The Nestarec family’s vineyards in the Czech Republic, like the neighbour vineyards of Slobodné in Slovakia, have a traumatic and complex history. Just as recently as the 80s, under communist rule, private businesses weren’t even allowed here.
After the Velvet Revolution, however, the Nestarecs' ‘Zadní’ vineyard was returned to them by the state; a vineyard planted on land that had been in the family long before the Bolsheviks stole it from them in 1948. Milan’s father, who had been working in a German vine nursery, began working this vineyard, and bit by bit he planted and bought other vineyard plots in the Moravia region.
Today, Milan runs the show across the family’s 30 hectares. The cellar here, however, isn’t really about winemaking; rather it’s about ideas; philosophies… trains of thought. The old ‘message in a bottle’ metaphor gets splashed around a lot, but when it comes to Milan’s wines, that’s exactly what they are. Eternal contemplation from a time and a place, and ultimately all about energy:
“My theme is energy in wine. It's all about energy. If energy is missing somewhere, it's boring. I must preserve the energy that nature has given me. That's my job. If I lose it somewhere along the way, then I did something wrong.”
Milan’s a thinker, a dreamer… but he’s also seeking simplicity. More and more these days, he simply refers to his wines as ’normal.’ He says,
“I make normal wine. The word ‘normal’ means more to me than the word ‘natural.’ I'm not talking about doing something different, or about leaving the natural direction. Rather, I just want to make good wine for people. Maybe that’s a harder discipline than making wine for your ego!”
It’s a mindset of less is more; sometimes uncomplicating things and thinking completely outside of the box leaves room for creative growth. Milan explains that so much of the wine scene in Moravia has been dictated by certain styles—by winemakers trying to emulate things like New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. But in doing so, they lose uniqueness, and they lose character. And for a region with such a turbulent recent history, Milan is a strong believer in finding his own footing. Why should he adapt his work to fit someone else’s style? He realised this early on in his career:
“It was a feeling that had lingered inside me for a long time. I was not happy with what we were doing. I was not free. Freedom is very important to me — because I come from a post-communist country.”
Since he joined wine school in 2003, he always tried to taste wines that were as varied and interesting as possible. Then, a trip to Italy in 2007 was the deciding factor:
“I changed everything: I did a complete 180. My family lost all of the customers it had. But I was happy. I had no money, and that lasted until 2015. It was a struggle for survival — I'm grateful that my family trusted me. I think I grew the most at that time, because all of the responsibility fell on me. I was doing something no one here believed in.”
It was a matter of sticking to his gut feeling, and bit by bit wine lovers around the world began to fall in love with these unique Czech wines, and with what they represent. After all, interesting wine is made by interesting people; and that’s Milan.
“I'm glad people like to drink my wine. That is the greatest satisfaction for me. You must do everything you believe in — 100%. When someone does something half-heartedly, I don’t believe that it ever works.”
Absolutely nothing is half-hearted at Nestarec.
“’Keep your land’ is an old farmer truth that my grandfather used to tell me. And it really stuck; I'm so proud to be a farmer and to work on our own soil. I realize how foolish, in a way, it is to think that we own some bit of the Earth just because a piece of paper says so, when in fact we're just shepherds. BUT, having that piece of paper actually does make a difference, when you are a grower.”
Since regaining their Zadní vineyard, which is planted to Pinot Gris and Grüner Veltliner, they have planted and amassed vineyards to form thirteen distinct plots. The Úlehle vineyard is planted to Grüner Veltliner and has a particularly special place in Milan’s heart. He says,
“This soft slope is arguably the best Grüner Veltliner vineyard in the whole Bílovice area. Its profile is so unique that I dare say I'd recognise the wine born here from any other. We bought a tiny 0.4ha plot in 2020, to my great joy, because being able to finally work with this unique "material" is a dream come true. A) for its pure loess soil, B) for because I just love its history.”
He explains that it was planted in the mid-1970s by the local cooperative:
“It was a time when many things in agriculture were done really badly, but some actually better than today. Nová Hora, luckily, falls into the latter category as the plants were sourced by professor Kraus, the Nestor of Moravian viticulture. He arranged a barter directly with Lenz Moser, an iconic Austrian viticulturist of that time. The deal was that Lenz exchanged their top-notch Wachau Grüner Veltliner vines for — wait for it — concrete vineyard posts, which were made by the Bílovice concrete factory, at the very place where we now make our wines. Don't you just love it when things come full circle?”
The vineyard has an old walnut tree in the middle; something that used to be commonplace, but which is now rare due to monoculture becoming more and more common. Milan’s goal is to plant more of these in the future, to encourage biodiversity, and because walnuts are quite simply delicious. He says,
“These magnificent trees are a welcome companion for everybody: the grandmas need something to make cakes with, the grandpas distil it into spirits, and everybody is happy to receive a bit of shade while working there.”
