Political change smells sweet to Soviet vintners

YEREVAN, U.S.S.R. — YEREVAN, U.S.S.R. -- For the Soviet vineyards' eerie commingling of Bolshevism and bouquet, Edvard L. Hakopyan, the master of Armenian cognac, bears not only a Hero of Socialist Labor medal but also a great nose.

The nose is serving him better than the medal nowadays as the republic of Armenia and the other viniferous bastions of the new political separatism, Moldavia and Georgia, cultivate revenge, sweet and dry, upon President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and replant the thousands of acres of wine grapes that he had plowed under in his temperance drive against Soviet alcoholism in 1985.


The campaign, while focused on vodka, was far more devastating to the nation's prime vineyards and left Mr. Hakopyan and other people in the industry in despair. Their leader, Pavel Y. Golodriga, the nation's champagne master, hanged himself in the Crimea after his 14,000 acres of grapes were literally cut 90 percent by zealous teetotalers.

"You will find my body in the cellar," he instructed as he decanted a life that included 57 years of wine-making.


But now the new vines striate beautifully across some of the most soothing, sun-drenched lands in this anxious nation. They serve as another reminder that, whatever Mr. Gorbachev imagines he is accomplishing in the Kremlin with his emergency orders and plans to protect the central government, there already is a separate, far more colorful life going on out here in the provinces.

Lately this life is being lived in the name of various nationalisms, but it is anchored as well in such verities as wine and, more locally, in the cognac from Armenia, which is considered the most prized and least available to Soviet consumers.

"The grape was, is, and shall be part of our national culture," Mr. Hakopyan vowed heartily across a glass of his 20-year-old Nairi cognac, a prized brandy distilled from wines using classic French methods. As he talks more and more democratically with the drink, its taste seems to blend just the right bite of insurgency into its earthy traditions.

Mr. Hakopyan, chief of the Yerevan Cognac Factory, remembers the long wet years when freeloaders from assorted Communist hierarchies arrived at his spirit works on fact-finding tours, bottles and bottles of fact-finding tours.

He sneers at the memory of one vulgarian -- a general who finished off a long tasting session by drinking down the large mix of partly consumed cognacs that had been poured into the group's excess jar.

He also savors how some of the same toadies quickly reversed field after Mr. Gorbachev's 1985 denunciation of strong drink, stopping by mainly for the photo opportunity of railing against "that green serpent," demon cognac.

He laughs, he sniffs, and he drinks, pondering the 350,000 acres of the nation's vineyards uprooted in two years before the Kremlin conceded that it had erred by burying a natural treasure as if it were another of Communism's rotting potato harvests.

"There is not a kind word for Communism in the shops around the nation," said Mr. Hakopyan, moving on to a different cognac, Akhtamar, named, he said, after a heartbreaking woman.


"The beverage that feeds the soul," he said, finding no single word in the Armenian language to describe cognac.

The restoration of the vineyards is a painstaking process, requiring a minimum of five years for new growths to produce whatever promise they have. Even so, there is a headiness out here in the Soviet wine provinces now as a fresh season of growth approaches.

In sovereignty-minded Moldavia, the politicians wanted no part of Mr. Gorbachev's referendum against dismembering the national union, held last weekend. No less bracingly for the commonweal, the wine producers are becoming individual entrepreneurs and rebounding well enough to have quickly signed more than 200 contracts the other day for a broad range of wines.

In Georgia, a new 15-year vineyard replanting is under way, according to republic winegrowers who brag that they steered the Gorbachev temperance harvesters to their weakest fields six years ago, thereby protecting and even strengthening their best wines for the current revival.

In Armenia, the union referendum was also being treated as mere Bolshevik dregs. More promising is the fact that the most prized Mount Ararat grapes have been replanted in the upper valley.

The new democratically elected Parliament, pushing for independence, is expected to pass a private land ownership bill soon that will quickly increase the volume and varieties of grapes available.


"This will be a great incentive for fine cognac, for it will let the price of grapes rise, and that is how you get the best," said RTC Robert Azaryan, a master distiller at the cognac factory where production fell by two-thirds because of the lost grapes and wines.

The factory managers, delighted with the republic's new democratic government, now admit they squirreled away their best casks of spirits for such a moment, like monks in the Dark Ages. As Soviet enterprises go, the cellars are immaculate, aromatic sanctuaries filled with neatly arrayed oak casks and a network of glass piping carrying the rich spirits and the special water from the Armenian springs at Garni.

"Any sensible person understood what a mistake was made in 1985," Mr. Azaryan said, recalling the nadir when the factory actually was forced to produce fruit juice to show the Kremlin's triumph.

"We could do nothing," said the cognac maker, worrisomely sniffing the past. "I felt pain, actual pain when I watched the bulldozers go into the vineyards."