Mirjana and Lenka pick me up at Hotel Zenit just after 9 am. We cross the Danube passing through Petrovaradin and make our way around Fruska Gora and up into the hills, before dropping back down to the Danube in Stari Slankamen to the home of Milan and Snezana Spasic and their Acumincum Winery.
Before they named the small village of fewer than five hundred people Stari Slankamen in the middle ages, it was a Roman settlement called Acumincum. Built into a steep hillside, there is just one road that winds down the hill to the village. Today is harvest day for Milan and Snezana and Acumincum.
Acumincum started as a hobby for Milan in 2011, but each year the hobby turns into more work and a little business. Committed to keeping harvest a tradition for family and friends, every year Milan throws a harvest party. The goal is to harvest all the grapes from his two-hectare vineyard. Friends and family join in the celebration that starts early in the morning with a potluck of local treats and lasts into late in the evening with a feast of good wine paired with a hearty plate of svadbarski kupus, which translated means “wedding cabbage.”
It’s quiet, and the winery and home are locked tight when we arrive at the winery. The vineyard is on a hillside just a few kilometers down some dirt roads down the Danube from here. But we need directions as it is difficult to find. We walk through a gate into the backyard where we find Radisa tending two large clay pots sitting on top and around of a pile of flaming logs and glowing coals. Large sheets of thick plastic propped up against chairs face the fire. I’m not sure if he’s trying to direct the heat or cut the wind. He throws more wood on the fire and greets us. In his late sixties with a huge smile and with friendly candor pulls the lid off one pot and shows me what’s cooking.
Floating on a top of bubbling broth are cubes of cabbage, and beneath there’s a layer of meat, then more cabbage and pork. Svadbarski kupus is a traditional Serbian dish prepared by layering cabbage and meat in these large clay pots and then covering it with water. They bring the concoction to boil and then let it simmer for hours. Our chef, Radisa is well-equipped with ample firewood, a chain saw, and a carafe of the ubiquitous rakija. He holds it up and offers two glasses, and we toast to the day. His cheerful demeanor and warm smile are infectious, and we’re drinking rakija, laughing and telling jokes as if we’re old friends. And though he doesn’t speak English, we still make each other laugh.
His job is to tend to the wedding cabbage, while Mirjana, Lenka and I must pick grapes. So we wind our way up that road again and after passing a monument memorializing the victorious in 1691 battle of the Imperial and Serbian armies over the Ottoman Turks here, killing the Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire and forcing the Turks to retreat.
I show Lenka photos of my cat and her Instagram stream. This sparks an idea in the young girl. For the rest of the day, Lenka gives me lessons in the Serbian language. My first word? Mačka—it means cat or kitty. By the end of the day my Serbian vocabulary increased by a thousand percent!
We wind our way around several vineyards, then down a hill until we come to a field packed with about fifteen cars. We park the car and then hike down the hill about one hundred meters to a two-hectare vineyard. At the top is a modest guest house with a shaded porch and patio. There’s a table covered with goodies including Gibanica traditional cheese pie, Serbian corn bread called Proja, classic Burek meat and cheese pies, fruit and salads. From the porch, I gaze down at the vineyard. Dozens of people with clippers in their hands and hunched over, cut grape clusters from the vines and drop them into buckets.
Two men carrying a larger bucket traipse up and down the rows of vines collecting the grapes from the smaller buckets and bringing them to a large trailer hooked up to a tractor. Moments later I’m down in the vineyard with my clippers and bucket cutting clusters off the vines. Lenka and Mirjana attack one row, I’m on another.
After just a half hour, I’m hot and dehydrated. The sun blazes down. I grab a large bundle of bottled water and walk up and down the crows handing bottles to fellow harvesters. It’s hard work, but everyone is smiling and having fun. Though as I look across and down the vineyard, I wonder if we’ll ever make it back for wedding cabbage, wine, and rakija.
There are about thirty adults and a dozen kids joining in the harvest today—though many of the kids just run around being kids. I meet the owner and winemaker Milan, who tells me more about this project that started as a hobby now is an annual party and a business. The two-hectare parcels we’re harvesting is all Shiraz or Syrah grapes except about six rows of Viognier. Milan walks me down one row of Viognier. Many grapes are brown when they should be white or light green. “This is the top of the hill,” he tells me, “it gets the most sun, too much for the viognier so it burns. I didn’t know, I should have planted the Viognier at the bottom of the vineyard.” No matter, the Viognier grapes will be mingled with the Syrah during maceration and pressing. It’s like a Serbian field blend produced in the style of a Cote Rotie Syrah.
Throughout the day the volunteers clip grapes and take breaks up in the guest house refueling on the delicious food, hydrating with fresh water, and sampling the line up of homemade rakija. By the time the crew clipped the last grape cluster from the last vine, more than six hours have passed.
It’s after 4 pm when we’re back at the house and winery and checking in with Radisa and the wedding cabbage. Moments later the tractor pulls up with the grapes and a few guys shovel the grapes out of the trailer and into the de-stemmer and wine press. There’s no time to waste. These grapes must begin their maceration.
Let the feast begin. They serve bowls of wedding cabbage to the people seated at the half-dozen or so picnic tables. Large water pitchers filled with wine rest on the tables. My new friend Radisa finds me and plops down a half-dozen ribs of roasted lamb next to my wedding cabbage—a bonus I guess for helping tend the fire. I grab the pitcher and pour a glass of Syrah. It’s rich, flavorful, and layered with complexity. Wow, it’s great.
Later Milan takes me into the over 250-year-old house and down to the cellar to show me another of his projects. Deep beneath the house, they discovered baths — Turkish Baths—from the Ottoman period. Experts date the baths back 460 years, over two hundred years older than the house. Today, he transformed the old cellar into a museum so visitors to the winery can see the medieval baths.
Next to his house is an old Catholic Church. At one time his home belonged to the church and served as the priests’ residence. Dating back to the beginnings of the Catholic Church, Milan explains, they never sell any property. But over a hundred years ago during the Austro-Hungarian period, a massive storm damaged the church next door and destroyed its steeple. The church pleaded with Vienna for funds to repair the church, but their wishes fell on deaf ears. So they turned to Rome and the Pope, same thing no money.
To restore the church and rebuild the steeple, the Catholics built a wall between the house and church dividing the property and sold the priests residence. Today, Milan and Snezana live in a former priests residence on top of nearly five-hundred year Turkish baths. And here’s where Acumincum wine comes to life.
Later the guests Milan and Snezana invite their guests into the house for dessert and live music. Lenka finds new friends and is plays with them. A small group of wine fans cram into the cellar tasting room to hear Mirjana present an in-depth lesson on wine tasting.
It’s dark by the time we say our goodbyes. Milan retreats into his office and returns with a bottle of wine and places it into my hands. “Thank you!” It’s a 2013 Acumincum Bonvivan Cabernet Sauvignon. I know I’ll find a place for it on my bike.
Again, with every kilometer I ride, I am overwhelmed, humbled, and affected by the kindness of strangers and the circumstances I find myself in. From one moment where I am looking for a mechanic to fix my bike, to another where an expert gives me a one-on-one education on local food and wine. Next, I am taken in by a family and their friend to join in a harvest celebration and feast. There’s no way I could have planned or sought this experience. Sometimes things fall into place; other times things might overheat. All the time, I believe, it’s essential to travel open and free—with no itinerary—so you can let things happen. It’s best when you do.
Dositeja Obradovića br. 3
22329 Stari Slankamen
+381 (0) 63 23 83 99
Zmaj Jovina 8
Novi Sad, Serbia
+381 (0) 21 66 21 444