When Wine Becomes Crucial to Cultural Identity

For most people, wine is a commodity on a shelf, a treat for when the mood strikes. For the mass-market companies, wine might as well be pencils or paper towels — merchandise to move. But for serious-minded producers and fans, wine has a far deeper meaning that cuts almost to the core of human existence.

Among those who understand this view of wine are autocrats and would-be dictators. Throughout history, authoritarians have sought to suppress cultural expressions that deviate from the party line, whether books, film, music, religion or wine. It is no less true in our own times.

Within the last century, dictatorial governments have routinely tried to destroy wine production, if that suited their needs. They have bent and shaped traditions to fit their own desires. They have also seen wine as a desirable commodity, looting vast amounts for themselves as the Nazis did in France during World War II.

The Soviet Union routinely sought to transform the local winemaking customs of its constituent republics, discouraging, for example, the winemaking culture of Georgia, and instead creating vast state vineyards that could supply enormous amounts of wine for the Russian market.

Likewise, in the Alentejo region of southeastern Portugal, the tradition of making wine in clay talha, amphoralike vessels, largely disappeared in the mid-20th century as the dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar pushed the country into centralized wine production.

In Spain under Franco, regional methods died off as the government channeled wine into bulk production. Growers were encouraged to leave the countryside for factory work in the cities, abandoning vineyards and other agricultural pursuits.

As each of these countries became more democratic in the last few decades, local wine cultures were resuscitated. The diverse wines of Spain, Portugal and Georgia are now among the most interesting and exciting in the world.

I’ve been thinking about this history more because it’s still playing out today, in Ukraine, in Armenia and in Iran.

In late February, I attended Vines and Threads, an event in Providence, R.I., intended to raise awareness of how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine threatened its distinctive culture. The event included discussions and presentations of fashion and style, music, food and wine, including a tasting of the sparkling wines of Artwinery, said to be the largest sparkling wine producer in Eastern Europe.

Artwinery is in Bakhmut, which has been the center of intensive fighting in eastern Ukraine. It was originally constructed during the Stalin era when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, but since Ukrainian independence, it has been making fine sparkling wines, using the Champagne method, primarily with a blend of chardonnay, riesling and aligoté, an unusual combination for a Champagne-style wine.

As the early fighting in Bakhmut began in spring 2022, Russians bombed the city indiscriminately, except, apparently, for Artwinery.

Nathalie Lysenko, Artwinery’s export manager, suggested in 2022 that the Russians wanted to protect the winery or the 50 million bottles that were stored in a huge network of gypsum caves deep underground so that they could steal the wine. They considered whether to destroy it, she said.

Instead, Artwinery last year began to secretly transport a sizable portion of the bottles, to warehouses in safer locations in Ukraine. The winery would not disclose exactly how many bottles were moved or where they are now. The Russians have now occupied the winery.

“As we have clearly seen from the fate of other Ukrainian enterprises in occupied territories, such as the Prince Trubetskoi winery in Kherson, Russians rob and destroy everything they can reach,” Ms. Lysenko said by email.

Ukrainian wine history dates back almost 3,000 years, she said, and has survived both Soviet centralization efforts and temperance campaigns during the Gorbachev era, during which top-flight vineyards in the Crimean Peninsula, a major Ukrainian growing region, were uprooted. Artwinery itself had to find new sources for grapes after Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea.

Amazingly, Artwinery is planning to export 140,000 bottles to the United States this year, said Gayle Corrigan of Saparavi U.S.A., Artwinery’s American importer.

As the war goes on and Ukrainians continue to face death and hardships, wine is not so important except as a symbol. But its role as a crucial element of cultural identity is explicit at less fraught moments when authoritarian rulers suppress or prohibit its production.

Somm: Cup of Salvation,” a new documentary that will be released later this year, examines the role of wine in the identity of both Armenia and Iran, neighboring countries in which wine production has been interrupted by violence and autocratic government.

This fourth film in the “Somm” series, directed by Jason Wise, is different from its processors. Instead of spotlighting the hopes and dreams of sommeliers, its focus is larger, on the cultural importance of wine itself.

