WWC23 – Jász Laci, by Athena Bochanis

Jász Laci

This entry to our 2023 wine writing competition, by wine importer Athena Bocanis, is about Hungarian winemaker Jász Laci. See our competition guide for more.

Athena Bochanis writes I own an import and distribution company specializing in Hungarian wine called Palinkerie. I founded Palinkerie in New York City in 2013. I received my BA and JD from NYU, and I freelanced as an editor and test prep teacher before brazenly entering the world of wine. It was while studying law that I spent two summers and one semester in Budapest, where I fell in love with (almost) all things Hungarian. Because of my job I get to meet all kinds of fascinating people, both in the Hungarian vineyards and in the American bars, restaurants and shops that carry our wine. But if I had to choose my favorite person, it would no doubt be the inimitable Jász Laci…

Somló is a misty, black-soiled hill in the west of Hungary, shrouded in intrigue and myth. The wines from here are some of the most volcanic in the world; countesses used to drink them with the conviction that they contained medicinal, even magical powers, especially masculine ones if you were looking to conceive a male heir. Atop this hill lives a most peculiar man, an experimental winemaker, who goes by “the big mustachioed Jász Laci…”

If this were a fairy tale, that’s how I would begin. The reality admittedly too isn’t far off. I met Jász Laci (pronounced ‘Yass Lotsi”) in 2016. I was looking for orange wines and heard he was doing amazing things on Somló, so we arranged to meet and taste at a small wine shop in Budapest. Jász arrived first, with mini bottles of wines that looked like citrus fruits: kumquat, blood orange, clementine, pomelo, lemon. He had curious brown eyes, a completely smooth head, and a comically oversized silver mustache that flipped up on the sides. He was soft-spoken and serious. We sat on uncomfortable decorative wine barrels at the shop, and he poured out the first wine.

This wine! I was stunned. It was so unique. As were all of the colorful wines that followed it. He told me that he was influenced by the ancient Georgian winemaking methods. He wanted to make wines that could express a whole panoply of flavors, not just fruit. Yes, the wines confirmed these facts, but their impact was greater, more profound. These wines were unlike any I had ever tasted, not just in Hungary but in the world at large. These were the wines, simply put, of someone who wasn’t trying to imitate someone else. They were on their own path, borne of thoughts and ideas, writings and methods I didn’t know. The result was true originality.

I oohed and aahed – these wines are marvelous, breathtaking, shocking!, I said, giddy with excitement and tripping over my words. And Jász? Jász Laci didn’t react. Years later, when I’d tell him how his wines sold out in 3 weeks or how well they scored when reviewed by a prestigious magazine, it was the same – he never flinched. There might be a tinge of softness detectable around the edges of his eyes, which is how one could guess that he was pleased. When I told him at that first meeting that I’d love to work with him, I guess he (sort of) smiled.

With Jász Laci it’s always been an odd experience. A typical winemaker would have you meet them in their suave modern tasting room, all cement and black chrome and soft backlighting, the faint muzak wafting in through an unseen speaker system. Jász instead suggested once that we taste his wines on a hike through the forest on Somló hill, to see where people made wine thousands of years ago. I wasn’t sure how to refuse so off we went, although he was not impressed with my footwear choice (patent leather loafers). He had me carry the wine glasses, and together we slowly made our way up the steep rocky hillside, passing the ruins of ancient winemaking huts. The wines of Somló are legendarily volcanic, and on this day we were quite literally subsumed in basalt – it made up the footpath, the forest floor, the walls of the ancient buildings on all sides. In the middle of one giant jagged molten lava rock, we stood awkwardly and tasted – or gulped down, in my case – his new wines. The path eventually disappeared so we had to push away branches and leaves to slide down the mountain, wine glasses perilously in hand.

Another time he prepared small dishes to pair with each wine for our afternoon tasting. We were up in his tiny house on Somló; it was the peak of summer, sweltering hot. There were tiny plates of arugula, gnocchi, tarragon and oxtail. It was 3:45 pm and no one was hungry. He had queued up classical songs on Youtube to pair with each wine course. It was awkward, yet I was charmed. All of this was done without even the slightest hint of irony.

