- 14 Jan 2020 9:54 AM
Around the time he reached 50 years old he decided to diversify some of his valuable time into a winery in Northern Hungary, the historically famous wine region first mentioned by the name Tokaj back in 1067.
XpatLoop.com met up with József for a friendly chat about his new viticulture venture, enquiring about how he fell in love with fine wine and became an oenophile (oenophilia - Greek for the love /philia/ of wine /oinos/).
We also asked if 2019 was really an outstanding year for Aszú, delved into his views about the decline of sweet wine, and got into his range of motivations for investing his considerable business expertise and money in a winery - since as they say the best way to make a small fortune from making wine is to start with a large fortune…
The wine business is not what you are most famous for, so why did you decide to invest your time, and the initials of your name, in the Juliet Victor Winery?
As a personal insight, I would start by saying that ten years ago I really didn’t know much about the world of wine. Only relatively recently as I started to move up the ladder I sampled some very good wines and really started to appreciate it.
From a professional prospective, I guess my interest was triggered by the fact that I believe Hungary has an untapped heritage and opportunity to shine in the world of wine.
I do not think we have yet fully exploited that opportunity. Putting it fairly simply, we have a world heritage wine vineyard, namely Tokaj, which used to be very famous worldwide, especially for its sweet wines. The whole industry basically went down the drain over the years, and now there is an opportunity to re-cultivate it, to rejuvenate our wine industry and put it out on the world market.
Also, I felt that this is a way of giving back to society. One of the things I’ve learnt over the years is that originating or coming from Hungary you can actually do world class things, in life and in different industries. So why not to combine that experience and expertise with this untapped heritage of this country. I have a friend, a pilot, who is also part of this venture, and he keeps on telling me that, “Life is simply too short to drink bad wine”.
What do you bring from your CEO experience to this small business?
On one hand entrepreneurial spirit, creating something, giving and leaving something better for the world - you become inspired and are driven by that purpose.
On the other hand I am bringing leadership experience. We all know that creating a product is one thing, commercializing that product is another. So making excellent wines has one set of issues, but bringing that product out into the world is another matter.
Through my career I have been able to develop skills for innovating throughout a business as a whole. Not just being focused only on products but also selling products, commercializing products, financing products, and driving the whole eco system of a business.
Now if you look at wine making, it’s a fairly dis-integrated industry. There is a large number of wine makers on one side, they are good at making wines, but have no experience in financing wine making, or knowledge about how to properly brand wine and sell wine effectively, that's why there is a separate subindustry for distribution, and then you have the consumer.
So currently there is a disconnection between the wine producer and the consumer who actually drinks the wine. This is what I am trying to bring to the party, and integrated model that not only works for producing great wines but also brings that wine to the consumer in the most efficient way. In a way that creates value for money so you can actually afford to drink really good wine for a reasonable price according to the high quality.
Surely you selected Tokaj because it’s blessed with volcanic soils on mineral-rich base rock, which allow the vine roots to take water plus minerals they need to thrive. What are you adding to that firm foundation?
I think these points are part of the Tokaj heritage in terms of what it was able achieve in the world when it came to its sweet wine's history. Now it is not just the climate and all the other givens there, like the terroirs with volcanic soil, Tokaj has one authentic character which stands out, the Furmint grape variety.
If you look at any of the wine regions in Hungary, basically none of them are authentic in that many bring in Bordeaux grapes or Italian grapes to try to compete with international wines, but that’s not going to work really. Overall you do not see any world class grape variety elsewhere in Hungary as you can see in Tokaj.
So the way I think about the Tokaj opportunity in my mind is that of course it has great soil and minerals and botrytis but those are circumstances - which are really superb in Tokaj. Plus you have Furmint, which creates the authenticity of this wine region. If you combine those two factors I think you can get something which is distinctive and may be very favourably compared to the best wines in the world.
