8 Heurigers & Hangovers



          My months in Chile led to many days self-studying grapes and places.  One of the first lessons that I learned, was the Old World makes it a pain in the ass to figure out what grape (or grapes) your actually drinking.  Instead of just putting “Cabernet Sauvignon” on the bottle’s label, many Old World countries just put where the wine was made.  You are supposed to know the rest.  So without actually going to the country, it was just memorization in a vacuum…snoresville.  So, it was time to plan another trip.

            Luckily for me, my friend CiCi, had recently up and moved to the Czech Republic to study teaching English As A Second Language with a minor in Czech beers.  Always up for a trip, CiCi jumped at the idea of exploring European wine countries with me.  In addition to a mutual love of all spirits from wine to pisco sour, CiCi and I shared a  “When In Rome” attitude when it came to travel.  So, as my internship was wrapping up in Chile, I thought I should return to Texas by way of the Czech Republic. 

            I arrived in Prague to find CiCi holding a Welcome sign, a cigarette, and a beer.  Three things which brought a smile to my face.  “You can smoke everywhere here!”  She said cheerfully.  “Fair enough.”  I replied, as I picked up my bags, thinking to myself, “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”  Smoking was a bad habit that I loved dearly.  However, wine actually got me to quit smoking.  The fumes were tainting my ability to smell and taste as clearly as possible, so my choice became easy:  wine over cigs.

            As we loaded ourselves onto the airport shuttle, CiCi was her normal exuberant self.  She had mapped out a few days in Prauge, then we were off to Austria, Croatia, Italy, and France.  I listened intently, but was exhausted after an insanely long flight where I had to fold my six-foot self into an economy-level seat and travel half-way around the world.

            The fatigue must have been obvious.  “You can sleep when your dead.”  CiCi snapped at me after I yawned for the second time.  “We have places to go, people to see.”  It was never worth arguing when she was in a go-getter mood, so I compromised with a double espresso and a shoot of vodka. 

            CiCi and I started our tour-of-Prague-day by climbing up to the castle and church that over looked the Vlatava River.  It was like something out of a fairy tale.  Literally, if Disney wanted to film a live version of Beauty and the Beast, this would be the location.  The cobble stone streets twisted up to a gargoyle-infested church.  Behind the church, guards stood watch over a picturesque castle that overlooked the town below. 

            We stopped to harass and photograph the guards (who would not flinch at our presence).  After we’d had enough history for one day, we decided to swing by what CiCi called, the “Beer Garden.”  Adjacent to the castle, and a bit further down the cobblestone road, sat a green space speckled with artist, lovers, musicians and beer drinkers.  We were the latter. 

            CiCi grabbed a pitcher of beer from the concession stand, and she and I caught up on our usual three topics, “love, life, and the pursuit of happiness.”  We had been friends since we were kids, and never missed a beat.  CiCi and I had humble beginnings growing up in Kansas City.  However, we both had to get out of KC and take in the world a bit during our 20’s.

            I knew from the time I was 12 that I had to leave Kansas.  If you’ve ever read the book “What’s The Matter With Kansas” you can sympathize.  At 18, I was Texas-bound to attend University, play volleyball, and see how many Texan boys I could date.  CiCi stuck around Kansas for University, but made her way to Denver, Scottsdale, and Jamaica for short stints.  Just before making the decision to move to Prague, CiCi had broken up with her older-yet-not-wiser boyfriend, who we later coined “Old Balls.”  They lived together for a while in St. Barths, running a premier night club and pot-smoking venue on the beach. 

            CiCi grabbed my plastic cup, pouring it to the brim with excellent Czech beer.  “Did you know that beer is cheaper than water  here?”  “You don’t say!” I replied.  “In that case, it only makes sense that while we are in Prague, we are drinking beer.”  “When in Rome,” she agreed.  “Cheers to that.”  I raised my glass and was thankful to be with a Bestie, in Prague, in the Beer Garden. 

            After catching CiCi up on Chile, gossip from home, and my love life, I reminded her of the mission at hand:  Wine.  CiCi was already two steps ahead of me.  She told me that our first stop would be Vienna, Austria.  She said they had excellent wines, and instead of beer gardens, they had world-famous wine gardens.  I love anything that involves spirits and gardens, and had growing excitement for Austria’s Wine Gardens.  CiCi had booked the bus that was taking us to Austria, so after exploring Prague a bit more, our wine journey would begin. 

            Prague ended up being one of my favorite cities, and was an excellent place to start our journey.  We ended up salsa-dancing in an Argentian night club, playing beach volleyball at a Rasta Bar on the Vlatava River, and having late-night Thai food in a Herna.  A Herna is an all-night gambling club where nice young ladies shouldn’t go.  After 2:00 a.m., you could bet  your ass we were in the Herna next to CiCi’s flat in Prauge One drinking beer and smoking cigarettes.  After a few days of partying in Prague, the time had arrived to get down to business.  We woke up early, made our way across town, and loaded ourselves, our backpacks, and our wine openers onto the bus headed to Vienna. 

