Wine culture, national wine culture – what do these phrases actually mean? Why have they gradually become emptied of content and reduced to the lowly status of a platitude?

What makes a wine culture? What does it consist of? Is it a condition, an activity, a type of behaviour perhaps, or a storehouse of habits and customs? No explanation or even interpretation exists that remotely approaches a definition.

Instead, it has become widespread practice to narrow down the idea of wine culture to formalities and material conditions, more often than not including a cosy and preferably stylish room, a well-laid table, the right glasses, impeccable service, soft conversation, and of course quality wines. Is that really all it takes? For many, it is – unfortunately.

In the absence of any universally accepted standard or definition, perhaps looking at what “civilized wine drinking” means in countries seen as setting the example for European wine consumers can help us get closer to the mentality of wine- drinking, and the metacommunication of related gestures and motifs.

Our first order of business is to make a distinction between the main components of wine culture: that is, production, trade, and consumption. This article focuses on the last part, but each of these three subsets is intimately related to, and indeed often overlaps with the other two.

The culture of wine production comes first, which makes sense at least chronology- wise. In vine growing, as in any type of quality food production, the degree of mechanization is somewhat besides the point. Indeed, it is the judicious adaptation of traditional methods that may make or break a product. To give an example from vine growing: on a very steep vineyard slope, rather than hoeing between the rows while facing uphill as is customary these days, a prudent grower might instead consider hoeing the rows while facing the valley below. While the extra ergonomic exertion and fatigue involved in doing so is painfully obvious, this is the only way to manually restore productive topsoil that has been washed away by showers. If the aim is to produce the most outstanding wine possible in the given circumstances then this aim certainly sanctifies the means.

While a properly functioning trade in wine existed in Hungary prior to the Second World War, the principles and rules of the wine trade in Hungary, like so many other areas of commerce and indeed life, disappeared into oblivion for forty years after the communist takeover. Mass-produced wines reached consumers only after hasty and ill-considered negotiations at the desks of Party officials. Social relevance and basic ethics simply did not come into the picture. To give just one example, the habitual and intentional misleading of wine consumers, for instance by false labelling, persistently and severely breached the ethical underpinnings of wine culture.

This brings us to the third and last element of our theme, the culture of wine consumption. Without getting bogged down in my method of deduction, I would like to propose a practical definition of what constitutes wine culture. To make it short, I would call a person a civilized – or “cultured” – wine drinker if he or she has favourite wines (due to the intrinsic nature of the subject, monogamy is out of the question) and is capable of providing others in his or her company with an informal description of these wines as well as the reasons for picking them for the particular occasion. In other words, the civilized drinker is the one who will answer “Yes” to the question, “Do you speak ‘winese’?”

Joking aside, if you can converse, never mind entering into serious discourse, about what you drink while you drink it, then the very act of doing so is an intellectual operation, even an intellectual creation.

At a well-laid table…

More likely than not, few of us would be so bold as to critically dissect the next person’s behaviour at a dinner table in a larger company. At most, we might consider acknowledging a breach of manners with tacit disapproval. On this occasion, however, since we are sharing the same page in a journal rather than the same tablecloth, I will make an exception and say that, for me, there is a very clear line of demarcation when it comes to wine drinking habits between, on the one hand, Western Europe, and on the other, the Carpathian Basin plus the Alps and the Adriatic – let us say a slightly expanded version of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. What I am about to suggest is based on a sample of strictly personal observations when – and only when – at least a dozen guests were seated around the table, but I admit that may or may not be adequate or sufficient to make such sweeping generalizations. So here it is: After the wines have been poured, someone in the company – normally the person seated at the head of the table – will make an emphatic but typically brief toast, address, proposal, or request. Then the first sips are taken, conversation takes off, and finally the meal is served. At this point, the Westerner will then proceed to drink from his glass without any further ado. By contrast, the Hungarian member of the company is likely to raise his glass looking around him inquisitively, and will decide to clink glasses with the Austrian across the table – at least by virtue of a blink or other form of eye contact. When this happens, the “proposed” partner will often put his glass back on the table without having touched it with his lips, and may send a smile in acknowledgment of the invitation. The most conscientious of guests may take a tiny symbolic sip… In our part of the world, many believe that nobody should be exposed to the threat of being stigmatized as a lonesome drinker.

