10 November 2021 / Ádám Geri
You turned 70 this January. Did you ever think about where you would be at this age?
Not really. You can easily take missteps in your development if you keep thinking about what will happen in the future instead of living out the moment. When I went to college, I would have been happy with any small vineyard. We planted the first hectare of grapes in 1978. In 1995 we had 5 hectares, but even then I didn’t think that one day the name Szepsy would be known all over the world. I was not even sure that I would make it to 70. We are not the masters of tomorrow.
But did you have any dreams though?
Yes, I always dreamt of becoming successful with Tokaj and with Tokaj wine. We are still a long way from that, although a massive cutting edge has emerged in the wine district with a few great winemakers. Red wines dominate the worldwide wine market, and there are about 200 wineries who can ask for virtually any amount of money for their red wines. But not necessarily because they have spent much more money on marketing. It is almost impossible to make up for this disadvantage, but there is a niche that we can fill.
The market niche is a rather modest target considering there have always been people who claim that Tokaj aszú is the best wine in the world.
Don’t get me wrong, Tokaj doesn’t have to be at the forefront, or searching for glory, but the culture of aszú cannot survive without corresponding prices. Aszú is the most expensive winemaking procedure in the world, and you cannot lag behind those 200 red wines because the economics don’t work out then. You cannot maintain a product that is not paid for, but it is not paid for until you get to the top.
Stones at the Szepsy Estate
The former journalist and presenter Ferenc Pallagi recently published a book entitled Tokaj is Bitter. He poses the question: Is Tokaj actually business, landscape protection or maybe a preservation of tradition? What is your answer?
These are inseparable. There can be no preservation of tradition that does not stand on its own feet. The preservation of traditions depends on people and families who have been working in the wine district for generations, who have no other source of income and who make a living from this. This gives them credibility. They do not do this out of respect for tradition but because they know that the methods and procedures that have been good for 500 years must be good also now. Of course, in a different way, adapted to the circumstances and the expectations of the given age, so that they can operate economically.
Talking about generations. Generational change has been on the agenda for years and is still taking place at the Szepsy Winery, and from the outside it seems to be one of the most seamless processes in the industry, even though the stroke you suffered two years ago rewrote the script a little bit.
I have been working with my son, István, my daughters and my son-in-law for years. They only had to shift up one grade because of my illness. Since then, they have been in charge of management. I am no longer the head honcho, but I still have a share in the work in the background. It is especially good to have more time for the tasks that I think are really important. I experiment a lot with wines and vineyards, I am like a research institute inside a winery. So I have handed over the management but I haven’t separated myself from the estate at all. Especially because my kids evidently do not have the experience that I have, so it needs to be built into the system.
The Szent Tamás cru of Mád
In the film Love of Vine as Capital, you say that you took your children into the vineyards from an early age, so we could even say that this is a lifelong generational change. Could this be the secret to success?
For us, the expression ‘family meeting’ is not an empty term. Even when István and the others were kids, I started every day by making tea for all of us, which we drank together around the table while discussing what would happen on the estate that day, what work would be done and what the next tasks were. I think this can only be done this way, anyone who just suddenly drops into the process will never be able to perform in the same way.
Did you take over the business in the same way?
From the age of eleven, my father started telling me to be in charge of the workers in the summer when he was busy elsewhere because he thought I was the only one fit for the job. Obviously a lot of things were very different back then, but I think one thing will never change. Humility towards the vines and towards work is essential. Those who do not have it will not surpass the previous generation. Fortunately, we have no problem with this, our children have the humility for the profession and for Tokaj, so they will always be able to renew the Szepsy estate.
About: István Szepsy was born in Bodrogkeresztúr in 1951, in the sixteenth generation of the Tokaj winemaking family. He studied at the University of Horticulture, after which he became chief gardener in Mád. In addition to socialist large-scale work, he worked in his own small vineyard from the 1970s, and founded the Szepsy winery in 1987. After the regime change, he ran Royal Tokaji and then Királyudvar for a short time, after which he exclusively focused on building his own estate. In 2000, he made Úrágya furmint, which started the revolution of dry Tokaj wines. In 1999 he received the Officer's Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Hungary. In 2001 he was elected "Wine Producer of the Year”, in 2009 "Winemaker of Winemakers", and in 2013 he was awarded the title of "Les Seigneurs du Vin”, regarded as the Oscars of winemaking. He manages the estate with his son and two daughters.
Related: Portrait of a winemaker: István Szepsy and the Tokaji Aszú