Waiting for Guests! (An Interview with Gábor Bánfalvi in Borsmenta)

7 minutes read

A few weeks ago Gábor met with Edit Szabó from Borsmenta for a discussion about our experience with Hungarian wine and tourism in Hungary, these trying times for international tourism, and our Drinks Business award! Read the original article here. (Translated by Tamás Kovács)

The British Drinks Business magazine has been recognizing achievements by the world’s top drinks companies for 18 years, and awarding those who deserve them the most. How did you get on their radar?

We simply applied to enter the competition. We already won this award once in 2014, and we were shortlisted in the top three in 2015. But we did not participate the following years because there was nothing new happening in our lives.

“This year’s award goes to an organization that was praised for harnessing the power of social media to build a loyal community at the time when travel is tricky,” said Patrick Schmitt MW, Drinks Business editor-in-chief. Could you explain what this means exactly?

2019 was a very successful year in the life of our company, because we built a new branch in the US, importing and retailing wine. When we began our company, our activities initially only included hosting and guiding guests. Later when we started widening the list of our services, we opened the Tasting Table, where we were organizing daily wine tastings for our international audience. We also launched a European online wine shop. Last year we added an online shop and wine club for our clients in the US. Recently we opened a new wine shop in Budapest, just across from our wine tasting cellar on Bródy Sándor utca. After doing all this, we thought it is time again for us to be measured—so we applied for the award, and we are thrilled with the result.

What do you think makes Taste Hungary so special that it was twice recognized with a top honor in an international competition like this? 

Well, I don’t know any other company in the wine tourism business which, on top of organizing tours, has a physical wine cellar where they host guests, and has online shops operating on two continents, through which European and American guests can have Hungarian wines delivered to them. For example, if an American guest attends our wine tasting in Budapest, and then places an order, we can ship him a case of Hungarian wine so he can have it when he arrives home in America.

Does this require having a serious logistical organization on the other side of the Atlantic?

We have things set up so that we have one employee and a small warehouse in Washington DC. This is the only state in the US where regulations are softer, and the same company can operate as an importer, wholesaler, and retailer, all at once. We exported about 12,000 bottles over our first year, and we ship to 35 states. We are very satisfied with all of this for the first full year of the business. 

Have you always been a wine-lover, or did you just fall into it?

I have an economics degree and a master’s in Spanish literature. Before university, I worked in hospitality and this is where I became interested in wine. I lived in the US for a few years, where I met my wife. She loves wine too, actually she bought me my first wine book. Later, I worked as a translator and taught Spanish, but my admiration for wines remained.

What does your wife do?

Carolyn is trained as a chef and she is a writer, so it is natural that flavors play an important role in our lives. When we travel, we are always seeking to discover places through their gastronomy. I suggested that she write a book about Hungarian food and wine. 

Did she do it?

She wrote two books at once. The first one was published by Park Kiadó in Hungary, the other was published in the US. We travelled to vineyards, dined in restaurants, got to know many winemakers, and we both had a great time doing that. After the books were published, Carolyn was approached more and more by those who were planning to travel to Hungary and were seeking recommendations. This gave us the idea to start building a business based on this. We launched our website in 2008, and were waiting on the first guest to arrive.

Did you have to wait long? 

It took about six months to get started, but from that point on things started to speed up. We organized wine tours for travelers to Hungary, and the interest was so high that by this time last year we had over 10,000 guests who had already used Taste Hungary’s various services.

You two could barely handle it right?

It would have been impossible! We were 10 full time employees (including us) and we worked with more or less 30 freelance guides. In 2014 we opened our wine tasting cellar on Bródy Sándor utca in Budapest, where we hosted a few thousand guests every year at our tastings and events.

How much do you think foreign travelers know Hungarian wine?

Tokaj is known to almost everyone, at least they’ve heard of it, but they may not relate it to Hungary. In my experience, most travelers are surprised when they find out that there are wines in Hungary, and especially when they realize that they are so good.

Are guests interested in wines from international or local grape varieties?

There are a few rare exceptions, but the majority of them are interested in tasting local varieties like Kadarka, Kékfrankos, Furmint, and Hárslevelű, and they are not bothered by the fact that they cannot even pronounce their names.

Your wife is American, you are Hungarian. You have lived here and there for years. Have you moved to Hungary for good now?

It seems so, yes. This is home to me and luckily Carolyn has also fallen in love with Hungary.  We moved back in late summer after a four year stint in America. We have three kids, they already started school here in September. Not everything goes smoothly, but we try to help them.

You had a great year last year, but this year there was one blow hitting after another. The quarantine, and the decline in tourism has obviously caused you a lot of difficulties. What is your strategy for survival?

We had to lay off most of our staff, and we couldn’t even give freelancers tasks. By the end of the summer, business started to pick up and we had some hopes for September (which is traditionally a very busy month for us), but then the borders were closed and our hopes were dashed. On the other hand, our online shops are working. And we have the Tasting Table and our small wine shop, so we can open to the Hungarian audience. In the future we will also hold courses and tastings for them.Our employees are prepared, all three of them have traveled the word and returned to Hungary, partly because of the wine, just as we did. Tamás Kovács is the head of Tasting Table, Sebastian Giraldo is our head sommelier, and Christian Gelbe-Hausen is a sommelier. I’m grateful for their work.

The Drinks Business award has primarily prestige value. In such a market as it is now, can you take advantage of its potential?

Obviously, this award is not important because of the certificate and the trophy, but because those who receive it are noticed by the international wine world. We can hardly expect that this will boost wine tourism, but it can have a beneficial effect for the online wine trade. Last year, we sold approximately 60,000 bottles of wine through our American online shops, as well as our tasting programs, and Budapest wine shop. Then in February we hit the wall hard. I’m confident that tourism will recover quickly, but right now I’m happy with even a quarter of our regular turnover.

My experience is that whoever works with wine also begins to desire his own vineyard after a while. Have you been thinking of having a small estate?

Of course I have. I have to wait a few more years for that, but if It happens it would definitely be in Tokaj. If you walk in Tokaj, you feel like you are connected to a hundred year old spring which is still buzzing with an incredible force. This region produces wines that can only be measured by the greatest wines of the world. I secretly hope that one day we will be a part of that wine community.

And what happens until then!

We will keep sending Hungarian wines all over the world, and we are waiting for the local guests here in Budapest, with love. Many of them don’t know us yet, but we hope this will change soon!


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