Three hours from Prague and only thirty minutes from the Polish border lies the historic city of Opava. While small and not frequented by many tourists, its location amongst lush rolling hills and expansive stretches of golden wheat fields makes it the perfect get away from the hustle and bustle of Prague or any other large city. Along with being captivatingly beautiful, Opava happens to be the home of my dear friend, and Czech host for the last month, Karolina Masna. On the night of our arrival to Opava we were greeted by Karolina’s mother, Martina Masna, who took us back to her beautiful home where we would be staying for the next week as we explored the city and surrounding areas.
The next day brought a blur of faces, all family members and friends of Karol, who were not only excited to show off their city but also the Czech way of life. After an incredible feast of traditional Czech dumplings and grilled pork smothered in cream and gravy (both hosted and prepared for us by Karolina’s grandmother) and a tour of Opava itself, we found ourselves walking through the door of one of three of Martina Masnas’ wine stores.
We were invited to stay for a tasting, complete with copious amounts of prosciutto, cheese, and dried tomatoes, and of course we accepted. How could one resist! As Martina decanted a beautifully bottled Merlot, I had time to peruse the finely stocked shelves that reached from floor to ceiling. Bottle upon bottle stood glistening in the well-lit room. Reds, whites, even a few bottles of prosecco (The Masna girl’s favorite) could be seen proudly advertising their makers name and nationality. A closer look at the labels and I paused. Each and every bottle was marked with the label; MADE IN CZECH REPUBLIC, accompanied by a miniature picture of the Czech flag. Honestly, until that very moment I had never heard of a Czech wine. A fact that I immediately pointed out to Karolina who then translated my comment to her mum which brought forth the most enchanting burst of laughter from both women. After taking a sip of her Prosecco to calm down (I told you they reeeaaalllyy like Prosecco) Karolina explained that every bottle in the store, with the exception of maybe three or four (most of which were Prosecco) were from the Czech Republic. It turns out that in all three of Martina’s wine stores this is the case, a fact that she is very proud of.
After several years of working in the food and service industry, Martina joined her former boyfriend and opened her first wine store in 2009. At that time, she explained, their store sold predominantly international wines with only a few that were produced locally in the Czech Republic. According to Martina: “There simply wasn’t enough interest in Czech wines from the general public to make locally produced bottles our focus.”
When Martina and her boyfriend parted ways she took on the shop full-time. As a wine connoisseur, she believed that Czech wines, which were some of her personal favorites, were entirely unappreciated and her fellow Czech citizens should be introduced to these locally produced bottles so that they could understand their own country’s ability to produce exquisite and bold wines, that arguably could rival those of Italy and France. With her last comment, Martina grew taller, eyes gleaming with a fierce pride that many wouldn’t dare contend with, and neither did I. Therefore, to remind her fellow country men and women what they were capable of and to bring the Czech wine industry into higher regard, she changed the stock of her whole store so that it focused entirely on Czech wines. She became so successful over the next couple years that she opened two more stores that followed the same approach, the second in 2012 and the third (but possibly not last) in 2017. It was in the last of these three that I sat at that moment, enjoying an incredibly tasty Merlot paired with olive oil drenched dried tomatoes. A delicious combination!
The reason I, and most other foreigners, have never heard of Czech wines is not because the wine is without quality. As a matter of fact, the size of the Czech wine industry has much to do with its obscurity. Much like the Czech Republic itself, Czech’s wine region, called Moravia, is very small. Here producers must contend with not only limited farming land but also incredibly harsh conditions in Autumn and Winter. This makes the season for grape growers short and sweet. All these factors make it difficult for small vineyards (often family run) to produce enough wine to sell within the Czech republic let alone export their bottles internationally. Along with the limited quantity produced, these small manufacturers find it financially burdensome to export any of their product. Even larger manufacturers, of which there are only a handful, export their wines only as far as Poland and maybe Slovakia. The limited availability of farmland, climate factors, and lack of international interest has kept the industry small and predominantly family based as well as ecologically sustainable and consumer friendly. Martina informed me that she speaks personally with every producer she works with, many of which she has maintained a close personal relationship with over the years, and knows their production methods as well as their vineyards quite well. “Many of these vineyards have been family owned since the beginning. They respect the land, they care for the surrounding communities by supplying work, and their genuinely interested in making good wine.” She explains.
This is a pattern I’ve noticed during my travels across Europe. Be it due to the limited size of an industry or maybe just a certain European mentality, food industries in niche markets such as wine, cheese, and olive oil, have been left almost untouched by industrialization and chemical enhancement. Unlike in other developed, industrialized regions around the world. Possibly this is due to a certain level of nationalism and pride that is centered around certain country’s traditional foods. Foods that have not only brought fame to many European countries but that have also become an important part of their cultures. Whatever the case may be, the pride in maintaining traditional, family run, small scale production methods, as seen in the Czech Republic wine industry, has ensured that almost any Czech wine you might purchase is made sustainably and organically. Sadly there are always sure to be exceptions.
