Wine and Empire
Somewhere between the end of the USSR and the beginning of the present war, around about 1994, I think, I found myself in the former Soviet Republic of Moldova. Wedged between Ukraine to the East and Romania to the west Moldova is a stranded feeling sort of place in a region where whole peoples have tended to get stuck. The “Roman” in Romania is said to be a tribute to the forgotten remainders of the imperium that were abandoned when Emperor Aurelius pulled out his legions. Moldova, the far eastern side of that marooned place is one remove from that remove.
But it was wine, not empires that had brought me to Moldova. The Soviet Socialist Republic of Moldova had been one of the only places in the USSR that produced large amounts of wine grapes and much of the infrastructure had outlasted the ancien régime. My tour began at a wine research laboratory outside the capital Chișinău where a recognizable Soviet clunkiness still hung over the place. Soviet iron work. Soviet uniforms. Soviet protocols. Soviet views of how wine should taste, even Soviet sentiments about wine’s very purpose. By contrast, the director of the lab seemed very much a man with his eye on the West. He had a nicely trimmed black beard and lively Italianate eyes. Romanian rolled off his tongue toward his lab assistants full of sunshine. His fellow oenologists swirled and smelled, smelled and swirled, tasted and spat.
“Try some, won’t you?” the director said offering glasses to me and to R, the young Russian television stringer I’d brought with me to Moldova. We examined the wine’s legs and judged its color and clarity against the light from the windows. We let it breath up into our nostrils and then finally sipped. R’s green eyes scrunched up and her lips puckered. The taste of a Soviet banquet washed over my palate and I suppressed a small gag which the director couldn’t fail to notice.
“It’s a young wine. Primitive.” Embarrassment. Sadness. And then:
“Would you like to try some very good wine?”
Here the director led us to another, older room in the Soviet wine laboratory the back of which was sealed off by an ancient oak door. Raising a heavy iron latch, he pushed and a slow eeeeeeek issued from the hinges…