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FEBRUARY 2024/ THE WINE PERSISTS: Ukranian War Wine

INTRO

Through all kinds of conflict, wine persists. With struggle, oppression and war seemingly always to be on the rise, we must look at what continues: wine. Regarding the wines we bring to you this month, you'll see that it is not only the persistence of the winemaker, but also the importer, that makes wine appear in your glass. To carve a pathway for a wine to leave one country and travel to another involves a countless number of bureaucratic details, on top of establishing a sound relationship of trust between winemaker and importer. None of these things happen quickly.
On top of that, when a country (in this case: Ukraine) is in the middle of a war, doing anything can be incredibly difficult. Imagine: bombs going off anytime, anywhere with no warning; death/injury/fear/trauma; supply lines deeply disrupted (anyone have some glass bottles? or corks? or labels for printing? how about a label printer? or some ink? you know what, maybe just a bottle of water is all I need for the moment...wait...you're out of water?); consumer base dispersing due to all of the previously mentioned items pertaining to war. It could be easy to justify throwing in the towel as the apocalypse unfolds.
And yet, wine persists. Jeremy Johanski, our friend and importer with Swiss Cellars, has been working over the past 18 months to bring these wines from war torn Ukraine to you. These wines have never been in the United States before and are currently only in Wisconsin (and a limited amount at that: 75 cases of the white, and 25 cases of the red). Out of the 4,000 bottles from all grapes of all types made, Swiss Cellars has imported 1,200 of them.  We were able to talk with Jeremy about his experience in this process and were able to get a first hand account of just some of the many key moments that made these wines possible. 

 

All the artwork seen in this issue is by anonymous painters of the  Petrykivka style, a traditional decorative folk art of Ukraine.

 

THE PATH MAKERS

Bereczky Family Winery, owned by István Bereczky. Bereczky has dual citizenship (Hungary) and the western area of Zakarpattia, Ukraine where the wine is produced in the Transcarpathian Mountains regions is heavily populated with people of previous Hungarian citizenship or origin.
 
Swiss Cellars, a Wisconsin company founded over 20 years ago by Laurent Crolla, a native of Switzerland. Upon moving to Wisconsin for graduate school in the UW-Madison School of Business, Crolla opened Swiss Cellars to import wines from his home country of Switzerland and quickly branched out into neighboring European countries and domestically in the USA also. Swiss Cellars currently imports and distributes wines from over 15 countries and with over 700 wines and spirits available.
 
Jeremy Johanski, a Green Bay, WI native having worked with Swiss Cellars in many capacities since relocating to Madison post-graduation from UW-Green Bay in 2007. Johanski has studied wine, successfully obtained the first level of sommelier certification in 2022 and has traveled multiple times to Ukraine, Moldova and the Republic of Georgia among 15 other nations in the past two years discovering the wines of post-soviet and nations under the conflict of war. In addition to the wines of Ukraine, Johanski has Swiss Cellars importing brand new namesake selections from Slovakia and Moldova in January 2024 also. He is currently working on a book to publish extensive stories of the journeys into the countries mentioned.
 

WINE 1

GROF 2019
Bereczky Winery
UKRAINE, Transcarpathia
100% Golubok
13.7 abv
Made from an indigenous hybrid from the Odessa region of Ukraine, the rich and dark Golubok grape shows an intense nose of rustic countryside and roasted game, while in the mouth a burst of acidity akin to cassis and tart red fruit berries enter the smooth, fresh, lighter body and finishing with noticeable spices. An extremely limited production with only 300 bottles imported and available from the Bereczky family winery.
 

WINE 2

ANNA 2021/2022
Bereczky Winery
Ukraine, Transcarpathia
35% Furmint, 25% Harslevelu, 25% Sargamuskotaly, 15%Tramini
13.1 abv
With a backbone of Furmint just east of its home Tokaj region, this off-dry white blend from the Transcarpathian region of Ukraine is bursting with ripe orchard fruit aromas and blossoming flowers. Juicy succulence in the mouth for a refreshing drink. An extremely limited production with only 900 bottles imported and available from the Bereczky family winery. A vinous discovery by Jeremy Johanski while visiting Ukraine during the war and meeting with winemakers continuing their work through the challenges of the conflict.

INTERVIEW WITH JEREMY JOHANSKI OF SWISS CELLARS

Caravan: What inspired you to bring in wine from Ukraine?
 
