Ten years ago, in the midst of the 2008 financial crisis, I accompanied Taste Hungary’s first guests on a wine tour to Balaton. She happened to be a journalist and wanted to experience a real Hungarian home-cooked meal, so on the way home we stopped by my mom’s house for a meal. Later, she wrote an article on her trip to Hungary featuring my mom’s meal and húsleves recipe. “In her kitchen the size of a shoe box, Katalin whipped up a Hungarian meal that rivaled those I remember my Hungarian grandma making,” wrote our journalist friend. A few weeks later I found myself driving to Tokaj with a journalist from the Wine Enthusiast, who was visiting to research an article. We spent the day tasting wine and talking about Tokaj … it was an amazing learning experience. A few weeks later Carolyn began guiding tasting tours at the markets. Her very first customer has since become a friend, one of our biggest cheerleaders, and has returned to Hungary nearly every year, coming back to us for various types of tours and events. This was the beginning of Taste Hungary’s story.
Since then (and even long before), wine and food have been my travel companions, the objects of my readings and research, and main topic of conversations. I’ve held Hungarian wine tastings and educational sessions in several countries in Europe, and several states in America. And as I write this, the six pallets of Hungarian wine which I am importing are on their way across the Atlantic to NYC. This will be the beginning of Taste Hungary’s US wine club. Not a bad way to celebrate our tenth anniversary!
For Taste Hungary’s 10th birthday, I’ve looked back at some of the key moments of our first decade and some of the things I’m most grateful for … one for each year.
1. First of all, I’m happy that we’re still in business!
I’m not saying that because we actually had any issues or moments when we were in trouble. But according to statistics, only 30 percent of small businesses make it through a decade. When Carolyn and I started Taste Hungary I was a teacher and she was a writer. Our flexible schedules gave us the opportunity to slowly cut back on our work to focus on our own business. And then there came a day when I could no longer justify spending time working on anything else but Taste Hungary. But yet, the final decision to cancel all my classes and devote myself fully to Taste Hungary was a hard one. After all we had a mortgage to pay, two kids in kindergarten, and a third one on the way. But the moment I quit, more business came knocking on the door and we were free to devote ourselves fully to our dream company. There have been lots of ups and downs, and what has helped me so many times along the way has been meeting some of the most inspiring people in the food and wine business. Talking and working with them helped us find the right direction, or just reassured us that we’re doing the right thing.
2. Learning from some of the best
Through Taste Hungary I’ve met an endless number of really inspiring and good people. They are creators who make the world a tastier and happier place. They are winemakers who have ploughed and re-planted hillsides that were once grand cru vineyards in Tokaj, but were overtaken by the forest during Communism. They are bakers who make some of the best cakes in town, and carrying on with the traditional recipes or creating new traditions. They are people who are continuing fifth or sixth generation family businesses, or those who are just making their dreams come to life by building cellars and distilleries that they hope will become the family heritage. I had the opportunity to take Peter Symington of Porto wine fame on a wine tour to Tokaj. I met Anthony Bourdain when he was in Budapest filming an episode of Parts Unknown. We’ve been working with Ari Weinzweig, Amy Emberling, and Frank Carollo from Zingerman’s for the past seven years, which has been one of our most enlightening learning experiences. And this summer we spent an evening with Rick Steves helping him update a chapter in his Budapest guidebook! We’ve been lucky to learn from some of the best people from the industry.
3. Our team
The Taste Hungary team, which has grown so much, is also a hub of exceptional people. I’ve learned so much from our talented crew of guides, sommeliers, drivers, chefs, and our back office team. We’ve come so far since the days when Carolyn and I guided every tour, and also scrambled to find the time to do all of the other things necessary run and grow a business. Our team of guides is wonderful, and we are lucky to work with people who bring so many different passions to what they do. From craft beer, coffee, wine, and sweets—we always have a guide in mind to recommend for clients wanting to delve into some particular area of food or drink in Hungary. It’s a great feeling when you can trust people to help you build your business, and then move on to the next project, so you can learn and the company can grow.
4. The Tasting Table
In 2013 we had the crazy idea that we needed our own place in central Budapest to hold wine tastings. Until then we had been bringing our guests to restaurants or wine bars, but it wasn’t an ideal wine experience. We wanted our own place so we could hold our own tastings regularly and work with the wines and wineries we like. So we found an old, moldy, dark cellar which didn’t even have running water or electricity. We loved the location on Bródy Sándor utca (right next to the National Radio Building), and we were sure that we could bring the place to life. Now we have a classy, brick cellar which is full of life, people, and wine. We hold wine tastings twice daily, and we have one of the (or maybe the) largest collections of Tokaji wines in Budapest, including rare old vintages. To me this is the greatest reward, bringing life and people into a forgotten place. When we had that crazy idea, we didn’t know where it would take us or how much work it would be, but it has changed our business and greatly improved the wine experiences we can give our guests.
