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A Q&A with Photographer Brian H Neely on His Wine Filled Year

Working in the Hungarian vineyards
Thanks to our common love of wine, we have gotten to know Brian H Neely, an American photographer, well over the past few years that he has been living in Budapest. For much of this time he has been working on a project called A Wine Filled Year. The seed of his project was born, naturally, over a glass of wine … or perhaps actually, over many glasses of wine! A Wine Filled Year has now been completed, and the result is a gorgeous book of photographs documenting several Hungarian wineries and vineyards over the course of a year. You can check out Brian’s blog for more information about the project, or you can order the book directly here. To meet Brian (and pick up a signed copy of the book!) come to his launch party on April 9th.

We spoke to Brian about his project, photography, and his favorite Hungarian wines. 

A Wine-Filled Year Cover

Did you have any experience with Hungarian wine before moving to Hungary? And, what inspired you to spend a year of your life on photographing Hungarian wine?

I had no previous experience with Hungarian wines, though I have a decent amount of experience with wines from most of the usual places—the Western US, France, Italy, Chile, South Africa, Australia, and Greece. What I’d heard about Hungarian wine was from people who had drunk the products made during the Soviet period, when quality control wasn’t so important, so I was somewhat nervous the first time I had one. It was actually on Taste Hungary’s walking tour of the Nagyvasarcsarnok, restaurants, pastry shops that I first had a local wine. It was a white wine, and it was beautifully dry and crisp. I was in love immediately.

The inspiration for A Wine Filled Year came as I was processing my pictures from a trip to Tokaj. My wife and I had friends in town fromSeattle who had heard about Furmint, and were big fans of aszú, and they wanted to see (and drink) as much as possible in the appropriate place. Our visit with them to Tokaj coincided with the Erdőbénye Wine Festival, which happens every August. The town closes its main streets to car traffic, and becomes a pedestrian paradise. Various winemakers open their yards, gardens, and driveways and sell tasting pours of their products. In addition to spending three days walking around Erdőbénye, we had gone on a tasting tour of three wineries with Zsolt Berger from Karadi-Berger Winery, and we had done a vertical tasting of 6 puttonyos aszú wines at Disznokő. As I worked on my pictures from the trip, I kept thinking about how relaxed I felt talking with winemakers, how much fun they all were to spend time with, and just how good it felt to be in Tokaj. Perfecting the contrast and saturation of the picture that became the cover of my book, I was struck with an idea to do a year of photography about wine.

Hungarian wine country

My grandparents were wheat farmers, and I knew that the amount of work that goes into making an agricultural product is kind of like an iceberg – you only see a little of it and don’t notice the incredible amount of work that makes up the totality. Harvest is something we’re all familiar with, but nobody’s hanging out with the wheat farmer while he’s sharpening his plows or preparing next year’s seed. And nobody goes to vineyards in the winter to watch winemakers prune their vines, or rack the wine. I wanted to get as much of that part of the work as I could.

After visiting so many wineries and vineyards, were there any surprises about the winemaking/growing process that you discovered? Did you learn a lot about winemaking?

I was struck by the amount of chemistry involved. I had kind of thought that they crushed grapes, added some yeast, and the juice just naturally became wine after that. But it’s not so simple—you have temperature controls, nitrogen as an inert gas to block oxygen in bottles, carbon dioxide release valves that allow gases to exit the barrel, while preventing oxygen from getting in, dry ice sprinkled over open containers of freshly pressed must to keep the oxygen out, and other chemistry to keep the yeast from growing too fast and exhausting itself. It was amazing how much science there is in this drink that feels more like an art project than a chemical experiment. At the same time, though, winemakers approach their craft with the passion of artists and artisans. They want their wines to reflect their personalities, so they make small changes throughout the winemaking process to distinguish their work. And it often shows. One winemaker I know is obsessed with not allowing anything except the grape and the barrel in the wine. He goes to great lengths to prevent mold, any mold, from growing in his cellars. The resulting wines are uniform, clean, and clear in flavor. Personally, I like my wines a little earthier, with some variability from year to year, so I prefer the products of wineries that are a little less stringent, but I can see why he does things his  way.

Hungarian wine country

Another thing, completely unrelated to that, is how small grape flowers are. They are tiny, some of the smallest flowers I’ve ever seen. They don’t last very long either, so if there are windstorms the day you want to take pictures of them, you might just have to accept that you won’t get pictures of them.

Were there any particular challenges or difficulties that you encountered during the process of photographing the wineries and vineyards?

The day I went to shoot grape flowers, there were tremendous windstorms and thunderstorms. The wind was so bad that down by Siofok a semi had gotten blown over onto its side on a long bridge on the M7. When I got to the vineyard, the wind was whipping the vines around so much that there was no way to get a good shot of the flowers. In the end, I got no usable pictures of the flowers. I decided to go inside and make pictures in the cellar and warehouse, and after just a few frames, the power went out. I took that as a sign from the universe, and headed home. Some days, it just doesn’t work. The late summer of 2014 presented different challenges, as many vineyards, particularly those in the Sopron area, were flooded. Walking down the rows, my boots got covered in thick, slick mud. It took days for them to completely dry out.

