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Dr. Ricardo F. Nunez, founder and owner of the Vinos de La Luz group of companies, analyzes the special path of Ukraine in the modern historical context, the impact of the war on winemaking and the country’s prospects.
Dear Doctor! The Drinks+ editors for almost 10 years – please correct us if we are wrong – see your interest in the Ukrainian wine market: you participate in all specialized exhibitions and events in our country, maintain friendly relations with winemakers, go on tours around the regions, perform at seminars, as a sponsor, you support sommelier competitions and industry publications.
Since last year, Ukraine has been taking giant steps both in the development of wine quality, and in the evolution of business thinking so that Ukrainian consumers consume Ukrainian wine. In recent years, several medium companies made great efforts to act under the name of the united Ukrainian brand, and the big companies that already existed were maintained. In the middle of this process, russia proceeded with the full-scale invasion, based on the doctrine that Ukraine does not exist and that it is part of russia. Inhabitants of the East had to be internally displaced, millions of Ukrainians searched for a refuge abroad. Among these people are entrepreneurs, professionals and employees of the wine industry. Ukraine has been facing constant bombardments and destruction. Notwithstanding, all those who stayed or left the country did not stop being proactive, waiting to return, or reactivating – sometimes rebuilding – their own industries. If we look at the aftermath of the war, at first, it indicates that the invasion halted the development we are talking about, but in fact, in the month of September and before the harvest, the same protagonists were already activated who were promoting changes in the industry.
«Ukraine has been taking giant steps both in the development of wine quality, and in the evolution of business thinking so that Ukrainian consumers would choose Ukrainian wine»
Knowing your curiosity and analytical mindset, we can assume that you have a fairly complete picture of the Ukrainian wine industry. Please share your observations on this matter: what are the disadvantages and what are the advantages of the Ukrainian wine industry.
In the middle of the disaster, that is, this war of annihilation, it would seem that there are no advantages,but one should not look at this topic as a photograph. In the medium term and when the conflict is over, no matter when the Marshall Plan appears, it will restore everything destroyed in the country, covering an integral wine industry, from vineyards to distribution of wine to the consumer. It is necessary to reconstruct a lot from the industry. I have a conviction that the Marshall Plan for Ukraine will come because all the heroic resistance of the Ukrainians has been aimed at defending the country, as well as protecting the freedom of the West. Countries that support Ukraine are now investing weapons or money to buy weapons. Then they will invest in its restoration, and wine in the reconstruction and modernization plans. This will be a unique opportunity and that is why you need to be active today, even if minimally active, making wine and delivering the message that the industry is on its feet, waiting for the war to end. On the other hand, the great disadvantage that I see is that there is no centralized organization that seriously represents the entire industry. I see a lot of personal issues involved, as well as envy in the leaders of the sector, and I think it’s very negative to be able to use the possibilities of the Marshall 2 Plan, this time aimed at Ukraine. The behavior of some leaders can cause irreparable damage to the wine industry, today and in the future.
Dr. Nunez, please share with us how you see this Marshall 2 Plan.
It will not be called the same for sure, but it will have those characteristics. The European Recovery Plan, known as the Marshall Plan, named for Secretary of State George Marshall, was launched for 4 years in 1948, after the Second World War. It was aimed at rebuilding and modernizing Europe. And the results are in full view – prosperous Europe for years, with an extraordinary quality of life, and with great economic strength. It was illogical that the Soviet Union did not want to participate and did not allow its satellite countries to do so, and the result was an industrial and commercial lag and a large difference in the growth of East Germany, Poland, Hungary, etc. When the war is over, the reconstruction plan will be implemented only for Ukraine, and the concentration of funds will be very important and strictly supervised. This will be the moment to use that tool to rebuild and modernize the industry. I support this in all the forums I participate in, and a few days ago I had a strong influence when I was invited to the opening of Vinexpo, which took place in the Hôtel de Talleyrand – I did not know that this was the place where the Marshall Plan was signed after the Second World War.
The opening of Vinexpo Paris 2023, Hotel de Talleyrand, the place where the Marshall Plan was signed after the World War II
As far as we understood, you have a missionary approach to any business you undertake. In particular, one of your recent missions is to support the Ukrainian delegation at the 43rd World Congress of the International Organization of Vine and Wine, which took place in October last year. As you know, Ukraine was once a member of this respectable international organization, but at a certain point it terminated its membership. Please provide more details on the question.
