Slobodné Vinárstvo: You Reap What You Sow
At this point, our Slovak friends from Slobodné Vinárstvo don’t need much introduction - their wines travel around the world as much as ours, so funnily enough, we cross paths more often at wine fairs like La Dive or the recent RAW in Montreal than on our home turfs. Yet, their fascinating, century-spanning family history and “from lawyer to farmer” personal stories remain a bit less known. Which is a shame, so I'm grateful to our mutual friend Valentina Kasper Rosputinská for digging deeper in this interview with Agnes, Katarína and Mišo, three of the fab family four that is Slobodné.
Text by Valentina Kasper Rosputinská
Photographs by Michaela Koklesová
“I came here for love,” says Andrea, Agnes’s wife, when I ask her why she moved to the estate all these years ago. It was the only moment we managed to squeeze in together that day, as she was running around the farm taking care of orders over the phone and watching the kids. The purity of the statement really struck me. It’s an apt preface to the story that is Slobodné vinárstvo.
It would be tempting to identify the villain of this story as the Communist regime, since it interrupted the agricultural and viticultural family tradition by requisition of their property post-1948, an injustice that wouldn't be undone until more than 40 years later when Katarina's and Agnes's parents were able to restitute the farm from the once-again-democratic Slovak state. A heroic feat, considering the family manages around 360 hectares of land, most of which they own, including 17 hectares of vineyards. Yet as the day with Mišo, Katka, Agnes and Andrea progressed, I was stunned at the realisation that for these people, this story has no villain. Before me sat a group of people who, more acutely than most, were aware of the fragility of ownership, yet did not place it on a pedestal. They take the responsibility of stewardship and nurturing their roots very seriously, but also know it’s not everything.
Tell me a little bit about your parents and their background. That key magical moment for getting the Majer [=agricultural estate] back from the Slovak state was accidentally finding the box of ownership documents in your home in Prague, but you all have roots in Slovakia, right?
Agnes: Our mom lived in Prague until she met my dad and they moved to Bratislava after getting married. Dad is Slovak and his ancestors are Slovak too. It was my grandfather from my Mom’s side that loved music and moved to Prague to study music there. That’s why the box ended up in Prague all those years ago. We were really lucky that our grandparents kept it stashed away, even though they had no use for it really.
When did you first visit the majer, can you remember?
A: I remember visiting shortly after the revolution when I was 10, so Katka was 12. The trip was instigated by my granddad and my mother, but they just wanted to come back and see a part of the family history. There wasn’t a specific intent like yeah, let’s go be farmers. Not at all. We were told that the property had at some point belonged to the family, but it was never spoken about in the sense that this is the future. At the time, the majer was practically abandoned and looked very different to what it is today. There was garbage everywhere, one building was divided into cheap rental flats, there was even a hairdresser's here!
Katarína: As was the unfortunate custom during communism, anything of material worth had long been taken away, for example lots of garden fences around here are made from metal taken from the estate.
Sounds like a very different place compared to what it is today. Do you think it was that visit that inspired your granddad and Mom to embark upon claiming the land back from the government?
A: I think the reason our mother and granddad embarked upon it was because they viewed it as their responsibility to at least try and get back something that belonged to the family. It was never pitched that the majer would be turned into a farm again, let alone a winery. It was a very intuitive, emotionally driven process. Plus, a highly uncertain one at the time.
K: Those attempting to claim back property in post-communist countries generally didn’t have it easy. When you didn’t have paperwork, it was difficult to establish ownership at a specific time. Government officials often just didn’t have any proof, so it was a he-said-she-said type of thing.
A: It also took a while because the property is so large – in fact, we didn't even manage to get it all back.The box in Prague kind of saved the whole story so to speak – with the original papers proving we had in fact owned all the lots, it was a hundred times easier to begin the restitution because it couldn’t be argued with. A lot of people weren’t so lucky. Many had sold their property back in the fifties because they needed the cash to survive or as bribes to escape the regime. The situation varied vastly from family to family.
K: Another factor that is seldom spoken of is that to successfully claim back your property, paperwork wasn’t enough. You also had to have a substantial amount of money, as a sort of deposit, to guarantee that the property would be used and not wither away. In this respect, it was another miracle that thanks to his construction business, our dad was able to provide that money to get the property back.
What was going on at the farm while this process was under way?
A: When the restitution was complete, which took about 3 years from start to finish, the farm was already being leased by a group of other farmers. It was a deal originally drafted by the state. At the time, it seemed like a great fit for my parents – they were in ownership again and had passive income for the next 5 years.
K: Then at some point, it became obvious that our parents didn’t like the way the farm was being managed, such as the way the tenants rotated the crops. Especially our dad, who's always loved nature.
