From tennis star, to winemaker, to defending Ukraine in the war against Russia. Interview with Sergiy Stakhovsky

(Adnkronos) - A man of many hats, Ukrainian tennis player Sergiy Stakhovsky made his debut on the international scene in 2003, achieving his greatest victory in 2013 at Wimbledon, where he beat Roger Federer in 4 sets. In 2015 he added winemaking to his pursuits, creating his own winery in Zakarpattia where he currently produces three wine varieties, mostly from international grapes and Saperavi, a native Caucasian grape. He retired from his sports career in January, but with the outbreak of the war between Russia and Ukraine he decided to take up arms, enlisting in his country’s territorial defense.

In this exclusive interview, he spoke to us about his path from the earliest contact with wine, in Bordeaux, to the idea to take up winemaking, up to the dramatic, recent months and the decision to join the first line of defense against the attack launched against Ukraine by the Kremlin.

Where are you and what is the situation like where you are?

Right now I’m in Bratislava, Slovakia, where we just sent the first shipment of our wines from Ukraine. It’s our first time doing this because the prime target of our winery was always the domestic Ukrainian market. Unfortunately, now we have to completely refocus, which is not easy because there are lots of bureaucratic and logistic issues - how to get the wine inside Europe, for instance. It takes time, so this was our first shipment, and it had quite a few delays.

However, we’ve managed to keep production going. We are fortunate enough because the region where we produce our wines has not really been damaged. Four weeks ago, a missile hit a railway station 60 km from us, but that’s the closest we’ve been to the war zone. Of course, half of my employees at the winery were drafted, so not many can actually work, but we’re still trying to keep up cultivation, which is currently our main focus.

We’re also looking for bottles. It’s been extremely hard because our producer - the Vetropark facility in the outskirts of Kiyv, which I believe was also producing a lot for Europe - was bombed and destoyed completely, which certainly contributed to the shortage in terms of glass.

Going back, why did you decide to become a winemaker, and why did you choose the area of Zakarpattia ?

I played in Bordeaux and lived there for a number of years. It’s a nice city but everybody there drinks, and I wasn’t much of a drinker at the time - I didn’t even like the taste of alcohol. Even now, as a wine producer, drinking for me isn’t about the alcoholic content, it’s about trying to discover the wine’s structure, the region, the age, the acidity - it’s like a puzzle you’re trying to solve, and in this sense for me it’s also like a competition.

But in terms of hard liquor, beer - drinking was never my thing.

My teammates were mostly French or Flemish, so all French-speaking players, and on my first day in the club someone brought in a bottle of wine and placed it on the table. Everyone started talking about what to do and how to drink it, while I had no idea. They asked me if I wanted to drink and I said no, because we had a match the next day. Their reply was “you don’t want to drink? Goodbye, then”. From then on, they only spoke in French, and of course they didn’t stop at one bottle but drank two. I wasn’t feeling confident. Nobody talked to me, and I didn’t speak a word of French at the time, so I was completely left out. The next day, the day of the match, things were better: we had lunch and everybody was communicating in English, but then dinner came, and another bottle of wine, and again I was left out. So, on the third day, I said “You know what, guys? I want to communicate with my team and be part of this, so pour me a glass. I’m not sure I’m going to like it but I’ll give it a try”. That was my first approach to wine.

The thing I fell in love with from the beginning was the culture of wine and its consumption, as well as the tasting: when you compare different vintages, different regions. I was shocked that the French people have such a deep knowledge in terms of wine. These were quite high-ranking tennis players, at the time, and I was surprised that they consumed wine in such large quantities.

At the end of the first week of the championship the team’s president also pointed out that our sponsors were all the Grand Crus of Bordeaux - Margaux, Cheval Blanc, Lafite-Rothschild. This enabled me to visit different Chateaus and learn more about how wine is made.

In the beginning I was a consumer. They told me “buy a bottle of Bordeaux, take it home for 8-10 years and then drink it”, so for the first few years I just bought a lot of wine and tasted it. I had to develop my palate, because back then I really had no idea.

I probably bought between 180 and 200 bottles in one year. Knowing about this passion of mine, my father-in-law spurred me to open my own wine enterprise in Zakarpattia, where he already had business ties, but to me, back then, wine didn’t seem compatible with professional tennis. Playing in Bordeaux for 11 years, however, I had many acquaintances who dealt in wine and most of them told me I should give it a try, and that they would help me.

