The Jewish Winemakers of Mád

 I came to caring about Jews and wine early in life but I came to Aszu, the great botrytized wine of Hungary late. I was working for VOS, trying to be a salesperson. I flunked. But I did get to know another aspect of wine, develop more knowledge that served me later, and learned to sneak into the fridge for a little afternoon delight. That would have been a hit of the Tokaji Victor imported. Acidity through the roof made this elixir palatable to me who prefer bitter to sweet.

But while I've never written about it--or visited Hungary,  I’ve searched for a story about Jewish winemaking heritage. I sensed that there was one far  more noble than the Manischewitz stereotype. I wanted to know about the Jewish vignerons who perished with World War 11. I could find few leads. Last year a gentleman named Gerry Oster, called me with the one. 

This was shortly after his Washington, DC-based sister was planning a back-to-her-roots tour to Hungary with her husband. While looking over a website of places a tour guide would arrange for them to visit, her husband called out and said, “Honey, come here. Isn’t this your mother’s house in Mád?”



 The house, now part of the current headquarters of Royal Tokaji winery, was the very same one that Susy Oster, née Zsuzsanna Zimmermann was wrenched from as a young girl in 1944. The Forward ran a story. I yearned  to go deeper into it, head to Hungary, find other leads, but with book pressures I just couldn't manage. So, I waded into it  from afar. 

At one time 10 Jewish families owned 80 percent of Mad's Tokaji industry. The Zimmermanns had been one of them and they were wealthy farmers in the vine-rich town of Mád. For at least three generations, their family had lived there and worked the land. They worked the land. They made wine. Some kosher. Some not. They also owned some of the best vineyards—termed “first growth,” and covetable cellars, nearly a mile long. Those were perfect--and rare--for aging the sweet wine for which the area was so famous. Mrs. Oster’s idyllic youth was full of memories of harvest and fermentation.

All ended with occupation. From there, her family was sent to the ghetto, then later to Auschwitz and a work camp for Siemans. She survived, liberated in 1945.  Her mother did not.   

After liberation she was taken in by a San Diego family as a war orphan. She learned to speak English with little accent. With communism in place, she lost all hope of reclaiming her family’s property. She had repudiated what she felt to be an insulting reparation offer from the government. Now a healthy woman a year or two away from 90, living near Los Angeles. She left that part of her life behind---until, that is, her children told her what her past home and land had become. 

Partners Lord Jacob Rothschild and wine and garden writer (and hero) Hugh Johnson acquired  Royal Tokaji. Damon de László came later.  It debuted  with the 1994 vintage and much fanfare. It was astonishing wine news. Tokaji! Back from behind the Iron Curtain to the drinking world! Johnson said in a 2015 interview to Somm Journal, “As a wine writer and lover, I would have gone to any lengths to taste wine that inspired Homer or Virgil. Why would I pine any less for the wine that Pushkin and Tolstoy drank, and that Peter and Catherine (both Great) considered one of the privileges of the tsars?”

But there was no mention of any connection to the Jews. Even as the company asserts history is a mainstay of their product, the Jewish piece vanished. 

This was odd. It wasn't as if it was a secret. Marguerite Thomas wrote about them in a piece she wrote in 2000. But in that article she wrote something that was not true. It remains a mystery how she came to understand that Hugh Johnson & Co. bought the estate from the Zimmerman's themselves. Consequently that changed to the local church, but as the surviving Zimmerman's never reclaimed their property the actual truth of how they came to own the property was never fully clear to the family. When Gerry’s sister and husband,  traveled to Royal Tokaji they were treated graciously. Everyone there knew who they were. 

Having been privy to the email exchange between Oster and the partners, and one personal email where the Mr. Johnson expressed surprise about what took the family so long to come forward--I must admit something I was shocked at though chalked up to ignorance--they came forward as soon as they understood that what they had built survived--I came away perplexed at what could have been seen as willful denial. Or perhaps it was fear of losing the business they had worked so hard to make a success.

