by Sergey Panov

Sommeliers In Body Armour

Each of them had other plans for this summer. Back in February, Anastasia didn’t think she’d be saving other people’s lives on a battlefield. Anatoly didn’t imagine he’d voluntarily swap a cellar with 200 different Champagnes for an artillery compass Had Oleg learned that the purpose of his next wine dinner would be to raise money for the army, he would have been astonished. Russia’s invasion has led Ukrainian sommeliers to redefine what they are capable of doing. Below you can read the stories of several brave hearts, our colleagues in the wine world, whose energies are focused on defending their country.

Wine During War

To spare the reader a description of the atrocities of the war, but to give an idea of the scale of Russian aggression, I will share one figure. According to verified data, the Ukrainian army has already destroyed more than 990 Russian tanks. This is more than the armies of France (406), Spain (327) and Sweden (121) have combined.

The Ukrainian wine market was affected from the start. In the first days of the war, the Gostomel Glassworks, one of the largest manufacturers of bottles, was destroyed. The warehouse of Bureau Vin, one of Ukraine’s largest wine distributors, was also flattened by a Russian missile. The distributor, which owns the GoodWine chain of stores, lost €15 million. But heavier than that were the human losses. Winemakers Alexei Sukhorukov of Vin Prydniprovia and Sergei Zolotar of Vinoman were killed in the Ukrainian army. Just last month friends said goodbye to Sergey Kushinsky. The finalist of the Ukrainian sommelier competition was an experienced fighter, and had already stood up for Ukraine in 2015-17. But in August Sergey fell on the battlefield.

Many of Ukraine’s vineyards are located close to the Black Sea, which has become a theatre of hostilities. Russian troops are stationed at the Kuren family winery in Kherson Oblast, and there is no contact with its owner. The village of Silvino near Nikolayev, where the family winery Chista Voda is located, was repeatedly hit by artillery. Now the remains of rockets carrying cluster munitions, washed by the rains, glisten between the rows of vines. The owners of a winery near Mariupol lived for two weeks in a bomb shelter without light, heating, food or water. They escaped from the city, but do not know if their venture still exists. The producers of the Kiev region were also hit. Mortar shelling destroyed the building of the Cassia family winery. The office of Wineidea winery in Yasnogorodka was destroyed by artillery fire: people survived by hiding in the wine cellar. Production of Berryland, Ukraine’s top ciders, was also completely destroyed.

The historic winery of Prince Trubetskoy, with a castle built in 1889, modeled after a fine Bordeaux château, was occupied by Russian troops at the beginning of the war. The new owner is already recruiting a new team to harvest and resume production on the seized land.

But the response to the challenge is more important than the challenge itself. If Arnold Toynbee is to be believed, environmental challenges can both destroy society and lead it to a new level of development, if it gives a worthy response. The deeds of Ukrainians give rise to a firm belief in the second option.

Wine Dinner for Byraktar

Oleg Kravchenko was Ukraine’s best sommelier in 2011. He has been working as a chef-sommelier in his Win Bar for five years now. The joint project of the sommelier and a designer friend is located in the heart of Kiev’s Podol in a 19th century mansion. Win Bar has twice been voted the best wine bar in Ukraine. Even now, after the pandemic and the outbreak of war, its list still runs to 240 wines, almost all of which can be Coravin-ed by the glass. A distinctive feature of the bar were its events. The venue regularly hosted dinners by guest chefs to whose dishes Oleg matched the wines. The bar also ran a wine school.

A full life was brutally interrupted by the war. Oleg sent his family, along with the families of his comrades, to western Ukraine. He himself decided to stay in Kiev until the last. The chaos of the first days of the war revealed a problem with food: people were fleeing to Kiev from other areas, army and territorial defence units were gathering in the city, and all those people had to be fed. Oleg, along with other volunteers, borrowed a few cars from his neighbours, and began delivering food.

His next thought was to join the ranks of the territorial defence, but there were already lines of volunteers. Then he saw a post by one of the founders of a national restaurant association who was looking for a restaurant charity coordinator in Kyiv. The communicative Oleg, who personally knew most of the capital’s restaurateurs and suppliers, realised that his efforts would bear greater fruit in this place. By his words, everyone was making their donations: restaurants, food warehouses, suppliers, bakeries. The staff at many restaurants volunteered to cook the food.

“I had tears in my eyes when restaurateurs merely gave me the keys to the premises. Together with my manager, we took away millions of hryvnias worth of food (1 mln. UAH is about USD 29,000). I gave groceries from my bar to a neighbouring restaurant whose volunteers cooked the food. We coordinated companies, foundations, individual restaurants, and even managed to bring in several ten-ton trucks of food to the city”.

