For many Magyars, city and country dwellers alike, the lure of the vineyard – making and selling Hungarian wines – is strong: for a number, it has proved irresistible. Their enthusiasm is infectious, their determination legendary, but their experience is a warning. The reality is that the business of winemaking, most particularly achieving export sales, is excruciatingly tough.
Like many Hungarians, Laura Rabcsánszki grew up with wine in the family, later studying oenology. So, in 2010, when she went to live with her husband in his home town of Mezőkövesd in central Hungary, it was natural to begin her own wine business.
With capital limited, Rabcsánszki started small, but with high hopes. Naming her operation Revolution WineZ (RWZ), from the outset she determined to produce good quality wine; anything less from a small operation would be commercial suicide. And with the domestic market over-supplied with everything from the plonkiest plonk to the sweetest Tokaji Aszú, her plan was always to export – most especially to the United Kingdom.
“Early in 2016, we approached an agent who promoted Hungarian wines in London and we agreed to take part in a campaign, including a tasting and an article in a trade magazine, all in association with other Hungarian, mostly larger winemakers,” she says.
Hosted by two wine experts with experience of Central Europe, the tasting attracted a number of journalists and wine retailers.
“Our wines were praised,” Rabcsánszki says. But the good news ended there. With almost no resulting sales, she dropped any further action. “It was getting enormously expensive,” she says.
Despite much mutual bonhomie about the prowess of Hungarian wines at home, Rabcsánszki was learning about the brutal reality of the global wine market first hand. As she puts it: “Hungarian wines are only world-famous in Hungary. They are not known, and not considered at all, abroad. The retailers I had contact with were also only just beginning… to commercialize Hungarian wines in the premium segment of the English wine market.”
Rabcsánszki’s experience is far from unique. Marta Wille-Baumkauff took up her life-long dream to open a winery in 1991, originally buying a carefully selected single hectare in Tokaj and picking her first vintage in 1993.
Budapest-born, and with no practical experience in winemaking, Wille-Baumkauff opted for a strictly bio-dynamic vineyard operation at a time when such thinking was decidedly “off-the-wall”. Despite, or perhaps because of, such eccentric (and expensive, and time-consuming) principles, she received much collegial support from the viticulture community in Tokaj and from her many contacts in Germany (where she had lived for some years).
Her dedication has resulted in “partners in Spain, Switzerland and Poland who are quite reliable and regularly order our wines”, but, she laments, “you can never be sure if it will be the same next year”.
And the United Kingdom? “I have been a couple of times to the UK hoping to find a distributor, but I have never succeeded – even being certified organic”.
Máté Csanaky, head of sales at the Zsirai Winery, says that despite nearly three decades economic liberalization, most Hungarian producers “don’t know much about the international wine market” and “don’t taste many foreign wines”.
His experience at Zsirai, which has 18.5 hectares under vine across three different regions of Hungary and exports to the European Union, as well as China, means “every country is different. You’ve got to get a USP [Unique Selling Point]. Hungarian grape names, like Hárslevelű, are difficult for foreigners, so give your wine a ‘fantasy’ name,” he says.
Both Csanaky and Wille-Baumkauff advocate a “well-planned, quality marketing campaign”, and several winemakers quizzed for this story advised “Look at how the Austrians have done it”.
Says Csanaky: “Many Hungarian wines are good quality compared to the rest of the world, but without a concept, quality and quantity marketing, we are at a disadvantage.”
That leaves cash-strapped, entrepreneurial winemakers like Rabcsánszki having to make do. “I don’t regret establishing RWZ,” she says. “Wine production is a joyful, albeit cumbersome, process every year, which I enjoy a lot.”
See also A Very Pannon Party Puts Local Grapes in Focus (including a wine business for sale) on page 23.
It is not only native Magyars that sometimes suffer from unrealistic hopes about demand for their wines. Samuel Tinon (pictured, below) first took his golden Tokaj juices to VinExpo in Bordeaux in 2003 brimming with confidence. Tinon, a native of the Bordeaux region, was no novice. He had been working Hungary’s flagship wine region since the early 1990s, and had advised and made wine around the world meanwhile.
“You know at VinExpo, the 10,000 people that are [anybody] in the wine industry from the world are there. I would come with my Tokaj, my 2000 szamorodni, first bottling, and sell everything,” he told the Budapest Business Journal.
“It was a good success – everybody said ‘It’s a wonderful wine’ – but then it was just ‘Thank you very much, and that was all.” There were “almost no sales”, he recalls, concluding “The world was running without Tokaj, without any problem.”
Since then, while foot-slogging around Europe hand selling his wines to Michelin-starred restaurateurs, Tinon has learned it typically takes at least two years to build a relationship of trust with importers; passion and good wine alone are just not enough.
Today, he tends five hectares of his own vines and produces up to 15,000 bottles annually – 90% for export to Western Europe, North America, Poland and Taiwan. As a small winemaker, he says, “You have to identify and make your style, then persuade people to follow you and drink your wine, while paying a fair amount of money that allows you to build distribution. [...] If they want a EUR 0.50 discount [per bottle], I tell them they don’t understand.”