            Vienna was a six hour bus ride drive.  The bus was air-conditioned, with comfy seats, and it even played movies.  Unfortunately for me, the movie on repeat was “The Notebook.”  I have to admit, it was a great movie, but even in subtitles, it’s the tear-jerker of all time.  And Czech people are not sympathetic to snot-nose, bumbling, Americans.  Thankfully, I could give a shit, as I blew my nose, sighed, and reveled in the love story.  As the movie wrapped up for the third time, we pulled into Vienna. 

            Excited to get started on our wine adventure, we made it to our hostel.  The hostel was literally the cheapest accommodation in Vienna.  At $10 Euro a night, its name said it all:  “Cheap, Cheap, Homestay.”  We entered a run-down building and climbed a spiral staircase up five flights of stairs.  As we made it to the top, and knocked on the door, a man with dreadlocks carrying a bowl of cereal answered.  “Hi, uh, we don’t have reservations, but we were hoping to stay with you guys tonight.”  “Oh, dude,” he said slowly, “we’re expecting a few Aussies who have prepaid.  You can have their beds if they don’t show.  But if they do show, you may end up on the floor.”  That was a risk we were willing to take. 

            We dropped our bags, grabbed the essentials, and headed to a world famous wine garden, known as a “Heuriger” in German.  As we arrived in the quaint neighborhood which housed many Viennese Heurigers, it felt as if we had entered “The Sound Of Music.”  The cottage-like restaurant opened up to a huge outdoor patio with white lights strung around picnic tables.  Everyone sat community-style, and with the wine, became instant friends.  These wine houses pride themselves on having a family-like atmosphere created from the music, wine, and patrons.  In fact, they even have a name for the comradery:  Gemütlichkeit.  Don’t ask me how to pronounce that. 

            The wine that is served in these Heurigers is known as Sturm.  Each Heuriger makes its own house wine – or Sturm–which is usually the only wine sold in the joint.  The wine is different each year, starting on November 11.  The “vintage” or wine year restarts on that date. 

            CiCi and I wanted to experience wines that were typical of Austria, so we opted for a white and a red.  The white wine, known as Grüner Veltliner, was a mineral and herbaceous wine with a little spice to it.  The red we ordered was called Blauer Zweigelt which was also a bit spicy with strong notes of red fruit.  CiCi and I put down the white bottle first.  As we enjoyed the atmosphere, accordions, and other tourist, we sipped these exotic grapes that we had no idea how to pronounce. 

            Luckily, Austria, (and Germany for that matter) are two Old World wine regions that give you plenty of information on the label.  Actually, Austria and German wines probably give to too much information…and its all in German.  Just to give you at proverbial taste, Austrian wines have ten separate facts on their labels:  1) Place / Origin; 2) Grape /Varietal 3) Year /Vintage; 4) Quality designation, determined by the sugar content of the grape; 5) Alcohol content; 6) Residual sugar; 7) Official control number; 8) Producer; 9) Bottler.  Reading an Austrian wine label can make anyone feel like a Wine Blonde.  So as CiCi and I got into our second bottle (the Blauer Zweigelt) we began speaking with thick German accents in an attempt to decode our bottle’s label. 

            We quickly gave up on the Austrian wine labeling system.  However, we were not going to give up on the wine, at least not until they kicked us out.  As day turned to night, we ordered bottle number three, and were arm-in-arm with an entire Italian family singing “Happy Birthday” to an elderly relative.  And then the dancing started. 

            A hunch-backed Italian guy named Paulo grabbed my hand and twirled me around.  Before I knew it, I was bottle in one hand, shoes in the other, jumping up and down to the music.  I loved Vienna.  From there, I don’t remember whether they kicked us out, or we finished all of that years vintage, but I do remember arriving back at the Cheap Cheap Homestay. 

            The circular staircase was a death-trap for two drunken Wine Blondes.  We stumbled up the stairs, reached the door, and stuck our key in the old key hole.  Pot smoke billowed into the hallway as we stumbeled toward the dormitory.  “Hey Chicas…” the guy in dreads was still awake.  “The Aussies arrived, so you guys got the floor, sorry dudes.” 

            The Aussies had arrived, indeed.  It was sometime after 2:00 a.m., and we were ready to pass out.  Unfortunately, the Aussies were just getting started, and were taking up space on our bed, i.e. the living room floor.  The threesome of rough-and rowdy 21 year-olds swigged on a bottle of German-brand Jack Daniels.  They each chain smoked as they played cards.  CiCi and I were stuck waiting for them to finish their game, and their bottle, before we were allowed to sleep in their ashes.  Damn Aussies. 

            That night, we resolved that we could afford something a little better than the Cheap Cheap Homestay.  We looked into overnight trains to Italy, which would allow us to sleep through travel, killing two birds with one stone.