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15 Observations From 15 Years of Taste Hungary

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Fifteen years is a long time! That’s enough time to be born, go to kindergarten, finish elementary school, and start high school. Taste Hungary recently turned 15 years old—which is a lot to celebrate, and a lot to reflect on. The Taste Hungary tour company was born in October 2008 when we ran our very first custom-designed multi-day wine tour. Gábor was the guide, and the itinerary included visits to wineries at Lake Balaton, a pálinka distillery, home-cooked meals, a visit to the Pannonhalma Abbey and winery, and a stop at Gábor’s mom’s house for a home-cooked lunch. The tour went so well that one of the guests, a food writer, wrote an article about Hungarian food for her local newspaper in Minnesota featuring some of Gábor’s mom’s recipes! Soon after, Carolyn started guiding private food and market tours. We are still in touch with our very first private market tour customer, who returns to Budapest almost every year and books something with us. 

It was just the two of us for the first few years, guiding all of the tours while we built the business and daydreamed about possibilities. This was before food tours became the popular tour category they are today. Back then, people didn’t quite get what we were doing when we explained that our tours focused on food and wine as a lens to experience Hungary. Now, they are offered everywhere and are well understood as a fun and educational way to experience a new place. 

A few years later, as our tour calendar started to fill up and we had a solid team of guides working with us, we started to re-think our signature food tour (The Budapest Culinary & Wine Walk, a four-hour food tasting walk in Budapest) so it would more emphasize Hungarian wine. Since most of the guests wouldn’t visit an actual Hungarian winery during their trips, we saw this as our big chance to introduce them to the story of Hungarian wine (while they tasted some great wine). We wanted them to leave the tour as fans of both Hungarian food and wine. 

We wanted the final stop on the tour to be a place that would mimic the hospitality and atmosphere of a small family-run winery in the countryside. But we couldn’t find the right place for the tasting. So we decided to create our own! We scoured real estate listings for something suitable (and affordable), and came across a cellar which most people would have walked right out of—there was no sewage, no water, and cement crumbling from the ceilings. But we liked the bones of the place, the location was great, and we could envision what it could become. We were thrilled when we chipped away at that cement and discovered the original bricks (though we did have one team of workers quit, after calling it the “worst job” they’ve ever done). Between the renovation, the permits and licensing, and the neighbors (who, understandably, were annoyed by the loud work), the project was a lot more than we had anticipated.

Our cellar, the Tasting Table, has evolved so much since then. Many of our guests say it’s the highlight of the tour. We have a team of fantastic sommeliers who hold two wine tasting sessions there every day, through which we’ve created so many fans of Hungarian wine (which was the goal). Our guests range from people who are new to wine and are just looking for a fun activity to do for a few hours, to professionals (like sommeliers and winemakers). 

Over the years we built up a base of guests from the Tasting Table—many of them from the United States—who wanted to keep buying Hungarian wine. This was the impetus for to start importing Hungarian wine into the US. From a warehouse in Washington DC (Carolyn’s hometown), we sell it through our online shop. Our first shipment arrived a few months before the pandemic started, and we launched a quarterly Hungarian Wine Club (the first of its kind). Now we are about to send out our 18th wine club shipment! We are proud that a good number of our members are ones who signed on in those very early days, trusting that we would send them enjoyable selections every few months.

Three years ago we opened a wine shop across from the Tasting Table Cellar, during the height of the pandemic. The borders were closed, all of our tours and tastings were canceled, the cellar was closed, and there was a curfew in Budapest. Opening a new retail business just when so many other businesses were going out of business was pretty crazy. But we had the space already (we were using it as an office), and some staff members with nothing to do. If you’ve been to our shop, you’ll know that it’s tiny—but we have a mighty selection of hand-picked wines from every one of Hungary’s 22 wine districts, with a special focus on Hungary’s native grape varieties and unique wine styles. 

Budapest (and Hungary) have changed a lot since we started 15 years ago. For one thing, tourism has exploded. In 2019 there were seven times as many tourists as there were in 2008 when we started. The wine scene has matured lots since then. We’ve also grown, as people and as a company. We’ve learned a lot about wine, about business, about ourselves, and about what we want in life. Of course, we’ve also made some mistakes along the way. We couldn’t have imagined that Taste Hungary would evolve into when we started out, but we can’t imagine our lives without Taste Hungary.