Jász Laci’s winery is 2.5 hectares, and on this tiny estate he cultivates (by my calculation) at least 19 varieties. He has vineyards where ancient, unheard-of varieties like Góhér and Rakszölö are growing together, and an Olaszrizling vineyard in an area called the “Valley of the Fairies”. Any other winemaker with such a whimsical operation would certainly be making some effort to capitalize off these idiosyncrasies, but Jász seems completely uninterested in marketing of any kind. Jász is a man without social media. His winery does not even have a website. In January he sent me a message apologizing for his delayed reply: “for several weeks I lived without my phone or a laptop, to clear my mind of the internet!” he wrote. When Wine and Spirits asked for a high-res portrait of him for their “Winemaker to Watch” article last year, an impressive accolade for this humble winery, he sent me two low-res photos that might have been taken on his flip phone: one of himself in the dark (the edges of his mustache were just barely discernible in profile), the other of two wine bottles emerging from dirt. I laughed aloud. (Wine and Spirits did not end up running the photos.)

The truth is that I don’t know Jász Laci extremely well. He signs his emails “Jász László,” but I still don’t know if I should call him László (his first name), Jász (as some winemakers call him), or if enough vintages have passed for us to graduate to the nickname “Laci”. He also told me last year that he had a young child. Here I was thinking that he was 60 years old! Is he 35? 45? He speaks only Hungarian (which I speak only passably), so I don’t have much room to maneuver around the incredible nuances probably involved in understanding him.

But Jász has helped me understand wine more. He made me climb the basalt rocks that give his wines their deep dramatic flavor. No one can tell me terroir doesn’t exist after that! Getting scratched and muddy on that same hike reminded me that wine is not the chic, sanitized thing we sometimes trick ourselves into thinking it is. He made me reimagine how I taste, with those wild meat and concerto pairings. He’s not afraid to describe or contextualize his wines differently than other people. And every vintage, his wines leave a deep and lingering impression on me. They push me to think more about how wine should taste and what reference points matter (and why).

Jász also represents authenticity. Sometimes it feels like the wine world is full of posers, focused on label appeal and interested only in the wines that other people celebrate. “What looks cool” increasingly drives our market, and user-populated apps encourage people like my mom to buy wines of questionable provenance because they are positively reviewed by users with questionable taste. Ultimately, both the wine professionals and the lay consumers end up buying, drinking, and posting about the same few wines that are trending in their demographic. It’s not just the wine world that feels like an echo chamber, of course. Algorithms show us headlines we’ll probably agree with, and songs that sound exactly like the ones we already listen to. A friend of mine, an editor of an online magazine, says he struggles to get original content because writers are afraid to veer from popular subjects and themes. This all makes the peculiar Jász seem even more like a precious (if not otherworldly) specimen. Up on Somló hill, complacently logged off, I am guessing that Jász does not know what is popular in our world of wine. Nor does he care. An orange winemaker with no online presence – it’s basically a scandal! And yet his wines are beloved, the apex of hipness in some circles. (I am imagining Jász’s tiny non-smile just now, reading this in translation.)

Over the last year, my communications with Jász have been over email. Jász recently informed me that he has started a “landscape painting” project, meaning that he’s grown colorful, helpful plants (yellow rapeseed, purple honeysuckle, crimson clover, wildflowers) in between the rows of some vines to create a beautiful painting from above. Who is the painting for, I wonder? Art for the gods and the birds. I feel like this captures him in a nutshell. Jász Laci: a mysterious force on a mythical hill in the western part of Hungary. Treating his vineyards like a giant paint canvas, making wines that none of the neighbors understand. A man who missed your email, who takes pains to live his life differently so that he can leave his mark with his own ink.

Perhaps the most profound thing about wine is how varied and diverse the world’s ever-changing collection is. Great wines are irreplicable, but the best ones are dynamic, transcendent, moving you in a new direction. Jász is my favorite wine person because he is like that wine. Knowing him challenges me to think deeply about what I value in my wines, and what my job as a wine importer should look like. He’s always filling my head with new ideas on how I might experience food, drink, and life. I doubt he’s intending to educate me on life itself, but who knows? Like his wines, he is an absolute original. With Jász I’m never quite sure where we’re headed or what it all means, but I’m oh-so grateful for the ride.

The photograph is the author's own.