Learning the winemaking process — in Sonoma’s Hungarian sister city
When attending Santa Rosa Junior College, electrical engineering student Kevin Valencia decided to take a few classes to study wines, and one day he blind-tasted a wine from Tokaj, Hungary.
He loved it.
“That wine ended up being Kiralyudvar Tokaji Furmit Sec 2013,” he said. “I also used to go to a wine bar, where the bartender poured me a wine from Tokaj that I loved.”
A short time later, a professor in one of Valencia’s classes recommended he participate in an internship at Tokaj-Hetszolo Vineyards in Tokaj through the Sonoma-Tokaj Sister Cities program.
Valencia didn’t qualify because he didn’t have the desired two years of harvest experience. He was told he would still have a good chance of being accepted if he harvested for at least a year.
Valencia then attended San Jose State University to continue his electrical engineering studies, but wine was on his mind. Before starting his senior year, he decided to return home for a semester and commit to the practice of oenology — the study of wines. After working his first harvest at Verite Winery in the Alexander Valley, just north of Healdsburg, he again applied for the internship in Tokaj — and was accepted.
Five years later, he is the dining room manager at SingleThread, a three Michelin star restaurant in Healdsburg, that in 2021 was named one of the Top 50 restaurants in the world by World’s Best Restaurants.
Valencia said his experiences in Tokaj helped boost his career.
“Although knowing wine and everything that goes to making it helps me in the restaurant, where I am surrounded by wine, I wouldn’t say that is what has most helped my career,” he said. “I think the experience of living in a new place and culture helped me grow as a person and see how different people can be.”
He said a big part of his job as a manager is to get the best out of the whole team.
“That involves looking at everyone individually, with their differences and getting the most out of those individuals,” Valencia said. “Maybe to sum it up, one thing I gained from my experiences in Tokaj is a perspective of people and the world.”
The roots of the sister city relationship date to 2011, when a trade and tourism mission from Tokaj — consisting of prominent winery owners, international wine distributors and national government officials — visited historic Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma, founded in 1857 by famous Hungarian Count Agoston Haraszthy.
During the visit, Buena Vista owner Jean-Charles Boisset hosted a traditional Hungarian lunch in the caves that included braised pork and cabbage. Halfway through the lunch, Sonoma actor and historian George Webber — employed by Boisset to perform as Haraszthy — jumped to his feet.
“Sonoma and Tokaj should be sister cities!” Webber said.
“It was enthusiastically endorsed by all,” Webber said, recalling the moment. “Sonoma and Tokaj became sister cities in 2012, and as part of the relationship, several young people from each city have worked as interns in the sister city.”
Webber became the public relations representative for Sonoma-Tokaj Sister Cities Committee. And one intern enjoyed the experience so much she returned to live in Tokaj.
“After working as an intern in Tokaj, the winery asked Kathryn Aronsohn if she wanted to come back to help,” Toth said. “She did, and decided to stay in Tokaj. She’s now the manager of the tasting room at the winery!”
Sonoma-Tokaj Sister Cities Committee has been offering the internship since 2013. The committee is currently seeking applicants to work at Tokaj-Hetszolo Vineyards, from mid-August to Nov. 30.
The intern will work with Master Winemaker and General Manager Gergely Makai, who speaks English and will provide instruction on local winemaking processes. The Sonoma-Tokaj Sister Cities Committee will provide $2,000 to cover the cost of airfare and any other expenses, and the winery will supply a room and a choice of free board or equivalent payment, as well as a small stipend for leading English-speaking tours, if requested.
“It provides a great opportunity for young people who are interested in the wine industry, while having a cultural experience,” said Sylvia Toth, co-chair of the Sonoma-Tokaj Sister Cities Committee.
Valencia said he benefited from the internship in “countless ways.”
“Just to list a few, it was the first time I had been to Europe and it was great to not only visit a different country, but being able to work and live there was such a unique experience. I not only saw locals, but for a while, I became one,” he said.
He speaks English and Spanish, but enjoyed being in a country where he learned a new language. He also loved Tokaj’s quaintness and rural setting.
“It was very relaxing to be there on those days when I wasn’t working,” he said. “I loved the architecture of the buildings during my walks, the fried seafood sold in a shack by a river, and the people I got to meet.”
Valencia said he did everything involved in the winemaking process, including helping the team to receive and process the fruit once it arrived at the winery, inoculating and monitoring the wine once it was fermenting, performing analysis in the lab, remixing during the barrel aging, and participating in the tasting and blending process.
“I also did lots of sanitation and I was involved with bottling and labeling,” he said. “Honestly, I was involved with almost everything that happens to wine after the (grape) growing.”
More information can be found by contacting Toth at 707-938-0224.
Reach the reporter, Dan Johnson, at email@example.com.
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