Here is the first thing you need to know about the Kovacs brothers: we were encouraged to drink at a very young age.
Before you call the cops, let us explain. This wasn’t our parents showing us how hippy cool they could be — the equivalent of them coming into our rooms and turning the stereo up.
No, this was done in reverence, as though they were sitting us on a bench in front of an oil painting and saying, “Just look. Do you see it?”
Our parents don’t just love wine — they breathe it, they sleep it. In particular, our father, Jozsef, experiences wine with all five senses, much like someone who as a child could sit down at a piano and just play. To give us a sip of wine as children was to give us the first letter of a secret password that wouldn’t be fully spelled until we became adults.
Jozsef’s grandfather, like his father and his father’s father, was a winemaker in a small town in Hungary (which later became Czechoslovakia, and is now Slovakia.) Our dad remembers holding hands with his grandfather, walking among the vines. He says that while most everyone in his town made wine, my grandfather’s was preeminent. Whenever there was a wedding, guests would come to his home on the way to the ceremony and fill their jugs.
In all, winemaking in our family goes back seven generations. It was Jozsef’s grandfather who taught him this phrase: “The wines remember the hearts and hands that made them.”
To us, the most beautiful thing about wine is the winemaker, who in isolation makes something he hopes will be enjoyed by the masses. To make wine is a leap of faith. Winemakers are just like painters, novelists or songwriters in that the act of creation begins with the belief that someone, somewhere, someday will love it. The winemaker gives the wine his story.
To understand our love for wine, you must first know our parents. You’ll just have to go a long way to find them.
Seven years ago, our folks traded a safe business and big, country home of 21 years in Carmel Valley, Calif., for dirty fingernails and purple teeth.
They used to be comfortable … but comfortable isn’t for everyone.
Truth be told, for most of our lives going into the family business was not a dream. In fact, we wanted to do anything but go into the family business. That’s because for 35 years, our dad was hunched over a microscope, creating dental facial reconstructions. As respectable as that work was, we didn’t see ourselves sitting indoors working under a microscope 8 to 12 hours a day. The work was hard on our dad’s eyes, and by the age of 50 his vision was deteriorating. Even more, the sedentary lifestyle was making him feel old.
For as far back as we can remember our dad was in wine clubs that would get together every Friday night. Sometimes the club would meet at our house. We were allowed to watch as the adults were poured wine from a bottle in a paper bag. They’d taste it and discuss it, after which the bag was pulled away to reveal the wine’s true identity.
It was like a magic show.
When we were in college, we’d sometimes open our apartment door to find our dad standing there with bottles in his arms. “Ehh, boyo, vhat es goeng ahn?” he’d ask.
He’d set three or four bottles out for us to sample along with our roommates. Being college kids, we’d shout out crazy taste profiles: “This one has banana cream pie in it!” Our dad never treated us like we were wrong. He’d suggest other things, like currants, dark blueberry, tobacco or even dirt. Nothing was off the table.
Our dad didn’t like any alcohol besides wine — but, man, was he passionate about wine, so much so that he couldn’t suppress the desire to make it.
Just down from our house along winding Carmel Valley Road is a locals-only swim hole called the “Bloody Bucket,” named after a saloon that used to sit next to it. Above The Bucket is acre upon acre of sun-kissed land that is cooled in the evening by a marine layer, making it perfect for grape growing.
One day in 1998, my dad made his way toward The Bucket in search of prodigious amounts of cabernet, which he brought back home and mixed in a barrel in our garage. He knew exactly what to do from there. The time had come to make his wine.
Soon our dad was having more fun making one barrel in the driveway than he could have doing an doing a full mouth reconstruction. He was leaving work early to go into the garage to talk to the barrel, rub it and hold it like a new baby. In time he gave us a taste. It was wonderful. It was electric. It was the beginning of a brand-new father.
Soon Jozsef sat down with our saintly mother, Betty, and suggested the following: Let’s sell the house, unload the dental business, buy some land in the wilderness atop a winding mountain road, live in a 200-square-foot trailer … and become winemakers!
