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Moldova Reaps a Bitter Harvest

One of the poorest nations in Europe holds a cache of great wealth, a vast underground winery. But the people remain desperate.

October 26, 2003|William J. Kole | Associated Press Writer

CRICOVA, Moldova — Deep in Moldova's vast underground wine city, near the intersection of Cabernet Street and Pinot Boulevard, the first man in space had a cosmic experience popping corks and emptying bottles.

"Those who produce this wine deserve all the gold on Earth -- and if this is not enough, I'll go to the moon or to other planets to get some more," the late Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin said after an all-night tasting in 1966.

His well-lubricated words are scrawled on a framed photograph that hangs outside the lavish, goblet-shaped subterranean tasting salon of the state-owned Cricova Winery.

Its millions of dust-caked bottles of vintage wines and champagnes are a Cold War-era cache of immense wealth stashed well out of sight of the down-and-out in Europe's poorest country.

"The economy is in dire straits. I can feel it," said Grigore Luchian, 42, a baker in the nearby capital of Chisinau, where many people grumble about corruption and a do-nothing bureaucracy in the former Soviet republic.

Cricova's marble, oak and stained-glass opulence stands in contrast to the daily struggle for survival that plays out 260 feet above its musty 40-mile labyrinth of wine-laden tunnels.

The average Moldovan earns just $50 a month. Aching poverty has prompted thousands of young women to eke out a living in the sex trade. Other Moldovans are involved in smuggling arms, drugs and cigarettes.

"It's a tough neighborhood," said William Hill, head of the Moldova mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. "Some have called it Europe's largest illegal duty-free shop."

With crime and corruption come acts of desperation: In July, a doctor was arrested for helping a man sell one of his kidneys in Turkey, for $4,000.

Up to 1 million of Moldova's 4.5 million people have taken menial jobs in other countries. The cash they send home to their families each year exceeds the government's $600-million budget, international aid agencies say.

"The population is unemployed, unhealthy and uneducated," Hill said. "You wonder how long this can last before Moldova becomes more sub-Saharan African than European."

Enter Cricova, which produces satiny merlots and cabernet sauvignons, crisp chardonnays and pinot blancs, and dry champagnes that few ordinary Moldovans can afford to sample.

Guided tours of what's billed as the world's largest underground winery, which doubled as a bunker for top officials during the Cold War, are by appointment only and cost $25 -- two weeks' average take-home pay.

"We have a saying: 'The state comes only to take, not to give,' " guide Tatiana Ursu said.

She hustles visitors past the collection of trophy wines, a jumble of bottles with an average value of $3,000. They include a stack of 1935 Moselles from the personal stash Hermann Goering, the Luftwaffe commander and crony of Adolf Hitler.

The real stars are the local wines, made from grapes grown in a temperate climate in soil so fertile that it is almost jet black.

Some experts say a little Western-style promotion could expand sales in the West and turn wine into an economic boon for Moldova. Currently, roughly 60% of Cricova's wine is sold to Russia.

In recent years, Moldovan wines have held their own in prestigious international competitions against the best from France, California, Australia and elsewhere.

Moldova became the first former Soviet state to elect a communist as its president in 2001. Its government, languishing on the fringes of Europe and at times appearing torn between East and West, sees no irony in the contrast between its wine wealth and its residents' poverty.

"I don't think 'desperately poor' is the exact situation in which Moldova is today," President Vladimir Voronin, said in written comments. "Despite a high percentage of people who call themselves poor, there is a much greater proportion of people who believe in tomorrow. Our people have not lost their hope in a better future."

Voronin sees prominent roles in that future for Cricova, which he calls "Moldova's calling card."

Hundreds of locals labor underground, turning inverted bottles by hand on wooden racks that stretch as far as the eye can see. The tunnels are cold and claustrophobic, damp and dark.

"They've gotten used to it, even though a person is like an insect down here in this immense place," said Ursu, the guide. "A plus is that they can have a glass of cabernet every now and then down here. It boosts their morale and spirits."

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