Editor’s Note-The Wine We’re Not Drinking

Editor’s Note-The Wine We’re Not Drinking

Traveling with the most widely quoted man in Bulgarian politics.

My predecessor in this job, Tom Mason, has deftly blended publishing, politics, and corporate communication into an always interesting career. Lately, he has been writing: In October, he produced this magazine’s profile of events planner Paul Ridgeway, in December our cover story about Jac Sperling’s rodeos.

No, he has not written for this issue. But our cover feature about Jack Farrell has reminded me of the week 10 years ago that I planned to become a wine distributor and of Mason’s political work in Bulgaria, then the world’s second-biggest wine exporter and one of its newer democracies. The democracy had been imperfect, the wines mostly a means for storing calories consumed within the Eastern Bloc.

Having managed senatorial and gubernatorial campaigns, Tom was selected in 1995 by a unit of the nonprofit National Endowment for Democracy to provide advice in Bulgaria on organizing municipal elections. Bulgaria had held its first-ever election in 1991, choosing as president an inept free-market democrat who was later recalled and replaced by a socialist.

In 1996, Tom returned to Bulgaria to work on its second presidential campaign. He remained longer than he had planned, writing the strategic election plan for Petar Stoyanov, a 44-year-old divorce lawyer. He coached Stoyanov in debating techniques and taught polling methods to Stoyanov’s campaign. Staying in touch through the autumn via faxes, e-mails, and telephone calls, he advised the campaign on the design of campaign posters and election brochures, and he wrote a campaign slogan labeling Stoyanov a candidate for Bulgaria’s “New Generation.”

Stoyanov took his oath of office in January 1997 in the courtyard of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, in Bulgaria’s capital city. Fifty thousand Bulgarians were in attendance, including a half-dozen priests who wept at the sight of a Bulgarian president for the first time taking his oath of office with his hand on a Bible. A single enormous banner hung above the courtyard, emblazoned with three words: “Bulgaria’s New Generation.”

Tom and his wife and daughter were the first visitors to the president’s office after the inauguration, and Tom was asked back to provide guidance on winning parliamentary elections. In late 1997, he invited me to join a delegation of Minnesotans interested in investing in Bulgarian businesses that were becoming privatized. During that visit, Mario Tagarinski, minister of the state administration—essentially, the coordinator of the cabinet—called Tom “the most quoted man in Bulgarian politics.”

Perhaps inevitably, the car and driver Stoyanov provided took us to Bulgaria’s largest winery, near the south-central city of Plovdiv, which employed 450 winemakers and 450 vegetable canners. The entire operation was for sale for $2.2 million. When I estimated that wines we were sampling might sell for $8 a bottle in the United States, the winery managers offered to send me, gratis, a sample to offer to U.S. retailers. “One container,” they suggested. They meant one international shipping container, which is approximately the size of railroad car and can hold 1,800 cases, or almost 22,000 bottles—more than enough to make me a full-fledged bootlegger. “One case,” I insisted. “No more.”

Maybe a mere case seemed unserious. It failed to arrive. I had meanwhile made arrangements to show the wines to retailers and had sketched a set of labels, each featuring a fictional young Bulgarian speaking of the demonstrations leading to Bulgaria’s break with the Soviet Union and “this wine we drank” during the changes in government. I was sure the labels would appeal simultaneously to iconoclastic young people and anti-Soviet conservatives. It might have worked.

Jack Farrell doesn’t think so. “You’re lucky you didn’t try it,” he says. “The Bulgarians are still making plonk, and they probably have a couple of decades before they can make a salable wine.” He says that he stocked some Bulgarian wine “10 or 12 years ago,” and “I can’t remember the name, but I do remember that we closed it out for 89 cents.”

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