5. Continuous learning and challenges
I’m a marathon runner. But being an entrepreneur is the longest marathon I’ve ever run. It can be incredibly painful because you want to grow the company, so you need to work on making sure you have enough business and your clients are happy. Than you realize you’ve been spending way too much time on one aspect of your company, and have been neglecting something else. So you run over there and start working on that. But then you also know that the key to growing is in delegating, so you can work on the business and not in the business. It’s easier said than done. And there are those moments when you feel like you’ve arrived to the next level and can take a moment to enjoy how far you’ve come. Like looking at our shelves full of wine at the Tasting Table, or meeting happy clients on a tour, or having a full house at a wine dinner, or meeting someone in a wine shop in Washington DC who has already taken a Taste Hungary tour.
6. Traveling the world for food and wine
Travel and logistics is a big part of the wine business. Though Taste Hungary got its start by organizing trips centered around Hungarian food and wine, often these days it is the other way around. We organize the wines to get to the places where our clients live. Our mission is to introduce Hungarian food and wine to those who are unfamiliar with it, and that means that we often hold tastings and dinners in other places (including Barcelona, Washington DC, London, and Ann Arbor, Michigan). And through The Tasting Table, we also ship wine all over Europe. Over these past ten years we’ve also personally traveled so much in the name of learning about wine, which is essential if you want to get fresh ideas and inspiration. I’ll never forget the wine shops carrying old vintage ports in Lisbon, or the bodegas we visited in Jerez, or the or the barns set up as tasting rooms in California. All of these trips helped us make our services better, helped me understand that there is a place for Hungarian wine in the world, and that what we have to offer here is really special and should be shared with as many people as possible.
7. The Taste Hungary Blog
Education has always been a key part of our tours and tastings. In 2018 we re-launched our website, with a revamped blog and a wonderful team of writers. We hope it will become the best English-language blog concentrating on Hungary’s food and wine.
8. Hungarian cuisine and the stories behind it
Hungary is really the perfect place for a food tour company like us. We could not wish for a more colorful and older food and wine culture than what we have here. After ten years we’re still just scratching the surface when it comes to learning about the history of all the dishes and wine that we work with. There’s so much more to read, research, and share. Gyula Krúdy alone wrote more than a 100 novels, many of which are food-focused. Hungary is also lucky to have so many iconic dishes and products like gulyás, Dobos torta, Esterházy torta, wine from Tokaj and Eger, and paprika, just to name a few.
9. Exploring Hungarian wine
Wine has been with humans from the beginning, and I hope it will be with us until the end. I hope we can take it to the Mars with us or whatever the next planet might be. The most fascinating thing about wine is that it if you take it seriously, it will take you seriously and take you in all kinds of unexpected directions. Without wine I never would have met so many interesting people and places. Without wine, the Tasting Table would still be a dark, dusty, abandoned storage unit. Wine and learning about it can take you everywhere from history, geology, and chemistry to literature, food, and people. It really provides an endless source for learning and inspiration, which will keep us working on new projects in 2019 and into the next ten years.
10. Taste Hungary Wine Club
From the beginning of Taste Hungary, our mission was clear: to introduce Hungarian food and wine to as many non-Hungarians as possible. Robert Mondavi said in his autobiography: “I wanted to bring the world into my mom’s kitchen.” It could not have been better said for us either. We started with tourism, and added wine tasting and wine sales along the way. We began by selling wine at the Tasting Table, and then we shipped it within the EU. In 2019 we are taking this to the next level by starting a wine club both for EU and US residents. We’ve heard so many times over the years from our guests: “I wish Hungarian wine was more available outside of Hungary.” So we decided to do something about that. Importing and retailing alcohol in the US is an intimidatingly difficult and lengthy process, but we have finally finished all of the paperwork and figured out the details, and our first batch of wine is on its way! We are importing six wines, and every quarter we’ll bring another batch of six. I think it will be a great addition to what we do, and the people who will be sipping these wines in the US will feel a bit closer to Hungary as they’re enjoying them. After all that is a way of traveling and discovering the world too!