One problem Martina faces as a small store owner is the competing prices of large chain box stores such as Tesco or Globus. Just like in the U.S. many mom-and-pop stores must contend with large companies drastically underpricing their products in comparison to the locally owned markets, and in this case, wine stores. In these situations the locals of an area, for example Opava, are faced with a difficult decision: Do you care about supporting local businesses and eating, or drinking, sustainably, or are you more concerned about simply putting enough food on the table? In a country where the minimum wage is 73 Koruna or $3.40 per hour this is a question that the average family must take into careful consideration. Especially concerning an item that isn’t a necessity and in most cases is considered a luxury. A luxury that could be easily replaced with many other beverages, the cheapest of which is likely beer. So how does Martina and the rest of the Czech wine industry contend with the cheaper imported bottles found at the large box stores? Well, they came up with a new, and mostly effective, marketing and packaging strategy. Tap Wine.
Behind the counter of Martina’s charming shop stands a row of small nozzles attached to large brown boxes that are set into the wall. A set up thats very similar to the beer taps one would see in almost every bar, except instead of cold beer, these nozzles spout a variety of Czech wines. Here you can bring your own empty 50 liter plastic bottle and for an incredibly low price of 56 Koruna (about $2.75) Martina will fill your bottle right up to the brim. This is a staggering price difference compared to the 150-280 Koruna (about $6.50-$12.30) bottles found in Martina’s shop, or even the cheaply priced 120 Koruna (about $5.30) bottles sold in the large box stores. Seems like a win win for all, except the box stores… but sadly this is not the case.
The two largest problems with the Tap Wine model, also known as bag-and-box wine, is one; many of the traditional family owned vineyards lack the financial means to manufacture Tap Wine as well as the classic bottles. To produce both bag-and-box wine as well as bottled wine means that the manufacturer must add at least another 5-10 workers to the production line as well as pay for the materials needed to make the packaging for the bag-and-box wines. These costs add up, and for an already struggling family owned business these costs can make the difference between staying afloat, and sinking. The second problem with Tap Wines is largely thanks to the Czech government, which receives more money from bottled wines, due to higher taxes on glass bottled beverages, and less on the bag-and-box wines. As a result the Czech government has implemented many restrictions and rules regarding the packaging and sale of Tap Wine adding to the difficulties of small business owners. However, Tap Wines continue to be Martina’s main form of income and she is not yet prepared to give that up.
While some Czech people are financially restricted to purchasing cheaper, imported wine or tap wine, there are many that shop at Martina’s store quite freely. “When people come to my store they usually request to purchase a local Czech wine and are genuinely pleased to find that all I stock are Czech bottles.” Notes Martina.
I then asked if there is any kind of focus or public desire within Czech culture to eat and drink sustainably and organically. Martina informed me that, “In recent years the Czech people have developed a great respect and interest in sustainable eating and living. People prefer to support local vineyards and wine producers and the government is supporting this idea by putting a higher tax on imported wines and a lower tax on wines produced in the Czech Republic.” She went on to explain that this is one of the reasons why many small wine stores sell predominantly Czech wines while the larger commercial stores sell imported bottles at low prices.
Many of the pricing problems seen in the Czech Republic are mirrored in American society as well as the rest of the world. It is consumerism and industrialization at its finest. Yet it’s incredibly refreshing to see an entire community, if not population, trying to encourage local and sustainable production within an industry. When given the choice and financial means people do tend to consume sustainably, which means people are in fact aware of how their food and drinks are produced. They just may not always have the option financially available to them, but it’s a hopeful step in the right direction.
“I am very proud about the support given to the Czech wine industry by the Czech people! Six years ago this wouldn’t have been the case and Czech people would have prefered to purchase a more well known wine from Italy and France over one made in their own country.”
“Do you think your wine stores and their exclusive collections of Czech wines have anything to do with this shift? At least in Opava?” I ask Martina. She giggles and flashes me her beautiful, sparkling white smile, “I don’t know, but I do like to think so!”
Martina Masna, the wine queen of Opava, leans forward to pour me another glass of her favorite Czech Merlot. Her store is a perfect reflection of her personality, beautiful, open, and stoked with Czech pride. If given the chance to visit Opava one should definitely visit her store for the wine experience of a lifetime. Or at the very least a unique and delicious bottle of locally made Czech wine.
Note: Thank you Karolina Masna for being an outstanding translator and tour guide for the duration of my stay in the Czech Republic. This interview could not have been done without her 🙂