Eastern European vineyards in turmoil as war rages in Ukraine

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John Wurdeman was about to leave for kyiv, Ukraine on February 24 to attend the SuperNatural Wine Festival when he was told not to board the plane.

“I got a phone call saying Kyiv is bombed and don’t come,” said Wurdeman, who is the founder of Pheasant’s Tears Winery in Georgia.

Wurderman said he also had a shipment of wine destined for Ukraine’s GoodWine warehouse, which was destroyed on March 4 with around 15 million euros (about $16,200,000) of product inside.

The same warehouse had also stored humanitarian aid, and a statement on GoodWine’s website said it had “delivered goods from our suppliers around the world, prepared and sent ready meals to hospitals, Homeland Defense and the armed forces”.

In western Ukraine, at Chizay Castle in Transcarpathia, about five kilometers from the Hungarian border, winery vice-president Ilan Radom said 10,000 refugees were arriving every two hours in the first few days of the war. The castle housed as many as it could hold and quickly shifted its production from making wine to preparing food for refugees and the military. Across Ukraine, bottles of wine were quickly turned into molotov cocktails.

Wineries in Ukraine, Georgia, Hungary, Moldova and elsewhere in Eastern Europe have been thrown into uncertain territory, including changing production to accommodate refugees, bottle supply issues , transport problems and rising inflation.

The Swiss manufacturer of glass storage containers Vetropack has a large factory near kyiv, where a large proportion of Eastern European wine bottles are made. When Russia invaded, nearly 600 workers were forced to halt production and around 300 tons of molten glass solidified inside, The New York Times reported.

“Prices are going up, but even with higher prices there are no bottles available,” said Hungarian winemaker Zoltán Heimann.

And bottles made elsewhere are getting more and more expensive. “The bottles I use in Romania, I buy them in Austria, because they are produced in Austria, but their price has almost doubled,” going from around 38 to 64 cents a bottle, said Edgar Brutler, who owns with his family a small winery in Romania and works as a winemaker in Austria.

At Purcari Winery in Moldova, chief operating officer Eugen Comendant said he was having issues shipping to Japan, South Korea and China, important new markets for the winery that typically receive shipments via Odessa, Ukraine. Wineries around Ukraine also face transportation issues. Odessa is the main port and importers balk at higher charges caused by inflation.

“We have to pay in euros, so the biggest impact of the war, which is immediate, is the volatility of the local currency,” Frigye Machán-Csetvei, who runs a winery with his winemaker wife, Krisztina Csetvei, told Mor , Hungary. “And foreign partners have problems with the price of transport because of inflation and the price of gas which increases day by day.”

Annamaria Reka Koncz, a winemaker whose vineyards straddle the border between Hungary and Ukraine, said importers had asked about prices for the next vintage. “The market is still very price sensitive, and now everything is 30-40% more for bottles, labels, for cartons, for labor, for everything.

Reka Koncz’s base wine costs about $9: if she raises prices to keep up with inflation, it would cost about $12. “It’s just not possible. They couldn’t buy it and I would lose my market,” she said.

In pre-pandemic and pre-war times, tourism helped small wineries stay afloat. At Château Chizay, the objective for 2022 was to sell around 50% of the wine on site. After domestic travel rebounded after the first year of the pandemic, Radom had high hopes for this year – before the invasion.

Beykush Winery, near Odessa, opened a hotel in December and was set to receive a prestigious award from a Ukrainian hotel association. From now on, its managing director, Svetlana Tsybak, concentrates on humanitarian aid.

Tourism in Ukraine is not expected to recover any time soon, but even neighboring countries are worried about the effect.

Machán-Csetvei said tastings by foreign visitors have come to a complete halt at his Mor winery, even though the front line is about 600 miles away. Marcin Miszczak, a winemaker in Poland, said summer, when tourism typically peaks and the restaurants in Krakow to which he sells wine are normally full, will be the real test. “We will see if the war in Ukraine really scared them. For some people it’s so close they might be afraid to come,” he said.

Wurdeman of Pheasant’s Tears runs a tourism business called Living Roots. He said younger, adventurous tourists could still come to Georgia, but older or more cautious tourists “will be deterred for years to come, even if the war ends tomorrow.”

Each of these countries has its own history with Russia, much of it alive in the memory of winemakers.

“We have fear in our guts,” Machán-Csetvei said in Hungary. “We had a revolution, which was demolished by Russian troops. We lived under Russian rule for 50 years.

Russia has long used wine as a tool in Georgia. Although Georgia is one of the oldest wine regions in the world, when it became part of the Soviet Union, winemakers were forced to switch to mass production of industrialized wines rather than complex and traditional ones that they had been making for generations. In 1985, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev reduced vineyard plots in Georgia to a quarter of their original size. In 2006, Russian President Vladimir Putin imposed an embargo on Georgian wine. At that time, Georgia was largely dependent on the Russian market and took advantage of this to diversify into Western Europe and the United States.

In 2021, 57% of Georgian wines are sold in Russia, around 12% in Ukraine and the rest elsewhere, according to the National Wine Agency of Georgia. This means that despite diversification efforts, almost three quarters of the Georgian market has disappeared.

Noel Brockett, president of the Georgian House of Greater Washington, said moving away from Russia has taken time. “We are entering our second decade of strategically conquering the American market,” he said.

Hungarian, Moldovan and Ukrainian wineries cannot simply sell elsewhere overnight.

In Ukraine, Crimea accounted for about half of Ukraine’s wine industry. Since 2014, Russia has benefited from wine production there. Tsybak in Beykush said export is now extremely important.

Julie Peterson, managing partner of Marq Wine Group, which works on behalf of several Ukrainian wineries, including Beykush, said wineries are immediately looking for new markets.

“They are not looking for charity, they just have to continue their activities in order to support their employees and the surrounding communities, as well as refugees who seek refuge in safer areas,” she said.

Brockett said for those lost in the United States, drinking Georgian wine helps. “I urge people to focus on what is in their power, and obviously supporting Ukraine both economically and through donations is important, but helping other countries like Georgia that are in the middle of this, and for 30 years trying to choose a different way, is also important,” he said.

Moldova experienced similar problems to Georgia in 2006 and 2013, when Russian authorities froze imports of Moldovan wine. Officials said the ban was caused by sanitation issues, but the move was widely seen as punishment for Moldova’s relationship with the European Union. In the 1992 Transnistrian War, Russian-backed separatist forces in Transnistria fought pro-Moldovan forces after Moldova declared independence from the Soviet Union.

Because of this past, Purcari Winery makes a wine called Freedom Blend, made with saperavi grapes from Georgia, bastardo from Ukraine and rara neagra from Moldova. “All of these states suffered Russian aggression,” Comendant said. “It is symbolic to take the grapes from these three countries which are still fighting for their freedom in the true sense. They may have their independence, but that doesn’t mean they have their freedom.


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