Ukrainian vintners in Napa Valley learning to rebuild their wine industry

A Napa Valley winery is hosting a handful of Ukrainian winemakers this week in a program meant to help the war-torn country rebuild its agriculture. 

Grgich Hills Estate in Rutherford hosted six winemakers from the Southern region of Ukraine to exchange ideas and offer an opportunity to learn how to rebuild their wine industry through a growing technique called regenerative farming.

Among them is Svitlana Tsybak, who said the wine industry in her country is overlooked right now, because the country is focusing on other agriculture, like food needs. 

"My winery is located very close to the front lines and my colleagues' wineries as well," said Tsybak.

She said she wants to highlight the diversity of Ukrainian wine, specializing in the country’s local varietals. 

"We are brave people, and we need to survive, and we need to save our vineyards and, of course, we continue to work," she said. "We continue to make wine, not war."

It’s all part of an initiative called Mines to Vines, through the international nonprofit Roots of Peace, led by Bay Area native Heidi Kuhn. 

Kuhn, a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, started the organization in September 1997 to promote world peace and "replace minefields with vineyards and orchards worldwide."

Grgich Estate’s Croatian winemakers know a bit about what Ukraine is going through. Ivo Jeramaz, the vice president of wine making, said he remembers when Croatia was dealing with a civil war with Yugoslavia back in the 1990s. 

"We are heartbroken, we know what it means, it’s similar. Obviously, Russia and Ukraine are brothers, same as us and Serbs," Jeramaz said.

Grgich’s Founder and "King of Chardonnay" Miljenko "Mike" Grgich came from Croatia to Napa Valley, where he put the Northern California wine region on the international map. 

Decades later, Grgich and Kuhn worked together to support Croatia after the war, and rebuild the new nation’s wine business. 

"It was the Napa Valley vintners who embraced a vision of a mother without a penny to my name, only the seed of an idea, and one of those vintners was Miljenko Grgich," said Kuhn.

"Tragically, in Ukraine – 30% of the land is riddled with land mines," Kuhn added. "We carry no flag. We just serve the farmer on the ground, and the dignity of farmers to farm their lands without the fear of landmines beneath their plow."

In the same spirit, the visiting vintners are learning techniques for pruning and growing vines, and looking for ways to rebuild wine culture in Ukraine through regenerative farming. 

"Today’s theory is basically if you grow anything, you remove nutrients and you have to put fertilizer to replace it, [that’s] nonsense," Jeramaz said.

Grgich is growing grape vines organically, without fertilizers, pesticides, or chemical additives.

"We try everything we can to try to boost their morale through agriculture and we try to heal their soil that is pillaged," said Jeramaz. 

Winemakers like Tsybak do not want people to forget about Ukraine.

"It’s less and less information about the war in Ukraine, but the war is more active and active every day," she said.

The trip was paid for by a global grant through international rotary clubs.

The Ukrainian winemakers will complete their training at the end of the week, and head back to Ukraine early next week to work on turning the minefields back into vineyards.


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