Rare Blend: Florian Zaruba

“I hate to have to explain, make excuses and be judged on who I am, so I don’t anymore.”

Interview

Photos

Tyler Sharp

Read Time

9 minutes

Posted

After formal farewells, we headed west toward Lake Balaton, a famed Hungarian summer destination — though it was decidedly not summer outside — to visit a German transplant named Florian Zaruba, the CEO and estate manager of the Kristinus Winery. He and Danny forged an online friendship through a shared passion for hunting and cooking wild game, and thus an invitation was extended for us to come visit and expand our cultural horizons. Apart from producing award-winning biodynamic wines, Florian is blending regenerative agriculture with hunting, wild cuisine, and local culture, offering a rare blend of experience in what is often a rigid tradition. 

With him and his partner Lazlo as our immaculate hosts, we would spend the next five days learning about their passion for and innovation with winemaking, hunting for a variety of species across pristine, idyllic Hungarian countryside, and of course, drinking a lot of wine. On our last night, we sat down with a few bottles to discuss Florian’s background, the challenges he faces, and what he hopes for the future as he follows a path that mixes old traditions with new. 

MH: First, what’s a Bavarian German doing in Hungary? Tell us about the journey that led you here.

When I was a teenager, I figured out that I was gay and I did not feel welcome in hunting and agriculture. Even in Germany, it was a big topic and not really tolerated, especially in this part of society. So I turned to marketing and advertising — a more tolerant industry, but not my passion. That led me to a time of change in my life, when I had a sense of … destiny. I was struggling with my job, or maybe with my whole life. I was focused too much on monetary success, and became more and more unhappy and burned out. Finally, I crashed with my company and also in my relationship. I questioned my life. Where was the wrong turn? 

I decided to be a forest engineer, to combine my passion with my job, so I would never again have to work in the literal sense. I wanted to go back to my roots and visit my dreams from my childhood of hunting and working in agriculture. Things became clearer when a hunting friend from Bavaria brought me to Hungary. They had a hunting house in a red deer habitat. That’s also how I met with the winery, six years ago. So I applied at the Kristinus winery and eventually became the general manager.

MH: Are you from a bloodline of farmers and hunters? Tell us about some of the hunting traditions you were raised with. 

Well, kind of. When I was ten, I learned how to hunt with birds of prey. It is a very traditional way of hunting. I had a golden eagle, and at that time that was as big as me! In this pursuit, you have to be one with nature, because your “weapon” is an animal. You are a real team — bird, dog and falconer. Falconry has been a tradition for thousands of years in many parts of the world, and still is. 

I learned to play the parforce horn, which is what we play here as a signal before, during and after the hunt. I also learned the traditional signals of wooden stocks — Jagd Brüche. Before mobile phones, hunters had secret signals made out of wooden sticks to communicate with other hunters, messages like where they had seen which animal, where it was going, or where a shot had landed.

In general, I can say traditions in Hungary are very similar to those in Austria and Bavaria. We have a common history and common kings who were great hunters. The traditions are very respectful; you learn to see the prey as a gift, as a creature of God. It doesn’t matter if you believe in God, what matters is that the animal has a value like yourself. It reminds us to see “meat” with greater respect. For me, hunting is always done for food. It’s a cultural value. I don’t agree with killers and trophy hunters.

MH: Take us back to your most memorable hunting experience.

The first prey I hunted with a golden eagle was a fox. I was 11 years old and very scared! Not of the kill, but of the eagle — it was his first fox too, and there was a chance for the eagle to be injured or killed by the fox. After he flew from my fist, I started running after him, and when he caught the fox I still had 300 meters to run. I was functioning like a machine. When I arrived, the eagle was holding the fox perfectly on the neck and head. I claimed the fox quickly and was very proud — the first prey kill for both of us.

MH: You are a gay man, and you have been lucky to meet your partner through your life and work here. How do you feel people in general, and especially the local hunting community, have reacted to that? Are they accepting?

Yes, I am lucky to have found my love here — he has the same interests and passions. He is a winemaker and hunter too. Do people accept this? More or less … Agriculture and hunting are often very conservative fields, so we mainly avoid this topic, especially in rural Hungary. It’s not always an open-minded community here, especially when it comes to social issues like this. On the other hand, my partner and I have a 100-hectare plot of land of our own with nothing around us, so we don’t give a fuck about what others are thinking. I had to learn this as well — if you are more self-confident, it’s less of a problem. But I would be lying if I said it isn’t still hard or uncomfortable. I hate to have to explain, make excuses and be judged on who I am, so I don’t anymore. 

MH: Hungary has a rich history of winemaking, but you’re taking a new approach. Tell us a bit more about the biodynamic approach to production. 

Making biodynamic wine is all about respecting and working together with nature. The winery is a self-sufficient circle; it relies on healthy and strong biodiversity. You don’t need anything from outside for the farming process. The goal is to strengthen what you are farming to keep it healthy, so you do not have to fight diseases with chemicals, antibiotics and pesticides. We produce our own natural fertilizers, mainly from cow manure, like farmers have done for thousands of years. 

It has a lot in common with hunting for meat. Hunters don’t like meat to be mass-produced, fed with proteins, chemicals and antibiotics. Sometimes I think people forget that they eat what they are feeding to animals. They forget how to treat the animals and plants. 

Industrial agriculture is moving away from nature and quality to an industry about cost and profit. But is this really what we want as farmers, and especially as consumers? If most people saw how many chemicals food was contaminated with, they would not buy it. Eighty percent of the winemakers use a huge list of chemicals — it’s legal, but it has nothing to do with a natural product anymore.

Biodynamic agriculture is a philosophy. You want to give the soil back better than it was when you began working it, and you want to produce healthy, sustainable and delicious food. This includes making sure that animals have an appropriate life, with only “one bad day,” like in hunting. With the animals producing fertilizers, we are self-sufficient.

MH: How has your vision been received locally and in the wine community? Is there opposition toward your new take on the tradition of winemaking? Tell us about any challenges you face, and why you think it’s important to be on this new path. 

It’s time for a change. Our winemaking is a revival of what was done 100 years ago. Sure, the kind of work that can be done today is cleaner, we have better techniques, but chemicals are not needed to produce wine or other agricultural products. But this has been normalized for a long time, and the lobby of a multi-billion-dollar chemical industry is a strong one. Many people doubt our way, but we think it’s the right path forward. 

MH: You strive for a deeper understanding and balance through wine production. Do you feel the same way about food? Is it important to you that you also eat wild game? 

Besides that it is delicious and healthy, it is the most appropriate way to eat meat. A hunter who is not eating the prey is not a hunter — with the exception of those regulating game stock, like predators.

MH: You are doing something unique with your work at Kristinus Winery — a place to stay, dine, enjoy wine, and hunt. What do you hope to accomplish, or what sort of legacy do you hope to leave behind with this blending of old ways and new? 

Honestly, what makes a good hunting experience? It doesn’t matter if you are hunting alone or with a group — afterward, it’s the best to have a drink and good food together and share the experiences of the day. That’s what we try to provide here — a chance to make friends, go hunting, and enjoy good food and wine.

Apart from the experience, I hope I can really contribute to a change in agriculture and create awareness for the climate situation. I want people to understand that this change can make things better for them personally — better environment, better quality of water, food, wine, et cetera. If I can motivate others to follow this lifestyle and show that it’s enjoyable, I will be happy! It’s not something to view as circumstances out of our control; it’s a chance to be better.

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