The absorbing film follows Vahe Keushguerian, an Armenian winemaker, and his daughter, Aimee, who works with him at their production facility, WineWorks, in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital.

Along with Georgia to the north, Armenia is part of the Caucasus region, which is considered to have been among the birthplaces of wine thousands of years ago, long before political divisions separated the region into countries. Wine was integral to Armenian culture until its 19th century subjugation by both the Ottoman and Russian empires, Mr. Keushguerian said, followed by the Armenian genocide at the hands of the Ottomans in the early 20th century. After a brief period of independence, it was subsequently absorbed into the Soviet Union.

“The Soviet Union said, ‘You guys don’t do wine, you do brandy,’” Mr. Keushguerian said. As he tells it in the film, the Soviets forced growers to abandon their hillside vineyards and the ancient varieties they used for wine. New vineyards were planted in the flat areas, where farming could be industrialized, with the grapes the Soviets preferred for brandy.

“The old vineyards stayed,” Aimee Keushguerian, whose birth coincided with the fall of the Soviet Union, says. “They were essentially untouched for 120 years. Now we’ve adopted wine as our identity.”

The Keushguerians have been reviving old vineyards and exploring the ancient varieties, among them areni, one of the oldest known wine grapes, which has become something of a symbol for the revival of winemaking in Armenia.

During the filming of “Cup of Salvation” in Armenia in 2020, war breaks out between Armenia and Azerbaijan. A key vineyard is situated directly in the line of fire, as harvest approaches. In the film, the Keushguerians must decide whether to risk harvesting the grapes or stay clear of the vineyard, losing the harvest, which would be both an economic and a cultural blow.

Finally, wearing bulletproof vests, they assess the situation and proceed, thankfully without casualties.

Iran, too, once had a thriving wine industry, particularly among Kurds and Zoroastrians. It ceased after the Islamic revolution in 1979, and hundreds of wine-producing facilities were destroyed. But some of the old vineyards survived, particularly in hard-to-reach hillside areas, with their produce consumed as table grapes.

Mr. Keushguerian wondered about these old vineyards and conceives in the film of a plan to buy grapes in Iran, where Armenians can travel relatively freely, and bring them back to Armenia to make wine at his facility.

“I was curious about the varieties, and how they were linked to the more familiar grapes,” he told me during a visit to New York earlier this year.

In a scene depicted with dramatic flair, Mr. Keushguerian takes a trip to the north of Iran, skeletal camera crew in tow, semiclandestinely looking for old vineyards with unusual varieties. In the remote hills in the province of Kermanshah, roughly 300 miles west of Tehran, he finds what he wants: glistening purple grapes he identified as the rasheh variety.

He arranges to buy 22 tons, which he has shipped back to the WineWorks facility, where in 2021 he produced both red wine and sparkling rosé. Some of these bottles will be sold legally in the United States, under the brand Molana, referring to a nickname of Rumi, the 13th-century Persian poet and scholar. It will be labeled, “Wine of Iran, made in Armenia.”

The notion of Iranian wine may seem inconsequential to many people, but not to members of the Iranian diaspora like Moe Momtazi, who, with his wife, Flora, founded Maysara winery in Oregon in 1997. As a young boy in Tehran, he remembers his father making wine in their basement, and storing it in earthen vessels. He learned about farming from his grandfather. But in 1982, the Momtazis fled Iran. He eventually established a successful engineering firm before turning to wine and agriculture.

“In Persian and Zoroastrian culture, wine is considered a very sacred thing,” he said to Inc. magazine. “After the Islamists came to power, a lot of things were taken away from Persians. But wine stayed in our blood.” In the film, he calls it “sun’s radiance in a liquid form.”

His daughter Naseem Momtazi, the president of sales at Maysara, is more straightforward: “To see something that was so important for your family taken, it’s hard,” she says in the film.

Using recent genetic analysis of grapevine varieties, researchers have traced the domestication of wine grapes to 11,000 years ago, which would make grapes, and wine, among the first forms of agriculture. Wine may have been so important among early nomadic humans that it was a chief reason for settling into fixed communities. It was among the building blocks of civilization.

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