Johanski: I will say, less than 2 years ago, life was very different in Ukraine and it was very far from the daily optics of a majority of the United States citizens and the wine lovers of most “western” world wines. I, myself didn’t know that Ukraine made wine until probably April of 2022. I recall wandering through web news on the war and issues related to it and tripped across a small piece discussing the glass facility that was destroyed and how that supplied wine bottles for many makers in and outside of Ukraine...and my curiosity was piqued.  I investigated some and found a small grouping of wineries in a few relatively regional areas in Ukraine from the west and into the south across the northern Black Sea coastline. I read what I could find on the websites that existed for any of them, if they even translated well and was unimpressed mostly and not greatly interested beyond just trying to understand more about what did and what COULD they produce there...but it did not seem a large industry with much for optics, at least, outside of the previously annexed Crimean Peninsula some years earlier.  Crimea was indeed a heavy production area for sweet and dessert wines particularly enjoyed by Russian consumers, so how fitting Russia took control of a piece of Ukrainian land where nearly 50% of the nation’s total vineyard space existed.  Getting back to the principal question, when I know wine exists in a place, and that it’s produced in unique styles or with varietals I haven’t encountered, I wish to try them. With the Ukraine wines I read about, they were non-existent mostly outside of Ukraine, certainly not in the U.S. and very little even had gone west into the European Union. What a challenge this must be; all your winery production is largely for internal consumers, Russia or its allies...all 3 sectors which are now largely destroyed or non-starters to do business with any longer. If only there was a way to get them here to try and explore the western world wine market... It was a dream, and at that time (April 2022) I had zero connections or know-how to even begin to make that pipe dream a reality.
 
Why did you pick these wines? Are there other Ukrainian wines you tried to get?
 
I am one of the firm believers in steadfast authenticity at almost any cost. When I found myself literally walking into the western border of Ukraine from Hungary, some 3.5 hours from Budapest, I questioned my sanity and what was about to happen next. The calming vibe in me however was the several hours I’d spent 2 nights earlier at a wine café in Budapest meeting a winemaker from the Transcarpathian (western) region of Ukraine which borders Hungary. I met with Istvan Bereczky and his teenage son, their Hungarian friend Attila (a winemaker in Slovakia) and Levente (a great friend of Istvan, neighbor and cheesemaker in Ukraine). We shared some bottles of Attila’s Slovakian wines that he brought to share with the U.S. guest wine guy (me) that happened to be visiting and was willing to stumble through translations and unpolished English over glasses for a while to learn more about this Ukraine wine thing.  By the end of our evening, I not only was educated on Ukraine wine, regional history and war perspectives, but I was humbled to a level I’d never imagined. Istvan and his friend Levente thought the best way for me to get the answers my curiosity had raised in man questions to them was to simply, go see for myself and they arranged an epic detour on a trip that was supposed to see me visiting historic Budapest and Slovakia for several more days. Friday morning at dawn Levente and I drove hours to the border with Ukraine, parked his car at a safe place to allow it to be stored and hiked the last kilometer or two up to the national border crossing on foot and into Ukraine. While there I was housed by Istvan’s sister where she made me all my meals with traditional Ukrainian and Hungarian foods as that region is VERY Hungarian in ancestry and culture. They had put out the word to other craft winemakers and in my two days in the countryside villages I met with 6 winemakers in a crash course in Ukrainian winemaking and tasting of an accelerated speed.
From the 6 winemakers and 60+ wines I tried those two days, I loved many more than just the two we’ve imported from Istvan’s Bereczky winery however, the government had not caught up with pathways for small winemakers like Istvan to export / sell easily unless major conditions and money (which was now tighter than ever) were met. Effectively, outside of Istvan, there were really only 3 other companies (factory wines) that had that money and certification to even think about export outside of Ukraine to the west. Istvan, being of Hungarian ancestry had dual citizenship and just before the war began, had made his first tiny export into Hungary having been certified by the Ukraine government just in time to accomplish this...that was a huge factor in even allowing this export to be explored for us.
 
What made securing these wines for import unique? What was the process like? How is it distinct from importing wines, say, from France or Spain?
 
Several factors make importing wine challenging including the location of the wine production (Transcarpthia, Ukraine) and its destination buyer (Wisconsin, USA) largely for logistical concerns like refrigerated trucking, alcohol transport laws by country and cost of product and transport. In this specific situation, export from this region to the United States had really only ever been done once before in a tiny quantity to New York City from one of the giant factory winemakers (Chateau Chizay). In the case of Istvan Bereczky’s wines, there was of course the licensing and certification hurdle that had been fortunately cleared but the next immediate issue was the bottling supplies, standards of quality and labeling them for export/shipping and finally, quantity available.  Bereczky winery is tiny, to the annual threshold of approximately 4,000 bottles. Having tasted numerous wines of his, a white blend “Anna” and an indigenous red “Grof” from the Golubok grape were the ones that were of the tasting style and uniqueness of place that I enjoyed, while also having enough volume made to put together a bottling for us to import.  The bottling was done by Istvan’s wife due to his inability to even visit his winery during the war for fear of losing his dual citizenship which allows him to reside safely in Hungary and notjeopardize conscription, which would force him to abandon his family and kids, forcing them to also abandon a winery that is their livelihood. Getting raw materials like glass bottles, labels made with correct language and info for shipment and protection/packaging was more challenging than any other French or European winery would imagine going through. Finally, you can’t just call up a long list of freight companies that will easily pick up your wine order in UKRAINE right now so finding a reliable company to do the trucking and border crossing was as challenging as it gets in this business. After that, once in the E.U. borders it goes to a port city, gets consolidated into shipping containers and sets sail to us!
 
