From Bohemia to brave new world, a wine-drinking odyssey

The 16th-century façade of Prague’s Micovna Petiletka was restored in the 1950s by the communist regime. Note the hammer and sickle and five year plan scroll. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Alena Pergl-Wilson has worked in the hotel and restaurant trade since the 1970s, including a long spell as the owner of Roger’s—for many years one of the finest restaurants in the English Lake District—with her husband, well-known chef Roger Pergl-Wilson. Here she talks about making and drinking wine as a girl in communist-era Czechoslovakia; trying to get a decent bottle of wine in the UK in the 1970s; learning about wine; the wine trade over the last few decades; building wine lists for restaurants and hotels; and the simple art of enjoying yourself.

Homely wines and early bohemianism

My interest in and love of wine started pretty early on in life, partly due to my eccentric Bohemian1 grandmother and partly due to my tight-fisted father in the post-war communist outskirts of Prague. Granny was obsessed with making wine. She collected pretty well every kind of fruit as soon as it began to appear on the trees and bushes and set about the fermentation process in large glass demijohns, which she kept on top of her wardrobe.

A “Prague” stamp from 1956. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Unlike most viticulturists, she started her wine-making season in the spring, making dandelion and elderflower wines, and she usually ended the season with ‘Bread Crust Vintage’ after nature did away with the last of the berries, sloes and rose hips. My brother and I were the decanters, using long rubber pipes and drawing the alcohol away from the demijohns by sucking on the pipe to ease the flow of the unrefined alcohol. Thus by the time I was eight or nine years old I was already aware of the effect of alcohol on one’s mind and body. Often our wine making did not go to plan, the fermentation process was not adhered to properly and the the glass jars would explode, resulting in multi-coloured fruit-stained ceilings at granny’s house for the best part of my youth.

Yuri Gagarin
Cosmonaut and hero Yuri Gagarin in Berlin, 1963. He appears to be giving a wild cat a drink whilst being watched by enraptured Berliners. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

As teenagers my brother and I were hugely popular with our schoolmates—granny supplied cheap plonk for many parties for years and by some miracle I don’t recall anyone losing their eyesight, though there were many post-festive headaches and stomach upsets. My claim to fame was to be severely reprimanded at my junior school after I invited several schoolmates to a celebration of Yuri Gagarin’s inaugural space flight in April 1961 and we were shopped by someone, apparently for making a nuisance of ourselves through under-aged drinking in a public park. My father used to play in bands, playing in grand halls and hotels in towns, and at village hall balls in surrounding villages, and at weddings, christenings and funerals; just about anywhere music was required. It was a custom to ply the musicians with alcohol instead of paying them and after the event my father would turn up home with several bottles of wine that had been opened and only partially drunk, and we used to drink the rest.

Bull’s blood, Soviet ‘champagne’ and Müller-Thurgau

A vineyard in Eger, Hungary, home of “Bull’s Blood”. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

On special occasions my mum would splash out and buy a bottle of wine from the communist Gastronom. The selection was not great, but we were regular drinkers of Hungarian, Bulgarian and Romanian wines, and Soviet ‘champagne’. Egri Bikavér (“Bull’s Blood”), Badacsony and Balaton Riesling were our family tipples. When I became more sophisticated in my tastes and started to frequent more upmarket establishments, we would usually show off by opting for Moselle. As the country began to develop in the post-war era, Moravian terroir wines became increasingly available on the market. They were good and plentiful and the Müller-Thurgau grape and traditional wine making seemed to flourish again in the Moravian cellars. In Bohemia, the white wines from around Melnik, where the vineyards were first established in the 16th century, started to appear again and gradually communism began to take on a lighter side. A few wines from Austria also began to appear in the shops. Drinking wine was not only for special occasions, instead of going out for a coffee, we used to go out for 2 dcl (a decilitre is a tenth of a litre) of wine to Prague’s cafés and restaurants—it was a normal thing to do as the price of local wine was the same as or only a little more than that for a cup of coffee.

Drinking like the Romans

Mateus Rosé. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

When I emigrated to the UK in 1968 I was surprised to find that one drank spirits and tea or milky, watery coffee, not wine. It was depressing as I tried to do what the Romans did. The wine list at places we could afford to go consisted of Blue Nun, Chianti and Mateus Rosé. With the development of tourism in Spain more cheap Spanish wines appeared in pubs and restaurants and so we lived mainly on Justina, consuming it in industrial quantities. It was not till in the 1970s, when my husband Roger and I became joint managers of a hotel, that we had to take an interest in compiling a wine list. We were incredibly fortunate that the main supplier was a well-established local wine merchant of great reputation and charm—Harold Youdell. He loved wine and was always more than willing to open bottles for us to taste (presumably finishing the rest when we’d gone). He was always keen to move his stock and we were good buyers as it was not our money that we were spending.

Chateau Petrus (Pomerol)
Château Pétrus in Pomerol. They make pre-eminently expensive claret. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Those were happy times—we had a good international wine list and our clientele still drank Mateus Rosé at a push, so every time we had to change the wine list we would keep the old stock and gradually drink it. Fantastic burgundies and clarets (red Bordeaux) figured at most of our private dinner parties, wonderful German Rieslings, terroir wines from Northern Italy—drinking days we now only dream of. American, Australian, South African and New Zealand wines were considered to be New World rubbish and we were more than happy to stick with our European selection.