When the Russian invaders left Borodyanka and Bucha, Oleg and his team helped those who had survived the horrors of the occupation. The residents of these towns had no electricity or gas at the end of March, and they cooked on barbecues and campfires. Volunteers brought them food that could be eaten now or stored for later. Some of the Kyiv restaurateurs decided not to resume work and will open their doors only after the victory. Others continue to function, although revenues have halved. Although some Kyiv residents have left the city, people from Kharkiv, Mariupol and Kramatorsk have moved here. And the Kyivers themselves have now switched from gastronomy to simpler food; burger joints and pizzerias are flourishing.

Oleg and the Win Bar team continue to support their colleagues who went to defend Ukraine, as well as participating in larger projects. On June 23 Win Bar hosted a wine dinner with Ivan Plachkov from the Colonist family winery in Bessarabia. Guests’ donations helped raise money for the “people’s Byraktar” and became part of the amount that allowed Ukrainians to buy four Turkish drones. Last month an auction of old Massandra vintages helped raise money for Oleg Herman’s outfit. The Win Bar waiter qualified for a special operations unit, and his colleagues raised funds for his extra gear. Until victory, they say, all Sunday brunches will be dedicated to helping particular people or specific foundations.

Volunteer with a corkscrew

Oleksandr Meier is another best sommelier in Ukraine winner, this time of the 2018 competition. Many Kyiv restaurants, including Vino e Cucina where he had been working previously, were closed during the defence of the city, and now generate lower incomes. In addition to the drop in revenue, the curfew restrictions are taking their toll. It’s illegal to be outside after 11pm, and most restaurants are only open until 9pm, so that staff can clear tables and drive home. Guests arrive from work to relax a little before they have to leave.

The war took a particularly hard toll on Oleksandr – his mother stayed in Russian-occupied Izyum in eastern of Ukraine. There is almost no contact with her, just a recent email informing him that she is well. She is still hesitant to evacuate, as the only available route runs through Russian territory.

Despite his dwindling income, Oleksandr made an agreement with natural wine importer Sabotage. He holds events and directs the profits to volunteer funds. He is also involved with a group called “Volunteers with a Corkscrew, formed by Serhiy Denysov from Dnipro. The group fundraised to buy a minibus for the army, named “Sauvignon,” that has been on the front since May. This initiative has received support from many people – sommeliers, winemakers and wine-lovers – partly through its Facebook page. Volunteers with a Corkscrew are now holding charity concerts at the Vino Piano Wine Story and Bar, as well as selling wines to raise funds
for uniforms, first aid kits and other army essentials.

This article lists only a few of the hundreds of Ukrainian sommeliers, winemakers, and wine trade representatives who are defending their country on the front lines and elsewhere. Pavel Magalyas, a winemaker from Olbio Nuvo, has entered the territorial defence. Anton Telyatnik, sommelier at GoodWine, has joined the army.  Eduard Gorodetsky, MyWine winery founder, is gathering medicines for the military. He also is delivering water to the neighbouring city of Mykolaiv, where Russian shelling had left half a million residents without fresh water. Charity events are held by Roman Remeev from Kiev’s GoodWine, Bogdan Pavlyukh from Wine is Easy sommelier school in Lviv, and famous Ukrainian champion, Marina Revkova.

Callsign “Mermaid”

Anastasia Leonova

There are some people whose life resembles the plot of an adventure film. Anastasia Leonova took a paramedic-rescue course back in the late 1990s, when a wave of terrorist attacks and explosions of apartment buildings swept through her native Russia. Then she worked as a diving instructor, learnt how to box in Thailand, took a pilot’s course in light-engine aeroplanes…. Thanks to her diver’s experience, Anastasia got her nickname “Mermaid”.

The annexation of Crimea and the beginning of the war in Donbass found her as head sommelier in a trendy Moscow restaurant called Fahrenheit. This outspoken woman has repeatedly criticised the Kremlin. After the annexation of Crimea, her personal opinions didn’t find favour with her employers; they tried to stop her speaking out on social media. And here Anastasia decided to do something that few men would have the guts to do. She quit her prestigious Moscow job and volunteered as a paramedic in Ukraine, with which Russia was practically waging a hybrid war. From May to October 2015, Anastasia taught more than three thousand Ukrainian soldiers, first aid to themselves, and then their fellow soldiers.

