This is my entry for Monthly Wine Writing Challenge #35. I should let you all know, I have little dignity, and no shame, so I fully intend to vote myself the winner for this challenge (and likely all challenges going forward)!
It was a big deal, this eclipse. Like a tribe of tech-savvy, modern-day Incas armed only with our ISO approved solar sunglasses, we readied our iPhone cameras to document our experience on social media and stared in unison directly at the sun. And all the while, for just a smidgeon of time, we completely forgot about Russia. And the eclipse came and went, but the Russians didn’t. Can we get back to Russia, who some 30 years ago cast their own longer-lasting, Gorbachev-shaped eclipse over what is now Transcarpathian Ukraine? You see, it was then, around the mid-1980s that Mikhail Gorbachev, President of the now defunct Soviet Union, probably angry about the birthmark on top of his head that looked eerily similar to a red wine spill, decided that Russians drank too much wine (and booze) and devised among other things, to destroy all the grape vines throughout his various territories, including those in Transcarpathia. Down went the international varieties- Merlot, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Riesling. Regional and local varieties like Traminer, Harslevelo, Furmint, several types of Muscat, Bakator and Zweigelt met similar fates. What Gorby (that’s what I call him) failed to realize and probably should have, is that Russians are Russian after all, and they’re going to drink- cutting down decades of carefully cultivated wine grapes only insured that they drank something else besides wine.
I am talking about the area below, the foothills of the Transcarpathian mountains on roughly the same latitude as Burgundy and only about 75 miles from the famed Tokaj wine region of Hungary.
Of course, the slaying of unarmed wine grapes was not the beginning of this eclipse- perhaps only the point where the moon completely covered the sun. Our story begins much earlier and continues long after. Transcarpathian Ukraine was once part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and during the 1980s, over 90% of the population living there were ethnic Hungarians. Russians occupied Transcarpathia, and indeed all of Hungary, after pushing out the Nazis during World War II. Russian occupation demanded landowners of any consequence surrender it to the State. They were allowed to tend to the grapes and various crops, but the wine production and distribution was always state owned and operated. The wine, both reds and whites became typical dumbed-down communist-era stuff, made only for the purpose of shipping to the eastern regions of the empire. The inlanders must have liked it plenty, or didn’t know any better, because enough of it was drank to convince Gorbachev that the vines needed to go.
The prohibition ended in the late 80s when Gorbachev became convinced that enough Russians had forsaken their Bloody Marys for Hail Marys- that and it had crippled the Russian economy while inadvertently giving rise to black market moonshine. Slowly, vines were replanted in Transcarpathia, but not everywhere they had been and not the same kinds. Up sprang Isabella (for you buffs of American wine history), Kadarka (or likely some Kadarka hybrid) and Golubok among others- grapes that were easier to care for, more resistant to frost, rot and all the other dangers. Why plant anything else when you were a small cog in the big communist machine? As the old saying went, “We pretended to work and they pretended to pay us!”
Communism ended here in 1991, and some of the vineyards have since been given back to their original owners, though many more have not, and still more have been snatched up and privatized by opportunists with the aid of corrupt government officials. Still, most of the vineyards are small, family-owned affairs. Driving along the hilly countryside from village to village you can see vacated rows where vines once flourished. It always reminds me of David Beckham’s ill-advised haircut- a small consolation to such a visceral tragedy.
Nowadays, the wine culture in Transcarpathia is in many ways a microcosm of greater Ukraine- I call it the Wild West in the East, where anything goes. In “The World Atlas of Wine,” Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson rightly contend that the type of wine produced in a given area is subject to the demands of the market in that area. At any time, on any street, at any number of houses you can buy a liter of wine served in a washed out plastic Coca-Cola bottle (there’s a strong focus on recycling in these parts!) for around fifty cents. Wine made from actual fermented grape must is more the exception than the rule. Most of the time it is grape pomace, sugar and water, whereas wine tablets are readily available for less enthusiastic producers. All of this is masked on the surface using a few tiny drops of aftermarket scented oil. Wine comes out smelling like roses. . .literally, or chocolate chip cookies baking in the oven, or something that vaguely resembles Chanel no5. The purpose is twofold: 1) make the wine smell exotic for those who don’t know better and 2) make the wine smell anything other than what it is for those who do. There are laws governing grapes and wine to be sure, but very few know what they are and even fewer would follow them even if they did.
Broken as it may be, the market works because the winemaker’s only concern is selling to busloads of thirsty, happily uninformed Ukrainian (and sometimes Russian) tourists who seem more than willing to overpay. Many Ukrainian tourist websites boast Transcarpathia’s 1000+ years of wine tradition (true) and that it produces the finest reds in Ukraine (also probably true, God help us all!) This tourist-friendly area hosts wine tastings, tours, wine country fun runs and festivals. Each year around harvest, prominent local vintners dress in fancy garb resembling some sort of patriarchs and take turns giving each other awards- like the Oscars. Attention is then paid to the pretty young virgins (as tradition would have it, although I think the rules are more relaxed now) who dress in Hungarian and/or Ukrainian folk outfits and stomp grapes barefoot- to the delight of both the wannabe popes and onlookers alike. Wine is tasted, food is eaten, music is played- on this day, more than any other day, the permanent eclipse is less noticeable- like smog.
All of this begs the obvious question: why not replant with better wine grapes, focus on making serious wine and create opportunities for export (and international recognition)? Right now, the Ukrainian market doesn’t demand quality wine and wouldn’t pay for it, which leaves only export. The majority of winemakers in Transcarpathia are small and don’t have the time or money to wait five years for new plantings and there’s no guarantee that their endeavor would produce exportable wine. Of course, the monoliths of Transcarpathia, Chizay and Cotnar, who have the most money and largest vineyard lands, realize that eventually tourism alone will not be enough and are now pushing exports- an often fruitless (pun completely intended) task in the competitive wine export industry. However, I did find The Wine Voyager Winter Import Wine Catalog 2016/Spring 2017 edition (Southern Glazer’s) offering a Chizay red- a real accomplishment, and a steal at $90.00 per case, even for a non-vintage!
Only time will tell if they prove successful- for now, the deck is stacked against them.
The eclipse is a thing of the past, at least for now. Our solar sunglasses have been stored away, the videos and pics archived in our phones, and memories of it all but faded from our minds. Do you remember what it felt like- the darkness that descended blotting the sun from the sky? We’d do well to occasionally remember, and think of a small group of mostly Hungarian vintners in Transcarpathia, who toil under the virtual darkness of a Russian-induced eclipse their entire lives. The imagery is dramatic, but then so are the circumstances- country invaded, land taken, crops confiscated then cut down altogether. Given enough time, this eclipse too shall pass and the sun should once again shine brightly on this part of the world.