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Sándor Mérész – How it began

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Sándor Mérész has been the head winemaker of the Etyeki Kúria Winery for 10 years. Grapes have already been present in his childhood, but he turned out to be a winemaker by chance. The university years in Gyöngyös were defining, establishing close-knit friendships that endure to this day. After graduation, he worked in California (at Kendall Jackson Vineyard Estates) and Tuscany (at AIA Vecchia Bolgheri), then he continued on to Etyek, and later on joined Etyeki Kúria. Next to his profession, family comes first — he is married and has two daughters. He joined the team 10 years ago and has been forming the unique style of the wines ever since by balancing between local know-how and the latest research results. He is a man of action, not of words. We discussed his memories, experiences and plans. To kick off the interview, we warmed up with a few short questions and then went deeper into getting to know him. Part One

Tea or coffee?
Coffee.

Red or white?
Both.

Favourite place in Tuscany?
I think that one of the most beautiful places is the Livorno coastline at the Baratti Bay, about 1 hour South of Bolgheri, driving by Populonia and Buca della Fate, there are terrific cliffs and sandy beaches with turquoise sea, almond pines and the remains of an Etruscan settlement.

Best wine you’ve ever tasted?
A Romanée-Conti from 1952.

What makes you enthusiastic?
The time I spend with my family is precious. It’s inspiring to do my part in the development of the kids — we hike often and cheer at fencing competitions, as my elder daughters is a fencer, while the younger one is into athletics. My friends from university are also a vital part of my life, I’m glad that we can discuss professional questions daily, and organize gatherings quite often despite the distances. Recently, we combined the pleasant with the useful and went on a tour of Champagne together.

What do you do when you do nothing?
Fortunately, I never get bored.

Where does the love of grapes come from?
This is what life brought along, when I was a kid, both sides of the family grew grapes, but I didn’t like working there as a boy. We used to have several smaller pieces of land, in quite well-located areas, since in the olden days, grape growing was serious business on the border of Borsod and Gömör counties – Baron Béla Radvánszky Crown Ward [the official title of those chosen to protect the Holy Crown of Hungary – the translator] had vines here in Sajókaza. The vineyard was called Sólyom (Hawk), and he had the wine transported to Budapest by train. You can still find the old row of wine cellars there. Lately, one of my cousins and her husband have gone into the wine business again, they have a “good consultant” (he smiles) and they planted a one hectare area with grapes in Vadna, mainly Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling. I only chirp in with an advice occasionally.

When did you realize that you wanted to become a winemaker? Originally you had other plans.
I wanted to go to Nyíregyháza, because they had an aviation engineer training there at the time, but I wasn’t accepted, so I couldn’t become a helicopter pilot. I originally studied engineering. I drifted towards the winemaker profession, but it wasn’t a conscious decision on my part. However, I never regretted it and have been enthusiastic from the very beginning, otherwise I wouldn’t have been doing it. My grades were good, so I was admitted to the GATE Agriculture College in Gyöngyös. There were three specializations: gardening, livestock and crop farming. The gardening training, meaning general agricultural studies, sounded great. We had to choose our minor in the second year and I picked viticulture, because you needed to focus on one plant only, simple as that. This is where I met the first member of my friend crew, Gábor Rakaczki (Sauska Winery), the others were in the class below us. We postponed our studies and went on a gap year of language training, to learn from native speakers. Gábor studied German and I chose English. That’s how we ended up in the same class with the others: István Ipacs-Szabó (Vylyan), Zsolt Liptai (Abbey Winery Pannonhalma), Sándor Zsurki (Villa Pátzay) and Márk Egly (Egly Winery). We graduated together from the gardening track, in the meantime, the college won an EU tender and launched an agricultural engineering training. The head of the department Lajos Szőke was recruiting the participants and there was only one person missing to reach the required number of people, so we convinced a livestock farmer guy to join us at the Nostalgia Bar. Thanks to an advertisement on the billboard, István Ipacs-Szabó and I already had plans while we were still completing our final exams, leaving for an internship in California.

What did you learn in California?
What did we not learn? That’s the point! In the mid-‘90s, the approach of a bygone era was still strongly present at Hungarian wineries.  We were at a processing and fermenting cellar, Vine Wood Cellars, and the Kendall Jackson Wine Estate had a stake in it, which was the 15th biggest winery in the US at the time. We spent a harvest there and learnt to think systematically and adopt a mentality that is still rare in Hungary today:  for each field there are experts, but they perform at 100% in their chosen area of expertise. When we returned home from California, I sent out my CV applying for jobs, but nobody responded, so I started to organize another year-long assignment abroad.

When did you meet Tibor Gál?
The grandfather of Tibor and my grandfather fought together in the Second World War and my father was also friends with Tibor’s dad. Although I met him briefly after college, I never thought of sending my CV to him, as he was just dubbed the Winemaker of the Year, it seemed unimaginable to get close to such an icon. Later on, he asked me via my parents whether I wanted to go to Eger. The “job interview” took place at the hospital in Eger, where he was lying with a broken leg after the first Winemakers’ Football Cup. I thanked him for the opportunity, and then told him that I was leaving in 2 weeks’ time, because I have already committed to a job in the US again. He encouraged me to go and said that he was going to be expecting me in January, but already had me on the employee roster in August.

What do you recall from the time you spent with him?
Tibor said that unless I found it degrading, I have to start in the cellar. He never claimed that there was one perfect way to do things, he didn’t believe that there were any secrets, or rather that the secret itself was well-done honourable work. Tibor had an ingenious gift for blending wines. He made decisions on cuvées from memory, without tasting and often those were the best. I first worked for him at the G.I.A. Winery in Eger between 1998 and 2001, the tasks weren’t really split: Tibor was always on the road, Tamás Gromon was his cellar master and I was one of the cellar hands. Working with my colleagues in the cellar was a challenging experience, but eventually they listened to me, when they saw that I was also giving my best, which they appreciated. Interestingly, we could talk a lot more about our trade at the Pellegrini estate. He loved being there.

How did you end up at the estate of the Pellegrini family, the Tuscan AIA Vecchia Bolgheri winery?
Tibor gave me a call in 2001 and asked whether I wanted to work in Italy, and that I had 10 minutes to make a decision. I said yes. We went the Vinexpo fair in Bordeaux, and on the way back visited the Pellegrini family in Tuscany, where harvest kicked off two weeks later, with me. The AIA Vecchia used to function solely as a commercial wine cellar: they used to distribute 150 thousand hectolitres of wine annually, and they also had a couple of guest houses, which are still in operation today. In addition, they had two large estates of 40-45 hectares, almost as a hobby, one in Bolgheri and the other one in Maremma. They were suppliers of the Antinori family and Castello Banfi, among others. When I was working there, we made 250 thousand bottles of a cheaper wine called Lagone, IGT Toscana and 50 thousand bottles of a more premium wine, Sor Ugo Bolgheri Rosso Superiore DOC. We exclusively made red wine.

What’s your best memory from there?
The Bolgheri producers organize a tasting called Castanegto a Tavola every year, where they taste the wines blind. Following the 2002 tasting, Mr. Alfredo Pellegrini, the owner announced happily that the Sor Ugo (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot) was declared as the best, along with such legendary wines as the Masseto and the Sassicaia. This success, for which I can also claim some credit for, almost made the man float a meter above the ground. Later, this wine received 93 points from Wine Spectator.

The pictures of the article are Sándor’s own photos.

To be continued…

I love it!