A: I think they felt this urge, an urge we too would later stumble upon, to just go out there and try it while they still could and were in a productive age, so to speak.
It must have been wild for you guys to witness this big change in your parents’ lives.
A: It really was. I was 18 and Katka 20 when our parents decided to move to the farm full time and start running it. I remember it was like a vacation for us. I was just starting college, we were two city kids living alone without our parents. It was paradise in a lot of ways. While Katka did her law thing, I went to study economics, a far cry from winemaking and farming.
K: I truly couldn’t imagine myself moving to the farm back then. However, our parents always insisted on this level of discipline and sense of shared responsibility, so we always had to come to the farm for harvest after they moved.
A: Yeah, I remember a year where everyone went to Pohoda [the biggest and hugely popular music festival in Slovakia whose quality lineup attracts tens of thousands of fans every summer] and I was sitting in the field counting produce and was annoyed as hell. (laughs)
When did that feeling start to change?
K: I didn’t really have any special calling, so for me the law degree was a way to secure a career. However, it was obvious that our parents’ decision had somehow influenced us. At one point I managed to convince one Slovak commercial board to take me on a trip across multiple farms in France as part of my studies and I was completely taken aback. Not only did I witness farms that operated for decades without ever having their tradition severed, but I also saw very free-spirited people who loved what they were doing and seemed to be in good social standing in their communities. In Slovakia, there really weren’t any role-models or inspiration about how to farm in the context of a more “modern” lifestyle. After that trip, I could, for the very first time, imagine myself being one of them.
A: Yeah, today it’s completely different. I really do feel that we live a great life here. We have a particular social status, we live in a beautiful environment, we are free. The transition in viewing farming as a great mission and life’s purpose took years. Back then, agriculture and farming really didn’t represent anything sexy, quite the opposite. I really loved my life in Bratislava. We were out all the time, I played with my band [Agnes played violin in a popular local rock band called Živé Kvety], would go to parties…
K: After that trip to France, I wanted to at least finish my degree before considering the move more seriously. Plus, I always thought of myself as an impractical, more intellectual type. After I finished school though, I started coming to the farm for two days a week and then did my freelance law practice for the rest of the three days.
A: I did feel like there was this subconscious calling the entire time, but it was like a little worm, eating away at my thoughts and nudging me towards the idea. But I also don’t want it to sound like it was some imaginary blood calling. We had very concrete examples of how farm life could be successful in our family history. First it was the story of Maximilian Schwarz, our ancestor. His story was passed on in the family as a real testament of possibility come to fruition. He lived in the village and was a big farmer, but simultaneously a huge artistic soul. A patron of the arts. People from all over the region came and visited him here. Maximilian managed to combine a life in nature with an intellectual one, which was very inspiring for us. And let’s not forget, our parents were examples as well. Our Mom was a city girl from Prague from a completely intellectual and “impractical” family. She’d never even driven in Bratislava, didn’t have a license. Yet she overcame all that when they came to the farm and led a happier, more balanced life. That was really inspiring. Our parents were able to see that this place is incredible, but at 18, that’s really hard to relate to.
So when, and more importantly why, did you guys fully move to the farm?
A: I came in 2009, so 12 years after our parents moved. For me, it was an all-in decision. I was a full time employee and I couldn’t just come here to “try it out”. I had to resign. I was single at the time, so I was also slowly coming to terms with the fact that I would probably be single forever. As a member of the LGBT+ community, I thought the odds of finding a partner here in the countryside would be super low. Thankfully, life took a different course and I was lucky enough to meet Andrea, but my prospects back then certainly weren’t rosy.
I honestly can’t imagine what that was like, essentially sacrificing prospects of love for something “greater”. What do you think encouraged you to make the switch in the end?
A: It was a very gradual process, but in the end I think I just had to try something different. I had worked in a brewery and then as a project manager for audiovisual equipment. That was all nice, but at some point, I stopped to ask myself what’s next. For the first time I started thinking about where I’m actually going and realised that our parents were already at the farm and they weren’t getting any younger. When I look back at it, I still can’t believe I made the move. I guess the fact that I was single actually helped me do it at the time.
K: The catalyst for our big decision was Mišo and us establishing our own family together. Mišo had this huge appetite for change, and despite the fact that I had been toying around with the idea for years, he was the one who at some point said okay, we’re going. I had gotten into this comfortable rut, where I had my life and fun in Bratislava, but I also had contact with the farm for those two days a week, so it seemed like the best of both worlds. But Mišo really wanted to try and make wine, so we went. I’m really grateful for it in retrospect, because if it was the other way around, I think it would have been very challenging for me to force my partner to make such a monumental shift.
Mišo, how aware were you of the majer in the beginnings of your relationship with Katka?