In the winter of that year, Anastasia became the heroine of Russian and Ukrainian news. The Ukrainian Security Service arrested six Russians and Ukrainians suspected of preparing terrorist acts. The main suspect fought back and was shot while being arrested, and the paramedic who happened to know him ended up in a pre-trial detention centre for several months. After five months there were no grounds for her detention, and Anastasia was released, but even after seven years the case is still technically open. This circumstance, combined with her Russian citizenship, still prevents her from signing a contract, and she is in the ranks of the UAF as a volunteer.

In 2016, Anastasia returned to the world of wine, and most recently worked as an export manager for a small winery called Biologist. When the latest war with Russia started, she was living in Kiev. The night before, she had picked up her cat from the clinic; it had been sick after surgery. She only slept for a few hours. First the cat woke her up, and then the sound of explosions. From there on, everything flashed like frames in a movie: backpack, basement, neighbours, relatives, ATM…  For the first few hours Anastasia coordinated volunteers in chat rooms, where some helped others with food and medicine. Soon she received a call from a fellow doctor – his friends from the volunteer battalion needed training in tactical medicine. Anastasia went to the fighters to conduct their training, but the curfew prevented her from returning home. She stayed in the battalion, first for one evening and then for five months.

During those months, Anastasia trained every single volunteer in the battalion, manned first-aid kits, unpacked tons of humanitarian aid, and distributed hundreds of kilograms of medicines to civilians. At first, her battalion was stationed near Kyiv, where Anastasia helped the first wounded member of their unit. Only the next morning did she learn that she’d been under mortar fire while rescuing a wounded comrade.

A month ago, their unit was transferred to the army and sent to the front lines, where Anastasia serves as a paramedic.  At various stages, she and her colleagues are helping other soldiers directly in combat, evacuating the wounded, stabilising their condition, and sending them back to relative safety. She hasn’t worn heels, a dress or makeup for months; instead she has bruised knees, a sore back and does her manicure with a knife. Because of her Russian passport and that open criminal case, Anastasia has not yet signed a contract with the Armed Forces of Ukraine.. She fights without receiving a penny from the state, although money is barely needed on the front line. Friends donate money for her to buy cigarettes and coffee. One guy gave her a helmet. The co-owner of the Biologist winery where she worked before the war gave her an armoured vest. Such are the gifts of war time.

“When you know that all your fellow men are giving their all for our common victory – it becomes easier to work 20 hours a day”, says Anastasia.

Despite the difficult relationship with the state, she admires the Ukrainians, their ability to unite, to act independently without orders from above. She was the first medic in the battalion, where many were not military personnel and had never served in the army. But thanks to the mutual support, they have learned quickly. One of Anastasia’s unit officers told her that he had never had so many friends in his life. And she agrees that when scary things are happening around her, that kind of support helps keep her functioning and not go crazy.

Informal Ambassador of Ukrainian wine

Anna-Eugenia Yanchenko likes to talk about cool people and great wines, but she herself deserves a separate story. Although she does not have as many champion trophies on her shelves as her titled colleagues, 50,000 people subscribe to her blog “Sommelier in green pants”. Perhaps the title “wine energiser” fits her best, inspiring those around her with her enthusiasm. Last year she wrote a book, “Wine Without Rules,” the title of which conveys her desire to make the wine world more open.

Her get up and go is typical of many Ukrainians. While in Tbilisi in Georgia earlier this year, Anna met the organisers of a charity fair whose proceeds went to support Ukraine. She didn’t have a bottle of Ukrainian wine, but she had determination and a few contacts. Together with Irakli Mgalobishvili of NTA Wines, they collected bottles from local artisanal producers. Anbani Wine, Lapauri, Makaridze Winery, and Kortavebis Marani donated their wines in support. The fair featured an imaginary Freedom Wine Bar, where Irakli and Anna talked about wine, and their photographer friend Victoria Sushan sold postcards with views of Kiev.

At the end of July Anna held a tasting of Ukrainian wine in Odessa. Unfortunately, the word “tasting” fails to capture the spirit of the event. Imagine a city with two dozen cruise missiles fired at it in the previous week. Imagine winemakers affected by war. Imagine restaurant guests whose income was cut in half. And now please imagine these winemakers, these guests and these restaurateurs holding a tasting event, the proceeds of which went to buy a drone for the 28th Separate Mechanised Brigade that defends the roads to Nikolaev-Kherson direction and Odessa. In addition to such offline events, Anna conducts virtual workshops, writes for Jancis Robinson. Nothing, it seems, can stop her.

