Will Work for Wine: Our Week with the Top Czech Natural Winemaker

Last week I mentioned I've been struggling with what I'm supposed to do when we return, and - per usual - I'm grateful I posed that question out loud so the universe could respond. 

Saturday evening we arrived at our fifth work stay this year, this time volunteering with a vintner in the South Moravian region of the Czech Republic. Richard Stavek is the top producer of natural wines in this area, and this time with him and his family are precisely what I need to remind me I'm on the right path. He sells wine, plum jam and other specialty food products to some of the most acclaimed restaurants in Prague and throughout the Czech Repulic (including the famed La Degustation). As of our last night with him, his wine is also in consideration for the list at Copenhagen's NOMA (oft listed as the top restaurant in the world). We're eager to talk food, wine, hospitality and culture with the craftsman. 

 Richard Stavek leading the small herd through one of his many breathtaking vineyards. 

Richard Stavek leading the small herd through one of his many breathtaking vineyards. 

We hit it off from the start; Richard, his wife, two amazing kids and one fast-growing baby have a charming home, welcoming presence and a great rapport with each other and their guests. We fit comfortably in place that evening, and the warmth only grows each day. Richard and Stanislava have an incredible passion for what they do, and it's contagious. They send us to bed that first evening with a hug, full bellies and a textbook Richard's contributed to, Isabelle Legeron's Natural Wine

Richard produces a variety of wines, vinegars and brandies, among many other things, but it's his orange wine that blows my socks off. Orange wine is an ancient tradition with appearances in history dating back some 8000 years to Georgia's Caucasus region that fell from fashion in favor of modern reds, whites and rosés. Orange is a skin-macerated white wine, where instead of pressing the grapes, separating the juice and discarding the skins, the grapes are left to sit with the skins and stems for a period anywhere from a few hours to several months. We taste it for the first time in his cellar the evening we arrive, along with a red and a rosé, as we help him finish bottling for the night. It's flavor profile is incredibly unique to any wine we have tasted and we're immediately hooked on this now rare technique. 

 Looking out over the vineyards

Looking out over the vineyards

 Exterior view of Richard's cellar 

Exterior view of Richard's cellar 

 The cellar where pre-bottled magic lives

The cellar where pre-bottled magic lives

 Corking wine on night one with a jug of the orange goodness in the background. We were lucky enough to get our hands on a magnum of Richard's orange wine, and can't wait to share it back home. 

Corking wine on night one with a jug of the orange goodness in the background. We were lucky enough to get our hands on a magnum of Richard's orange wine, and can't wait to share it back home. 

 Tubs and sieves for vinegar production

Tubs and sieves for vinegar production

It's the next day before we realize what RIchard is doing on his land and in his cellars the couple is paralleling in their kitchen, extending their magic quite literally from farm to table. Over breakfast we taste fresh Sea buckthorn, a teeny citrus fruit natively found in Siberia packed with vitamins and oils that comes on branches that closely resemble rosemary, but have a more piney nose. The berry is often used by astronauts for its incredibly high potency in an extremely small package, and the leaves of the bush make a light citrus-pine tea with a beautifully fragrant aroma (I also happen to be hooked on Fresh's face oil made from the berries). 

 Richard's sea buckthorn bushes are full of vibrant, vitamin-packed berries glowing in the sun. When these little beauties burst, their liquid is an amazingly creamsicle version of their exterior. We love the tart citrus punch they pack. 

Richard's sea buckthorn bushes are full of vibrant, vitamin-packed berries glowing in the sun. When these little beauties burst, their liquid is an amazingly creamsicle version of their exterior. We love the tart citrus punch they pack. 

Meals with the family are learning experiences just as much as our daily chores. Each comes with at least half a dozen distinctly different jars of preserved tomato blends, fresh fruit jams and savory spreads, all house made and part of the lifeblood that sustains the family outside of their small batch wine production. Every time we sit at the table, out comes a new bottle of craft liqueur, a new batch of pickled something or - in tonight's case - a plate overflowing with traditional kolaces, made especially for us by Richard's mother. 

