Roman Smirnov just had a terrific day. One of this evening’s guests ordered three bottles of Grands Échezeaux and one of La Tâche, all four by one of the greatest Burgundy producers — Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. The final wine bill came to a whopping 850,000 rubles (approx. €11,000). Why does Roman care? Because he is a sommelier at the celebrated Russian chef Anatoly Komm’s upmarket restaurant. Too bad Smirnov and other sommeliers at top venues cannot simply rest on their laurels anymore as the kind of prolific outlay is becoming extremely rare.

While fine wine bills have soared across the country due to the twofold weakening of national currency and economic turmoil, the question restaurant owners, sommeliers and wine traders ask themselves is why on Earth the rich man’s wine wardrobe remains so clearly driven by a small group of overpriced wines. And the broader one: why doesn’t wine culture flourish yet, after 25 years of open market?

Back in the 1990s it was looking so promising for the wine trade. Opening the market for imports and new wealth came smoothly together. What attracted Russian wine importers and sommeliers at first were classic wines. “Companies were willing to bring crème de la crème of the fine wine world”, recalls Dmitry Bazashvili, a Moscow sommelier with extensive experience in the city’s top restaurants. This meant exactly what it sounded like: Bordeaux, Burgundy, Tuscany, Piedmont. The blue-chip stuff of fine wine world. It hasn’t been until the 2000s when the practice of using top wines to show off took off: the talks of Petrus’ baths had already been in the air. Until recently “resolving issues” (reshat voprosy, in Russian) while drinking top Bordeaux was a common practice.

The luxury consumer

Expensive bottles which get two-three times more expensive when they reach the Russia’s capital, attract a well-defined clique of consumers. They are top managers, businessmen and, not the least, officials of all sorts. Top wines sales have often been fuelled by the money coming from the government-affiliated structures. Oil, gas, mining, construction businesses, everything that turn around tremendous amounts of money, are the most desirable clients of all, often willing to pay ridiculous money for the “right” bottles. I drink Tignanello, you drink Tignanello: like two submarines call-signs it’s a way of telling foes from allies.

Ironically, it’s not the desire to enjoy the aroma and taste of top wines that is the main driving force behind the demand for the “blue chips”. “Up to two thirds of such wines are destined for gifting,” says Vladimir Basov, running wine importing business and managing several wine bars in Moscow and St. Petersburg. “Most consumers of top wines regard them as status symbols rather than something to enjoy”. Sounds familiar: think China or Brazil. Doesn’t any developing country follow the pattern? When it comes to label-drinking, Russia has some specific features.

Label-drinking “a-la Russe”

As the rich became introduced to what sommeliers and Russian wine trade referred to as “best wines”, the interest to other wines quickly faded. Feels like the vici part of veni vidi vici never happened. At a certain stage top wine drinkers decided that they know wine because they drank the “best” ones. The will to discover new things rather than seeing to the old habits is something that never became a healthy habit in the country. Selecting wine is intimidating to the rich ones with too much at stake: their image, personal and business relations. With each new bottle a Pandora box, label-drinking came in handy.

Fabio Borgianni, Quadrum restaurant manager, Four Seasons Moscow

“Around 60% of our Russian guests want famous labels like Ornellaia, Masseto, Solaia, Tignanello. They are looking for rich, full-bodied, rounded wines with universal powerful taste,” says Quadrum restaurant manager Fabio Borgianni at Four Seasons Moscow, overlooking Kremlin. To encourage guests to break away from their habits Fabio has to go round and about and make use of tricks of all sorts. Guaranteed return of an already open bottle if the wine does not fit the guest’s taste is one of those that regularly works well.

One might think that Tuscany example is the only that of brand-driven, mindless consumption in Russia. It’s not. Burgundy, the Holy Cow of wine aficionados, follows almost the same consumption pattern. Even assuming the consumers of Burgundy should know more about wines they still choose the famous labels. “Half of those who prefers Burgundy in restaurants do so to make an impression,” points out Basov.

Professionals like an expat in Moscow Fabio Borgianni are in low demand these days: sommeliers prefer to think less, sell more and are often tied up by restaurant owners who control the wine list and benefit on specific agreements with the wine traders.

R.I.P., Mr. Sommelier

With wine advertising ban closing the possibilities to deliver the wine-related information to the final consumers in 2013, sommeliers remained one of the few legal channels to convey the wine knowledge. But the hopes that sommeliers could somehow replace media vanished fast. It’s sad to admit that “sommelier” in Russia has turned into a curse-word. It was in this decade when restaurant lists became dominated by commercial wines and regulated by the contracts between importers and restaurant owners. Money agreements, that is. Sommeliers slowly evolved from deciders to what’s called in Russian vinocherpiy — a guy who simply pours your wine. The “labels” — expensive, famous, promoted by sommeliers and wine businesses — became just the right tool.

