THERE'S A NEW WINE on the market from an old source, and it's a bargain. It is Trakia's 1978 Special Vintage cabernet sauvignon, selling for under a smooth, imminently drinkable red from Bulgaria, with some age and finesse. Don't confuse it with Trakia's regular cab at half the price and little similarity in quality. The Special Vintage is apparently just that -- the product of good fruit that received some unusually careful handling in Bulgaria's state-owned vineyards and wineries.
It is brought to you by PepsiCo, whose foremost product is not wine but cola, and thereby hangs an interesting tale of international finance. Pepsi concentrate goes to Eastern Europe, where the drink generates capital, but Pepsico has no interest in being paid in Eastern European currency, almost worthless in the West. So instead PepsiCo takes wine in payment, not just from Bulgaria but also from Romania (Premiat), and Hungary (Duna). It is sold here by Monsieur Henri, formerly a PepsiCo subsidiary and now an independent marketer of PepsiCo wines and spirits from all over the world.
One problem with Eastern European wine sold in the United States
has been wide fluctuations in quality. State-owned industrial wineries
in communist countries pose supervision problems for trade partners.
Premiat's cabernet, for instance,
represented good value for the
money a few years ago, and then
went through a period of unpalatability that PepsiCo blames on Romanian negligence. "They sent us some less good wine," said a PepsiCo spokesperson. "We gave them a stern talking to." Premiat's quality has improved somewhat.
Now PepsiCo sends its own enologist regularly to Bulgaria to look into Trakia's operations. Trakia refers to Thrace, an ancient civilization in the land that became Bulgaria, where wine has been made since classical times, with a brief four- century interruption at the hands of the occupying Turks. It has its own grape varieties -- mavrud, an intense red, being the most renowned -- and European varietals like cabernet, riesling and chardonnay. The latter will bring Bulgaria into greater prominence in the wine-drinking world because of western tastes, although the native wines of Eastern Europe are good and generally neglected here.
Bulgaria is already among the top dozen producers in the world in quantity, and is moving back up the quality scale. Eighty percent of the wineries are owned by the state, but some are fairly independent operations, with control over their own vineyard land and the wine-making and aging proc them "state bottled.") Steady improvements in viticulture and the introduction of modern vinicultural techniques and equipment have improved consistency of these commercially exported varieties. This all redounds to the consumer's advantage.
Some people draw the line at buying wine from Soviet satellites; I would argue against the ideological palate. Wine should transcend politics, and then there's the practical view. By financially propping up its Eastern European neighbors, Russia is indirectly subsidizing the American wine drinker. In this case -- Trakia's '78 Special Vintage cab in exchange for cola -- we are certainly getting the best of the bargain.