Brave new world: opening a restaurant and building a list

Penfolds wine cellars, Adelaide, Australia. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Penfolds wine cellars, Adelaide, Australia. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

When we opened our first restaurant in 1981 after eight years of ‘practical’ wine learning, our knowledge and palates had developed some sophistication. New World wines were becoming increasingly popular and well-priced, whilst European wines were becoming more and more expensive. Now that the money tied up in the wine stock was ours, we had to be a lot more careful. In the trade, there were a number of wine lovers who had decided to opt out or retire from their ‘professional’ jobs to spend their time hunting down the best wines around the globe. Their enthusiasm was very infectious and they were not trying to make a killing on importing very good wines into the UK. A number of them became our suppliers. We were continually visiting food and wine exhibitions, visiting the newly appearing nouvelle cuisine restaurants in the London scene and taking culinary tours in France to see what sort of wines the big boys of the Michelin restaurants were including on their lists. Then we tried to follow their formula, but with much reduced profit margins, usually we put £5 on the cost + VAT, so that in our restaurant you could buy incredibly good and expensive wines very cheaply. It was not a sound business plan, but it gave us enormous pleasure to sell such tremendous wines at a reasonable price. Customers in the know were over the moon, which was not the case for the Inland Revenue, who could not grasp that we were not just doubling the cost price, as was common practice. Business people we were not and never wanted to be. We wanted to run a good restaurant and be free and happy to do ‘our things, our way’, something money people can hardly comprehend. It was also very important to us that our house wines were very good, as this was now what we had to drink ourselves.

London Coliseum auditorium, ENO. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
London Coliseum auditorium, ENO. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

We worked very hard and lived above the shop with our two small children, so there was not a lot of time to attend the many wine tastings we were invited to. However, now and again we would escape to London, which meant that we would drive to Preston, catch the earliest train to London and return the same day on the night train from Euston. One such outing was for a Champagne/wine tasting and lunch at the Roux’s Waterside Inn at Bray. The train journey was difficult; we were running late and eventually just made it to Bray by taxi. Neither of us managed to have any breakfast and so we launched straight into the delicious variety of Champagnes on arrival. I have a hazy recollection of sitting at the table of the wine merchant who had organized the tasting and being given soup. The next thing I remember was Roger slapping my face at Paddington station some hours later, begging me to pull myself together. He then loaded me into a taxi and took me to the Café Royal at Piccadilly for tea in the hope of reviving me enough to make it to the ENO (English National Opera). We had precious tickets for Il Trovatore and it was going to be a very special treat for us. Several cups of tea, cakes and cigarettes at the Café Royal and fresh air helped enough for me to walk to the ENO, but needless to say by the third bar of the overture I was already fast asleep. Roger had to nudge me often to keep me from snoring.

By the 1990s we and the world were drowning in wines. Reps were coming by the dozen offering New World wines, European reps were trying desperately to hold onto their business, the new UK entrepreneurs were great salesmen for their finds, so the vast selection became more and more confusing. Wine lists then had to include wines advertised on TV, as the clientele would demand them. Wines that fitted in with people’s declining budgets, wines that would appeal to Good Food Guide inspectors and the flashy diners, etc; they all had to be considered. At one stage we were dealing with eight wine merchants for a restaurant with seven tables. It was quite ridiculous, but a lot of fun and we loved it. When we sold up in 1999 we lived off our old stock for a while and then went to live in France for a bit.

More pleasure than harm

Composing wine lists for Bridge House, our subsequent restaurant in the new millennium (2003–2006) was no longer as much fun, as money became tight and dictated choice on both sides. The wine market had been flooded still further, with many new wines available from Chile, Argentina, the antipodes and Eastern Europe, which resulted in the French having to sell vineyards and the Italians concentrating on their own market. The small terroir producers and merchants reduced their output, which resulted in price rises. In our somewhat unusual working retirement we still love to drink wine and do on most days. There are plenty of good wines around, even at the modest prices we can now afford. Taken in moderation, what gives you so much pleasure cannot do you that much harm. Life is about living, after all. In Czechland we have a saying:

Good wine produces good ideas, good ideas create good deeds, good deeds make the world a better place for mankind.

Alena Pergl-Wilson (Windermere, February 2015)

Alena is a semi-retired restaurateur. She travels a great deal, with a particular interest in and fondness for India, while she also runs a very small bed and breakfast with her husband, Roger: Annesdale House. Roger is head chef at Cedar Manor hotel in Windermere, at the heart of the English Lake District. Alena’s interests outside of food and wine are diverse; she is a qualified yoga teacher and has a degree in philosophy from Lancaster University.

1. She was from the Czech region of Bohemia. She may also have been bohemian, which is to say “unconventional”. It can be confusing, but the capital or lower case “B” indicates which is meant.

Image credits

Micovna Petiletka: ‘Packare’, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0). Eger (Egri Bikaver): ‘Elin’, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0). Mateus Rosé: CTHOE, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0). Château Pétrus: Benjamin Zingg, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.5). Penfold’s: Rolandfrasier, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0). London Coliseum: ‘FA2010’, Wikimedia Commons. All other work public domain.