26 October 2023 / Ádám Geri (Photos: Bulcsú Böröczky)
You have a degree in economics, have worked in the Central Statistical Office and the Ministry of Finance and have founded construction and tax consultancy companies. After such experiences, how did Varga Winery end up becoming your life’s work?
It was not easy to start a business under socialism; moreover, people had no experience. As an economist and having worked in the Ministry of Finance, I knew how to do it. The businesses I started were not primarily my businesses. They were to help members of my family achieve their dreams. Meanwhile, I spent five years at the state wine export company Hungarovin and fell in love with the wine business. Before the Varga Winery, I had worked exclusively with paper, although I had always harboured the desire to create something tangible. For me, it’s not just about the bottles of wine, it’s also about the building up of a factory and the creation of a corporate collective.
The Varga Winery estate centre in Badacsonyörs
Over the 30 years, have you ended up where you wanted to be?
In order to buy the Badacsonyörs facility of the Badacsonyörs State Farm, i.e. the Varga Winery estate centre, we needed the profit from each family member’s business. So, when the opportunity arose, I sat them down and told them about my plans. At the time, I said I wanted to be one of the 25 largest wineries within 10-20 years. Today, I think we are among the top five, but the extent of Hungary’s vineyards has shrunk by a quarter in the meantime. Even the successors of most of the former state and cooperative farms have not survived. So, we have achieved pretty much what I planned.
Cellar visit, one of the stops on the all-year-round Cellar Tour, the tasting room
What was the hardest part of getting started?
The constant struggle with little money has always been a hindrance. In hindsight, it has also been our good fortune. It meant we simply could not make unnecessary detours, we always had to strive for the most thoughtful, the best solutions. Our decisions were driven by the market. There are many people in the sector who achieve success in other areas and then invest their wealth in a winery. First, they lay the foundations, then they try to work out how to win consumers and markets with their products. But we had to focus on the latter the whole time, as we could only grow through the price of the wines we were selling.
The winery’s vineyard with a view of Csobánc Hill in the background
How much do you think the Hungarian wine scene has changed over your 30 years of operation?
1993 was just after the regime change. Most of the market players had been ‘brought up’ in the socialist era, when quality did not matter, and you had to be happy that you could buy anything in the shops at all. They couldn’t cope with the sudden competition, while I was somewhat equipped by my previous jobs and the businesses I had already started. You could say I had it easy. Nowadays, however, wineries are privately owned, hard-working, constantly improving and professionally run. This strong competition has been very good for Hungarian wine. I must admit I enjoy it too, as I was a certified competitor in five ball sports and competing is my life.
Péter Varga, founder and owner of the winery
With your current knowledge and experience, what advice would you give someone wanting to start a winery?
The key thing is to find a market niche. You need to find something that only you, and nobody else, can offer to people. It could be anything, a new type of wine, a new wine quality, a unique vineyard area or a breathtakingly beautiful estate that will attract wine tourists. Nowadays, it’s not just about being good, it’s also about doing the extraordinary. If you go into a hypermarket, you will find about 800 different wines. There are many good ones, so it’s unlikely that any one wine will stick in a customer’s mind. Irsai Olivér is an excellent illustration of this phenomenon. In the past, it was not even marketed as a single varietal. But there is one particularly beautiful, unmistakable aroma that has made it so popular. If there were three kinds of wine in the world, one of which were Irsai, it would not be so successful. But in this environment so incredibly rich in stimuli, it is something very tangible.
What suggestions would you have for the Hungarian wine sector as a whole to halt the decline in wine consumption here in Hungary as well as to make the big breakthrough abroad?
As far as abroad is concerned, it’s not wine marketing we should be doing, but rather country marketing. Many think the two are separable, but I don’t believe so. Wine is a luxury product. It can be successful if it is cool to buy luxury products from that country. If we make Hungary cool, it will help generate demand for our wines. If we can be seen as Austria is seen now, Hungarian wines will also be automatically seen in a similar light. They export their wines at three times the price of ours. Domestic sales are a different thing, but no easier. When I was young, we drank beer, then our children drank wine, and now our grandchildren drink beer and cocktails. No generation wants to continue the habits of its parents. There’s not much you can do about that. Meanwhile, alcohol consumption is falling throughout the world, not least because of cars. If you are getting behind the wheel, you obviously have to drink less. Or, worse still, nothing in Hungary. I think that abolishing zero tolerance is the only way forward.
Recyclable bottles at the packaging site
What are you most proud of from the last 30 years?
For me, the glass is basically always half empty, but I am satisfied with our results in international wine competitions. For many years now, we have been the most successful representatives of Hungary at these competitions. When we made the decision to reposition ourselves and move from making good-value-for-money wines to making the best wines we could, we had something like this in mind. I am especially pleased that at the 2022 Hungarian VinAgora, which I rank among the eight to ten most important international wine competitions in the world, we won absolute first place in two of the seven categories, including in our strongest field, dry white wines. Our winning Sauvignon Blanc won precisely thanks to its peculiarity, mentioned earlier as an important aspect. We have never made a wine so special and so varietal.
Where do you think the Varga Winery will be in another 30 years’ time?
One of my favourite sayings is from Mark Twain. It goes “Prediction is difficult, particularly when it involves the future.” I do not want to make predictions, but I am sure there is still plenty of progress to be made.