 Richard's mother's mouth-watering pastries. We were lucky enough to receive three rounds of the good stuff, including a special dozen packed for our train ride. MMMMMMMM

Richard's mother's mouth-watering pastries. We were lucky enough to receive three rounds of the good stuff, including a special dozen packed for our train ride. MMMMMMMM

Among the flavorful concoctions is an incredibly special jar of sugar-cured young walnuts, a tradition Richard discovered traveling in Georgia and traced back to his native land. The young, shell-on nut is boiled, sliced thin and jarred in cane sugar and spices, creating a firmly soft yet crisp, sweet and mildly toothy decadent aside. Stanislava wows us after one lunch with a dessert of fresh goat cheese whipped with sugar and vanilla and topped with one of the delectable candied walnuts - the penultimate finish to a meal with its light texture, tart and sweet balance and the mild sugar rush from the nut. We're not alone in our love for the sweet treat, the walnuts have also earned the adoration of a nearby Michelin-starred chef who craves new ways to integrate them into his menu. 

 Stanislava's earth-moving whipped goat cheese dessert topped with a young, sugar-cured walnut.

Stanislava's earth-moving whipped goat cheese dessert topped with a young, sugar-cured walnut.

Among the daily work around the Stavek home, cellars and lands, we shell an endless supply of walnuts, care for the animals, harvest berries for brandy, maintain the vineyard, chop and stack wood, pickle loads of cabbage, help with corking and packaging and work on a new cellar. On top of the wine, the food and the family, there are goats, rabbits, chicken, a black lab and two teeny barncats in training. There is loads to do, but it's the good, exhausted at the end of the day, all for a good cause, sleep like a brick kind of work that feels so good in your soul come evening. 

 Transplanting vines - here's hoping we have the magic touch and they grow plump grapes for future harvest. 

Transplanting vines - here's hoping we have the magic touch and they grow plump grapes for future harvest. 

 Berry-stained goodness. We're only sorry we weren't with Richard long enough to help him finish the brandy. 

Berry-stained goodness. We're only sorry we weren't with Richard long enough to help him finish the brandy. 

 The man and his tools - Bill breaking from digging out the new cellar floor 

The man and his tools - Bill breaking from digging out the new cellar floor 

 It's amazing how good victory over a deep-rooted weed feels. I am, admittedly, much better with a shovel than I am with an axe, and leaps and bounds beyond my comic ability to stack firewood. 

It's amazing how good victory over a deep-rooted weed feels. I am, admittedly, much better with a shovel than I am with an axe, and leaps and bounds beyond my comic ability to stack firewood. 

It's this work and these people who help me to clarify what I aim to continue when we return - to follow my passion for sharing special food and drink and hospitality, to foster the spirit of innovation, creativity and creation in myself and others and to support others along their own paths to fulfill their dreams by sharing and following my own. 

Thanks, Richard. We miss you already. 

 We were thrilled to help the Staveks pickle cabbage & pick up a handful of tips we hope to use in our own kitchen soon. 

We were thrilled to help the Staveks pickle cabbage & pick up a handful of tips we hope to use in our own kitchen soon. 

 Bill preps the cabbage for pickling

Bill preps the cabbage for pickling

 Sob Story: Stanislava, Bill and I spent an hour in tears grating fresh horseradish for the pickled cabbage. 

Sob Story: Stanislava, Bill and I spent an hour in tears grating fresh horseradish for the pickled cabbage. 

 The fresh cabbage, apple, carrot, onion, horseradish mixture pre-pickle. 

The fresh cabbage, apple, carrot, onion, horseradish mixture pre-pickle. 

 Richard & Bill jarring the pickled cabbage that will see the family through the winter without fresh vegetables. 

Richard & Bill jarring the pickled cabbage that will see the family through the winter without fresh vegetables. 

 Walking home from the Stavek vineyards for lunch, this was waiting around a bend

Walking home from the Stavek vineyards for lunch, this was waiting around a bend

 One of the best views in the area from the Stavek's hayfield. 

One of the best views in the area from the Stavek's hayfield. 

 Frost in the vegetable garden one morning

Frost in the vegetable garden one morning

 Gratuitous goat shot

Gratuitous goat shot