New Business Adventures of the Longest Living Baranja Winemaker
Mihalj speaks of all and about all without holding anything back! Without euphemisms, hypocrisy or suave. He says this made him some enemies
Mihajl Gerštmajer Senior does not rest even on the verge of the tenth decade of his life. This incredibly vital wine veteran registered in his 88th year a tasting room within his winery, soon to be opened. The tasting room was named Mišika Čarda.
This was reason enough to head out on a July day towards the Baranja wine capital – Zmajevac, originally known in Hungarian as Vörösmart, to talk to this living wine legend.
My first stop in Zmajevac by habit was the Baranyai Julia wine store, which shares its space with the heritage museum and exhibits most of the wines from the Baranja wine region. The wine store manager Gabriella Gerštmajer kindly offered me coffee and juice, but I ordered half a decilitre of wine, an excellent rose made by Zmajevac winemaker Atila Anđal. Although it was practically still morning, I felt it would be a blasphemy to drink anything else than wine in this establishment, even in small quantities. I don’t drink wine in pubs!
The wine cellar of old Mišika is next to the roundabout near the village edge. To get to it, take the main Marshal Tito Street. The left branch leads to Draž village where recently a beach was prepared on the old Danube; the road straight leads to Danube Street, and to the right the road leads to the only Baranja settlement on the Danube itself – Batina. Several days after my visit Mišika’s grandson Ivan Gerštmajer held in Batina, in the Barrique wine bar, a promotion of his wines. All directions from the Zmajevac roundabout lead to the Danube.
Arriving at Mišika’s place, I did not find him there. After asking “Where is Mišika?”, his wife Joanka rolled her eyes in in vain and pointed in the direction of the vineyards. He still cultivates four hectares of vineyards and produces 30.000 litres of wine annually, although he walks with a cane. He discloses he was diagnosed in 1951 with rheumatoid arthritis, and has been living with it for 66 years. Several years ago he also lost the use of one eye, but he does not give up. Mišika simply cannot rest. But I feel it is this energy and decisiveness that keeps him vital.
We continued our conversation in the newly decorated tasting room, right alongside the main road, with several of Mišika’s photographs with the former Croatian President, Stipe Mesić.
“I value and respect him, he used to come to my cellar regularly, and each month he sent me his new mobile phone number, they used to change those like ‘a gipsy does horses,'” said Mišika while laughing. We continued the conversation about his family roots and the history of wine growing in this area.
“My ancestors came from the Schwartzwald area to Pannonia in 1720, encouraged by Empress Maria Theresa, to the Baška area, as part of a large colonisation wave, together with several dozen thousand Germans. They were called the ‘cubic men,’ draining the Pannonian plain with the goal of turning swamp and impassable areas into agricultural ones. In the beginning of the twentieth century the Gerštmajers came from Bačka to Baranja, first to Batina, then to Zmajevac.
I tasted an excellent Pinot Gris from 2013 with 17% alcohol and a high concentration of sugar. The host pointed out the grapes for this wine was harvested on November 13 and that he never harvests his grapes before October 15. Later harvests and higher concentrations of alcohol and sugar are characteristic also of wines by Mišika Junior, and this is what differentiates them from other Baranja winemakers. The only way Mišika will allow you to water down a wine is to mix the white with the red, which I did upon his example, so I added to Pinot Gris some Cabernet Sauvignon.
“In 1989 I took part at the international wine rating in Ljubljana, with 11.000 samples from 48 nations, and the jury was composed of members from 20 nations. My Pinot Gris, with the same characteristics as the one we drink today, received a silver medal. This is the equivalent of ten gold medals in a national wine rating. I have a total of fifty gold medals from various wine ratings. I was also a jury member at many wine ratings in Hungary.”
Old Mihalj is a living encyclopaedia and a fountain of rare information. You can learn almost anything from him, from who were the best winemakers and the most cultivated wine variety in this area before World War II, to how many tractors Belje received from the UNNRA agency, to which winemakers make artificial wine. Mišika is sharp and direct. Sometimes he down wander off in his thoughts. But he soon comes back and says something lucid and sharp. He speaks of all and about all without holding anything back! Without euphemisms, hypocrisy or suave. He says this made him some enemies, but most people appreciate this trait.
“A doctor once told me that my health will force me to give up on drinking this fine wine. I sent him to hell and told him that was hypocritical, as he also drinks my wine! He wasn’t angry, he still drinks my wine, and of course, I drink it too!”
Before we parted, old Mišika unveiled some new business plans. After the vineyards, cellar and tasting room, he is making plans from mobile wine sales.
“I have a small truck and am developing the idea to tour villages where there are no vineyards and sell wine to locals! No one has thought of that yet, but someone has to start. If no one younger will, what else can I do that to do it myself! I can place a thousand litre tank on the truck and tour Grabovac, Lug, Vardarac, Kopačevo and sell all of it. I can sell even more, people are tired of artificial wine!”
What else to say but wish him luck, health and active wine years, just like his heirs and successors of the wine growing and cellar tradition, son Mihalj and grandson Ivan, the fifth generation of the Zmajevac winemaking family Gerštmajer.