Ok, first things first. Crimea is legally part of Ukraine and Ukraine is not part of Russia. And, speaking as someone who has both just read Sebastian Haffner’s Defying Hitler, a brilliant, blood-chilling contemporary account of the apparently inexorable rise of the Nazis in the 1930s, and had a number of very worrying illiberal conversations with Russians today, I think we really do live in frightening times.
Vladimir Putin (a popularly elected leader, one should remember, just as Adolf Hitler was a member of a democratically elected government) is a truly dangerous character, especially when confronted by a fast reducing asset in the shape of his oil reserves and – for the moment at least – potentially highly damaging sanctions. The general economic and civil rights appeal for Russia’s neighbours of leaning towards Europe rather than Moscow is convincingly described in this Forbes post by
Before waxing too lyrical about the prospects being part of the EU have to offer to producers in Eastern Europe, just look at the flood of premium Bulgarian, Hungarian and Romanian imports that have (not) made their way onto UK shelves for example. Conversely read this considered Academy of Wine Business report on Romania, a 2007 EU entrant, by Cheryl Nakata and Erin Antalis of the University of Illinois at Chicago. Membership of the EU has, the authors say, “provided funds for promoting Romanian wines abroad, and introduced regulations so more of the wines are safe to consume and exportable… and [ferreted out] questionable producers or practices”. But they also talk of the remaining “negative image” of Romanian wine in Western Europe, this country’s chief export market. They quote a producer saying “…Romania is selling, like I said, a bad image… We are in the bottom of the list, we are from the edge—we and Bulgaria”. For Nakata and Antalis, Romania’s wine industry needs to “Enter into export markets where [it] has a positive to neutral country image, and move away from countries where it has a country of origin liability, notably Western Europe”.
Most wine writers happily overlook the ‘bad image’ described by that producer. They fly into countries like Moldova, Georgia, Turkey, and Ukraine, accept some lavish hospitality, meet some charming producers and snap a few shots of the lovely landscape, taste a range of samples, say and write a few nice things, and move on, like movie critics heading off to the next screening. A week or two after their visit and the appearance of their words, the dust settles, much of it on stacks of unsold bottles. What few of the writers trouble their little heads over is the difficulties that the producers in these places have in finding consumers outside their own markets (and often even there) who are actually going to buy their bottles and pay their bills. (Just think of all the thousands of words that were devoted to Turkey’s wines a few years ago – and their relatively rare appearances on the international shelves today.)
So, whatever your feelings about the politics of the Russia/Ukraine situation (and I’ve laid mine out above), maybe you should try wearing the shoes of a winemaker in Crimea. The mood of the producers I met at a tasting in Abrau Durso in Anapa, Russia this weekend was very similar to the one Andrew Jefford described in his March 2014 Decanter piece after his visit to the region.
Despite the quality of many of its wines, Ukraine has actually been a very difficult place to produce and sell wine economically. One major reason for this is the requirement to pay an annual €50,000 for a wholesale licence. Another is the lack of readiness of Ukrainians (unlike Russians) to pay premium prices. Add to these, the survival of a cumbersome state-owned sector and high levels of bureaucracy and corruption and it is not hard to see why Russian-speaking Crimean winemakers might see some appeal in being part of what was already their biggest export market.
And then there are Russia’s other neighbours, some of which currently rely on Russia for their sales. Georgia, while selling more bottles to Russia than ever since the reopening by Putin of the market to their wines, is sensibly making efforts to build other export markets (efforts with which – to declare an interest, I am beginning to help). But there is no denying the challenge this represents. Georgia’s task, however, looks positively tiny when compared to Moldova’s. This ancient wine region has great winemaking potential but today it’s impoverished and struggling. Like Georgia, it has lived through a boycott of its wines and knows that if Vlad the Imposer gets out of bed on the wrong side, that door could slam closed again.
As Jaiani says in his Forbes piece, it may well be preferable in many ways for Moldova to achieve its aim of becoming part of Europe, but I’ll bet that there are a few winemakers in that country who might well be looking at the short term prospects enjoyed by their Crimean neighbours with at least a note of envy.