This topic is largely related to the shortcoming mentioned above, that in Ukraine there are no leaders who think more about the industry and its future, and not about constant rivalry among themselves. I know the OIV very well. For many years, I have been close to the presidents of the organization (Argentina, Germany, Brazil and today Italy) since I played that representative function for Argentina. All of these countries are member states of the OIV. But in this last period, magnificent and one of the best for me, the Director General is Pau Roca, a Spaniard who was the general director of the Spanish Federation of Wine, of which I am a member, and whom I supported strongly from the private sector for his election. The Ukrainian leader of one of the associations that unite wine producers – at least I know two such associations of a national level in Ukraine and the third who is improving the presence of Ukrainian wines inside and outside the country: the Ukrainian Association of Craft Winemakers – asked if I could support Ukrainian entry into the OIV, but he also informed me that there are some economic problems. I clearly remember my response: “This is an organization of states, states are members. There must be a governmental decision and official communication.” Shortly after the Russian invasion, he contacted me again and told me that President Zelenskyy had publicly stated that Ukraine should be part of every possible international organization that is related to its strategic existence. He also informed me that the Minister of Agriculture had the firm decision to move towards the OIV, but there were still economic constraints. Personally I think it was a great decision for Ukraine, because while russia denies its existence, Ukraine becomes a full member in a state organization. Everything was made step by step, and almost daily. The work of the Ministry of Agriculture was very dynamic. The president of Ukrsadvinprom, Volodymyr Pechko and Nataliia Burlachenko, worked against the clock to arrive at the Assembly in Mexico in November. One of my great emotions of these last years was to hear Pechko’s and Burlachenko’s speech at that Assembly, in Ukrainian and in English, stating that Ukraine is being accepted as a member and that they share greetings of the winegrowers from Crimea, Kherson, Odesa, and Transcarpatia – from all over Ukraine, claiming the sovereignty of Ukraine. It was a breathtaking and very touching moment. I think you have a recorded video now and should spread it. It was another battle won, because in this war everyone fights with the weapons they have.
«Ukrainians need to be active today, even if minimally active, making wine and delivering the message that the industry is on its feet, waiting for the war to end»
It is true that Ukraine has been on the sidelines of this organization for quite a long time only because there were no funds to pay off the debt and pay membership fees. If it’s not a secret, how is the issue resolved now?
Ukraine does not owe anything to the OIV and currently it does not cost a single hryvnia for Ukraine to be in the OIV. The previous debt has expired, the payment for the period from 2023 to 2025 is not required until 2026. The only thing that was paid is the period from November to December 2022 to use the opportunity not to pay for full years. All expenses of the delegation, including their business trips, were made at the expense of private donations.
So, who paid for that period of 2022?
It doesn’t matter who paid for it. Besides, they paid it as a donation to Ukraine, which will need to be processed when the war ends. Now is the time to continue donating.
You have made many donations. Please let us know what areas you decided to support and with whom you cooperated.
I will repeat myself, everyone fights with the weapons they have. I produce food in self-heating cans, I have sent hundreds of thousands of them to Ukraine, its children and soldiers. And Nataliia Burlachenko made a great contribution to this. Apart from that, we regularly donate a certain amount of money to contribute for the purchase of what the country needs. Also, we facilitate internal and international relationships that we have made available to the country.
And now, thanks to your efforts and the team of Ukrainian ambassadors, Ukraine has returned to the OIV family. How did the leadership of the OIV react to your efforts?
In an extraordinary way. It was they who made it possible to overcome the bureaucracy and marked the exact path to income.
Vinexpo Paris 2023
Who was on the team that went to Mexico City? How were the roles distributed between you?
I would like to clarify that I did not play any role. The Ministry of Agriculture appointed the President of Ukrsadvinprom as the head of the Delegation, and Nataliia Burlachenko as the deputy. There were issues of protocol, languages and knowledge of the environment in which Nataliia is well known, as well as in the topic of wine. They made the perfect duet. I had the honor to accompany them, but the official delegation was entirely Ukrainian.
Could you tell us in more detail what exactly membership in the OIV gives to member states?
The most important thing for Ukraine today is its presence as a sovereign nation producing wine. Believe me, this is a widespread feeling of the countries that make up the OIV, and it was noticed by the endless applause of all the free countries when Pechko and Burlachenko ended their speech. On the other hand, the OIV is an inexhaustible source of knowledge, including on technical issues, provided by more than 1000 experts and specialists, which will be extremely useful for Ukraine. There are already specialists from the Ukrainian research institutes of vine and wine, who are part of the OIV committees, which briefly say what needs to be done in the world of wine. That is why today it is best to be part of this board to follow directions. Another point is foreign investments that will come. It is difficult to invest in a country that is not integrated in the OIV because it is like investing in a country that has no voice or vote in the world.
