The year was 1984. The Iron Curtain still had a stronghold on Europe, casting its shadow on anything east of the Austro-Hungarian border. Robert Wenzel, a grape grower in the Burgenland region of Austria, made the potentially dangerous trek to Hungary to bring back cuttings of Furmint. The idea was to revive what was once the most popular white grape variety in his village of Rust. Robert had permission from Austrian authorities but not from the communist Hungarians.
At that time, crossing the border took several hours. Robert’s father, who was in the car with him, tried to break the tedium by playing his tárogató, a woodwind instrument similar to the clarinet commonly used in Hungarian folk music. The elder Wenzel’s Hungarian tunes were forbidden at the time, as Russian rule prohibited any expression of national identity.
“It was a difficult time, and my father and grandfather weren’t really sure if they would be allowed to bring the cuttings back,” says Michael Wenzel, Robert’s son and current keeper of the family flame, recalling the story. “A Hungarian soldier quickly ran to them saying that my grandpa is crazy and that they never know where the KGB will infiltrate.” The soldier was sympathetic and enjoyed the music but was nervous about what might happen. The story has a happy ending, as that soldier ushered the Wenzels ahead of the line, and they were able to quickly pass the border before there could be any trouble. In this way, Furmint made its first significant inroads back to Burgenland since 1921, when the region was incorporated as a part of Austria instead of the Hungarian Soviet Republic.