Hungarian wine country

Do you have any photography tips for amateur photographers on how to best capture the romance of the vineyards, the dark wine cellars, and wine bottles/glasses?

For vineyards, try to visit in the early morning or the late afternoon. It is the time that artists call “golden hour,” because the light is nearly always perfect. Get close to the vines, and angle your camera so the scene is filled with them —it creates a sense of immediacy. Try to put something in the picture that draws attention—maybe get very close to a bunch of grapes, so they fill up 1/3 of the picture, and have the row stretching off to the distance behind them. Mostly, and this applies to anything you’re taking a picture of: try to think of something you want to say with the picture. Sometimes, a big landscape that says, “I was on top of Tokaj Hill and saw the whole world from there,” is what you want, while other times, you’d rather say, “Aren’t these grapes fat and beautiful?” Something that helps me is to think about what my Instagram or Twitter post is going to say.

Wine cellars are very difficult and require a steady hand. It helps to have a willingness to turn a bad picture into “art,” also—because sometimes art is a beautiful thing, and at other times it’s finding a good solution in a tough situation. Cellars are dark, and because you’re usually in them with a group that doesn’t want to wait several minutes for you to get the right shot, you just have to make do. If you have a DSLR, one of the big cameras with removable lenses, set it to your highest ISO setting and try to remain very still as you shoot. If you have a point & shoot, set it for night mode, and again, be as still as you can. You can also set it on top of a barrel for support, but you still have to be very quiet. If you can control the light metering point, use the brightest thing you can see that isn’t a light bulb. Using a light bulb would make the rest of the picture entirely too dark. Unless you shoot in cellars all the time, though, it’ll be difficult to get good at it. It takes a lot of practice, and a lot of bad pictures before you really figure out what works for you.

Hungarian wine country

For glasses, there are so many possibilities. Have your life mate hold one in front of the light—that gives you light shining through the glass, and your beloved’s hand in the picture. The light coming around the edges of the glass creates a nice rim of brightness that sets off the glass from the background. For me, shots like this are usually better without the on-camera flash, which can make harsh, flat lighting that makes the wine look dull and saps it of color. Try to make the background either as empty as possible or very atmospheric. One of my favorite pictures is one that I shot at night from the castle area with an out of focus Chain Bridge in the background. Technically, it’s not the best picture ever taken, but it creates a nice sense of place and mood.

Scene from the Budavari Borfesztival in Budapest, Hungary.

What are some of the wines that you discovered in Hungary that you will miss most when you leave Budapest? And, what is your favorite wine region and cellar in Hungary?

I love red wines, and I’m pretty indiscriminate. They all have something to offer, so it often depends on my mood. It doesn’t matter if it’s Cabernet Franc or Syrah or Malbec or Nebbio or Pinot Noir or … But in Hungary, I try to stay local. I drink Kékfrankos or Bikavér when I want a big, explosive red, and Kadarka when I something lighter and fruitier. A wine that I will miss terribly is Konyári Loliense Vörös. I think it’s a gorgeous, intensely flavored, yet soft in character wine. If am ever trapped in a cabin in the mountains, I would want several cases of that on hand. And if I can’t have that, I’ll go the more expensive route and take some St. Andrea Hangács Bikavér.

I don’t particularly love whites, but I’ve grown to appreciate Tokaj’s triumvirate of Furmint, Hárslevelű and Yellow Muscat. They’re crisp and fruity, and the mineral from the volcanic soils add a hint of saltiness that makes them stand out.

There isn’t a region here I dislike, and it’s very difficult to pick one that I love more than the others, but I’m going to go with Villány. The reds they make there are very lush. They remind me of great Italian wines, or California reds with a lighter quality to the oak.

Hungarian wine country

And for the cellar…I’m going to give you three: two for the people, and one for people and the space. Taschner Borház in Sopron is run by the very welcoming, sincere Kurt Taschner. He uses a blend of modern technology and old-fashioned methods, and I’m always very happy to see him and drink his Kékfrankos. My second would be Konyári Pince in Balatonlelle, which is a great little winery, and again is run by one of the friendliest people I’ve ever dealt with, Dániel Konyári. I could call him up on a Friday and have permission to shoot in his vineyards with no supervision over the weekend. My third would be Dobogó Pince in Tokaj, run by Attila Domokos, which is my favorite cellar for the cellar itself. It is a small winery, and the cellar is like a sculpture made of light and wine bottles. There’s magic down there. And Attila is another very helpful, friendly guy who seems to spend his days taking care of his friends.

Do you have plans to continue using wine as a subject?

As a diplomat’s spouse, it’s hard to predict where I’ll be heading in the future, so I don’t like making definitive statements. If I live in a place with good wine again, then I will definitely continue the work. Otherwise, though, I like to look for the things that make a place special. When we lived in Kazakhstan, I spent a lot of time on the open road, shooting long, pensive landscapes. In Greece I went crazy for street markets and ancient temples. In Afghanistan…well, I was mostly stuck on a compound, but our groundskeepers grew amazing roses, so I shot a lot of flower pictures there.

For now, though, I’ll just drink another glass of Feketeleanyka and try to live in the moment.

Hungarian wine country

  • Best Contribution to Wine & Spirits Tourism

  • Best Wine Tour Operator (2017)

  • Certificate of Excellence Winner (2011-2017)