For us Hungarians, drinking wine is undoubtedly a social act. Nothing testifies to this fact more eloquently than an episode from the mid-19th-century travelogue by the famous lawyer and author Károly Eötvös entitled Utazás a Balaton körül (“Journey around Lake Balaton”), which provides a faithful account of the mores and conditions of its day, habits that had survived for hundreds of years.

Eötvös is travelling in the Balaton Highlands in the company of the noted literary historian and critic Pál Gyulai and others when, after a time, the company decides to split up: some hike up the steep slope to the picturesque castle ruin on Csobánc Hill; Gyulai and Ferenc Salamon take a stroll along the side of the hill. On the way, the two are approached by a poor farmer and vine grower from the nearby village of Gyulakeszi, who simply refuses to let the gentlemen pass by without tasting his wine:

“If I dare ask, where are you gentlemen headed?” “Why would you wish to know?” “Because my cellar is here by the footpath, you see.” “What do we care about that cellar of yours?”

The poor man from Gyulakeszi gave them a puzzled look. These two little swarthy gentlemen must surely hail from a faraway land. “I do keep some wine in that cellar, you see.” “But your wine is of no concern to us, my man.”

After a prolonged bout of fuss, persuasion and detention, the two finally accept the invitation.

And when the vintner had fetched and poured the wine, taken a drink himself, and offered the cup to his guests, Pál Gyulai continued to vex him with the same question, posed in that high-pitched, mocking voice of his:

“But why on earth did you invite us in here, my good man?”

“What a thick head you have on your neck, sir! Did I not tell you that my cellar was by the road and you would have walked right past it?”

“And what if we had not come in?”

“That would have been very ill-advised, sir. And thick-skinned. You should never snub a poor man. But let us stop this talking back and forth! I do pray that you sit down.”

He proceeded to produce a glass kept on top of the wooden press beam, which had surely not been washed once since harvest time. Now he rinsed it with a swig of wine from the calabash, poured the glass chock full, and raised it high in his right hand.

“Welcome, gentlemen, to my modest abode. May God keep you sirs in good strength, health, spirits, and peace. Who you might be and what brings you here I do not know, nor do I seek to guess. May you walk in good speed with the blessing of our Lord. And when you return to your home, may you not come upon grief, trouble, and sorrow, but may you find your house folk in sound health. I am asking the blessing of God upon you sirs for visiting our part of the country in good will.”

Pál Gyulai listened to these rustic words of gratitude with considerable amusement. He could not for the life of him comprehend what the ceremony was all about. He reached for the glass, but the vintner would not let it go. “It is my turn first!” he cried.

He drank. Drank up, to be more precise… It was not a poisoned chalice, after all! Then he refilled the glass and offered it to each of his guests in turn. Ferenc Salamon was the first to grasp the situation. He soon figured out that this young farmer was a Hungarian of ancient stock, who prefaced each glass of wine with a toast and was ready to share with a stranger everything he had, as long as he received kind words in return for his own. This is indeed what Hungarian people are like, especially in the counties of Veszprém and Zala around Lake Balaton…”

The vintner’s almost liturgical tone of voice and dignified turns of phrase which accompanied the sharing of his wine could serve as a lesson for the most accomplished orator. For us, let the lesson be that it is always possible to use wine to wish others well in a very personal, heartfelt manner without being excessively familiar or confidential, and without stooping to platitude. If we can – like this farmer in Eötvös’s tale did – we will never fail to make friends. Wine and tradition can do that.

While the tamada, the indispensable toastmaster at feasts and weddings in Georgia, is not quite the same as the vőfély or best man in Hungary, the tradition of toasting guests must have been with us Hungarians as we first wandered into the Carpathian Basin. The Hungarian toast No, Isten, Isten – “Well then, God, God”, a curious abbreviation of “Well then, God keep you in good health” – which often accompanies the raising of glasses in all walks of life, constitutes etiquette in much of the country, whether or not its practitioner knows what the word etiquette means. We certainly could and should do more to resuscitate the art of the brief toast. The vintner from Gyulakeszi can teach us how.

Translation by Péter Balikó Lengyel

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