if Josip has no real agenda this evening aside from attempting to lure vintner friends into allowing a visit from a tourist.

We drive to Josip’s next professed surprise: his own bit of land for growing grapes. He lapses into a lecture about the terroir of the island. Soil near the shore is very sandy and upland is rocky contributing to various aromas and tastes. Josip has a nice small vineyard. He seems very proud. But he only shows it through the window of his Samurai. No one has visited his winery and he offers no tastings: I was not to be the exception. I think he should set the example but he tells me it is all simply for his family.

We move onto a massive, dry, clear-cut parcel of land. Quite large with hundreds of young bare-root grape vines. Many are dead or dying. Josip believes it is because the growers are not following local ways of making wine by choosing the perfect planting location, growing the correct grapes for the area, tending to the grapes in the local fashion. He tells me no grapes will grow here, and obviously, no wine will be produced. I assume Josip believes there is a happy middle ground between local methods and mass-produced methods but he does not elaborate.

Josip drives me to Hum, the highest point on the island. This is the romantic part of the tour so Josip apologizes, but assures me I will enjoy the wine and the sunset nonetheless as there is to be no romance between the two of us. Funny guy. I walk up the small hill with a glass of Josip’s homemade Prošek. At the top of the hill is a 360-degree view round Vis. Outstanding. Clear blue water as far as one can see and several outlying islands heading towards the mainland. There is a small relic of a one-room church and outdoor benches, which I relax on while I drink the Prošek and watch the sunset. Both are stupendous. I head down the hill and enter the Samurai. Josip informs me that below us is a friend and vintner, another one, who might let us visit. I relish the thought, as I have visited no wineries since I have been with Josip.

Miklos is the vintner and friend and he is sitting outside enjoying a glass of wine. Josip calls out the Samurai window to see if Miklos is available for a tasting. With a shrug and an arm wave he invites us in. Josip tells me that Miklos is on board with the tasting room idea and has done a commendable job in beginning the process of welcoming tourists. Miklos meets us at the door and invites us in. It is a metal walled building surrounded by dirt and barren trees. Inside it is dusk-like but I can see that it is one large empty room. Straight ahead stand several stainless steel tanks, spotlessly glimmering in the faint light. To the right of the door, a small office space and many oak barrels. Neat stacks of bottles and boxes. A few refrigerators in the small space too.

Left of the door is the tasting room, unlike any tasting room I have seen before. Along the wall that includes the windows, is a window height shelving unit, as long as the length of the four small windows. A chaotic mess of papers, books, magazines, and cat food: bags of cat food, cans of cat food, and plates of uneaten cat food. No cat. A small table in front of the shelves, also overflowing with books and stacks of paper, and a small refrigerator. The refrigerator is an apartment sized half-fridge caked with dirt and grime. The complete opposite of the spotless stainless. The refrigerator holds plastic bottles of white wine, Prošek, and water.

Opposite the interesting wall of unlikely tasting room décor is the sitting area, Miklos believes that having a cozy seat in a living room setting is more conducive to wine tasting. The furniture consists of two matching armchairs and a matching couch. Old aluminum deck furniture basically. The frames are dirty but in good condition. The cushions are ratty and a bit beyond repair. To dress them up, Miklos has covered the fabric with empty burlap coffee sacks, draped over the back cushions as well as the seat cushions. Between the chairs and couch is a small table supporting a few papers, empty drinking glasses, and a couple packs of cigarettes. Overall, the impression was surprisingly favorable; homey in a certain relaxed, unkempt sort of way: inviting, as if Miklos was not just offering wine tastings but entry into his inner sanctum.

Miklos spoke Croatian and a little bit of English, more as the hour went on, so Josip did some translating for the both of us. The first thing on offer was cigarettes; Miklos offers all guests cigarettes. I refuse with thanks and Josip explains to Miklos that I am a healthy sort of person: I had ridden a bike to Komiža and had run up and down the switchbacks. Miklos seemed impressed but continues to smoke and offer the cigarettes throughout the visit. Josip joins him in smoking. The small area slowly fills with smoke so I know I cannot stay more than an hour.

Josip suggested to Miklos that he serve his Vugava, a local grape variety that produces a nice bodied, slightly sweet white wine. Miklos serves in mismatched glasses a golden colored liquid from a plastic water bottle from the mini-fridge. I drink the Vugava while Josip and Miklos drink gemišt, white wine diluted with water. Josip explains that they drink gemišt because the wine is so strong and they drink all day. As a tourist, I did not need to dilute my wine. Didn’t plan to. Miklos refreshes the glass as soon as I am done. Clearly more than a tasting.

Miklos grabs his Plavac Mali, a red wine, as I was finishing my second glass of Vugava. His Plavac Mali is a beautiful deep red wine. Delicious, full body, round in the mouth, abundant flavor, and tannic. Again, a second glass as soon as I finish my first. Certainly a gracious and attentive host. Continued conversation as well, both in English and Croatian, although I couldn’t follow the Croatian.

I Tell Josip I need to eat but he insists I try Miklos’ Prošek first. Miklos glows with this suggestion. I am able to refrain Miklos from pouring a full glass, however, it is the best Prošek I have tasted this evening. We left Miklos and reload into the Samurai. Josip drives to Andela’s, a local legendary winery and restaurant. The hostess greets us with wide smiles and open arms. I order a bottle of Plavac Mali and look over the menu. Josip sat down but told me he had to be going; the restaurant owner would drive me back to town. Josip thanked me for joining him and I thanked him with words, a friendly hug, and a tip. He seemed to appreciate all three.

 I ate a delicate John Dory off the grill, fueled by old grape vines, which paired well with the house’s Plavac Mali. Dinner went well into midnight. I paid the bill and asked for a ride home. The waitress told me that her brother-in-law was prepared to take me to my hotel, the price included in the cost of the tour. I climbed in his car and off we went, realizing fairly late into the ride that the brother-in-law must also have been enjoying the Plavac Mali.

 He rattled on with liberal doses of well-meaning expletives and talked enough that I did not have to. He spoke the entire drive: about island life and how great it would be to live in Berlin. His driving was quite good, especially since he was so animated in his speech and hand gestures.

I climb the stairs to my room and am overcome by the immensity of the evening. I feel as if I were a Vis local for a night. Just friendly Vis residents and business owners sharing, or not sharing, their lives and success. I think I’ll have one more Prošek before I go to bed.