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Allison Gish: A Year in the Vineyards

Allison Gish was an English Teaching
Assistant at 
the only wine-making high school in the Czech Republic, located in a South-Moravian town of 3.600 inhabitants. Small in size, but rich in sights and reasons for Czech and international guests to visit: Baroque, Neoclassical and neo-Gothic palaces, Palava Landscape Protected Area, and prime Czech vineyards wherever you look. With a BA in English Literature and a minor in Art, diverse travel experience, a passion for the outdoors, and a personal dream to (one day) become a wine-maker, Allie was placed into a unique school environment, where students sign up for either a wine-making major or for agribusiness, tourism, and hospitality. Over the course of ten months, Allie experienced almost the full wine-cycle, she learned about wine-growing, wine-cultivation and making, and she spent lot of time with her students and fellow grantees in the vineyards (and wine cellars), tending to school vineyards, mouthfeeling wine, and exploring the beauty of South Moravian countryside. “Perhaps it's my affinity for outdoor education, but I found our few days in the field together to be the most fruitful of all (pun intended). Outside of the four walls of the classroom, nůžky (pruners) in hand, the students spoke with me organically about their lives, ideas, and passions,“ shares Allie. For a full picture, one has to mention that the wine school has its own wine shop, where students work and practice how to describe wine.

There is no useful English word for terroir, but if there were, it would be something like “locality” or “place-ness.” Terroir is a wine-making term that comes from the French language. It signifies the distinctive qualities of a region that collide to produce wine as we know it: region, soil, climate, and, best of all, the human traditions and agricultural practices that shape a vintage. My year at Střední Vinařská Škola Valtice was a unique education in place-ness.

Photo: Enjoying the SVISV harvest festival with rose burčák, Fall 2021. 
Valtice is a small town west of Břeclav, where the curling tendrils of grape vines grow in rows of vineyards, stretching right over the Austrian border. Valtice has two COOPs (note: small-size supermarket) and three bus stops and more wine cellars than I can remember to count. One such cellar belongs to my host institution, SVISV, a secondary school that embeds wine, viticulture, agribusiness, gardening, shop-keeping, and floristry into its traditions, curriculum, and culture. The school runs a wine shop and tasting cellar, a gardening supply and floristry shop, a garden, and countless orchards and vineyards. The students receive their practical training in these venues, where they learn experientially by working alongside winemakers, sommeliers, professional gardeners, florists, and shopkeepers. Students learn about agriculture, processing, winemaking, and how to describe, taste, and sell wine. It is the only secondary school in the Czech Republic that offers an education in winemaking and industry.

Photo: Pruning apple trees with students in 3AA (juniors), Fall 2021. 
I spent my first week or so in the school dorm, before the students were to move in for the start of the term. With no schedule or agenda before the Fulbright orientation at Liblice, I spent my first week in Valtice walking. Valtice is intersected by a network of bike paths and trails–the most popular and widely used, the freedom trail, which denotes the site of the former iron curtain. I was taken on a tandem bicycle ride through the forest to Lednice. I was invited into wine cellars, where I tasted Moravian wines, was scolded for holding the wine glass by the bowl instead of the stem, and instructed to say “na zdraví!” (“cheers!”) (not “nádraží,” in English, railway station, which quickly became a joke among the faculty). I walked and drank wine; I was fed pears and Moravian honey and ice cream. It was late summer.

As the school year wore on, I spent weekends with Katie Cowan and Kelsey Nies, ETAs in Břeclav and Mikulov, respectively. We cultivated a close friendship and were dubbed “holky,” “the girls,” by our mentors and co-teachers. We spent weekends hiking in the Pálava hills and Podyjí National Park, visiting cellars and vineyards, and swimming in the “Mikulov lom,” (quarry). We attended the “vinobraní” (wine harvest festival) in Mikulov, where we drank “burčák,” grape juice that has been allowed to ferment for one or two weeks, and sampled varietals like pálava, sauvignon, vetlinské zelené, rulandské šedé, and ryzlink. My fourth-year students, who were set up in a makeshift classroom at the top of the Mikulov castle, taught us how to identify aromas and qualities in wine. My students, and the wines themselves, were our teachers and our guides. By tasting, learning the unique Moravian varietals, and observing the traditions associated with the harvest, we were learning the terroir of a place. We were becoming a part of it.

Photo: Holky hiking in Podyjí National Park, Fall 2021. 
In September, I spent a day harvesting grapes with the students. We worked quickly in the early autumn sun, cutting huge bushels of grapes away from their vines, tossing the bad ones, and piling the rest into buckets. I worked with the girls, talking and laughing. We were eating grapes the whole time, straight from the vines. Grape juice covered our hands and arms. The boys ran back and forth to the tractor, filling the trailer with grapes and replacing our buckets. We stopped after each row to rest under the shade of the plum trees that lined the road and talk and eat the snacks that the girls had prepared.

Soon after, I spent a day with a local wine-making family. We harvested their long rows of grapes in Lednice and Mikulov, processed the grapes through the destemmer, and ran back and forth to the cellar with buckets full of incandescent grape juice to fill the press.

Photo: Harvesting grapes in Lednice, Spring 2022.  

The leaves dropped from the vineyards and Valtice gave way to wintering. The burčák turned into svařák, hot, spiced wine. The vineyards, on my chilly autumnal walks, laid dormant. The faculty at SVISV gathered in the faculty lounge on November 11th, St. Martin’s feast day, to open the first bottles of the last season. We tasted the young wine, which is sweet and low in alcohol (but still wine–not to be confused with “burčák”). I spent the winter compiling English wine vocabulary and relevant activities into a series of lesson plans. I learned, alongside my students, about the life cycle of the vineyard, the parts of the grapevine, the elements of wine, the wine regions of the world, and the winemaking processes. Together, we learned about terroir.

Photo: Enjoying a glass in the vineyards, Spring 2022. 

In the early spring, we pruned the school orchards and vineyards. The vineyards and fruit trees budded, then sprang back to life. “Holky” and I were back to our adventures of the fall, but we were braver; we knew more Czech language, we knew which grape varietals we loved, and we knew just how grateful to be for the sunshine and the extended days after what felt like a long and dark winter. On the very last day of school, every class was outside, harvesting stone fruits in the orchards or pruning the vineyards in preparation for the wine-growing season. I stuffed my backpack with candies and traveled from group to group, providing sustenance and (some) help with the labor. Valtice’s trails, hills, and fields were inscribed in my memory now, and I traversed them, moving between my classes. Perhaps it's my affinity for outdoor education, but I found our few days in the field together to be the most fruitful of all (pun intended). Outside of the four walls of the classroom, “nůžky” (pruners) in hand, the students spoke with me organically about their lives, ideas, and passions. Working side by side allowed for connection, mutual meditation, and communication. We were in a place together, connected to each other and connected to the land. We were terroir.

Photo: Holky at Mikulov "vinobraní" - wine harvest festival, late Summer 2021. 

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