So, in 2015, I rented some land in Zakarpattia where they’d already been growing wine, and we spent all of 2016 caring for the plots which had been left somewhat wild. 2017 was the year we first tried to make our own wine, a Merlot, but we didn’t achieve the results I’d hoped for.

I took two bottles to France for a tasting dinner with friends: I opened the first and it was off, the second one at least didn’t taste of cork. I have a huge respect for the French because they would never say a wine is bad. They said mine was “particulaire”. Particular, but not in a good way!

That was very embarrassing for me. I called the winemaker and I asked what we could do to make the wine better. We decided to go with French oak, because before that our wine was only fermented in stainless steel. The ’18 vintage, the first in French oak, sold out.

You attended the latest ProWein fair. What is your feeling about the international response to Ukrainian wine at this moment? Have the circumstances brought more attention?

I was expecting more attention, actually. It was pretty hard for us to get any wines out for the ProWein fair, and we were supposed to have a unified stand of Ukrainian wines, but due to Covid we were not able to secure the stand. We had some friends who were kind enough to give us the space to promote our wines, and on one of the days of the fair the Institute of Wine of Düsseldorf gave us the platform for a tasting. It’s been helpful but, in general, Ukrainian wine has not really become established yet. Beykush Winery had a Gold Medal in Decanter this year with the 2019 Chardonnay Reserve, which is a step into the world of wine for us, but still Ukrainian wine is undiscovered, and unfortunately for me and for many wineries in Ukraine, it might not be discovered again, because we might lose a lot of wineries and our industry in general.

Zakarpatttia isn’t a traditional wine region, but we are far from the conflict. We are located on the border with Hungary, Romania and Slovakia, while it’s the predominant wine-making regions - Odessa, Nikolaev, Bessarabia - that are in a very tough spot right now. In the future we’re certainly going to see the reduction of production, and even purchasing our labels will become harder and harder.

You recently decided to volunteer to defend your country. Why?

When Russia invaded Ukraine I was in Dubai on vacation with my family. My parents and my brother with his family were in Kyiv at the time of the news. It’s very hard to follow the situation on television because you see things as you think they are but you’re not sure: they said Kyiv had been encircled and the Russian troops were moving fast, but I didn’t know how far they’d reached. It was very hard for me. emotionally, to watch the invasion of my country. I have a strong patriotic feeling because, as a tennis player, I’ve represented Ukraine in the Davis Cup and in the Olympics, and for me being a patriot isn’t just a word, it really means something.

I have a wife that I adore, I have three beautiful children who are still young, and of course they want to have a father, but I’ve watched too many of my friends and colleagues in Ukraine send their wives and families away, while they stayed behind to defend. I just felt it wouldn’t be fair for me to remain in the safety of my home in Budapest, where we’ve resided for the past 8 years, following the conflict from a distance without helping in any way I could. So, once we returned to Budapest, I decided to go back to Kyiv.

I had actually applied for the territorial defense back on February 12th, but I’m not saying I knew that something was going to happen. On the contrary, I was sure that nothing was going to happen. I was actually applying just to make a point - like many others did as well - that there are a lot of Ukrainians who would be willing to protect their country from an invasion, hoping this might push the Russians to reconsider their plans.

I had to have a really tough conversation with my wife, who understood my reasoning but didn’t want to accept it - and I can understand her in turn, because it was more of an emotional than a rational decision for me. Telling my youngest child was probably the hardest part: he asked me where I was going and I said I’d be right back. All I carried with me was a backpack.

Crossing the border, nobody knew how far the Russian troops had advanced, nor if they would be heading to Zakarpattia to establish a stronghold there, so it was like stepping into the unknown. I was the only one traveling towards Kyiv: hundreds of women, children and cars were trying to get out in the opposite direction.

I have to say I got an extremely positive feeling in Slovakia, where I crossed the border: there were many volunteers and supporters with blankets and hot tea - it was minus 8 degrees Celsius - trying to help and facilitate. There was a lot of help from the Poles as well, and from all of the European countries in general, for which I am extremely grateful because I’d never expected to see such support.

I crossed into Ukraine with a friend who was trying to get his family out. We drove together to Kyiv, it took us about 12 hours to get there, maybe more. At first I was scared because 6 km into Ukraine we encountered the first checkpoint. We thought, “if there’s checkpoints here, that’s pretty bad”. But as we moved forward, every small town had a checkpoint, because citizens had come together and established their own territorial defense. People of every social level were willing to defend their land, even their own street. This made us think it might not be so easy for the Russian to occupy.

