Thursday, August 28, 2014

Inniskillin's Sandor Mayer returns to Hungary

Photo: Winemaker Sandor Mayer

After just over 25 years in Canada, Inniskillin Okanagan winemaker Sandor Mayer is returning to his native Hungary in September.

The decision, which has been under consideration for several years, is strictly family related. “My parents are in Hungary,” he says. “My father is 87. I would like to be close to them when they need help.”

He describes the decision as giving back. “When I started my career, they helped me a lot to study winemaking and viticulture,” Sandor says. “They supported me in the school. My father has a small vineyard. I will certainly be involved in that. While he has relatively good health, we are going to do some things together.”

Sandor has good winery contacts in Hungary and plans to pursue opportunities there.

He leaves a considerable hole in the Okanagan’s winemaking talent pool. At times, the weight of his contribution has not always been fully appreciated, perhaps because of his low-key personality and – unusual for a winemaker – his lack of ego. Among his peers, he is highly respected.

Sandor was born in 1958 in the Hungarian village of Jánoshalma. He began making wine with his father when he was 14. He spent four years studying horticulture and viticulture at a technical high school and moved on to college for a bachelor’s degree in enology and viticulture in 1981 from the University of Kecskemét.

After three years of mandatory service in the army, he took over an advanced position in the Central Research Station at Kecskemét in 1984 and worked with a leading Hungarian grape researcher. Two years later, he took a job as a vineyard manager in the Lake Balaton region in central Hungary.

When neither the salary nor the opportunities were adequate, he and his wife, Andrea (a graduate of the same university) slipped out of Hungary in 1987 to work in Austria’s Burgenland wine region.

An uncle in the Okanagan sponsored their emigration to Canada in 1988. It was not a propitious time to find work in his field because few jobs were available. 1988 was the year when two-thirds of the vineyards in the Okanagan were pulled out because the hybrid varieties then being grown were judged too mediocre to compete with the wines from California after the free trade agreement took effect.

However, Sandor found a short-term vineyard management job in 1989 with Boucherie Mountain Vineyard, the predecessor to Quails’ Gate Estate Winery. There, Sandor’s knowledge of making wine from botrytis grapes triggered the creation of one of the Okanagan’s great dessert wines, the Quails’ Gate Totally Botrytis-Affected Optima.

Botrytis is a fungus also known as noble rot that, in the right weather conditions, dehydrates grapes and concentrates the flavours and the sugar. The fungus flourishes in misty mornings followed by dry afternoons. It is rare in the Okanagan, where the weather is dry and where, when it rains near harvest, growers take measures to prevent rot of any kind. The vineyard at Quails’ Gate is near the lake and parts of it are susceptible to botrytis. Quails’ Gate founding president Ben Stewart thought it was nasty rot until Sandor arrived.

“I remember in 1989, when I started at Quails’ Gate, picking some botrytis-affected grapes on New Year’s Day,” Sandor told me in 2003. “I made a Tokay type of wine. It turned out to be a very good wine, but in those days, no one knew about botrytis-affected wines in the valley. In fact, they would throw out those berries during the harvest because they were rotten. And Ben did that for four or five years until they realized what a treasure they had on their hands.”

In 1990 Sandor found one of the few permanent jobs then available in the valley: replanting the 23-acre vineyard for Okanagan Vineyards south of Oliver. The vineyard was a failed winery which had been taken over by Alan Tyabji. The vines had all been pulled out in 1988.

Before it could be replanted, Sandor cleared away a tangle of trellis wires, posts, vines and waist high grass. A fire to deal with grass and dead vines burned out of control. Quick work by the Oliver fire department bailed Sandor out.

Against “expert” advice, the Dark Horse Vineyard (as it came to be called) was planted entirely to vinifera, with Cabernet Sauvignon being especially successful. 

“Imagine!,” Sandor marveled in a 2007 interview with me. “We committed for Cabernet and it just worked out fine. In fact, if I recall, the first crop was picked in 1993; on the third year, Cabernet produced a decent crop. Since then, we have never had a bad vintage except for 1999. It was a cool fall. But still, we were able to produce a decent wine from the Cabernet. In 1999, we had two frosts – one in September, one in early October.”

He regards planting Dark Horse Vineyard and making wines from it his greatest accomplishment in the Okanagan, far greater than some of the many awards his wines have won. "Everybody wins medals," he says modestly.

Okanagan Vineyards was acquired in 1996 by Inniskillin Wines, one of the stable of wineries owned by Vincor, then Canada’s largest wine company. Subsequently, Vincor developed about 800 acres of vineyard in the south Okanagan. These included small blocks of varieties that were experimental in the Okanagan, such as Zinfandel.

Sandor was assigned to make the wines from these varieties for what Inniskillin Okanagan called its acclaimed Discovery Series.  It played to one of his strengths: in Hungary, he made many experimental wines to prove up new varieties. The Discovery Series was launched in the 2002 vintage with the Okanagan’s first Zinfandel. The program grew to include varieties such as Malbec, Tempranillo, Chenin Blanc, Roussanne and Marsanne.

 “We would like to try the potential of these varieties,” Mayer explained in one interview. “Different wines for wine enthusiasts and wine lovers. If any of these do not perform well in the future, we will drop them, and bring another one into the group. It is an evolution. The most important is the wine quality.”

Sandor’s return to Hungary at this time also may have been spurred when Constellation Brands (which took over Vincor) closed the aging Inniskillin winery last winter. It is now used by Constellation’s viticulture team.

Both Inniskillin’s production and the tasting room have moved to the Jackson-Triggs winery north of Oliver, no doubt changing the winemaker’s duties and responsibilities.

Throughout his Okanagan career, Sandor has been generous with other winemakers who sought to tap his expertise.

 “Anybody who asks me, I will answer,” Sandor told me in a 2002 interview. “It’s no problem. If they ask me, I help and try to bypass for them all the failures they could go through. I don’t mind because it is not a competition for me at all. Making top quality wine is not just one or two pieces of information. It is the art of the whole thing. I cannot copy anybody and they cannot copy me.”

He goes back to grow grapes in Hungary but retains great pride in the Okanagan. “I am taking back with me the biggest respect for the Okanagan Valley, and I will tell my colleagues about this region,” he promises.


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