Mišo: I always knew that Katka was de facto the heiress of farmland. However, it wasn’t really a factor in our relationship as we lived in Bratislava, had our careers and that was that. It wasn’t until we really started to dig into the idea of moving from a pragmatic perspective that it even started to seem like a real option. Like Katka said, I was hungry for a professional change at the time and this seemed like a unique opportunity. Opportunities are always created by those who come before you and it’s only up to you whether you grasp onto them or not.
Did your family have any kind of connection to winemaking and agriculture in the past?
M: Ironically, I am the only one out of the four of us that has true roots in this region. I’m from Piestany and lived in Hlohovec until I was 13. My grandfather made wine in this area too. It was undrinkable, but from a practical standpoint, I was very aware of what it meant to make wine in the most primitive sense. The physical labour and simplicity of it. He died in ‘84 when I was 6 years old, but my memories from that time with him are still very vivid.
But from what I understand winemaking wasn’t anywhere top of mind for you professionally for a long time either.
M: Throughout my teens and college, I thought I would become this corporate dude who works for half a year and then goes skiing or mountain climbing for the other half. I realised later though, that to achieve this type of setup would take years of a gruelling law career that it turned out I wasn’t that interested in or even very good at. It started to bother me immensely that the type of law consulting I did was so abstracted from reality. There was nothing real, nothing to build upon. So when Agnes made the move and I knew Katka was inclined, I seized the moment.
So the three of you make the move to the majer and start making wine. Why wine? How did that decision come about? In the context of a huge farm with lots of possibilities, it seems like a very specific choice.
A: Well, it was quite prosaic. My initial goal was to just help at the farm, but the idea of wine was already on the table. Our dad loved it, it was made at the majer way back in the 1920s. And before we came, the farm was producing grapes, although only to sell them to other wineries. When Katka and Miso decided to come, we all got excited about the prospect of winemaking together, but it also had a lot to do with the practical reality of the farm at the time. It had been running for over a decade, everyone had their place and suddenly here were these three young people, who essentially didn’t have much to do. It was an emancipation project in many ways.
M: The math behind was very pragmatic. If we are selling grapes for 30 cents a kilo today and could perhaps make wine ourselves and sell it for more instead, then it’s a project worth undertaking.
Was the transition from selling grapes to wine making easy to pitch to your parents?
A: No. (laughs) But that year was serendipitously tough on the market and the prices for grapes were so low that we figured we might as well try and make wine out of it and sell it for more than we could otherwise. All these things combined led to us establishing Slobodne vinárstvo in 2010. We truly threw ourselves into the endeavour although we had little to no idea of what it entailed.
M: We went into this project with the most naive and prosaic determination and without any real worldly ambition. It’s kind of stunning when I think back on it.
I know that you didn’t start out with making so-called natural wines. How did that concept even enter your lives?
A: A more ecological approach in the winery was a process. We first made wine with Fedor Malik [renowned Slovak enologist and winemaker] who came to the winery once every 2 weeks and basically taught us the basics, since we didn’t know anything. But I actually knew Zsolti [from Strekov 1075, another very successful, respected and widely exported Slovak wine grower] from before, we once attended a really great party together and I found him incredibly inspiring. We even made a spontaneously fermented Pinot Gris in our first years as winemakers as a small experiment. So, we were aware that it was possible to make things in a more natural way, let’s say. But since we were absolute winemaking laymen, we didn’t have the courage to adopt this approach at the very beginning. We did however want to learn more about it. Here I have to say that Mišo did a tremendous amount of work. He really dove deep into books, literature, conversations with fellow winemakers and just absorbed as much knowledge as possible. That really helped us in gaining our confidence as a team too.
M: The more I work with wine though, the more I’m convinced that there is no universal key to winemaking and it’s a completely individual process. We continue to experiment and find our own way.
When did you guys make the full switch?
A: In 2012, we already had everything fermenting spontaneously, so just after two years. But the vineyards were far from “ok”. The transition took a while and was related to two factors. First of all, we didn’t have the technical capacity and knowledge at the beginning to cover all 17 hectares of the vineyards in this way and second of all, there was some internal resistance from the existing farm team. They were just used to doing things in a different way, so it took us slowly pushing, every single day, showing them that things could be done successfully in a different way too, to achieve the switch. They ended up coming around in 2016. After that, all 17 hectares have been managed organically [the winery is currently awaiting official certification]. We have since moved into experimenting with biodynamic practices as well.
You guys have been making wine for more than ten years now! How do you view these ten years in retrospect?
A: This past decade was absolutely and fully dedicated to the winery, with the purest of thoughts guiding the process. We had this honest drive, like let’s do this, this is our baby and we’ll raise it well. What this decade here has taught me about our family is a simple truth. You reap what you sow. Here on the farm, it’s very tangible because you literally see things grow under your fingers and depending on how you approach it, that’s what the end result manifests into.