This sole walnut tree is a microcosm for driving change on a greater scale — returning to methods of agroforestry and polyculture; not just in Milan’s vineyards, but across the whole country. He continues,
“We need to return more diversity to our country: this is a big topic for me. It doesn't happen overnight and it needs to be addressed systematically. It's not something I can change on my own — but I can do it on my land and be a role model. I want to plant more trees both in the vineyards, and around the vineyards. This year I planted about 100 trees, and I want to expand this. I want to save old orchards, and I want to have animals. I want to grow food; all of our efforts should go towards the farm. This process will last my whole life, and the journey is really important to me. I need at least 48 hours a day!”
In the vineyard, work is as thoughtful as it is in the cellar. For Milan, there’s simply no one-rule-fits-all, and he’s always trying to figure out a way to ensure his vineyards are at their maximum health. He says,
“We experiment as much as possible: that’s very close to us. Currently, the Nestarec Lab Project is being created. We’re testing things on a small scale, and if they work, we’ll replicate them on a larger scale. This is something that I admire at restaurants which have their own lab. It moves things forward and inspires others. My topic is to make the world a better place. I used to laugh at that — when the world's great people said it. But now, I know that there really is something in it.”
He explains that his vineyards look a little (or very) different to their neighbours. But equally, his vineyards don’t resemble a jungle. He’s seeking an equilibrium.
“I’m not dogmatic. If the companion plants are too powerful in the vineyard and the vines are losing vitality, I will strike. It’s about individuality, common sense and looking around. That's how I think you can spot a good farmer. That’s more important to me than biodynamics as such. Of course, we use treatments, but only if needed (in cases such as drought or hail). It doesn't make sense to use something widely — without observation. I really still think (and it is a heretical idea that I said at our first meeting for Demeter Czechoslovakia) that if the grower is sensitive and receptive, they can farm even without biodynamics. I really don't like how companies use biodynamics today as one of the boxes they can tick off because it's trendy. But maybe I'm wrong and I don’t understand everything yet… I'm just saying how I feel right now.”
Before considering biodynamics, Milan and his father began working organically twelve years ago, in 2009. As he mentions, it’s never been about a label, but rather about using his instinct. It’s about paying a deep attention to the vines, and to nature’s ongoings. He says,
“It is only now, after 13 years of systematic work in the vineyards, that I am beginning to see results. Or so I think... I'm very careful about that. We work hard in the vineyards, we try to do things better every year, but I admit that I'm still not knowledgeable enough. It's such a complex system that I'm trying to understand. Maybe I'm doing at least a little bit.”
He’s grateful to have such a strong support network of fellow winemakers and farmers; from both near and afar.
“I'm inspired by a lot of my winemaker friends. I love discussing issues with them. When I ask a question, I get an honest answer. I'm very thoughtful, and so I need to discuss things from all angles. I could often choose an easier path in the short term, but I'm not doing that.”
Across Milan’s other parcels, you’ll find Pinot Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Müller Thurgau, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Chardonnay, Muscat, Cabernet Franc, Pálava (Muller Thurgau x Roter Traminer), Cabernet Sauvignon, Dornfelder, Regent, Pinot Noir, Blaufränkisch, Neuburger and Welschriesling.
With regards to the vineyards that they lease, they manage these in the same way. But it’s not easy — sometimes the owner isn’t quite as open-minded:
“We spend the same amount of energy, time, and money on the vineyards we lease as for our own vineyards. When you believe in something, there's no going halfway. But, here's the BUT: it's happened to us several times that we lost the work done on our leased plots when the owner decided to work on it again, or, more sadly, didn't like the way we work and how wild the vineyards looked. (The "correct" vineyard looks like a manicured garden, right? Except it doesn't.) It hurts beyond words when you see your long-term work go away like this. This is where "keep your land" rings so true to me: it isn't about wealth. Or the ego of "having it all". It's simply about knowing that you can do what the F you know is right on your land, without having to conform to someone's rules. Freedom, the only thing more intoxicating than wine.”
Hence, this year, Milan was ecstatic to have the chance to purchase two small plots that he had been leasing previously: a mere 0.3ha of Sauvignon and Riesling and 0.2 ha of 45yo Pinot Blanc.
Their youngest vineyard was planted in 2019. It is named ‘Firma’ (meaning company in Czech), as it’s located right next to their new building. They used to have barrels and tanks stored in eight different places — even in Milan's parents' garage! But now, many years later, they just have one winery — finally big enough for all of their endeavours. Milan has nicknamed it ‘Château Nestarec;’ a tongue-in-cheek oxymoron. He says,
“It ain't no fancy castle worth millions of euros with some manicured vines around. This is dirty, industrial punk – an unassuming place we feel good living and working in. It’s also the very first vineyard that I show any visitors because that's where the current history of our family winemaking is being written. Loam, clay, my wife's bees and the oh-so-romantic sunset by the electric box that gave the name to our sparkling Danger 380V...”
Milan is very curious, and as a result he doesn’t shy away from experiments; quite the opposite; he plays ‘new’ rather than playing safe. And although his wines are inventive, they aren’t by any means ‘flashy,’ and quality is never compromised. That said, he fully recognises that at the beginning of his journey, things weren’t how they are today. He recalls,
“I must mention my own development. Back when I was younger, I followed the equation: the weirder = the better. I don't think like that today. I don't want to make weird, muddy wines anymore. I want to make good wines. That’s a development in my way of thinking. You can have that way of thinking, but if you don’t work with your vineyards in the right way, then you’ll never get there.”
