In Russia’s idyllic wine country, dark tales of dreams dashed

By Anton Troinavski

Russia has no shortage of innovators, risk-takers and freethinking entrepreneurs. But their country is not built for them. Sooner or later, the state security apparatus makes its unwelcome appearance.

Visit the velvety slopes dipping down to Russia’s verdant Black Sea coast, and you will see that this applies even to wine.

Vladimir Prokhorov, bespectacled and profane, has been making wine from the grapes bulging off the vines for 30 years. He has never been abroad, let alone to Portugal, but his Madeira is magical. His cellar is his shrine, where an icon of Jesus sits next to the thermometer, and where he and his wife never set foot when they are in a bad mood.

But the oak barrels — marked in chalk “2016 Muscat Hamburg,” “2016 Cahors” — now make a hollow sound when you tap them. The police showed up last summer at his winery in southern Russia and drained them all.

“I hate them,” Prokhorov said, referring to authorities, slamming his left fist into his right palm. “I hate them with a fierce loathing.”

On first glance, the rebirth of Russian fine winemaking, catering to well-off Russians’ more refined tastes, is a Putin-era success story. But beyond the vines, a darker and very Russian tale of big dreams, dashed hopes, bureaucratic nightmares and police raids comes into view.

Many of Russia’s smallest and most innovative winemakers, with the informal approval of local officials, long operated without licenses, considering them prohibitively cumbersome and expensive. Then, about two years ago, federal authorities started cracking down, bringing the easy boom years of the country’s upstart vintners to an end.

Russia covers almost 7 million square miles of territory, most of it frozen year-round, and much of the soil yielding little except cloudberries, lingonberries and the odd mammoth tusk poking out of the thawing ground.

But then there is a sliver, from the Caucasus foothills to Crimea, where the softly undulating, deep-green land, glowing beneath the warm autumn sun, is reminiscent of a Tuscan afternoon. The ancient Greeks made wine around here, and so did the czars, who brought in French expertise.

The Soviets collectivized the vineyards and turned winemaking into industrial-scale enterprises like that chateau of the proletariat, Kubanvinogradagroprom.

In wine-rich areas like the resort city of Anapa, there were once vending machines dispensing chilled riesling by the cupful. At home, in their basements, people finessed their own small-batch techniques.

Nowadays, the Black Sea coast is an oenophile’s dreamland, attracting people from across the country who want to try making their own wine in its rocky soil. Most of the major European grape varieties, along with obscure Soviet-developed ones and indigenous types like Krasnostop Zolotovsky, are grown here.

To President Vladimir Putin, restoring the czarist-era glory days of Russian winemaking meshes with his mission to make Russia great again. Kremlin-allied oligarchs have poured millions of dollars into elite Russian vineyards, and one of Putin’s propaganda chiefs, television host Dmitri Kiselyov, became the head of the country’s winemaking association last year.

So it makes sense that a section of the annual agricultural fair in Russia’s southern breadbasket region, Krasnodar Krai, is devoted to wine. But there was something odd in the cavernous convention hall in Krasnodar, the region’s main metropolis, when I visited the fair in early October: The men peddling their merlots and sauvignon blancs seemed very wary of journalists.

By way of explanation, Andrei Greshnov, a former Moscow banker, pointed to his bottles. There were no excise stamps, typically required for alcohol sold in Russia.

Getting licensed for making and selling wine had long been too costly for small-scale producers like Greshnov. So he and dozens of others operated outside the law, with a wink and a nod from local officials, who saw them as part of the region’s identity and also drank their wines. But in the last two years, Russia’s federal law enforcement authorities have intruded on these arrangements.

“We understood that these were green shoots that needed to be supported,” Emil Minasov, a senior official in the Krasnodar region’s Agriculture Ministry, said of the unlicensed winemakers. “They were able to strike deals with local administrations to be left alone. Now this has become impossible. They’ve been squeezed, to put it bluntly.”

Law enforcement officials say they are combating tax avoidance and counterfeit and unsanitary production, which are indeed problems in Russia. Recent changes in the law are supposed to make it easier for small wineries to be legal.

But Minasov calculates that wineries still need to produce at least 40,000 bottles a year just to cover the expense — $6,000 at a minimum — of getting licensed and, more problematically, of keeping up with the reams of building regulations and reporting requirements. He added that he believes small-scale wineries should not be required to be licensed at all, “but they don’t listen to us up above.”

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