"Whenever I heard Hungary mentioned, the only thing that used to come mind was Hungarian Dances by Johannes Brahms. But ever since I've gotten to know Peter, I've become familiar with Hungarian wines, and not only that, I've also learned a lot about the country's culture and history." As he spoke, Kenji Ito--the 52-year-old proprietor of Omi, a liquor store in Nagoya's Moriyama-ku--stood in front of shelves lined with bottles of Hungarian wine. Ito is a member of TOPS, an alliance of local liquor merchants who have been bringing Hungarian wine to the region for the past three years through an arrangement with a 32-year-old Hungarian importer named Peter Forintos.
Although TOPS was founded a decade ago by 17 liquor stores, the association kept a low profile until about five years ago, when the Japanese government began relaxing regulations governing the sale of alcoholic beverages. As a result, supermarkets and other large-scale retailers were granted alcohol retail licenses, and this spawned a sharp increase in the number of large-volume retailers who were able to obtain alcoholic beverages at low cost. TOPS was formed by smaller retailers seeking to hold their own against the big stores. The association's members do things like hold workshops about import duties and distribution and team up to obtain organic produce and import beer in bulk.
Another of the association's survival strategies is importing Hungarian wine. It all started when Ito met Forintos. "Peter lived in the neighborhood," Ito recalls, "and he was a regular customer of mine. He was cheerful and outgoing, and we hit it off immediately. Soon he was teaching me all about high-quality, great-tasting Hungarian wines. Sometimes we chatted late into the night drinking sake or wine."
Forintos adds, in fluent Japanese, "In Hungary, you're not considered a full-fledged merchant until you've sold wine. I'm really glad that Japanese people are getting to know Hungarian wine. Mr. Ito's enthusiasm came through so clearly that I wanted our relationship to go beyond a mere business arrangement."
Having discovered the appeal of Hungarian wine, Ito introduced Forintos to other TOPS members. At first, many of the other merchants were hesitant to import wine from Hungary. But they ultimately came around. As TOPS leader Takayoshi Ebata put it, "While we felt that Hungarian wine was an attractive product, the main reason behind our decision to import it was that we were charmed by Peter himself--a very knowledgeable and energetic person. Now we think of him more as a foreign friend than as a business partner."
For several years now, a wine craze has been sweeping over Japan. Consumption rose by 30% in 1997, and wine imports now amount to about 8,700 kiloliters annually. However, the volume of wine imported from Hungary is low, as is public awareness of Hungarian wine. But Peter Forintos and TOPS are trying to change that. So far, TOPS has imported some 100,000 bottles of 16 kinds of Hungarian wine. The Hungarian Embassy is providing strong support for this endeavor by, among other things, helping the merchants find suppliers in Hungary. With the wine boom helping to propel them to success, Hungarian wines have become the biggest-selling items at all of the TOPS stores. Ito even has regular customers who drive to his store from other prefectures.
Hungarian wine is popular because of its light taste, favored by Japanese consumers, and its low price. Forintos himself visits wine cellars in Hungary and selects the varieties that Japanese consumers are bound to like. Hungarian wine sells for between \500 to \2,000 per bottle--about half the price of other wines sold in Japan. Although low labor costs allow the Hungarian suppliers to turn a profit even at this price, Ito recalls he and Forintos being taken aback by Japanese import duties and liquor taxes, which are considerably higher than those in other countries.
Forintos moved his base of operations back to Hungary last year, and now shuttles between his native country and Japan. "My first impression of Nagoyans," said Forintos, "was that they seemed rather closed, like the Japanese import system. But once you get to know them, they always give you a warm welcome, and pretty soon you get to become good friends." Hungarian wine has done more than spark a business relationship. It has led to a lasting friendship across national borders.