James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

Navigating the Minefield of Slovakian Drinking Etiquette

Navigating the Minefield of Slovakian Drinking Etiquette

Wine in Slovakia

Slovak hospitality is persistent. “Eat, eat! Drink, drink! You don’t want a drink? Of course you do, here you are.” This can sometimes have unintended results.

We were renting a cottage, its massive stone walls a testament to its age, in Svätý Jur. In the hills beside Bratislava, I was glad to escape the admittedly small city, while still having it nearby.

The hills of the Male Karpaty have a respectable history of winemaking, though it’s not well-known outside Slovakia. Vineyards cover the hillside in neat uniform rows punctuated with vineyard huts. Our landlord was fully steeped in the wine tradition of the area, making about 1000 liters (220 gallons) of wine in his cellar every year. The wine is not for sale, but for drinking with friends and to give away.

My brother-in-law Jozef came to visit and, true to form, our landlord-neighbors invited us over with our guest. They often called us up, mixing strik (wine with water) in the hot summer months, or to drink wine next to the blazing wood stove in winter. When we had a visitor, they were sure to extend an invitation.

So we went, sitting under the grapevine-covered pergola. Although our landlord’s hospitality had taken some of our international guests unaware, I thought that as a Slovak, Jozef would know the deal.

As a Canadian, I did not know the unwritten rules here in Slovakia at all. My parents rarely drank much alcohol, not due to any ideological ideas but a simple lack of the habit. I had already committed a number of faux-pas, like the time I believed all the great-aunts and uncles at my Slovak in-laws’ family celebration when they said they did not want another glass of wine, and didn’t pour them more.

In Slovakia, if your glass empty, the host must fill it with wine; but if you leave your glass full, the host asks what’s wrong. The only acceptable answer to why you are not emptying the glass is that you are driving afterwards, at which point the host will break out the flavored water.

Our neighbor was particularly persistent. To survive his hospitality, we had to drink very slowly, until the host was tipsy enough not to notice that we’d left our glass untouched for some time. (Ask my husband how he learned this trick.)

Jozef, despite being in his home country, did not know this trick. And so on that afternoon when he came over, the men whiled away the time, eating the neighbor wife’s delicious appetizers and becoming wiser with every glass of wine. (Being pregnant afforded me partial immunity.) Clear skies added to the overall jovial atmosphere, until we went back home.

The bathroom in our small cottage was added on as an afterthought, when indoor plumbing became the norm. The walls were far from soundproof. My husband and I glanced at each other as a retching sound filtered through from the bathroom. Jozef came out, perhaps a little paler, but still ready to visit. It may have been 5 o’clock somewhere, but it was only noon in Slovakia.

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