With a plan like that, what could go wrong?
Before she answered, our mom took into consideration the man her husband really is: the descendent of a legendary winemaking family who’d landed in America only after a death-defying escape from religious persecution. In other words, he’s a man who’s succeeded by taking risks.
Our dad, who’s now 60, was as a teenager one of the top young sprinters in Czechoslovakia, so fast that the government was grooming him for the 1968 Olympics. But he was Hungarian — the wrong ethnic group — and eventually was cast aside for political reasons.
Three years later, his ethnicity and anti-Communist beliefs made life difficult for him behind the Iron Curtain. The government had already seized his grandfather’s 250-year-old winemaking business. Friends and family who shared his politics had been hauled off to prison camps.
So, at 18 and without a word to his parents, our dad literally ran for his life. He traveled to Yugoslavia, near the Italian border, hiked into the woods, and in the dark of night watched the machine-gun toting guards patrol the border with their German shepherds. Somewhere between 2 and 4 a.m., he sprang from his hiding place and sprinted with his heart pounding out of his chest. He jumped over two barriers, then ran into the darkness.
He wasn’t sure where he was, so he made his way to a hilltop and looked down at the lights of a village below. When the sun came up, he saw a shimmering in the distance, which turned out to be the Mediterranean, his first-ever glimpse of an ocean.
That’s when he realized he was in Italy, and that he was free.
Forty years later, our dad recreated himself as a winemaker, which relatively speaking is not as scary as stowing away on a transatlantic flight, as he did to get to America. That’s not to say there weren’t — and aren’t — major challenges.
He had to drill 450 feet to find water. At the last minute, he had to construct a green zone to accommodate endangered salamanders that may or may not have been on our property. (“Dose leetle bayztards are gonna taste reel good on dee bar-bee-cue,” he said when he found out about the salamander edict.)
But four years ago, he came to market with high-quality Syrah and Cabernet under a label called Szalay — his grandfather’s last name. After that he soon produced a Cuvée that is flat-out legendary. People ask him to pour it like they ask Lynyrd Skynyrd to play “Freebird.” To this day, the best present you can give our dad is a bottle of his own 2002 Cuvée, as he unfortunately sold too much of it and has none for himself.
They say you should have $10 million before you start an endeavor like Szalay, so you can hire a farmer, a winemaker and a bunch of laborers to do all the hard work. But at our winery, we are the farmers, we are the winemakers, and we are the laborers.
Despite all this, my parents feel like a young couple again, just starting out in life. Our dad is healthier now than he was 10 years ago. To thank her for indulging his dream, Jozsef got our mom a special Christmas present: a John Deere tractor, complete with a front loader, a back scraper and a rototiller.
Now our days start at 4:30 a.m., when we wake to uncertainly or thrilling possibility, depending on your perspective.
We got into the wine business in 2006 out of sheer naiveté. We thought, “Wine’s expensive. We could make a lot of money selling that.” We wrote a business plan that consisted of the following: “We’ll ask for $50,000. We’ll produce a bunch of cases and sell that for $300,000. Everyone will love it, plus — unlike Dad’s wine — people will actually be able to pronounce the name.”
Not surprisingly, we were turned down for a loan by every bank we entered. (Many days we think that if we’d actually gone to business school, we’d never have become winemakers.)
We told each other we’d give it six months to get the money. When our deadline arrived and we didn’t have the money, we gave ourselves another six months. The same thing that overtook our parents had taken us over, too, in the form of a relentless drive to create our own wine label.
We finally found a private investor, and by Thanksgiving 2007 we’d bottled a chardonnay and a Meritage under the Kovacs Brothers label, which we sold out of the trunk of our cars like old mix tapes.
Then a funny thing happened — people loved the wine. They really, really loved it. We became addicted to creating something that somehow mattered to people; that they had an opinion about. The loan was paid off in a year and a half, and our wines’ popularity has grown. Today we bottle and sell more than 1,000 cases every year.
Still, we travel with a little bit in the trunk, just in case.
— Jacob and Jesse Kovacs