When we arrived in Kyiv we were assigned guns, we started some training and were put into the permanent facility where we stayed for 8 or 9 weeks. The first few were the hardest, because your adrenaline begins to falter and your consciousness comes into play: you see the explosions and the shelling, and you understand that nobody is safe anywhere - it doesn’t matter where you are, the bomb can land anywhere, any time. And that is really something that keeps you scared. But our bodies are made in such an interesting way that you can get used to anything. You deal with a certain level of stress for a certain period of time and you just accumulate it and get used to it. And that’s the good and the bad part, because now when I return to Kyiv, the people are acting normally, like there’s no war. They’re trying to live their life, to work and make a living. They’re supporting the army and everybody is doing all they can, but when you walk around town you don’t hide anymore, and there’s fewer people with guns in the streets because there’s no real threat on the ground around Kyiv for now. So you lose the sense of fear, which is also a bad thing because you lose your sharpness. You might hear an air raid alarm but you think “it’s not going to strike me” - but it can.

These were some of the emotions I experienced. The worst were when we went to Hostomel, Bucha and Irpin. It was in the middle of March, the day after the Russians retreated, and we witnessed the atrocities and inhumanities they left behind. I think those images will stay with me for my entire life. The family and individual tragedies that occurred there are something that I hope none of the European countries will have to experience: watching a mother search the train station for the daughter from whom she was separated during the evacuation, without knowing whether she made it out. Or a couple of parents being told their son and his grandmother didn’t survive because they were shot during the Russian’s retreat. There’s nothing that can prepare you for this sort of thing.

Hoping in a future of peace for all of us, when that day comes, do you see yourself becoming a full-time winemaker?

I have to admit that I feel extremely passionate about it. This project really started as a business project: my wife and I wanted to create something for our children’s future. Even now, I like to give them different grape varieties to try, to distinguish and remember.

I’m a tennis player, all my life I’ve played and traveled and lived an athletic lifestyle, so for me becoming a wine expert is going to take at least twenty vintages, and even then I don’t know if I’ll be qualified enough. But I hope that the path I’m creating for my kids - I have three, a daughter and two sons - will lead one of them to become an oenologist, to study the land and contribute something new to the Ukrainian wine world. That’s always been my goal, and the reason many people never understood why we were doing it: we’ve been trying to deliver a quality product in terms of the Ukrainian market, and we’re doing it with a very low margin. The whole point is to create a product that is missing. At the time we came to market, two major wine categories of wine could be found in Ukraine: one was inexpensive wine - that is, in the range between 3 to 5 euro per bottle - which isn’t really high in quality, rather more of a mass-market wine. And then you had wines that were 20+ euros: they had structure and quality, but for that money you could get a decent Spanish, Italian, or even French wine - wines that have a quality and a history that we just don’t have yet. So, our goal was to establish ourselves on the market at somewhere around 10 euro a bottle, a range that no one had occupied at the time, with quality wines that would also be affordable.

We are lucky in the sense that we have a very strong partner in the Wine Bureau, which is one of the largest distributors of wine in the country, and exports a lot of wine in Europe: they have the biggest portfolio of high-end wine in Ukraine, and they supported us in distribution, sharing our same target and choosing wines that have the potential to grow and become better in years to come.

We’re located on the footsteps of the Carpathian mountains, starting from 150 meters above sea level, and our plots are evolving differently, but we are still forced to harvest them all together. This will be our next step: we’re planning on buying two more presses, so we can have three presses working independently, allowing us to better control the harvest. Unfortunately, because of the war, I’m not sure we’re going to be able to do this in the near future.

We’re already lucky to have survived until now, and we are thankful for the support we’ve received, particularly from Japan, which ordered almost a full container of our wines.

We can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel yet, but we are focusing on completing the 2022 vintage - of course if we can find the bottles in which to store it, because that’s a key problem right now.

The future has yet to be written. We have a strong belief that Ukraine will win, it’s just a matter of time and, until then, we’re still looking to move forward, to produce quality wines, to find the technology that will give us better edge and depth, and to keep up our dream of proving that there’s difference in Ukrainian wines.Adnkronos - Vendemmie

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