What’s in store then for Slobodné vinarstvo in the upcoming decade do you think?
A: Our vision is to turn the majer into one big organic farm. The generational “swap” is slowly happening, and we will see where life takes us, but I think this place has enormous potential. We want the winery to become an integrated part of the entire farm. Today, they’re not completely separated, but in terms of the approach very much so. The farm production, mainly focused on wheat and poppy seeds, has a conventional approach.
K: As Agnes mentioned, it’s just a different mindset we’ve had to “fight” with over the years. For example, the man in charge of the farming aspect of the business today, he’s wonderful. He truly loves this place and the land. Before he arrives at the farmhouse in the morning, he’s already made the tour of all the fields. Yet “despite” all that, he has a completely different approach to the actual farming practice, a more conventional one. In his view of the world, the chemicals aid the plants. He truly believes that and it’s challenging trying to convince someone who has been doing something one way their entire life of something else. Yet we try every day and slowly but surely, people on the team are coming around, just like they did with the wine.
A: You also have to realise, the entire farmland consists of more than 300 hectares. To be honest none of us feel ready to tackle 300 hectares of farmland at once and start doing things differently. So just like with the wine, we’re gathering information and strength, learning as we go and slowly making changes.
That’s a big step going from 17 hectares of vineyards, to eventually reaching 300 hectares of various kinds of crops, all in some kind of organic regime.
A: I really had to grow up so to speak to make sure that this vision is really what I want to do. Today I think of winemaking as a sort of cherry on top of the farming cake. At the end of the day farming is a very dirty, manual job. It’s not about parading yourself at nice wine fairs, although that’s a nice part of it. But the true roots of farming lie in getting your hands dirty.
By now, the four of you have settled in and are all raising your kids here. How do you view the legacy of the winery at this point?
A: The continuity of our roots here in this land, it’s a complicated topic. Our parents reprimanded us at one point for investing too much energy and effort into the winery and not helping with the farm more. I clearly felt that they thought we were just “having fun” here with our little wine project, while they were out there doing the “real” work. But I know that today, they are proud of us and see the value in what we are doing. The winery was in fact our father’s dream. He made wine even back in Bratislava and he was the one to purchase the first steel tanks for the winery. To his huge credit though, when we came to the farm, he adopted a completely hands off approach. He managed to just let go of the idea and only dedicate time to his other responsibilities at the farm. And that’s despite the fact that he clearly had objections to the way we did things in the beginning. We came here from a completely different environment and mindset, and they let us break apart many of the functioning stereotypes that ran the place. It was very humbling and motivating.
That must have been an immensely freeing feeling, because parents can often either consciously or subconsciously pressure their kids into things that don’t fit their views on life. You mean well, but it backfires. How are you thinking about this in terms of your own kids?
A: All our children are ironically now farm kids. I definitely don’t want to push them into anything. My approach is they should and are free to choose what they’d like to do in life. That being said, I don’t want to physically “lose” my kids. I’d be really sad if they moved somewhere really far away and I wouldn’t be able to see them. But other than that, none of us are really preoccupied with the idea of what will be next. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that the tradition here was broken. Our parents weren’t farmers for most of their lives, I wasn’t a farmer at 18 and certainly had no intention of becoming one at the time.
M: For everything that is unique about our story, one thing is very similar to a lot of others all around the world. There is inheritance that the children aren’t “groomed” towards, on the contrary, they might even be sidelined, so that they don’t feel like they are being forced into something. But then there comes a moment where the kids realise that the big world isn’t so big or special after all, and that at home they have something that their family invested a lot of time and energy into. Something that might be worth looking at.
A: Our mother is amazing in this respect, because she continues to very persistently communicate the message that we shouldn’t focus on any material thing. To not feel like we are any better for owning pieces of property. Not the farm, not the land. Because it all essentially “fell into our laps” by a lucky twist of fate. So I think we all want to instil this same kind of spirit in our kids. That being said, the estate is huge and for it to be concentrated in the hands of one family in one piece is rare. We are proud to be the owners because it gives us a greater sense of stewardship and responsibility towards the land. But our roots are our relationships with each other.
M: If anyone thinks they own land, they are trapped in an intellectual construct. Land will always be here, regardless of who so called owns it or not. Yet to have control over a piece of land, that is a privilege that should not be taken lightly. For us to have the chance to grow crops and make things on such a huge piece of land was and is an enormous privilege.
K: Who knows which generation won’t be able to stay here, for whatever reason? Politics, climate change. We have the opportunity now, so we’re here. And once you do embark upon farming as a way of life, I have to say it truly changes you.