However, the Oster/Zimmermann family made it clear that they were not after reclamation. They wanted recognition. Not only for themselves but for the Jews of the region who built the industry in the 19th century that others now are benefitting from. They did not want their history to be erased. It was that simple. And that profound.

 After a year of deliberation this story has a very happy ending. So does history. There is now a Jewish presence on the Royal Tokaji website, though only in English not in Hungarian. 

 June 24th at 11am there will be a ceremony in Mád. Several family members will travel to Hungary for it. These two plaques--in both languages --will be hung in full view. L'chaim.




A Shiva Call to Paris


IMG_6093                              On a wall in the Montmartre.


At first I was going to Paris on a whim--a friend was there for a conference, there was a FF ticket involved. I'd play tourist instead of journalist. Though I'm frequently in town, it had been decades since I played that role. But in the shadows of the November 13th events, I understood that I was flying to Paris to pay a shiva call.

One eats and drink at shiva. One mourns. One makes sense of the past and then realizes the future is inevitable. Finally one step is put in front of the other and life continues.

                                                     "Aren't you afraid?" I was asked.

 It hadn't occurred to me. It had occurred to others. Out of self-defense I told my always-fearful mother I was going to Vienna. French friends said, stay out of the RER and the Metro. My flight to France was empty.  

I landed into an quiet airport and a friendly city. Was that really a joke and a smile from the man behind the glass at passport control? Unprecedented.

With the Climate Change conference about to start the metro and RER were free. How was I to refuse such a generous welcome? I looked into the face of the weary passengers as we passed, and did not stop at Saint Denis and Stade de France.

I dumped my bags and guided my good friend to my Sunday morning ritual. The best cure for jetlag is the potato,onion best-latke-ever-galette at the north end of the Marché Biologique. But something was amiss. I heard no English, British or Brooklynese. There was no line at my favorite bread stall. You know, the one who has the pain aux fruits secs. The market had been returned to the locals.

The streets were stripped of its wall of tourists. Looking back there wasn't one couple carrying their Tonka Toy assortment of shopping spree. I saw no Asians struggling with Googlemaps.  The city echo was loud when we snagged a table at Katsuaski Okiyama’s still hot, impossible to book, thumbnail of a restaurant L'Abri. True, the man who made the call has Okiyama's cell phone #, but still. Not a tourist except for me in ear shot.

The Clown Bar? A table available? Really? I asked my friends Robert and Renée-other Americans who had not changed their annual Thanksgiving in Paris plans. The resto is around the block from Bataclan, perhaps it was too close for some, such as a Parisienne friend of mine who lives in the 18th. I'd see her later in the week, near the comfort of her apartment. But meanwhile, eight of us met up at the restaurant.  


We dined outside in the chill, under the warming lamps. There were tables inside  if we had wanted them.  I hadn't been to the small spot for about a decade, when the food was serviceable and the wines less so. The word was that under the stewardship of Ewen and Sven the resto had grown frosty. I felt no chill. Vegetarian,  Renée and I mumbled as I waited for the arched eyebrow of disdain.  

No scowls were forthcoming. Instead, only deliciousness. The milky topinambur soup, dreamy, seasoned to perfection, dancing slivers of mushroom and crunchy vegetable. Their chicken, white and buttery against the gamey pigeon, stripped off its carcass in front of me. I'm used to the paradox of sorrow and joy. It's the human condition. 

American news reported that the French were taking back the streets, restaurants and cafés, it was their duty. This was not my experience. They weren't on the Canal. They weren't at cafés.


I did find them at the Batalcan, where there were a few other non-natives, South Americans. But no crush of people, more like a steady stream of  thoughts, flowers and children. We stood in silence. No one looked at one another, taking alone moments with strangers.

