You don’t expect oenophiles to wax as enthusiastic about their Hungarian wines as about their Chablis, but unconventionality has done little to deter Athena Bochanis, a wine importer who, as an alumna of the New York University School of Law, is herself an anomaly in the industry.
"The only reason it’s weird is because no one’s seen me in the job and no one’s seen this wine,” she says.
The timing is right for the emergence of Hungarian wine. Millennials have deemed wine their preferred alcoholic beverage, and, thanks to their willingness to experiment with the up-and-coming, niche varietals and lesser-known provenances are getting the chance to shine.
Athena is effervescent when she talks about Hungary. (She recently bought an apartment in Budapest, so it’s no hyperbole to call it her second home.) Though it has yet to penetrate the American market, Hungary is a prolific producer of wine, with 22 markedly different growing regions. Grapes ranging from Furmint, which forms the base of dessert wines, to Kadarka, which creates a spicy red, originated in the country. According to Athena, “It’s like a France, where you have places that are cool climates and you have only white grapes, and you have places where you can get light reds and medium reds. The south is limestone and loess, so it’s a lot of full-bodied reds and rosés.”
Though she now owns and operates wine import company Palinkerie full-time, Athena once aspired to be an attorney. A native of Las Vegas, Athena moved to New York to study German and history at NYU. After graduating without a firm sense of what she wanted to do, she returned to her alma mater to study law.
Changes in the economy precipitated a move away from the legal field. “The market crashed my first year of law school,” says Athena, “so it kind of provided me with this great opportunity where this easy path of ‘you’ll get some job, whatever’ suddenly wasn’t available.”
Eager to return to Europe, where she had worked on a Fulbright grant, Athena landed a human rights internship in Budapest, a city she had never visited prior. Her first exposure to the Hungarian capital was through a Lonely Planet guide she opened on the plane. However, a chance destination became a defining obsession when she found herself enamored of Hungary. “I just couldn’t believe that there was this country with all this history and a really big food and wine scene that I didn’t know existed.”
Hungary, with its freshwater lakes rivers and its cities once blessed by the Ottomans and the Habsburgs, is a tourist destination on the rise. Budapest, ranked by CNN, Condé Nast Traveler, and Forbes as one of the most beautiful places in the world, remains shockingly overlooked. There’s something attractive about the undiscovered, and the country warrants a closer look.
In her second year of law school, Athena returned to Hungary after petitioning NYU to let her study abroad. She graduated in 2011 fully intent on not practicing law and applied to several jobs, none of which came to fruition. Faced with unemployment, she reflected on potential careers—and found herself gravitating toward the country where she had spent almost half of her legal training.
“It was kind of this joke,” says Athena. “My friends were like, ‘Can you just start importing Hungarian wine and stop talking about it all the time?’” But two years of researching and making connections later, she launched her own company and hasn’t looked back since.
Because of her education, Athena’s approach to wine is different from that of importers and sommeliers who come from a more traditional background. She initially met with pushback from industry experts who thought her callow for refusing to sell anything but Hungarian products, but with time, many began to look at her work more favorably. “I’m not as dependent on what people are already doing,” Athena says. “I’m thinking about how we can change their minds.”
When it comes to wine, shifts in public perception are not unprecedented. Italian wine only gained traction in America in the 1960’s, while Austrian wine suffered a poor reputation until the 2000’s.
Hungarian wine may find it easier to enter the good graces of American consumers thanks to its heritage as one of the few wines of international repute at the start of the twentieth century. Sweet wines from the northeastern region of Tokaj were the first wines in the world to have their own appellation system, even before the French began to codify their wines. After France, Hungary was the second-largest source of oak for wine barrels. But following the World Wars, the country suffered an economic depression and, after adopting communism in 1949, its wines all but vanished from the global market.
Since the end of communism in 1989, Hungary’s viticulture has been given a renewed purchase on life. In many vineyards, old-school winemakers work alongside their sons and daughters, who bring a more modern approach to their craft. Because the privatization of property is a recent development, wineries remain small and family-run.
There are still obstacles that Hungary will face when trying to bring its goods to the American market, one of which is the fact that few stateside importers speak Hungarian. (Try to spell—let alone pronounce—Hárslevelu, a white wine grape predominantly found in the region of Somló, and the cross-linguistic challenge becomes obvious.) Where Hungarian wines have established a foothold, however, their presence is growing. In New York, Athena’s wines are stocked at bottle shops like Verve Wines and Flatiron Wines & Spirits and served at many of the city’s trendiest wine bars, including Anfora, Terroir, and Ardesia.
What is perhaps most appealing about Hungarian wine is how well it complements modern consumer tastes for the individual and the authentic. Hungarian wine is small-batch and hand-crafted. It is anything but mainstream.
“There’s this untouched element to it,” says Athena. “It’s like its own little wine world.”