Russian reasons for ban on Georgian, Moldovan wines

07/ 04/ 2006

MOSCOW, (RIA Novosti economic commentator Vasily Zubkov) Gennady
Onishchenko, Russia's chief sanitary inspector, suggested that the Federal
Customs Service ban the import and sale of Moldovan and Georgian wines. 

He said they contained pesticides, including the toxic Classes II and III. 

This is a serious measure, especially because two-thirds of the 400 million
liters of wine imported to Russia last year were made in Moldova and
Georgia. Wine is their main export commodity and Russia is their main
client. Wine exports provide the bulk of their revenues in the form of taxes
and duties. But somewhere in their race for profits, Moldova and Georgia
started neglecting quality because quantity is their goal. 

Using the law and effective legislation, the health authorities of Russia
several times denied admission to low-quality and counterfeit products. The
protection of the domestic market has become their routine and generally
accepted job. They have banned imports of meat and frozen chicken, fruit and
vegetables and cut flowers. This time they set their inquisitive eyes on
wine. 

None of the countries whose produce was denied entry to Russia appealed
against that decision, though Dutch flowers are a billion-dollar business.
And none of them questioned the competence of Russian inspectors. On the
contrary, such temporary bans help expose the drawbacks and eventually
improve the quality of the products, which benefits all parties. 

The price of the issue of Moldovan and Georgian wines is very high.
According to the National Alcohol Association of Russia, 600 railroad cars
carrying wine are standing on the border. Together with the wine that is
being removed from store shelves, companies stand to lose $600-$700 million,
the association experts say. But importers are saying nothing about the
health hazards of such low-quality wines. 

Last year, 36,000 Russians died of poisoning with low-quality alcohol,
mostly imported. The only way to lower this dangerous rate is to strengthen
control over imports, which the relevant authorities have done - though
somewhat belatedly. 

Many Russian businessmen welcome this measure. Pavel Shapkin, president of
the Alcohol Association, supported the authorities' decision to improve
quality control, but said the policy should be balanced and should not
hinder Russian consumers from getting quality products from neighboring
countries. According to recent data, the consumption of vodka is on the
decline, whereas the consumption of grape wines is growing. 

Igor Bukharov, the head of the Federation of Restaurateurs and Hoteliers of
Russia, said on the radio station Ekho Moskvy that the bulk of Moldovan and
Georgian wines sold in Russia were counterfeit. He said a wide range of
wines could be imported at the same price from Europe and Latin America. 

Harsh measures taken to protect the Russian market are the result, but what
about the reasons? Stalin's favorite wine, Khvanchkara, is made of grapes
grown on small vineyards in the Ambrolauri district of the Racha-Lechkhumi
region of Georgia. Georgian experts admit that less than 400,000 liters of
genuine Khvanchkara is made a year. More than a half of this rare wine is
consumed in Georgia and the rest is sold in small batches to Europe and the
United States. 

Paradoxically, Khvanchkara is one of the top three wines in Russian imports,
which means millions of bottles. It is delivered even from Moldova, which
allegedly buys wine materials in the Caucasus, though the last small batch
of wine materials was delivered from Georgia to Moldova six years ago. 

The same is true of another rare wine, Kindzmarauli, made in Kakhetia.
Grapes for this wine are grown on a small patch of only 2 million square
meters and nearly all of this wine is consumed in Georgia. But Russia
imports a full river of this wine, which is sold at relatively high prices
even in small settlements far from Moscow. 

In 2005, Georgia exported about 60 million bottles of wine, including 70% to
Russia, which is nearly double the 2004 figure. However, there are no
statistics on a proportionate increase in vineyards. 

Last year, nine batches of Khvanchkara and four batches of Kindzmarauli were
outlawed in a random inspection of 24,000 bottles of Georgian wines in
Tatarstan, a republic of Russia, because the wine contained synthetic
colors. 

That inspection also revealed 51,000 bottles of counterfeit wines from
Moldova, mostly Merlot, Isabella, Lidia, etc. Moldovan wines make up more
than 50% of Russian imports (about 15 million bottles a month). But the
volume of Moldovan wine imports is going down (by more than 5% last year)
because Moldovan wines have nearly become synonymous with bad quality. 

Counterfeits of famous wine brands have been sold in many regions of Russia
in the last few years. The main complaints about some batches of Moldovan
wine are the failure to comply with technical documents, the presence of
synthetic flavors and colors, a tartaric deposit and an unpleasant taste. 

Valery Loginov, president of the Union of Vine Growers and Winemakers of
Russia, said some Moldovan producers were putting too much artificial color
in their wines and violated the norms of organoleptic and physical-chemical
properties. In 2005, nearly half a million bottles of wine were confiscated
in Moscow because of improper wine microbiology. 

In the past, experts from the main laboratory of the State Customs Committee
of Russia said bottles with bright labels frequently contained wine
byproducts "improved" by artificial flavor and color, sugar, essences and
alcohol, which explains the brown dregs at the bottom of the bottles. It was
impossible to fight such imports because they legally passed customs as the
group of "original" wines, though they are termed "fermented wines" in
international practice. Winemakers recommend a way of distinguishing a
genuine grape wine from counterfeit wines: pour a drop of wine on a napkin;
if the dark red color in the center is surrounded by nearly transparent
color, the wine is counterfeit. 

The wine situation has been deteriorating for a long time, but it became
critical when the sanitary inspectorate carried out a sweeping inspection
across the country from March 27 to April 3 of this year. 

The agency inspected 465 samples from the nine main wine exporting
countries, including 191 from Moldova and 153 from Georgia. It turned out
that the organoleptic and chemical properties of 98 Moldovan and 86 Georgian
wines did not correspond to the norm. Moreover, 24 samples from Moldova and
16 from Georgia contained insecticides and pesticides that had been
prohibited more than 30 years ago as health hazards, such as DDT, aldrin,
heptachlor and HCH. 

Acting on these results, the Russian sanitary authorities halted the sale of
these wines, including 37,000 liters of wines from Moldova and 8,000 liters
of wine from Georgia in Moscow alone. 

Russia has been fighting counterfeit products for a long time and the
current ban on the import and sale of Moldovan and Georgian wines was not a
political decision, as the two countries claim, but an issue directly
bearing on the nation's health. 

The Russian authorities have now complemented the ban with an embargo on the
imports of Moldovan and Georgian brandies and sparkling wines