Before the invasion by the Romans, Hungary was shrouded in a foggy haze of its own prehistory. There were people, but we don't know exactly who they were or what they did or even what their language sounded like (Illyrian, it's called, but there's not much record of it. Not even one surviving piece of literature).
But we can presume, with such bountiful natural resources and roots ripe with rich cultural traditions, that one thing Hungarians most definitely enjoyed was wine. Now one woman strives to bring the wine culture of Hungary to New York City. Her name is Athena Bochanis, Founder of Palinkerie: Fine Hungarian Imports.
Earlier this month, several of Palinkerie's wines were featured in the "Year's Best" list in Wine and Spirits Magazine. The 1999 Fanni Kertje Dry Tokaji Szamorodni received the highest score of any wine in its category. In total, Palinkerie had eight wines rated "Exceptional" and 6 rated "Best Buys".
We caught up with Athena to hear more about wines as well as startup life at The Yard: Williamsburg.
Q: How did your interest in Eastern European wine flourish into your career path?
The story of my business goes back to 2009 when I was a disaffected law student at NYU who refused all practical advice and took a summer internship with a non-profit in Budapest, a place I had never been, with an organization I had never heard of. As soon as I landed, however, I knew it would be a great summer. It was beautiful. Sad and crumbly, with attractive people and an interesting and complex history all around. By the end of that summer, I knew I would be back. I started learning Hungarian, and then I returned to Budapest and ended up living there for the majority of 2010.
Anyway, one of the things I completely fell in love with was the food and drink culture in Hungary. It was in people's homes, but it was also slowly appearing in modern settings like restaurants around the country. I couldn't believe that there could be such a delicious, frankly unique European cuisine and such a rich and impressive wine culture, one that we in New York didn't know about. I had watched the German, and later the Austrian, food and drink scene develop from absolutely nothing to all the rage, so I had this idea that I should somehow be a Hungarian wine and food culture ambassador for New York. I dreamed of opening a Palinka and Hungarian wine bar in New York's Chinatown. It was a running joke with my friends, in fact, that I would end up making a mini-Hungary in New York.
So by the end of my time in Hungary, I knew in broad strokes what I wanted to do - bring the best of Hungary to New York. Show New York all of the great Hungarian food and drink there was to offer. But what I soon realized was that without the proper imports, namely the wines, I couldn't promote what I wanted. There also wasn't a single company focused on Hungarian wine. The ones that did have Hungarian wines had a selection of either super old-fashioned, unattainable wines or cheap 2-buck chuck from Trader Joe's. I knew exactly what I wanted to bring: fresh-faced, high-quality, natural, and well-priced wines. Wines that were modern, but with an old-fashioned sensibility. The wines of the new Old World.
So in 2013, I went to Hungary, tasted hundreds of wines, met hundreds of people, and ended up organizing my first shipment for later that year. Thus Palinkerie was born. :)
Q: What contributes to the rich history and taste of Hungarian wine?
Hungary is one of the oldest wine regions in the world. There is evidence that they were making wines before the Romans (over 2000 years ago), meaning their winemaking tradition might be closer to 3000-4000 years old. Hungarians know what they are doing. The climate, soil and terrain is also excellent for winemaking. Volcanic soils, good drainage, native yeast, ideal climate, etc. Grapes grow natively in most of Hungary. Finally, considering their quality, these wines are still extremely well priced.
Q: How would you describe Palinkerie events at The Yard?
Events at The Yard have been awesome! The community is super supportive and interested in my story, and people are generally curious, wine being no exception. At events, I've spoken to people about what it means to run a small import business, the logistics of state and federal compliance and marketing and advertising. The list goes on. We've shared knowledge and ideas with each other. Although my business is unique at The Yard, we face a lot of the same obstacles and have the same general desires to become successful through creativity, tenacity and a great product. And of course, it's super fun to share our wines - they are meant to be enjoyed and The Yard community knows how to do that, no doubt!
Q: What does it mean to you to be featured in best-of lists, like that of Wine and Spirits Magazine?
People say that reviews don't matter, but everyone knows that they do. Our wines completely took the category, and the reviews were great. One of our wines was the highest-ranked for the entire Eastern European category for 2015. So it means that our wines are recognized as high-quality, noteworthy, well-priced wines, the best from the whole region. It recognizes the winemakers and all of their hard work, and also that the wines of Hungary are great, worthy of review and consideration in American restaurants and homes. And this all means: I am doing my job right!
At The Yard, we're grateful for the opportunity to taste Palinkerie wines first-hand with fellow members of The Yard community. We can't wait to celebrate Palinkerie's success and recognition in the upcoming years, and to continue to expand our knowledge of these delicious, high-quality wines!