Tokaj made its reputation with great late harvest sweet wines. Given the fact that the world does not buy as much sweet wine as in the past, what's the future for Tokaji Aszú and Szamorodni?
Basically according to the world statistics less than 1% of wine consumption is sweet wine, so over 99 % are dry wines, therefore clearly Tokaj has to diversify.
From a business stand point, and also from a future prospects stand Tokaj has to do more than just sweet wines. So I think Tokaj needs to do two things to be successful in the future.
One is to start producing really good high quality dry white wines and Furmint is the main grape variety to build a strategy around, and it has to be the flagship.
Secondly Tokaj can continue producing sweet wines, just of the highest quality. I think the quality standards have to be elevated, because when you look for Tokaj sweet wines nowadays you can find pretty much every type of quality available, with only some being comparable to world standards. So you can find super high quality that’s comparable to the best in the world, to a very average or even bad quality Tokaj sweet wine.
We need to raise the standards as a region, like Burgundy, which constantly raised standards to make that wine region really distinct. Similarly Tokaj needs to raise its standards as well, but clearly to diversify with fine dry Furmint wines as well as very good quality sweet wines, this is the way to go.
You know Tokaji Aszú is the big event wine, it has to be exclusive as it is not for every day consumption. It is expensive, very unique in terms of taste, and it is very costly to produce, so it fits special occasions and it needs to be positioned accordingly.
Tokaji Szamorodni is also not for every day but certainly it’s a kind of wine you can drink every week, say on Sundays you can open up a bottle to share with family or friends. It is much more drinkable than Aszú, less heavy, and I would say a very enjoyable grape.
Szamorodni is a significant part of your wine portfolio, and many people have preconceived ideas about this type of sweet wine. How do you suggest it is best enjoyed, say apart from as an aperitif or as accompaniment to foie gras?
Well, firstly what we’re aiming to do in quality terms is to make Szamorodni the new Aszú. So if you drink it you’ll think you are drinking Aszú, because it’s such high quality.
And then for us our Tokaji Aszú will be a new dimension, which has never been reached before. That's the way we think of these two, we try to elevate and essentially reposition both.
I think Tokaji Szamorodni is something with very high quality and from a production stand point, and it can be produced every year. The difference between the two is that Szamorodni is harvested by brunches and the Aszú is harvested by berries, berry by berry.
So it's a different methodology, one is fairly common, you can do it almost at any temperature, in any weather conditions, however Aszú is far more selective, far more unique. So many people in Tokaj say that you can only harvest Aszú twice in a decade, I think it is a bit more than that, but it cannot be produced every year for sure, it is much more of an exclusive wine.
Also the nature of its production is different and you can only bring Aszú to market after three years. However Szamorodni is something you can bring to the market after a year since it is a different maturation process.
I think Szamorodni has a big role to play in the way we can redefine sweet wines. Aszú is not going to change the drinking habits of sweet wines because it will remain very unique and very exclusive. So if we want to increase consumption, it has to come from Szamorodni. Because it is lighter, more drinkable, a very enjoyable wine and more affordable than Aszú as well. Szamorodni has a strategic role in the region of Tokaj regarding sweet wine.
You don’t have any Aszú on the market, yet, is it true that 2019 was very good year for this special treat from Tokaj?
We were lucky to be able to produce Aszú in 2017 and 2018, and also in 2019. Very recently I tasted the 2019 harvest, which is still in the maturation process of course, but it already tasted outstanding. I loved it, but since it is ready for market in 3 to 5 years, it is still too early to say much more than that.
I think the weather and climate conditions have been good this year even if we lost two three weeks because of rain which put the harvest of the Aszú on a difficult rail but this was just at the tale-end of the process.
We managed to harvest 80 - 85 % of the grapes before the downpour, so we might be sacrificing a little bit at the end but yes, 2019 looks like a good year or even an outstanding year.
Juliet Victor Winery
József Attila utca 25,