We are so grateful to everyone who has been curious enough about Hungarian wine and food to join one of our tours or wine tastings over the past 15 years. Introducing wine-lover’s to their first tastes of Hungarian wine never gets old. Even better is when they go home, seek out Hungarian wines, and introduce them to their friends and family. We are grateful to everyone who buys our wines—both at our shop and online. And we are so appreciative of all of the members of our wine club, who trust us with sending them unknown wines every three months. Of course, none of this would be possible without our smart and talented team—which includes tour guides, sommeliers, drivers, servers, a chef, and an indispensable cellar manager. Thanks also to all of the winemakers who inspire us with their magical wines, and the artisans who make the delicious foods that we serve. Köszönjük!

Here are 15 random observations from 15 years of Taste Hungary:

  1. Be willing to change your mind. For as long as we’ve been in business people have been asking us if and when we’ll make our own wine. We always answered “never,” because we enjoy the wines made by people who know what they are doing. Last year a friend in Tokaj drove us up to the beautiful vineyard he was selling, and something changed, for both of us at the same time. We wanted to learn how to make our wine. We bought the vineyard, and acquired the necessary equipment. We now have some barrels and tanks filled with juice fermenting away in a Tokaj cellar.
  1. Try the local specialties (especially when they are delicious, ancient wines that were once enjoyed by royalty and celebrities around the world). The last wine during every single one of the tastings at the Tasting Table is a sweet wine from Tokaj (either an Aszú, Szamorodni, or Fordítás). One of the comments we regularly hear is “I don’t drink sweet wine.” But we don’t let them get away that easily. After an in-depth introduction about the region, the long and fascinating history, and the laborious winemaking process, everyone gives in and tastes the wine. And 99.9 percent of the time they love it. Often they even end up buying a bottle or two to take home. a3
  1. Storytelling is everything. Those guests in the anecdote above may not always love the sweet Tokaj, but because of the extensive storytelling that we use to introduce it, they do have an appreciation for how special it is. Storytelling is the soul of all of our tours and tastings. It is the opposite of dishing out information and facts without a context. Our tours and tastings are full of stories which help to connect our guests with Hungarian food and wine, and to leave them feeling satisfied, and wanting to learn, experience, and taste more. Another story we love to tell during the The Budapest Culinary & Wine Walk is the story of the Zwack family and Unicum, the bitter drink they created more than 200 years ago. It’s such a fascinating story, which handily illustrates the history of Hungary itself. While the drink itself is not as easy to fall in love with as Tokaj Aszú (for most people), but most people do give it a try while they eagerly listen to the story.
  1. Always keep learning. Read widely, write, think, take classes, ask questions, go to industry events, meet new people. This is true in any field of business. But in wine, this is particularly important. Learning about wine is a lifelong endeavor, and once you have fallen under its spell it will take you down a million rabbit holes of exploration and study. You’ll find that the more you learn, the more there is that you don’t know, that you will never know. You’ll be humbled by the complexity of the subject, and all of the places it can take you (physically and otherwise). Our library of wine books is constantly expanding, our shelves are overflowing with wines we’ve fallen in love with, and our bucket list gets longer when we taste new wines or read about unknown regions. This will be a lifelong endeavor! 
  1. But you do not have to know a ton about wine to enjoy it. Don’t be afraid of wine. You just need to figure out what you like. You can do this by finding a good local wine shop, where the staff is friendly and you can taste samples before buying. Taste as much as you can, and figure out how to express what you like (and also what you don’t like). Talk to the staff at the shop, tell them your budget, and they can direct you towards wines you will have a good chance of liking. It helps to familiarize yourself with the language of wine, and if you are able to, visit some wineries to see how it is made firsthand. 
  1. Support your local independent food and wine businesses. Following up on the above idea, small local businesses are the underdogs and appreciate your support more than you know! To us, every single purchase, positive review, and booking matters. We value each customer, and our goal is to make every customer happy with their experience with our company. While the wine and food may be cheaper at the big chain grocery stores, you can rest assured that when you buy wine or cheese from our shop, our staff knows every product, and can confidently steer you towards the ones that you’d most appreciate. There are no electronic checkouts. No mass-produced wines of questionable quality. And no products that are not handmade by people who we personally know.
  1. Be open minded about wine (and life). Another line we often hear is “I only drink whites” or “I only drink reds.” This is inexplicable to us since there are too many interesting wines out there to cut out an entire category of wine! Especially when you are traveling and have the opportunity to taste wines that are new to you, and that you might not come across ever again.