Ultimately, he wants to make delicious wine that everybody can enjoy. He says,
“I make my wines in the way that I like: in order to make wines that I like to drink. I don't follow any trend, and I actually hate the ‘natural wine box.’ To say my wine is better because it’s natural, well that’s bulls*^t. I used to say things like that and these days I slap myself for it. The wine must speak for itself.”
Speaking to Milan about his beginnings reminds us a little of Frank Cornelissen: youthful stubbornness melts away to leave room for humility and growth. Indeed, it’s no surprise to learn that Frank’s wines have been a big influence on Milan:
“I think I was most influenced by Rudolf Trossen and Frank Cornelissen. Rudolf as a person… I really admire his wisdom, peace, and his wines. Frank is really close to me in what he does — always trying things out and using modern technology. He just wants the best result and is able to acknowledge that he has made some wrong choices in the past, and so will try different methods. It’s about learning from your mistakes to make the best wine; a wine that can mature.”
These days, his wines are more about nuance — even subtlety. They are often, as we would say, little. And little doesn’t mean less. He says,
“Most of the wines that have made a mark on me weren't ‘big.’ They simply had some energy to share with their drinkers. Enjoyed at the right time, right place, with the right people - and that's way more important than self-indulgent conversations about barriques & bâtonnage.”
Although he’s experimental, this doesn’t permit excuses for any deviances:
“I must say that I am really demanding of my wines, and I am often dissatisfied with them. I really want the maximum. If a person is calibrated in that way, it complicates their life. You think about what you could be doing better, 24 hours a day. When I drink my wine, I never rest. I have to think about it all the time; not about what to do in the cellar, but about what to do better in the vineyard. How can I bring more harmony? I drink a lot of wine made by my friends; and wines made by people I love. I am able to forgive these wines more. Wines that have 100 points from Parker, or wines that are refined to the max, those are not a pleasure for me…”
Often at alcohol levels closer to 11% than 14%, the Nestarec wines go down oh-so easily. His Forks & Knives wine was made with that purpose in mind: to create a wine that should find its way to every table that features forks and knives. Many of his wines born from experiments are home to labels that challenge the drinker to think: not only about the wine in the bottle, but about society. In fact, sometimes it’s not about the wine at all:
“I love drinking wine. I love when everything stops and it's about the power of the moment. I don't love drinking wine alone — wine is about people for me. It’s about the people who helped bring the wines into the world, and about the people with whom I drink wine. When we drink a bottle, I don't want to talk about the wine. I want to talk about life, I want to laugh… and just enjoy the moment and be normal. Sometimes, I’m bothered by a detailed discussion of the slope and the percentage of lime in the soil. We are people, we are not machines. I make wine to drink, not to speak.”
Other wines are bottled with very minimalistic white labels. These tend to have the same ‘vein’ running through them every year and are wines Milan makes to showcase the vineyard; wines he has a certain vision for — year on year. To some degree, they tend to be wines that are less experimental and more about the fruit than the method. As such, the labels are the polar opposite to the aforementioned. He explains,
“Together with Tereza, my graphic designer, we started taking out elements that weren’t essential - until only “Nestarec” and the name of the wine remained. A purist approach to both what's in the bottle and on it. Because, as they say, perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
He’s also looking to the future, and that means more women winemakers. He says,
“I really admire women as winemakers. After the birth of our daughter Josefina, this deepened for me. I'm a disguised feminist.”
He also recognises that his efforts wouldn’t be possible if he found himself working alone.
“It's great to be joined by people who feel the same way, who work with us here. Even when I’m old, I’ll never sit by the fireplace and say, “yeah, we’re done.” We always need to be doing something. Wine is food for me, and a farmer is more than a winemaker.”
Finally, this isn’t just about Milan’s wines, it’s about the region as a whole. He contemplates,
“My region is really important to me. If I can help to change it, I will. It's great that there are a lot of young people who feel the same way, people who have knowledge, who have been abroad, and who want to do things well. I'm not in a position to give advice necessarily, but rather I feel that my job is to give other young winemakers courage — so they know that nothing is impossible. The sky is the limit! I love it here, and I care about what it’s like today. Now is the time that wineries are equipped with the best technology — and finally they can focus on what is important, and what gives them the best results. They can focus on what they are good at. It’s a great time.”
And although his wines have become celebrated globally, and sell out on allocation, he’s not about to let fame go to his head. Quite the opposite, in fact:
"I really never thought that a boy from a post-communist country would export wine to 50 countries around the world. I don't take it for granted, and I still don't really believe it now. But I don't have time to think about it too much, because I have to trees to plant, and a farm to build! I’m looking ahead; it’s important and difficult to think in the long-run; about what will happen in 10, 20 or 50 years. We are working according to the greater vision: that's my job."
And ultimately, that’s Milan’s mission. To do his bit in changing the world, while creating something beautiful, born from a pensive mindset. Drinking his wines is like simultaneously going back in time — to a land before chemicals — while modern thinking and current issues are brought to the forefront. There’s no resting on any laurels here.