Passport Magazine March 2011
Text and photos by Charles Borden
The northern route of the Silk Road crossed Stavropol region long before it joined Russia’s frontier at the foot of the Caucasus mountains. During the reign of Catherine the Great, Cossacks settled the territory. Tolstoy’s The Cossacks chronicles the region’s conflicts over a century ago with enemies from the nearby Caucasus across the Terek River, which is today’s Chechnya. The book also lauds the region’s wines.
In contrast with the greener lands of Krasnodar to the west, Stavropol is a vast open land, and dryer and colder than its neighbor. The capital, Stavropol, is about the same latitude as Bismarck, North Dakota, with little more rainfall. The farming season opens as early as March. For winemakers, spring means uncovering the vineyard roots that were buried over to protect them from the bitter cold.
In 1990, the first sister-state relationship between a US state and a Russian region was established between Iowa and Stavropol, prompted by Iowa banker John Chrystal and his friend Mikhail Gorbachev. Chrystal traveled often to the USSR and arranged many professional exchange programs after his uncle, Roswell Garst of the Garst Seed company, hosted Nikita Khruschev’s famous visit to Iowa in 1956. Garst weathered a storm of protests over his sale of high-yield corn seed to the Soviet Union, but Russian farmers today still complain about Khrushchev’s fascination with corn: “for years afterward corn was planted everywhere in the Soviet Union, even in Siberia where it could never germinate.”
It was this sister-state relationship that brought me to Praskoveya Winery, near the city of Budyonnovsk in early 1995, and then back in late May that year. There were about twenty wineries in Stavropol region at the end of the Soviet era, mostly producing dry white and sweet wines, but Praskoveya Winery near Budyonnovsk, about 200 kilometers east of the capital is by far the largest and oldest.
Compared to what I had seen at other Russian wineries, I was impressed with Praskoveya’s management, orderliness, and operation despite harsh rural conditions far from the region’s capital. During that visit we made final plans to set up a packaging line at Praskoveya for bag-in-box wines—a dry white wine, and red sweet wine. I was back in Iowa barely a week when the news came of Russia’s first major terrorist incident—in Budyonnovsk, killing 166 and taking more than 1,500 residents hostage in the local hospital. I returned to Praskoveya often until 2000, notably for its 100-year jubilee in 1998 and still follow the winery and its products.
Praskoveya Winery (SKP Praskoveyskoe) was founded in 1898 as a wine warehouse for the region’s tax authorities. Soon grapes were planted and it developed into a winery. It became a state farm during the Soviet period. Praskoveya became one of Russia’s oldest and largest wineries producing more than twenty types of dry and sweet wines. During the WWII, the German army occupied the area, and afterwards in 1945, Praskoveya began to cellar wines for collection. By the 1990s, this collection grew to over 100,000 bottles, mostly sweet white and red wines, carefully arranged in dusty bins in the winery’s cellar.
In 1970, Praskoveya Winery began production of brandy. The chief brandy maker, Vladimir Kostin, studied brandy production in France. The water that is used during production of brandy at Praskoveya is trucked in from the Caucasus Mountains. Praskoveya produces brandies in various handsome bottles and several grades: Stavropol aged 7 to 8 years, Dombai aged 8 to 10 years, and Prakoveyskiy aged more than 10 years.Like all wineries in Russia, Praskoveya suffered during the Gorbachev anti-alcohol campaign in 1985, when a two-thirds of vineyards were plowed under. According to a story I heard during a visit, but for a heroic subterfuge of staff, the 100,000 bottle collection would also have succumbed. At that time, Praskoveya’s current director Boris G. Pakhunov, was winemaker. Boris received a notice from the authorities that all Russian winemakers were ordered to attend a seminar on “conversion of wine to vinegar.” At the seminar, Boris was shocked to learn that all “collection wines” were to be converted, so when he returned to Praskoveya, he had the entrances to the storage areas bricked over as finished walls, hiding the collection. When an inspection commission arrived to check, they were satisfied that the work had been completed.
In recent years, Praskoveya started sparkling wine production, and extended their alcohols to a whisky and a retro packaged 90- proof samogan (moonshine). The line of wines has reduced—the climate and soil is just too difficult to produce good quality dry wines. However, I noticed they began importing dry wines from South Africa for bottling at the winery, and, unlike other Russian wineries, they make full disclosure of the source on the bottle.
There’s a small shop in Moscow called Praskoveya on Malaya Gruzinskaya not far from Ulitsa Krasnaya Presnya, which was formerly owned by the winery. It still carries a full line of Praskoveya’s products: wines, brandies, samogan, whiskey, sparkling and samples from its collection wines, some dating back to the 50s — all great gifts and a true experience from a dedicated Russian winery.