Russians still scoff at Mikhail Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign that saw Soviet troops tearing down vineyards – but which only drove hardened drinkers’ determination to concoct their own booze.
A quarter of a century later the Kremlin is considering subtler, market-oriented methods to fight alcoholism that could give a boost to the domestic wine industry even if they fail to modify Russians’ excessive drinking habits.
“Wine making is one of the sectors that should be developed to help contribute to the eradication of alcoholism,” Dmitry Medvedev said during a visit to Krasnodar, one of Russia’s main wine producing region this week. Alcohol abuse stemmed from “other drinks,” the Russian president added in an apparent reference to his people’s love of vodka.
Risking the unpopularity faced by Gorbachev, Mr Medvedev has declared war on alcoholism that claims thousands of lives each year in Russia. Under his watch taxes on alcohol have been raised, night time liquor sales banned and beer, traditionally regarded as a soft drink, re-branded as an alcoholic beverage in line with international norms.
However, his latest initiative to wean Russians off vodka by reviving wine production is unusual to say the least and will pose a challenge to the industry that has not fully recovered from Gorby’s assault on vineyards.
Russia produced 8.2m hectoliters of wine in 2010 ranking in 7th place between Chile and Portugal in a list of the world’s biggest wine makers published by the International Organisation of Vine and Wine. Mass production techniques using foreign additives and lashings of sugar to create a syrupy brew have hardly changed since the Soviet era and Russian wine, although cheap, has difficulty competing with now widely available imported brands.
However, a handful of investors are striving to revive quality wine making near Russia’s Black Sea coast
in vineyards once cultivated by the ancient Greeks.
Medvedev’s support will be a big boost for the nascent industry says Edouard Alexandrov, the founder of Gai Kodzor which cultivates 70 hectares of vineyards near the resort town of Anapa in Krasnodar region. His firm is using vines imported from the south of France to produce 250,000 bottles of red and white wine a year for supply mainly to restaurants in Moscow and St Petersburg.
The good news for vintners is that as Russians travel more widely they have begun favoring wine over vodka and there is still plenty of room for the market to grow. On average Russians drinks about 8 liters a year of wine compared to 50- to 55 liters a year in France. Even in Scandinavian countries where vodka is the favorite tipple, the average drinker quaffs 18 – 20 liters of wine a year, more than double the Russian level.
However, it is an uphill battle to persuade sophisticated Russians to drink Russian wine “There is a historical stereotype that Russian wine is bad,” says Alexandrov. The Kremlin’s seal of approval could help change that.