James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

Is This Just a Man in a House Serving Wine to Passing Strangers?

Is This Just a Man in a House Serving Wine to Passing Strangers?

Wine in Montenegro

It was late afternoon in Kotor, Montenegro. The imposing mountain fortress that surrounds the old town cast shadows over the steep canyon behind it. My wife, Tricia, and I stopped climbing the canyon’s zig-zagging trail and looked up at the ramparts and machine gun turrets, built during the Venetian and Austro-Hungarian Empires.

We continued climbing, our feet crunching into the stones of a switchback used for centuries to connect the Adriatic Sea to inland Montenegro and the heart of the Balkans. This road, known as the Ladder of Kotor, was once a conduit for trade, religion, and war. Today, it’s trafficked by hikers with walking sticks and those looking to avoid a three-euro fee by entering the fortress through a secret back door.

Our mission was slightly different. Tricia and I were seeking an afternoon drink at what looked like a private home just off the zig-zagging trail. We had hiked the route a few days before and had seen travelers sitting outside a house with steaming cups of coffee in their hands.

We passed a donkey standing on the trail. With no cars on this path, the fuzzy-faced donkey must still have been used to hoof supplies up the mountain.

After rounding a few more bends in the road, we reached our destination: an old stone house overlooking the Bay of Kotor. A man named Milenko waved us in toward a couple of rusting patio chairs.

Underneath a Bud Light visor, his face lit up with a smile as we greeted him in Montenegrin.

“Dobar dan!” we said, extending our hands.

“Where you from?” he asked.

“The United States.”

“America! Come! Come in!”

We shrugged and followed Milenko through the front door of the house.

Seeing the splintering wooden ceiling and floors in a state of slow-motion collapse, my first thoughts went to the 1979 earthquake that flattened the region. But I took a deep breath and traced Milenko’s footsteps over the carpeted floors, steering clear of the gaping holes showing darkness below.

We squeezed through a door barely hanging on its frame and entered a damp, dimly-lit room.

“This was my great-grandfather’s house,” he said. “Look! America!” He pointed at memorabilia covering the peeling paint, including a dollar bill and a map of the United States.

We smiled and snapped a few photos before walking the precarious planks to safety outside.

“This house is UNESCO-protected,” he explained, pulling the cork off an unlabeled bottle. “I would like it to be a museum.” He poured the straw-colored contents of the container into an oversized mug. A sprig of rosemary stood upright inside the bottle.

“Local wine,” he said proudly. I sipped, then nodded approvingly.

“Odlično vino,” I replied. Excellent wine. It was homemade, light, and the taste had hints of quince. (The rosemary was more of a garnish.)

He smiled and gestured to the view. “Enjoy,” he said. “Excuse me, but now I must get water from down the mountain. I must find my donkey.”

GPS Coordinates:42.424051, 18.776056

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