Bottling a Troubled History

Until very recently, I naively thought that Russia’s ban on Moldovan and Georgian wines was caused by political conflicts with those countries. How wrong I was! Now it is abundantly clear that Russian authorities just don’t like wine.

The logic of their actions is impeccable. First, a tactical strike: They banned imports from two of the countries that supplied a majority of the wine to the Russian market. At the same time, worsening relations with Ukraine were causing problems for importers of Crimean wines. Panicky retailers looked to distant shores, hoping to compensate for dwindling supplies with wine from Chili, South Africa and Argentina. And just at that moment, the Russian government launched its final strategic strike: It announced that all excise tax and customs stamps must be changed by July 1.

As a result, thousands and thousands of bottles of foreign wine that have already arrived to replace their Moldovan and Georgian analogs will become contraband overnight. The money spent on them will be lost. Restaurants, stores and supermarkets selling these wines are already losing money. Some of them — especially small specialty stores — are going out of business.

?The Moscow Times? reported losses of hundreds of millions of dollars to importers and retailers. ?With only days to go before the July 1 deadline, the proposed change was in apparent chaos, with many retailers running short of stocks of legally imported wines and spirits, and importers warning of a parched summer of empty shelves ahead? (The Moscow Times, June 26, 2006, p. 7).

The public, at a loss, is turning to the old standbys of vodka and moonshine. National traditions have prevailed. Total victory!

There is a deeper, ideological meaning to be found in the bureaucracy’s tactical maneuvers. The authorities want to finally get rid of the totalitarian Soviet heritage. In the 1930s, People’s Commissar Anastas Mikoyan began to wean our countrymen from their overindulgence in vodka by substituting weaker and, in his opinion, healthier wine. He was supported by Stalin, who was himself from the Caucasus and a great fan of the Khvanchkara, one of those Georgian wines now prohibited as a health risk. Mikoyan and Stalin’s efforts produced mixed results. Russians did learn to drink wine, but not vintage Georgian wines. Instead, they got used to drinking what were called “red dyes” — cloudy, reddish liquids sold under various names. The most popular was Port 777, which went down in the annals of folklore as the Three Axes. These fortified wines were much cheaper than vodka, but produced just as bad a hangover the next morning.

Solntsedar (Sunstroke) was especially popular at the end of the 1970s. It was rumored that this drink was made from Algerian wine that had been spoiled due to mishandling during shipment. Since a great deal had already been bought, the ministry officials responsible were worried they’d get in trouble. They decided to fortify this red wine by adding some grain alcohol.

Actually, that’s how port was “invented” long ago during the shipment of Portuguese wine to England. But in our case, either the original wine from Algeria was no good or they overdid the grain alcohol. The result was not a distinguished port wine but revolting rotgut. All the same, since it was really cheap, it competed successfully with vodka and moonshine. It even beat out the competition in triple-strength cologne, another concoction that served as an alcoholic beverage in those years.

The legendary brandies of the 1970s are almost forgotten, although they are still on sale in a few places. Not long ago, I was in Novgorod and found a store that could have doubled as a memorial museum to Soviet alcohol. There I beheld Three Axes in the place of honor. Too bad they didn’t have any Sunstroke. Apparently relations with Algeria have cooled.

But the real strike against the ideological foundations of the Stalinist system was made during the perestroika period, headed by Mikhail Gorbachev. He unleashed a powerful campaign against alcoholism that did more to destroy vineyards and wineries than curb drunkenness. But like all the endeavors during those years, Gorbachev’s battle with demon wine wasn’t carried through to completion. All that happened was that vintage wines got much worse. And then, at the end of the 1990s, the consumer boom ushered in foreign varieties like cabernet, merlot, and chardonnay, not to mention that evil Khvanchkara.

Russian authorities couldn’t ignore this new trend. To purge the nation of this abominable habit, they even had to sacrifice relations with Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. But, as they say, you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs.

And if some people aren’t happy — just ignore them. Unlike vodka, wine is not a dietary staple.

Boris Kagarlitsky is the director of the Institute for Globalization Studies.

Leave a comment