The capital with the eye of an expat

Pour decisions

I grew up with the iconic Blue Nun and the odd cardboardeaux brought back from France by neighbours lucky enough to go on foreign holidays.

Back then, wine was for posh people who travelled and had money. They spoke about wine in words I knew but didn’t understand.

It was all rather intimidating. I thought it quite pretentious. And then, with age, came conversion.

I have my favourite vineyards (my current favourite is the wonderful Fehérvári Borbirtok in Somlószőlős). When I’m in and around Eger, I make it my business to pop out to Noszvaj to check what Sándor Szögedi is doing at Gazsi Pince. And there was my nationwide search for Dénes Tibor’s 2011 Sághegyi Olaszrizling.

Always willing to expand my horizons, I rarely turn down an invitation to a wine tasting. If done right, they’re formative experiences; if done wrong, they’re tedious at best.

A couple of years ago, I found myself in Bortodoor, a lively spot in Budapest’s sixth district – Zichy Jenő u. 32. It was a #drinkthelosses night, so it must have been a Sunday.

Suze Collings (UK), Smike Letwinsky (USA), and Renee Heard (Australia) know what they’re at. They don’t simply sell wine, they curate it. When they opened first in 2021, mid-Covid, they concentrated on the home delivery of bespoke subscription boxes. When the world was allowed out to play again, they turned their focus to building a thriving community of like-minded people who share their passion for wine.

Their customers are their tasters. Nothing makes it onto their shelves unless it’s been rated by their Wine Mafia.

When their friends Bryan and Josefine were getting married in 2017, they asked the lads to sort the wines for their wedding. This proved more complicated than choosing a red and a white and a bubbly. They invited a core group of wedding guests to bring with them some of their favourite wines. Then they arranged a blind tasting, with each wine scored. Those that ranked highest made it to the wedding table.

That was the first Wine Mafia.

Each Wednesday night at Bortodoor, you can make your wine voice heard. They’ll listen. It’s a great way to learn about wine and get a handle on the often confusing terms used to talk about it. For locals not so comfortable with English, there’s a monthly Magyar Wine Mafia in Hungarian. And there’s a Wine Mafia league. If you’re new to town and know no one, this is the perfect place to make new friends. Be sure to register beforehand.

Catching up with them recently, I wondered aloud at three expats running a wine bar in Budapest. Did they have concerns when they started?

Three, Suze told me.

First was imposter syndrome. Did they even know enough about wine to be selling it? What would they do when the first real sommelier came in? They did. They got over it. And now they’re WSET3 trained, too, and willing to share their knowledge.

Smike is running their first Pour Decisions workshop on 6 June. “There’s a disconnect,” he said, “between the language we use around wine and the language people use to describe what they like. The bar of entry is too high. There’s a lot of embarrassment about not knowing.” These workshops will “help you know what you like so you can drink what you like”.

And if you’re serious about learning more about wines, they’ll be offering WSET levels 1 and 2 wine-tasting workshops later this year through Borkollégium.

Second was the fact that they’re not Hungarian (although Renee’s mother did flee the country in 1956) and are not fluent Hungarian speakers. They wondered how accepting the city would be. Now, with a community of regulars, both local and expat, they’ve knocked this one on the head, too. Unusually for a bar with a late licence, their neighbours love them. The previous two addressees had been 24-hour dive bars selling cheap booze. Those who come to Bortodoor are more respectful of their neighbours. They’re attracted by the camaraderie as much as the crackling and tend to come early rather than stay late.

Between 5 and 7 on Friday evenings (Fizzy Fridays), guests enjoy a free glass of bubbly. Every first-time visitor is offered a complimentary glass of bubbly, too. “Foreigners love it; they think it’s great”, Smike told me. “Hungarians always ask why.”

Third was their concern about not being able to create a community. All come from a hostel background. They met in hostels. They’ve made lifelong friendships through hostels. They wanted to recreate that same sense of community, that unique bonding between people from all parts of the world who find themselves in the same place at the same time, however long or short it may be.

Their international staff reflects this sense of global meets local. The key requirement to work there is that you love wine and love people.

I wondered about those who don’t drink for religious, health, or other reasons. They’ve got that covered, too. They stock some de-alcoholised wines, i.e., wines that have had the ethanol removed. These are not the same as non-alcoholic wines that never had any alcohol to begin with. It’s an expensive process but to their credit, Bortodoor doesn’t reflect this in the price.

I wondered, too, about food. Since I was last there, they’ve added a cold and warm plate kitchen serving charcuterie boards. They’re still partnering with nearby Hoff House and Bob’s Kitchen so you can order in.

Whether you’re new to town and want to meet new people, or new to wine and want to learn more, make your way to  Zichy Jenő u. 32.

My favourite is the Sunday #drinkthelosses. As they’re closed on Mondays, all open bottles and those that need to go to make way for the next week’s menu are discounted by 30%. When they’re gone, they’re gone. A great way to try those expensive wines you think you might like but aren’t quite sure about. And if you empty a bottle, you get to make a wish. What’s not to like?

On June 4, they’re teaming up with Budapest-based digital artist, Michael Pettet (I’m a big fan of his work) who will have some of his Chernobyl series on display. Participants will be invited to identify memories and emotions evoked first by the art and then by the wines. They’ll then pair the wines with the art and afterwards listen to Michael talk about his work. One not to be missed. Be sure to register.

While the bar has gone from strength to strength (with the new room opening, they now have capacity for 90, not including the summer terrace), the subscription box service has been quite low-key. But it’s in for a revival. Whether you’re looking for a starter box of essential sips you couldn’t begin to choose yourself, premium wines, or more serious concierge-level vintages, they’ll work with you. Keep an eye out for their affiliate deals with Winehub, Tasting Table, and Wine Lovers.

Everything is possible. Private tastings. Home Wine Mafias. Corporate events and team building. Whatever. Unlike the more prescriptive, one-size-fits-all offers out they, Bortodoor works with your budget and your tastes and comes up with a plan. You’re in safe hands.

The stars were aligned when Suze, Smike, and Renee crossed paths. It’s rare to see businesses not just investing in the community but working so hard to create and nurture one. There’s a vibrancy about the place that hits you when you walk in the door. Something different, something above and beyond the usual. It’s as if the constancy and comfort of sameness and familiarity married the excitement of newness. The best of both worlds. Something for everyone.

Mary Murphy is a freelance writer, copyeditor, blogger, and communications trainer. Read more at | |

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