On Feb. 23, 2022, staff at Purcari’s picturesque chateau — whose 1827 winery is the oldest in the Eastern European country of Moldova — were busy preparing for Dragobete, the cultural equivalent of Valentine’s Day, with themed activities, singers, and, of course, tastings for the following day.
But as news broke the next morning of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, whose border is about 20 miles from the winery, Purcari found itself facing a crisis and a question of what to do.
The company, Moldova’s largest wine producer with labels also in Romania and Bulgaria, decided to take immediate action to support its neighboring country. It transformed its 13-room chateau into a refugee center and reserved two floors of a local hotel to accommodate more people. Near the border, it set up tents providing food, drinks, SIM cards, and other resources.
“Being so close to the border, you never know what’s going to happen, so that’s another stress people were facing,” says Catalina Turcanu, senior brand manager of Purcari Wineries. “When the war started, some of my co-workers decided to move their families elsewhere in Europe, because the danger was real. However, even though staying in Moldova seemed risky, we decided as a company it was better to help the people in need at that moment. That made me very proud of the place where I was working.”
To date, Purcari estimates it has provided assistance to approximately 15,000 refugees. In addition, it is donating 2022 profits of its Freedom Blend, a label it launched in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea, to support war victims in Ukraine. A velvety, full-bodied blend of three indigenous grapes — Bastardo (Ukraine), Rara Neagra (Moldova) and Saperavi (Georgia) — the wine embodies “the heart of Georgia, the terroir of Moldova, and the free spirit of Ukraine,” as its label proclaims. So far, it has raised more than $161,000 for the Purcari Foundation, a nonprofit the company founded to provide educational resources and other supplies for children in some of the hardest-hit parts of Ukraine. Such efforts are part of a remarkable show of solidarity across Moldova, which has supported nearly 800,000 refugees from Ukraine since the war began a year ago.
VinePair recently spoke to Turcanu about what it’s like working for a major winery located so close to Putin’s war, Purcari’s challenges and successes over the past year, and why Moldova should be a destination on any wine enthusiast’s radar.
[Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
1. The war recently passed the one-year mark. What’s it been like to reflect on that?
Our first reaction was, “Oh my gosh, one year” because never did we think it would last this long. At the beginning, even in Chișinău [Moldova’s capital] late at night, you could hear the bombings, and I would think, “It’s crazy this is happening in Europe, so close to us.” There’s a refugee center right near my house, and I still see huge lines of people every single day. It’s a war happening somewhere very close, but at the same time you don’t really see it, so it’s like a dissonance. It’s more impactful psychologically that you’re always in distress and wondering, “Should we have our suitcase ready?” It’s more like a psychological terror for Moldovans, the feeling of not feeling secure, of always being very uncertain about tomorrow.
2. How did Purcari management decide the company’s course of action when the war started?
I read the news and saw an urgent email from our company. We had a big board meeting, with around 500 people across all our brands. The board said it’s very important for us to be united during this time, and that the company is going to provide any support we need personally. Psychologically, it’s one thing when people tell you what to do, but it’s different when the board really makes an effort to include you in the conversation. So basically, there was no demand to come to work because this was a security problem. Instead, they said, “Let’s all make a decision, what do we want to do?” We decided as a company that because we’re so close to the border, we can open the chateau to refugees. Many of my colleagues volunteered to help at tents at the border. Refugees also needed help in other places. Some of us hosted refugees for a while, so we were very busy with that.
3. What was it like during those first early days and weeks?
It’s one thing when you talk about the war or read about it, but it’s totally different when you’re there and you see people [suffering]. One image that really shocked me — and even now talking to you I still get goosebumps — seeing a car crossing the border, just a very small sedan coming from Odessa. Inside there were around 11 people, including kids, all sitting on top of each other. There was literally no space in the car. Not many men came, so there were women with kids asking for their dad. They were in such a state of shock, sometimes they couldn’t even express what they wanted. It was very hard to see this. It traumatizes you, but at the same time you have to do the work because you understand how important it is.
4. From a marketing perspective, how do you go about being sensitive to those realities while still keeping a business running?
When the war started, we immediately stopped any marketing communication because we didn’t feel like it was ethical. One of our dear friends and investors is Ukrainian, and he actually came up with the idea of Freedom Blend back in 2014. He’s one of the reasons why we understood it was important to take a moment of silence. But we do have the responsibility to be profitable, so we couldn’t really stop everything [indefinitely] because it’s not sustainable. At the same time, because we are a big brand, we decided to use our platforms to spread awareness about what’s happening in Ukraine.
5. Tell us a little bit more about Freedom Blend. It has a fascinating story that precedes the war.
It’s not a marketing stunt — we launched Freedom Blend back in 2014, when Crimea was annexed. We are technically an independent country; however, there’s still conflict with Russia and there have been military aggressions we’re still facing up until this day. And this is not just our story; this is the story of Moldova, of Ukraine, of Georgia. Since Freedom Blend has been a manifesto for freedom for so long, we declared when the war started that profits from global sales during that year would be donated to a charitable cause in Ukraine that has suffered due to the war.
6. Russia imposed embargoes against Moldovan wine in 2006 and 2013. What has been the impact of those?
We lost a huge percentage of our market, about 85 percent. So the company took the strategy of looking to the West, and now we export to 40 countries and we have products adapted to different countries and different consumers. Management understood we had to invest in really high-quality equipment and know-how.
7. What’s the wine drinking culture like in Moldova?
We have the highest density of vineyards per capita in the world, so wine is in our blood. For us, it’s more than just a simple drink — it’s about culture and history. If you have a house anywhere outside the urban area, you’re probably making your own wine. So even though Purcari is a leader in the premium segment, we understand that some of our competitors are independent, small producers who make their wine at home, like my grandmother.
8. Recently, Moldova’s wine is becoming more well-known. What has that been like?
If you would have come to Moldova 10 years ago and tasted the wine, it wasn’t great. We have great potential because we have amazing terroir, but people weren’t really investing in good equipment or know-how. Now, it’s a different story. I was just at Prowein [the world’s leading wine trade fair] in Düsseldorf, and this was a topic on panels and among wine connoisseurs. They said, “I know you make really great wine in Moldova, and it kind of feels like a secret. But I love it.” It shouldn’t be a secret — the world needs to know that we are making great wines.