Artwinery Shares its Story from the Front Lines of the War in Ukraine

Artwinery. Ukrainian. Heroic.

Support the Heroes of the Ukrainian Wine Industry in Their Fight for Survival

Part 1: A Terrible Decision to Make

It’s March 16, 2022, and I am finally in telephone contact with Artwinery’s export manager, Nathalie Lysenko. Nathalie is standing in her bathtub in her apartment in Kyiv. 

“It is the safest place”, she tells me. I can hear the air-raid sirens wailing in the background. 

“They’re sounding all the time now”, she tells me. I hear an explosion. 

“The bastards are bombing 10 kilometers away”, she tells me and continues “So what are we going to do about your next wine order?”

What she doesn’t tell me is that she’s 9 months pregnant. Much later I find out she gave birth to a beautiful baby boy, Nazar, on April 5th. By that time over 7 million Ukrainian refugees had fled to neighboring countries. She and her family aren’t among them. Nathalie chose to stay along with many other Artwinery employees both in the head office in Kyiv and the winery in Bakhmut, now on the front lines in the Donbas region.

Bakhmut is currently under attack as this article is being published.

Their fight for survival, both personal and economic, is gut-wrenching. In the last week the discussion of a terrible decision – whether to destroy 50 million bottles of aging sparkling wine reposing in Artwinery’s historic gypsum caves to keep them out of the hands of the advancing Russians.

50 Million Bottles Underground at Artwinery in Ukraine, Donbas
50 million bottles of sparkling wine rest beneath the surface of the earth in Artwinery’s historic gypsum caves in Bakhmut, Donbas, Ukraine. The producer must now decide whether or not to destroy the bottles to keep them out of the hands of the Russians.

Artwine in Ukraine. Artwine in America.

It’s March 4, 2020 and our Rhode Island wine import and distribution company, Saperavi USA, is making its debut at VinExpo, New York, America’s largest wine tradeshow. We are hearing about a virus, “COVID-19”, coming from China, but it seems very far away. Besides, the wine tradeshow is exhilarating, and our booth, sometimes 5 people thick, has caught the interest of the likes of Total Wine & More, Carnival Cruise Lines, and MJ – the Michael Jackson musical. 

My co-founder and I take a brief respite to walk around the massive tradeshow. Down one of the aisles, she pauses, looks to her right, and says, “That woman over there is calling to us in Russian.” After a Russian/political science degree and seven years of living and working in Russia, I agree. And so, we meet Nathalie Lysenko, export manager, Igor Tolkachov, general manager, and other members of the Artwinery team.

They are from Bakhmut, Ukraine representing the world’s deepest sparkling winery (236 feet underground), the pride of the former Soviet sparkling wine industry, and the most popular Ukrainian sparkling wine brand. Their wines are made using an intricate process called Méthode Traditionnelle—the same expensive, time-consuming, and time-honored approach used to make the best French Champagne.

They haven’t had much success at VinExpo mostly because most attendees don’t know about Ukraine and its 2,500-year-old winemaking tradition. Their glittering sparkling wines, however, sing for themselves. We are hooked. We make plans to get samples and import Ukrainian wine. We warmly toast the destiny that brought us together, our future friendship, and our business partnership.

Our friendship and business partnership solidified working through COVID’s adversity. We learn more about Artwinery’s fascinating history and wine-making process. In 1880, engineer Edmund Farke signed a contract with the government of Bakhmut in Eastern Ukraine to construct alabaster factories. The extraction of gypsum for the thriving factories created a 60-acre cave system 236 feet underground with a perfect microclimate for producing sparkling wines. 

On his birthday in 1950, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin commanded the establishment of Artwinery to create Soviet sparkling wines in the labor-intensive Méthode Traditionnelle to match the French. Delicate and superb, this wine quickly became the hardest-to-find sparkling wine in the Soviet Union. Reserved for high-level party workers and foreign dignitaries, it was off-limits and unavailable to ordinary citizens.

With independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the winery was able to create sparkling wines under its own brand – Artemivske. Artemivske, named after Artemis, the Greek goddess of nature and fertility, quickly became one of the most beloved Ukrainian brands.  Increased demand in Ukraine and Eastern Europe saw the creation of the premium brand, Artwine, and the ultra-premium brand, Soloking. Artwinery’s underground inventory swelled to 50 million bottles.

Sampling Artwinery’s wines, made possible through DHL and Zoom, we choose to import seven wines. In late February 2021, we toast the successful arrival of a container of Ukraine’s best sparkling wine, Artwine and Soloking, into our Rhode Island warehouse – the first in America.

Artwinery Sparkling Wines
Beautiful selections of Sparkling Wines we tried from Artwinery at a tasting last year.

Wine Against War

Our lives change forever on February 24, 2022. 

For the first three weeks we are in a state of shock and disbelief, communicating, when possible, through WhatsApp and Telegram. Then, finally, on March 16th I get through by telephone to Nathalie. She speaks confidently and calmly despite the thunderous clamor of war surrounding her. I tell her not to worry about the next wine shipment, to focus on keeping herself and her family safe and maybe come to Rhode Island. 

She adopts her defiant President’s “I need ammunition, not a ride” stance.

“We must keep working. We will win this war and what will there be for us, if we do not keep making wine and sending it to you?” she chides me. In 2021, Nathalie managed the export of nearly a million bottles of wine, primarily to Germany, Israel, and some other EU countries. She is proud of the contract with Saperavi USA, for the opportunity for Americans to taste Artwine.

Artwinery employs about 1,000 people, the majority women. At the start of the war, many of the men, like general manager Igor Tolkachov, joined the Ukrainian territorial defense forces. While Kyiv was under attack, the winery worked to fulfill orders from Germany that were in the pipeline before February. By April, three trucks safely made the trip from Bakhmut through Poland to Germany, creating a new supply chain line through Germany to Boston.

The victory in Kyiv and the north has been tempered by Ukrainian losses in the east. On May 17th, Russian forces struck a building in Bakhmut, killing one person and injuring a child. Starting on June 1st, Artwinery suspended operations as workers sought underground shelter or fled the area. About 300 employees remain in Bakhmut, including accountants and lawyers. As food and water became scarce in the ensuing weeks of relentless shelling, Artwinery’s delivery trucks are repurposed to send food, water, and humanitarian aid to Bakhmut.

War in Ukraine: Wine Bottles Await their Fate
Millions of bottles await their fate as the Russians advance on Bakhmut.

Wine At War

The Russians are well-aware of the 50 million bottles of sparkling wine aging peacefully 236 feet underground in the 60 acres of caves on the eastern edge of Bakhmut. Russians, like most people, enjoy and celebrate with sparkling wine. Similar sanctions on the Soviet Union that led to the formation of Artwinery in 1950 (no Champagne, Prosecco, or Cava exports to Russia) make Artwinery prized wartime booty. 

“There’s a circle around the winery – a bomb-free zone.” Nathalie tells me in our weekly telephone call. “The bastards are coming for the wine, but we are deciding whether or not to destroy it.” 

50 million bottles. 1,000 employees. Countless lives.

Part 2 is forthcoming. Please consider supporting Artwinery and the heroes of the Ukrainian wine industry – contact [email protected]. Proceeds are sent directly to Ukraine to support Artwinery, its workers, and Ukrainian wine industry vendors.

Images courtesy Artwinery.


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