  1. Wine snobbism is boring. You won’t find it during our tours and tastings! We do think, however, that sometimes people unfairly perceive wine appreciation as wine snobbism. We care deeply about wine—all of it—from the sustainability and health of the vineyards and the quality of life of the vineyard workers, to the taste and smell of the wine in the bottle and the customers’ opinions about it. The idea of caring about wine should not be an elitist concept.
  1. “Travel for the people, not the politics.” One of the founders of Lonely Planet recently shared this advice in an interview. We agree. When Hungary is in the news these days, it is usually because its prime minister is being provocative. We’ve read comments on countless online travel forums from people saying they are skipping Hungary because of its government’s politics. It was especially jarring to hear this from Americans during the Trump era. Budapest has a liberal mayor, and the city’s population overwhelmingly did not vote for this government. 
  1.  But don’t be afraid of the politics. If you have a platform, use it to support the people and businesses who you find worthy. We do this by carefully selecting the wines that appear on our shop shelves, the wineries we visit on our tours, and the other businesses that we support by doing business with them and bringing our guests to visit them. 
  1. Find your own voice. Just as writers work on their craft to find their own voice, a business must do the same. Build your business in the way that only you can do it. Be genuine in creating your unique proposition. This will make it easier to not stress over competition (or what may seem like competition), because you’ll see that they cannot offer what you are offering. Realizing that you don’t have to do things the way everyone else does things gives you freedom. Alicia Kennedy recently shared this quote from Nigella Lawson on the topic of writing (but it also applies to business), which we love: “I think to be competitive is such an odd thing. Because I think if you’re competitive, you must be doing something so generic that you think someone else can step up and do it. You have a voice. You do what you do. And of course, people might get tired of listening to it. But it’s fine. That seems entirely fair. I don’t mind that.”
  1. Be creative. We find that building a business satisfies us creatively. We started our business after Carolyn published her book Food Wine Budapest, and all of the initial interest in our tours was from readers. So all along we have valued the idea of creativity. When people talk about business, they tend to think of excel sheets, profit margins, numbers, and accounting. The softer, more creative skills—such as writing—have been equally as important for us. It has actually been the foundation of our business.
  1. There are reasons why some wines are more expensive. Sure, some wines are just overpriced for no good reason. But there are reasons why some cost more than others. Many sustainably produced wines are more expensive because organic vineyards have lower yields. Smaller wineries generally do everything by hand in the vineyard. Since they don’t use machines to harvest, labor costs are much higher. And then there are the sweet botrytized wines from Tokaj, like Aszú and Eszencia. Eszencia is supposedly the most expensive wine in the world. Part of the reason these wines are so expensive is the labor costs. Grapes are hand pickled, berry by berry, over multiple passes in the vineyard. And since the berries are shriveled, it takes a much bigger quantity to produce a bottle. 
  1. Sharing a bottle of wine can be a powerful thing. The marketing power of wine can’t be overestimated. One of our American guests and her family decided to visit Tokaj during a meal at a restaurant in Washington DC, as they shared a bottle of Tokaji Aszú. They hopped on an overseas flight to spend a week in Hungary because of a good bottle of wine. A bottle of wine will be shared amongst a few people, who will discuss where it’s from, what grape it is, what the region is, and more, sometimes much more. It can take you many places.
  1. Appreciate the classics. For example, Hungary’s Indigenous grape varieties. Hungary has an incredibly rich and complex wine tradition, with many  indigenous grape varieties. Unfortunately many more have died out, starting when phylloxera devastated European vineyards in the late 19th century, and then continuing when Communist policy dictated quantity over quality and many varieties were torn out and replaced with ones that the Communists preferred. In Hungary there now quite a few winemakers who are looking into these old varieties which have been (nearly) lost to history, acquiring vine cuttings from the research institute, and experimenting with planting them in his vineyards. These grapes have offer a huge range of styles, flavors, and versatility. We should value these, and focus on them.

After 15 years, we are still loving what we do at Taste Hungary, and finding this work worthy, inspiring, and exciting. The enthusiasm of our guests also gives us fuel to keep going. We’ll continue to hold our daily wine tasting sessions, source interesting and delicious wines for our shop, run our food tours, and bring our Hungarian wines to America. We also have some exciting new projects in the works. So check back, and stay in touch!

Come visit us at the Tasting Table (or on one of our tours) if you are in Budapest, or traveling to Budapest! Or buy Hungarian wine online through our shops (in Europe and the UK and in the United States).