Designed to be the guides into the immense wine world, Russian sommeliers quickly became something else: a tool for promoting a limited number of fine wines, expensive and easy to sell. Driven by the desire to serve best to their nuveau-riche guests, sommeliers seldom dare or care to persuade those to enrich their wine vocabulary with a bit cheaper wines of the similar quality as the top ones.

Nobody trusts anybody

Russian sommeliers seem to have lost unconditionally in fight against label drinking. The clear lack of trustworthy local experts added a lot to it — no Russian Robert Parker has yet been born to influence, guide and inspire. Journalists are moving to make their own wines and wine writing is still widely banned from papers by law, making the profession extremely rare and non-rewarding financially. Besides, top drinkers rarely listen to experts of any sorts and, especially, the younger ones. Prices of wines sold are directly linked to the seniority of those who sells them.

Arkady Novikov, powerful Russian restaurateur, the head of Novikov Group

It’s not only about the sommeliers per se. As a famous Russian proverb puts it, fish begins to stink at the head. Trust between the Russian venue owners, directors and sommeliers leaves much to be desired — at best. The anticipated restaurant life cycle of virtually any given restaurant is short and is a major reason behind the lack of inspiring wine lists. While most restaurants in Russia are run by businessmen rather than chefs, exclusions only make the rule more obvious. And then business goals step in: “You’re a good sommelier. Look, I’d pay you a basic salary and you go ahead and do business of your own,” the owners say. It is also about the money. Expensive wine requires expensive service — stemware, specialists, storage facilities and more importantly, time to store top wines.

Russian restaurateurs generally want quick returns, which is not good news for wine consumers. Unwilling to invest in wine cellaring, restaurants are managing smaller lists of no more than 150 wines. “As a result, we have reduced the interest in wine among guests. We stayed at the level where we like to drink Chablis but still think it’s a grape variety”, says Alexander Khatiashvili, special projects director at Simple, the fine wine importer based in Moscow. And if the lists are so limited they are bound to be filled with self-selling labels that turn around fast with virtually no effort from the sommelier side.

It’s possible that for this exact reason the most expensive wines like those of Domaine de La Romanee-Conti, distributed in Russia by Dmitry Pinsky’s company DP-Trade are among those that seldom suffer from crises. “In troubled times our best-selling wines are those of DRC. Their consumers don’t change their habits, ever”, says Pinsky puzzled himself.

Psy-factors

Back at Anatoly Komm’s restaurant Roman Smirnov says wines with a price tag of 5–35 thousand rubles a bottle (€70–450) are the backbone of top venues’ sales. Unfortunately for leading wine producers, the number of places capable of offering expensive bottles is declining fast: dealing with them proves to be psychologically hard to match short-term goals of restaurant owners.

Psychological observations of wine consumption are interesting and noteworthy. Insiders point out the Russian wine market is distorted by itself: it generates an extremely narrow interest towards a dozen of wine labels. “The rich ones start their wine journey with top commercial wines and are forced to believe that drinking such wines is a matter of prestige. In 95% of cases they will continue to drink full-flavour, commercial wines”, notes Mikhail Volkov, the co-owner of a wine bar downtown Moscow promoting more subtle wines of Burgundy, Germany and Austria. Unable to attract enough consumers in long term venues like his one rarely survive in the city.

Mikhail Volkov (right), the co-owner of Winil wine bar, Moscow

Driven by stereotypical wine beliefs Russian restaurant-goers often categorically reject certain wines (“all Rieslings are sour” or “I only drink Italy”). They limit themselves to a certain label: even the harvest year is not important anymore. The only thing that matters is the familiar name on the bottle. “For the fun of it, take a Sassicaia bottle and add another producer on the label with smaller font — no one will ever notice”, says Roman Smirnov.

Two ways it could end

So it’s a bit thick, all of that. There’s limited wine information flow, sommeliers are bound by restaurant owners, who are, in turn, bound by short-term thinking and depressing economical conditions, which are, in turn, bound by political situation. And drinkers are pressed down by psychological issues connected to the general interest to life and living. Label-drinking is a minuscule part of the wine-trade business complications and could be perceived as a natural market response to squeezing, tightening and red-tape control of the sector.

Some say it’s time for new wines for reasonable money. “The best wine bars in Europe aren’t full of wine connoisseurs, it’s just people who came to have a good time,” says Vladimir Basov. Importers and restaurateurs are seeking to bring new trends: those who don’t feed on Super-tuscans, promote subtle German and Austrian wines and the word “Riesling” sounds more often than “Supertuscany”.

“Wine is an element of culture. The more you travel, the more you learn. At least people are now taking pictures of wine labels,” says Mikhail Volkov. “We need another generation that would replace the current one, that have traveled the world and came back. Only then something will happen in this market,” dreams Khatiashvili.

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