Today we are going to make a side trip to Tokaj where, believe it or not, Lőrinc Mészáros, who is considered to be Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s front man (stróman in Hungarian), is in the process of buying a vineyard. Not just any old vineyard but Chateau Dereszla, a 54-hectare estate owned by Count Patrick d’Aulan, an internationally known vintner with large estates in France and Argentina. Apparently, Dereszla has been a successful business since about 2000, with well-established markets in Poland and Russia. Mészáros’s purchase of the vineyard came as a great surprise to the locals.
Isn’t it interesting that Mészáros decided to follow in the Orbáns’ footsteps, whose very first business undertaking was a vineyard in the Tokaj region? It was a joint venture with Dezső Kékessy, a wealthy Hungarian businessman from Switzerland. The Orbáns’ share in the company (held in the name of Anikó Lévai, Orbán’s wife) that Kékessy formed was relatively small, but they became key business partners due to Orbán’s position as prime minister. Here’s how the deal worked. At that time the largest buyer of grapes in the region was a state bottling company that was close to bankruptcy. First, the Orbán government injected billions into the bottling company to make sure that the Orbán-Kékessy Estate’s grapes could be sold. In two years the bottling company received 4 billion forints in state subsidies. But that was not all. The vineyard that they bought was not worth much. The stock was old, and to make it a successful business a large amount of capital was needed to plant new vines. The Orbán government came to the rescue: the Orbán-Kékessy Estate initially received 41,475 million forints and later, on two separate occasions, an additional 64.5 million forints in subsidies. Thanks to the excellent investigative work of the late Krisztina Ferenczi, all this eventually came to light. There was embarrassment but nothing else happened, except that Anikó Lévai quickly sold their share of the estate.
The pending purchase of Dereszla was a well-kept secret, but by now it is certain that the happy new owner will be Lőrinc Mészáros, the gas-fitter and friend of Viktor Orbán. He has never been known as a connoisseur of fine wines, unlike most vineyard owners whose palates have been refined by years of studying the mastery of wine-making.
In the past, before the communist takeover, Tokaj wine was highly regarded, but it soon “became world famous only at home,” as the saying went. Dereszla was first acquired by a French co-op right after the change of regime. Later it was purchased by the D’Aulan family, who put a great deal of money into the operation, planting new stock and introducing the most modern equipment. Although Russia and Poland are the largest markets for Chateau Dereszla wines, they are also available in the United States. The wines of Dereszla were chosen to be among the representative wines served at government functions and at embassies. In 2012 “Count Patrick d’Aulan was honored with the Knight of Merit by the President of the Republic for his dedication and promotion of the wines of Tokay.”
So, d’Aulan’s estate will be added to the growing number of business schemes of Mészáros, who over the last few years has become a billionaire. He has so many irons in the fire that he is sometimes confused about just what he owns. A while back he had no recollection of a business he had established in Russia. More recently, he purchased the Osijek football club (NK Osijek). Mészáros’s purchases run eerily parallel to Viktor Orbán’s interests: agricultural land, real estate (hotels), football clubs, and now vineyards.
Why the sudden interest in Tokaj? Andy Vajna, a Hollywood producer and now a businessman in Hungary with close ties to Viktor Orbán, is also interested in purchasing a vineyard in Tokaj. One, maybe the most important reason, to look for estates for sale in the Tokaj region is that 40 billion forints in subsidies are going to be sunk into the region by the Orbán government. This amount is over and above a 100 billion forint package that was announced in January 2014 by János Lázár. The plan is as follows. The state will buy 1,000 hectares, which will then be parceled out either in the form of 25-year leases or even outright sales for those close to the government and Fidesz. There is also talk about planting perhaps as much as 2,000 hectares with new vines, which would make the wines produced in the region more desirable and naturally more expensive. Here and there one can hear talk of a new bridge across the Bodrog river and new roads.
Viktor Orbán’s first business venture in Tokaj 16 years ago was small potatoes in comparison to Mészáros’s purchase of a thriving winery with an established name. Then, the Orbáns were satisfied with a few hectares of third-rate wine produced from old stock that should have been replaced decades before. They were content to sell their inferior grapes to a state bottling company that produced cheap wine. Mind you, that was only an interim solution while they waited for government subsidies to be able to plant new vines. The money at that time came solely from the Hungarian government because in 2000 Hungary was not an EU member. Now it is really free money: the subsidies come from the hated European Union. Unless Brussels gets tired of doling out money to countries that refuse to cooperate in solving the refugee crisis or that have a proven track record of corruption.