Romania’s wine route, and its business model, is quite different from the ones in Western Europe, but interesting in its own right, as well as somewhat challenging
Romania is working hard on its tourist appeal, and one of the attractions being developed is the Prahova Valley Wine Route. An initiative not wasted on us, as you may have expected. Internet resources – there is no tourist information in Ploiesti, the nearest larger town, essentially because there are no tourist attractions to speak of, in Ploiesti -, provided some information, either praising the wine route, the Drumul Vinului, in general, or highlighting the individual estates. No detailed map, just a group of villages lined up from Filipesti in the west to Tohani in the east. There is a slight concern, in most wine houses require three days notice, and a minimum group size of 4, or 5, or 8, or even 20. But hey, what can go wrong if you just knock on the door?
The previous day, driving to Ploiesti, we had already scouted the western part of the route, which wasn’t very promising. No grapes along the road, no wine houses promoting their wares – don’t expect anything like Burgundy or the Alsace. But with a few firm addresses is our GPS system, we decided to give the route another try and picked up where we left, in Baicoi. Here we had spotted a sign pointing to the Drumul Vinului. Which turned out to be the last sign for a while. We did find a wine shop, one where you buy wine by the plastic bottle, from a barrel, but the owner vehemently denied that she was part of the wine route, that was somewhere else.
So we decided to head to our first firm address, Casa Seciu, which in fact turned out to be a restaurant located on a hill overlooking not only wine country – the first grapes of the wine route! -, but also an oilfield: nodding donkeys every few hundred meters, in between the vines. The wine here probably tastes somewhat crude. Despite being advertised as a Complex Turistica, it took a while for somebody to appear, and talk to us, initially every employee ran away as soon as they saw us arriving. Wine tasting? Yes, of course, Casa Seciu arranges wine tastings. For groups of 20 people or more, you get five or six wines to taste, from white to red to sweet dessert wine, no choice, and you pay 5 Euro per person. So what if we are only the two of us, can we still taste? Of course we can, only, we will have to buy each of the bottles we want to try, before opening them. The idea that this defied the whole reason for wine tasting didn’t ring home.
But from here things got better. For starters, we managed to pick up the signs for the wine route again, only to lose them after a few more junctions, they just vanished. To miraculously reappear along the motorway, when we are heading for Valea Calugariasca, another wine village in our GPS. The motorway is part of the wine route! The closest the motorway comes to contributing to the wine route, is providing a space for the sellers of grapes along the shoulder, inviting enough for cars and trucks to stop – which they typically do half on the shoulder, half on the motorway.
Still no wineries. Finally, at the village of Urlati, we see Halewood Wines signposted, amongst two or three other wine houses. The others we fail to find, but Halewood turnes out to be a slick, well-organised business, part of an international wine conglomerate. Our host first takes us into the cellar, where she pipets some wine from one of the many oak barrels into a few glasses, for us to try. Excellent stuff, made from the indigenous Romanian grape Fateasca Neagra. From here it is to the tasting room, where we are presented with no less than five different wines, all of them of prime quality. No choice, unfortunately, we can only taste the five bottles that are open, but at least we don’t need to get a group of 20 together. Undisciplined as we are, we buy three boxes. Of course, we are still required to pay for the tasting, as well. As I said, this is not Burgundy or the Alsace.
Yet things are getting better still. Next, we arrive at the estate of Mihail Rotenberg, who happens to be there, himself. Mihail is a very interesting character, clearly passionate about his wine. Harvest is in full swing, but he still manages to make time for us, show us around and enthusiastically tell us about his hobby, wine making. In his own words, he tries to recreate a past that never was: although Romania has been producing wine for thousands of years, it was never done with sufficient patience and dedication, and he tries to turn that around, and go back to the roots of wine making. Everything – almost everything – is done manually, using the gravity to separate the liquid from the most, then store the wine in hand-made oak barrels of 225 liters each – he claims that even though each barrel is hand-made, the contents doesn’t vary by more than 1 or 2 liters! -, and once matured to the required taste, guide the wine to a simple bottling device. 120,000 bottles a year, no more, and Merlot only, sometimes mixed with a little Cabernet Franc, just like in the Bordeaux. Unfortunately, the tasting facilities are out of order – the lady who manages this part of the business is celebrating a birthday somewhere else, and the rest of the staff is too busy with processing the harvest -, but Mihail gives us two bottles, to try in our hotel room. Which we did, with great pleasure.
At the other end of the wine production process is Budareasca, a hyper-modern estate near the village of Mizil. By now it is close to 5 pm, and the people are about to go home, but one of the managers – with equal enthusiasm and pride as demonstrated by Mr. Rotenberg – takes us on a quick round of the premises, to show his ‘state-of-the-art’ wine factory, where everything is automated. Budareasca can handle 3 million liters a year, and a series of huge steel vats testify to that. Here, too, we don’t get to taste the wine. We are late, on a Friday afternoon, but even so, I suspect that two people would not be enough to trigger the tasting process, groups of 4-7 people are the minimum, 8 during the weekend, and once again notice is required. But the brand-new building is exquisitely equipped to receive groups, with large tables in a central hall, from where the oak barrels down below are visible. All very business-like, very professional, although it misses the human touch a bit. By now we begin to understand that the business model of the wineries here is not to make you taste in order to stimulate sales, no, the tasting itself is what makes the money.
The last part of the wine route, which is very well signposted, is the nicest, most beautiful also. Here the hills start rolling, and vine yards extend as far as the eye can see, a pretty picture in the later afternoon sunlight. The Tohani winery is the one furthest east, and is closed already when we arrive. It is no doubt another ‘state-of-the-art’ enterprise, but in their back yard I find some jewels of long gone times, which I assume are for display purposes only.
Back in the village of Mizel we find a Tohani wineshop, a small enterprise where wine is being sold from the barrel. This is where the average Romanian comes, with his empty plastic bottle of 1 or 2 or 5 liters, and receives a top-up, for 1.5 Euros a liter. The shop owner is very relaxed about wine tasting. No fancy rooms here, no fancy tables. No glasses either, we get some wine presented from the barrel, in small plastic cups. On the house, of course! Great stuff, at an unbeatable price. We buy another few boxes.
Next: to Iasi, the capital of the Romanian province Moldavia