«The OIV is an inexhaustible source of knowledge, including on technical issues, provided by more than 1000 experts and specialists, which will be extremely useful for Ukraine»
Today Ukraine is waging an unequal liberation war. There are opinions that integration into the world professional communities is not in time. What can you say about this? What advice would you give to representatives of the Ukrainian winemaking industry?
They must fight, and it is they who are trying to create conditions for the government to survive in the face of this terrible russian aggression. And they oblige their leaders to be united in their views on the present and future. Within 10, 15 or 20 years, Ukrainian viticulture will be the product of the chosen approach of producers united by a common development policy. In this emergency, only fools can believe that they will be saved alone.
What global challenges, in your opinion, are facing the wineproducing countries as a whole, which can only be solved through joint efforts?
The most important, without a doubt, is climate change. The consequences of this phenomenon are so great that the UK and Sweden are already wine-producing countries, while others are losing vast territories with their vineyards. Or suffer disasters in their grape production. In Argentina this season, when the red grape harvest falls in March, there have been five frosts. There is no historical record to tell us that my vineyards could freeze in February that were a month short of harvest. In studying the phenomenon and its prevention, OIV will be of great help, and, having connections with the wineries of the world, which are seriously working on this topic, will teach Ukrainian producers a lot.
Perhaps, for many, this fact will become an information bomb – you have recently become a Ukrainian winemaker and have even released your own wine! Please accept warm congratulations from the entire staff of Drinks+. And respect for your courage as an investor, as well as gratitude for your firm faith in Ukraine! That is, now wine from Ukraine is added to the constellation of wines from Argentina, Spain, Italy, the USA under the Vinos de La Luz brand. Actually it’s a sensation. Please let us know, if possible, the details.
Many years ago, we were behind the project for the production of red Ukrainian wine with the Odesa black variety. There are several opportunities that are being tackled in Ukraine to enable and give momentum to progress. But the war also came. And we decided that it was time to do our part to demonstrate that the vitivinicultural industry continues to struggle, as other producers do. And we decided to release wine before the year of the full-stale war. It was a huge effort of people who are part of La Luz wines, and here again Natalia Burlachenko appears, who is at the forefront of the Ukrainian company, which is a subsidiary of Vinos de La Luz. It is a magnificent idea because thanks to the artist Ivan Marchuk, we can reproduce some of his paintings on the bottle of this first edition and on future releases. Now the bottles look like works of art. And most importantly, Ukrainian works of art. It is a special edition of only 1000 bottles. We presented it on February 23, 2023 in Krakow at the opening of Marchuk’s mega exposition. The wine is Odesa Black 2020 aged 12 months in French oak. It will only go on sale in May, although I think the list of buyers exceeds the quantity produced.
«Russia must be removed from all international organizations, including the UN, where it still has a veto. That is what I believe in. However, there are rules that apply to everyone»
Today, a significant number of international organizations are getting rid of representatives of russia, recognized as a terrorist state. At the same time, this country is still among the members of the OIV. We know that you are one of the most ardent defenders of Ukraine, from the first days of the war and today you financially support the Armed Forces of Ukraine, and take an active pro-Ukrainian position in the international arena. How, in your opinion, should Ukraine’s position in the OIV develop on this issue?
Russia must be removed from all international organizations, including the UN, where it still has a veto. That is what I believe in. However, there are rules that apply to everyone. I was told that it was written in some media that the Director General of the OIV is pro-russian. This is nonsense. I know perfectly well what Pau Roca thinks, but in his position he cannot support one country at the expense of another. He follows the OIV Rules. If so, it was not Ukraine, it would not be within the OIV. And if the statute provides the possibility of excluding russia from the OIV, then the official Ukrainian delegation should give this fight. As in all wars, the first thing that dies is the truth. And in the midst of this war, attributing a pro-russian attitude to the Director General Pau Roca is really a delusional lie. In addition, the very leaders of Ukrainian associations who hug and take pictures with him, as recently happened at Vinexpo, should be the first to come to his defense. I want to pay extra attention to the topic: if I am a Ukrainian leader and I shook hands, hugged and took a picture with someone who is accused of being pro-Russian, I have two options, either I don’t hug him, or I stop being a leader.