Sommelier marksman

Anatoly Khodakovsky

Anatoly Khodakovsky’s path as a sommelier began back in 2003 in Kviv. He had worked for a wine trading company, then in restaurants, before moving to Baku, Azerbaijan, to launch restaurants for the presidential Aliyev family. As a sommelier, he travelled around the globe, visiting many wine regions and wineries. During his trips, the dream of creating his own family winery occurred to him and called him back home. In 2019, he bought a small plot near Kiev, where he planted 650 vines of Chardonnay and Traminer.

But then his colleagues stepped in. The chef sommelier of the La Familia restaurant group offered him a position in a new venue. A fish restaurant called Catch Seafood was going to introduce a new dimension to the Kiev restaurant scene. Anatoly’s job was to create a wine list to match the calibre of the cooking. Catch has unique seafood: blue tuna, crabs and lobsters. Its wine list has more than 200 Champagnes, not to mention white Burgundies, Mosels and other classics. Anatoly vividly describes the joy on the faces of his new customers. Trying Roger Coulon Réserve de l’Hommée Premier Cru in Lehmann Synergie glasses, or Benoît Déhu Cuvée de L’Orme in Mark Thomas took their perceptions of Champagne to a new level. Anatoly struggled to find a balance between keeping gems like Philipponnat Clos de Goisses 1995 and Salon 1997 on his list and making sure that 80% of the wines sold regularly.

On February 24th, Anatoly was on the point of evacuating historic vintages from the restaurant’s cellar. A few weeks before, Catch’s management had developed a war-time business strategy. The staff were instructed to fill their cars, and have cash, clothes and their documents to hand. But the outbreak of war was more brutal than they had imagined. The evacuation of wine was out of the question. Instead, Anatoly fled with his family to their house 100 kilometres away. It was the longest journey of his life, taking nine hours: traffic jams, the explosions of incoming missiles, anti-aircraft launches and dozens of roadblocks….

Having taken his nearest and dearest to safety, Anatoly joined the territorial defence force. They controlled roadblocks, dealt with security behind the lines and watched videos of rocket attacks. They could not believe that such barbarism was possible in the 21st century.  When Russian troops retreated from Kiev and the authorities allowed the restaurants to open again, Anatoly could have returned to his job. But after the horrors of Bucha and Irpen, he couldn’t face it. Once he’d set up the restaurant, he went to the military enlistment office on May 10.

Anatoly had not served in the army before. Together with other recruits, they were sent to a training camp in Nemirov, 11 kilometres from the Polish border. The proximity to NATO troops was no guarantee of safety: their camp had previously been hit by rocket fire, so they lived in tents. He was assigned to the position of self-propelled gunner, and his strongest motivation was that his and his comrades’ lives depended on the accuracy of his work. His new friends called him to join the 72nd brigade. It was named “Black Zaporozhtsy” after Cavalry Division of the 2nd Zaporozhye Regiment that defend Ukrainian Republic from Soviet aggression in 1918-20. In 2022, their successors repelled the Russian attack on Kiev from Brovary. Anatoly immediately agreed to join the legendary unit.

Anatoly has exchanged a sommelier’s screwpull for an artillery compass. After weeks of training and exams, their unit headed to the hellish battlefield near Bakhmut. Russian troops are attacking that city from the north and south, trying to encircle Ukrainian forces. The previous crew of the self-propelled gun, whose place was taken by Anatoly and his colleagues, didn’t manage to evade return fire. The gunner was killed. Their crew, like all Ukrainian troops, has a limited supply of shells, and they fire one shot per dozen enemy rounds. There are two minutes to shoot and leave the position before the counter-battery radar detects it. But despite all difficulties, Anatoly’s team has so far cheated death. They have damaged the enemy and destroyed one of its headquarters.

There is one thing that, to Anatoly, unites the restaurant business and the brothers-in-arms on the battlefield.  As in a restaurant, the strongest motivation are the people surrounding him. It is the enthusiasm of those who set out to make one of the best restaurants in the country and inspired their colleagues with their faith. It is the belief in victory of those who voluntarily risk their lives in battle. It is the gratitude of those who remain behind the lines, as well as the support from friends in other countries that keep them going.

If you would like to help those affected by the war, you can do so directly through these Ukrainian foundations, all recommended by Ukrainian colleagues.

Come Back Alive gathers equipment and gear for the Ukrainian army – thermal imaging cameras, drones, and satellite phones.

Tabletochki buys medicine for seriously ill people, including cancer patients who have lost access to regular treatment.

Shelter Friend rescues animals who have lost their homes and their owners because of war.

Main photo by Daniele Franchi and Unsplash

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