I saw Paris tried to morph around its new reality. Guns poked out of police rear pockets. I couldn't help but think of  unwitting tourists inviting pickpockets. Security guards at stores from Au Bon Marché to FNAC were ineffectual as they apologetically asked to inspect bags." "Unzip your coat," the motioned. I had to wonder, how would they handle finding explosives?  'Sorry Madame, you'll have to take that vest off. None allowed inside."

 I sailed into the Musée Picasso. There were no lines. No wait. No buildup in front of glass cases. No foreign languages.

Paris was left to the French with few interlopers.

The tourists and the Parisian will come back as soon as the necessary denial and defiance snap back into place. But for now, Paris is in transition, to a place that has been alien to those of us who have already accepted a new world. When I left I could feel the city doing the necessary walk around the block after shiva and then next steps about to follow, even if shaky.

 As far as making sense of it? That, I fear, is impossible.


Lettie Teague’s Wine in Words

I first fell for Lettie' Teague's new book, Wine in Words: Notes for Better Drinking (Rizzoli Ex Libris. $29.95) because of its looks. Was I that shallow, I wondered.


With its vintage typeface, it's sturdy dust-jacket free, embossed cover in butter-yellow, the feel of the book in hand felt like a legacy. So, I started to fan through  this collection of essays, and then sat right down and started to read the 40+ short pieces. 

I am fond of my colleague, Lettie, the wine columnist for the Wall Street Journal. It's true that she and I often don't exactly see wine through the same lens. We often have agreed to disagree. This was reinforced several times over in the book, and I have come to understand that is just the way we are built. She is a natural ectomorf. I'm, to my dismay, an endo. 

Turns out her book is neither memoir nor wine guide, but a  selection of thoughts and whims Teague believes the wine drinker should know. 

The book is organized capriciously enough. With no particular arc,  it's sectioned off into three parts.  +Fun to Know. +Need to Know. +Who Knows. But even if I feel some fun to knows are need to knows and vice versa, the more I jumped into it, the more I appreciated how her prose  sat on the juncture of, let's say,  A.J. Liebling meets Judith Martin. It's when Lettie effortlessly steps into a Miss Manners role  she is most charming and even sage.

 Each entry is no longer than a blog post. For today's texting attention span these are measured spoonfuls for those who have not yet worked up to reading the full meal of wine encyclopedias for sport. I imagine that she really could guide reader and a drinker through blunders that no one wading into the wine swamp wants to make, especially the beginner who fears looking like one.

For example, in her discourse on the wine glass, she professes her love for the Zalto (check!) and artfully dismisses the notion that a glass is needed for every country and variety.  

We all have tried to fake it at one time or another, like the time I truly had no idea who Pierre Overnoy was and sensed I couldn't admit it. Likewise, Lettie confessed in the Pitfalls of Pretending, about the time she claimed to have tasting knowledge of a wine in a certain vintage. Turns out the wine was not made in that year. She also recounted the tale of  a misguided sommelier who when confronted with a customer request for the sold out gewürztraminer, offered a 'similar' wine. The replacement was an ill-advised sauvignon blanc. The grapes  bear no similarity to each other except perhaps they are both aromatic, even if they boast different aromas. Moral of the story, there's no humiliation factor in learning. Or as she penned, "Better to be an ignoramus than a fraud."  

It's these little stories, told with no artifice, with old-fashioned advice that I find fresh.

There are still the moments when I shake my head, "Oh, Lettie!" Such as her entry on orange wines, Orange is the Old Black. There she address skin contact wine as a fad ( of 8,000 years? That's more a rediscovery than a fad, methinks.) though I did learn from it that a few "oeniphiles" believe orange  mean that the wine has been infused with the citrus fruit. 

 But when reading one of her final pieces, Worst Wine Word, I had another revelationLettie, believes the worst wine descriptor to be 'smooth.' As it turns out smooth is a bit of a bête noire for me, and its use annoys me almost irrationally. And as she wrote,  "A wine--like a person--requires a bit of friction to be interesting."

It was then I understood that Lettie and I actually do agree more than I had ever given us credit for.