Jozsef is from the small village of Hercegkút, Hungary. If you’ve never heard of Hercekgut you should read my blog about it here. To say it’s unique is an understatement.
While I was visiting the Tokaj region of Hungary I had the privilege of tasting a few wines inside many of the volcanic wine cellars that dot the region. Everyone in Eastern Hungary has a volcanic wine cave, something I am very jealous of. I was with some associates in Hercegkút at a private wine cellar owned by their friend. There were 6 of us speaking 4 different languages; English, Spanish, German, and Hungarian. The conversations reminded me of a game of telephone, bouncing back and forth for translation between all the languages. I can only imagine what some of them thought I said, but we all had a great time and tasted some great bottles of wine.
After this great time I noticed a walking trail that led to a hill adjacent to where we were all parked. We were now all headed our separate ways, the rain from earlier that day had cleared, and the sunny weather felt nice. I said farewell to my friends and decided to make the short hike to the top for the view. And what a view it was! A 360 degree unobstructed view of the, now appearing even smaller, village of Hercegkút off to the North, the small city of Sarotogkút to the South, with farmland and vineyards everywhere in between and beyond.
I took many photos, but finally came to the realization that this was more than just a view. It was an experience in and of itself. My camera just couldn’t do it justice, though I tried. I snapped a few shots, let it all soak in, and headed back down the trail.
Back at the trailhead, I was walking by some of the other cellars when a little white, slightly beat up hatchback car pulled up. Out stepped a man who appeared to be in his 30’s. The cellar he parked in front of had some nice stone work at its entrance. As you may have learned in the Hercekgút blog, some families choose to decorate, spruce up, or put their own personal touch on the entrances of their cellars. I pointed to the stone work and said, “that’s very nice”. He looked at me with the 1,000 yard stare I was now familiar with, being in a foreign country. He did not understand English. He did, however, understand that I was pointing to that cellar, at which point he shook his head “no”. And pointed to the cellar next door. I said, “Oh, is that one yours?”. He gave me the ‘one minute’ finger gesture while he dug through a small bag he had placed on the roof of his car. He had said something too, but I had only been in Hungary for two days and could not manage to understand a single Hungarian word. I decided to just go with the flow, a habit of mine.
The man found what he was looking for, the key to the cellar. He pulled it out and walked over to me with an outstretched hand. “Jozsef” he said. “Matt” I stated, as we shook hands. He opened the cellar door, and motioned for me to follow him. These are the times I question my go-with-the-flow habits. When a man you just met, and can’t understand, offers to lead you down a dark tunnel into an underground cavern. What could go wrong? I followed.
As I struggled to figure out how on earth we would communicate, Jozsef led me into his family’s cellar. It was one of the more rustic Hercekgút cellars I was in during that trip, but that gave it a unique sense of authenticity and history. In the other two Hercekgút cellars I visited, the owners seemed excited to proclaim how long they were. I assumed this was something they were proud of and I was desperate for some sort of communication, so I motioned “length” with my hands and asked, “meters?”. He motioned with his fingers ‘four-zero’. Forty meters long, and just like that, we were managing to communicate! But with that question, he motioned me to follow him again, and further into the cellar he went, to a chamber even deeper. At this point, what’s to lose? Let’s go.
Jozsef began to show me how he made the cellar even bigger by hand. With a small rock hammer in hand and some entertaining sound effects, he went on to demonstrate how he carved the walls and perfectly level stone shelves. He motioned that all the rock was carried out in sacks or by wheelbarrow. A laborious task in deed to which he was very proud, as I had assumed.
Right at this time a friend of his arrived. The gentleman walked in with two empty jugs, one was a large empty water bottle, the other resembled an empty antifreeze container. I’m hoping it wasn’t, but that’s was it looked like. He and Jozsef had a small chat, Jozsef grabbed a hose off the wall and began to siphon wine out of a container into these jugs. The man handed Jozsef some cash and left. Was this Hungarian moonshine? A secret underground bootleg Tokaj wine cellar? The answer is; I have no idea. I don’t know the laws, and according to the business card Jozsef later handed me It appears he has a very legitimate production, but I couldn’t help but chuckle over what I just witnessed.
I saw some deer antlers hanging on the wall and we began to exchange hunting stories… via photos and hand gestures. He grabbed what looked like a clean glass from a shelf, rinsed it out with a not-so-clean looking jug full of water, handed it to me, and again made the “follow me” motion. Since verbal communication was not an option, he proceeded to give me a tasting tour of the cellar. We tried many of his wines; dry, sweet, and semi-sweet. All delicious, though the semisweet was my favorite. That was the third one he let me try. I patted my belly, held up three fingers, and said, “mmm”. He nodded with acceptance and approval.
I assumed that was it. I toured the cellar, tasted the wines, communicated about hunting. I was running out of ideas. I was preparing to say, ‘good-bye’ and handed him my business card. He took one look at it and his eyes lit up. At the bottom of my card are the other websites we run, one of them being whiskeygoods.com. He pointed to me and said, “whiskey”. He then smirked, motioned ‘follow me’ again and led me to some other barrels. He pulled some samples and gave me a taste. I took a sip and nearly spit it out. What ever was in my mouth now was clearly very high in alcohol content! He chuckled, smiled, and motioned ‘up’ and managed to say “alcohol”. Yes, it was very high in alcohol. Suddenly, we were speaking the same language, whiskey! It was delicious, I just wasn’t expecting the taste at first. He had three barrels of distilled Tokaj Wine; aka Tokaj Whiskey! To my knowledge Tokaj whiskey isn’t really a thing, so I was honored to be tasting such a special beverage. He had some that was in used Tokaj barrels for three years, and some for five years. We tried them all. Shortly after that time I knew it was getting later in the day and I was sure he had other plans that did not include running into a random American. With the help of a phone app, I was able to translate, “thank you very much, this is very nice” into Hungarian, and show him the translation. He nodded and smiled, we shook hands, and departed. The worst part about out our inability for verbal communication was I could not express how thankful I was for his time and companionship. And that’s when it hit me…
I just spent an hour with a man who I could not talk to. We couldn’t talk politics or opinions, all we could do was appreciate each other’s smiles and friendliness. We shared stories and joked around, all without words. The wines and whiskey connected us in that small dark cellar, where there was no television, radio, or cellphone reception. When secluded from the world you learn what really matters; Be nice and smile. It’s understood worldwide.