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  • A Problem of TasteAn American Connoisseur’s Travels through the Soviet Union’s Black Sea Vineyards and Wineries
  • Stephen V. Bittner (bio)

By the middle of the 19th century, members of the Russian elite often spoke of the empire’s Black Sea territories as a domestic Midi. Crimea was the new Languedoc, a place that will “make us forget Champagne and Bordeaux,” and New Russia, which encompassed much of the southern Ukrainian steppe, a European version of California.1 Beyond patriotic embellishment, there were good reasons for such comparisons: the relatively temperate weather, which was a stark contrast to the continental chill of the empire’s core territories; the sense of unbridled opportunity, which attracted even colonists from abroad; the topography, which at its best bore more than a passing resemblance to Europe’s sun-kissed Mediterranean coast; and significantly, wine.2 Situated south of the 10 degree Celsius isotherm, viniculture was possible from the Dniester river valley to the Kakheti plain, from Crimea to the valleys of the Caucasus. This was the Russian Empire’s wine belt, where it encountered long-standing, indigenous economies and cultures of wine.

It was an article of faith among the principals of the tsarist wine industry that the combination of Black Sea climate and soil, on the one hand, and Russian expertise and investment, on the other, would result in very fine wine. In the 1880s and 1890s, such optimism was borne out by the growing success of Russian wines on the international tasting and exhibition circuit in Europe, the Levant, and North America. The Russian acme came in 1900, [End Page 305] when a sparkling wine bearing Crimea’s most coveted label, Novyi svet (New World), won the Grand Prix (best-in-show) medal at the Exposition universelle in Paris.3 Yet even lesser wines from the crown estate in exotic Kakheti, which was closer to Tehran than Moscow, generated enough demand that merchants in London and Paris worried about supply, and the French vintner in Georgia about brand protection amid so much incentive to produce more.4 The northern Black Sea littoral was deemed such a promising climate for wine grapes—and Russia so lucrative a market for sparkling wines—that Henri Roederer opened up a winery in Odessa’s Langeron District and brought his chef de caves from Rheims to oversee production.5 In the years prior to World War I, Russian vintners, like their counterparts in Europe, flexed their newfound commercial and cultural might by lobbying for passage of a wine purity law, which when signed by Nicholas II in 1914 put an end to the practice among merchants of “falsifying” wine.6 The law was driven less by health concerns than a desire to promote a European palate for wine by weaning domestic consumers off ersatz concoctions adulterated with sugar and alcohol.

Of course, the Russian Empire’s Black Sea vineyards never became a bona fide rival to the West European wine economies. According to an early Soviet estimate, total vineyard plantings fell from 250,000 desiatiny in 1914 (roughly 2,750 square kilometers) to 100,000 (1,100) in 1922, in part because of territorial losses.7 Amid the poverty and production quotas of the early Soviet decades, there was little incentive or ability to produce fine wine, despite official patronage of the foodways of Georgia, despite a political and cultural embrace of wine as a mark of kul´turnost´ that differed little from the tsarist period, and despite a widespread, popular fascination with Crimea [End Page 306] and Georgia that lasted to the end of the Soviet period and beyond.8 “In general and as a whole,” wrote a prominent industry official in the years following the revolution, “Soviet power has done nothing good for viniculture and winemaking, letting them waste away.”9 By the 1970s, the Soviet Union had moved into fourth place internationally in the volume of wine production, trailing only Spain, France, and Italy. Industry officials spoke confidently about the day when fine wine would overtake vodka as the intoxicant of choice, thus curing the Soviet Union of the scourge of alcoholism. They did not anticipate that late Soviet campaigns against alcoholism...