How did you come to connect with these winemakers in Ukraine?
 
Some website emails and outreach that largely went nowhere was what I tried when initially just interested in what wine might even be in/from Ukraine. The fact that from the time I sent those emails in April to departing the Republic of Georgia on a flight and receiving an email out of the blue from one of them (Istvan Bereczky) the day I was arriving in Budapest, Hungary, is a coincidence or good fortune I cannot fathom the luck of timing on being July of that year.  Within a few emails (translated by Levente for Istvan) they figured out I was traveling to Budapest, where Istvan happened to be temporarily living and thought we should just take this coincidence and opportunity to meet for (obviously) some wine and conversation. They met with me, trusted my interests being pure for all of my curious questioning and decided to open their world to me to see for myself. They rolled out what felt like red carpet treatment for me while they were all suffering a lifestyle that I HOPE no one in this country I call home EVER hasto experience daily.  Finally, from the meeting of the handful of other makers in Transcarpthia, referrals were made and within two months of this life-altering experience in western Ukraine, I set off in October to go deeper into Odesa, Ukraine and pursue this new passion where the stories continued to build as did my humility and understanding first-hand of the state of affairs there. War or not,people connect with good people, and share their trusted contacts and further their development into healthy relationships for all involved.
 
Now that you’ve carved a pathway for these wines to make it to the U.S., do you think this will continue? What else are you hoping to bring in? Are there any threats to the importation continuing? 
 
In a simple answer yes, I do believe this will continue provided conditions for safe transport remain available. The Bereczky winery is small. We at Swiss Cellars purchased 1,200 total bottles between these two wines so nearly 1/3 of all they produce in a year. I am looking forward to working with some of the other 10 winemakers I met in the four regions of Ukraine on my 4 trips there during the war. In late 2024 I’d love to see us obtain some additional wines perhaps sparkling wines from the Odessa region and if I can make it so, two other species of grapes called Telti Kurek and Odesa Black that are indigenous to Ukraine also.
Remember, the nation these wines come from is at WAR, with daily missiles raining down, residents being shaken from air raid sirens across the country and winemakers, employees and their landscapes dead or destroyed. This is a hard truth. While tomorrow isn’t a guarantee for anyone, no one from here in the U.S. wants the odds of waking up in Ukraine daily as they’re certainly not odds any sane bettor would take. Disruptions to supplies to maintain daily life occur regularly even far away from the front lines. In just a couple days in Transcarpthian villages on that first trip and albeit their location on the far west edge of Ukraine, I noted the villages are quiet, with many gas stations closed for lack of business or scarce fuel supply. The street pedestrian traffic is women, children and old men as the adult and able-bodied men have largely been conscripted to military active duty, or fled the country in search of work, refuge or both. Store shelves are minimally filled, with coolers for bottled soda or water even only having sometimes just a couple of bottles delivered in a week. What was once a prominent country with robust logistical coverage and access to much of what the E.U. countries and the United States enjoy has been set back in time to a saddened, dreary state in many places. The most damning thing to process was that these people know not how long this goes on for, as war has no end date.
 
Why haven’t we seen more Ukrainian wine in the U.S.?
 
Largely answered in the above section – their longtime focus since Soviet occupation and even after was selling wine grapes, wines and products to Russia and other post-soviet countries as because during their long Soviet era, those wines/cultures never made it into the western world. Now they face competing in a hugely competitive western world of wine amongst generations of producers at the top of their craft and consumers who have no knowledge source to encounter these wines.
 
Why should we drink these wines?
 
I believe wine is a great beverage of exceptional connection timelessly present throughout much of civilized human societal history (8,000 years). Wine can be created by science and altered or manipulated to show in many different ways as a beverage, but where it gets its special characteristics is when it functions as a time capsule, enclosing history, geography, climatic influences, soil, craftwork and culture into each bottle from where it comes from on earth. These bottles from Ukraine give most folks here in Wisconsin, my home a chance to experience those traits for the first time like I was fortunate to in person the first time.  Hopefully like in my experiences, and hearing my journey of their acquisition, all will encounter some of the same special feelings about them while their get to enjoy sipping them.  Additionally, proceeds from the Swiss Cellars distribution of the wines will be donated to the Association of Big Families of Transcarpathia, a family wellness organization near and dear to the winemaker and his home community in Transcarpathia. They assist large families with activities and care for raising a family which is especially challenging during the war in Ukraine currently as so many have lost loved ones to attacks, fighting in the war or displacement.
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Our aim is to give a glimpse into the many roles wine has played throughout history.  All subjects mentioned deserve more attention and research and we encourage you to keep exploring.  We are only here to pop the cork.
Many Thanks, Caravan Wine Shop

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