Britons drink to Bulgarian wine chaos: Nicholas Faith talks to one exporter who is benefiting from the break-up of a state monopoly

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The Independent Online
THERE is another civil war going on in the Balkans. Thankfully this one involves no bloodshed. Instead it is helping British drinkers no end.

The 'war' results from free-market competition which has affected Vinimpex, the Bulgarian state monopoly. Once it was the biggest wine exporter in the world, sending abroad 200 million bottles a year - of which more than 10 per cent were consumed by thirsty Britons - as well as enough wine in bulk to fill another 25 million bottles.

But the collapse of Communism has removed any semblance of order in the way Bulgarian wine now reaches our shores. According to one supermarket buyer: 'It's chaos out there . . . we're being approached by dozens of middlemen with lots of wine to sell, but we're having to be careful as they don't have samples and often don't even know the name of their wines.'

According to another: 'I'm being offered the same wine by two different sources, both of whom claim they've got the monopoly.'

The conflicting offers have one big advantage. They enable the buyers to check up on what the producers are charging since the unofficial middlemen are taking only a minimal cut, so British buyers will continue to get their wine at rock-bottom prices.

The poacher-turned-gamekeeper in all this mayhem is Margarit Todorov who in his days at Vinimpex did more than anyone to build up sales of what British drinkers know affectionately as the Vulgar Bulgar and what Mr Todorov himself calls 'the thinking man's plonk.'

Since he left Vinimpex after a stormy argument last year, Mr Todorov has formed a company, Domaine Boyar, to take on the sole agencies for four leading Bulgarian wineries.

Mr Todorov's portfolio includes Suhindol, the country's best-known product, helping him to claim a one- third share in the British market, selling more than 2 million bottles in the first three months of the year.

Vinimpex's position has also been undermined by the entry into the market of David Trimby, a well- known wine trade figure, who has acquired the rights to sell wines from two other wineries.

The handsome Mr Todorov was already known as a marketing whiz, speaking perfect English which he attributes to 'pure good luck. My father was working in the Bulgarian Embassy in Jakarta and I went to an English language school, I even got a Cambridge GCE in English by correspondence.'

Mr Todorov went straight into the wine business nearly 20 years ago, after graduating in economics from Sofia University. He was not joining a new industry.

'The Bulgarians have always drunk wine - there are vines in and around every village. But the wine had to be home-made, your own wine.' Nevertheless the country has had a proper wine industry for a long time. Its first co-operative was founded on a French model as far back as 1909 and the industry was nationalised between the wars, well before the Communist takeover.

The wine industry really took off in the late 1950s and early 1960s when Nikita Khrushchev allotted specialities to every Eastern European country. Bulgaria was allotted wine (and brandy) and immense sums were poured into wineries and new plantations, mostly of 'foreign' grape varieties such as cabernet sauvignon.

Bulgaria's first efforts at exporting to the West, conducted through a team of youngsters such as Mr Todorov, concentrated on bulk sales to quality-unconscious markets such as Germany and Japan. Mr Todorov preferred to concentrate on Britain, the only big wine market not dominated by local products.

However, a joint venture with Mills & Allen, most famous for its poster business, was not a great success and in 1982 Mr Todorov was sent over as a trouble-shooter to see if the idea was doomed.

He soon showed a natural sophistication, avoiding the mass market for cheap, medium-sweet, white wines such as liebfraumilch. 'We decided to go where the trends were, so we put everything into sales of our cabernet sauvignons at prices slightly above the real cheapos.'

With the help of a humorous advertising campaign sales soared to reach a record 2.3 million cases in 1990.

But Mr Todorov was being undermined by events at home when the Bulgarians loyally followed Mikhail Gorbachev's anti-alcohol campaign to the extent of digging up a great many vineyards. 'The decisions were being made by people who knew nothing. They needed the hard currency and they couldn't understand the idea of value being added by advertising and marketing.'

Mr Todorov was recalled to Sofia: 'I was convinced that I was going to be sent to Siberia - we have the same expression as the Russians.'

He survived and got his revenge after the collapse of Communism. He acquired management control of Vinimpex, sacking two directors and 20 staff while persuading individual wineries to continue to sell through the organisation. But the capitalist in him inevitably led to a split and the formation of Domaine Boyar.

The biggest danger to Mr Todorov and the other reputable sellers comes from another more fundamental upheaval resulting from the revolution - land reform. Land in Bulgaria was never nationalised and the peasants apparently still remember the exact boundaries of their ancestral plots. These have now been registered, but the vines are rather neglected as everyone reoccupies their land, or leases them to farmers more concerned with quantity than quality.

Nevertheless the ebullient Mr Todorov is 'confident that we've got plenty of wine, for this year at least.' And to show his confidence in the quantity (and quality) of future supplies, he has just introduced his superior Vintage Blend range, 'wines of uncompromising standard, one that has earned the coveted accolade of the Royal Warrant of King Simeon II of the Bulgarians.' Not just a capitalist yet a royalist is our Mr Todorov.

(Photograph omitted)

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