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From Wine Lists to Sanctions Lists
Yesterday, the EU imposed sanctions on the Pumpyansky family, owners of beloved Jura estate Domaine Ganevat. How should we feel about drinking these wines?
Among the fourteen Russian businessmen added to the EU sanctions list yesterday, in response to Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression in Ukraine, was the billionaire Dmitry Pumpyansky, owner of the steel pipe manufacturer TMK. Pumpyansky, through investments run by his son, Alexander Pumpyansky, is also the owner, since September 2021, of the celebrated Jura natural wine estate Domaine Ganevat.
As wine lovers in general, and admirers of the Ganevats in particular, how complicit are we for supporting a business owned by a Russian oligarch?
As Branko Milanovic, a professor at the City University of New York's Graduate Center, writing for The Globalist in 2019, put it: “The Putin oligarchs are billionaires who serve at the discretion of the state.”
Anne Ganevat, reached by email yesterday, struck a note of perseverance, assuring me that the sanctions would not affect work at the estate.
“We have a sincere relationship with Alexander, and like him, we’re against this war. We’re heartbroken about this situation,” she says. “But after all, there are other estates that have sold to Russian investors, we’re not the only one.”
FROM CHAMPAGNE TO BORDEAUX TO PROVENCE
The billionaire Russian wine tycoon Boris Titov made news in 2010 with a purchase of the champagne brand Château d’Avize from LVMH, along with 2.5 hectares in the Côte des Blancs. Four years later, the project was in a state of abandon - partly because Titov had newly expanded duties at home, as the Presidential Commissioner for Entrepreneur’s Rights, a position to which he was named by Putin himself. (Titov is also the official supplier of wine to the Kremlin.)
Last July, the Russian billionaire Andrey Filatov acquired a 9-hectare property in Saint Emilion, the Château La Grace Dieu des Prieurs. A noted patron of the arts and of chess, Filatov was awarded the Medal of the Order “For Merit to the Fatherland” by Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev in 2016.
And just eight days before Putin's forces invaded Ukraine, Brad Pitt sued Angelina Jolie for going behind his back to sell her stake in the former couple’s Provence rosé estate Château Mireval to Russian billionaire Yuri Shefler’s SPI Group.
For what it’s worth, Yuri Shefler is exiled and has been fighting the Russian government in courts for many years over rights to SPI group’s Stolichnaya vodka brand.
HOSTAGES OR HOSTAGE-TAKERS?
Similarly, before pouring any Côtes du Jura down the drain, we should acknowledge that the subject of sanctions is rather foggy.
Significant parts of the list of Russian oligarchs sanctioned in Donald Trump's 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (in which Pumpyansky figured) turned out to have been copied from a Forbes magazine list. Criticizing the haphazard nature of that round of sanctions in Bloomberg, the Russian editor Leonid Bershidsky wrote, “The hostages are on the list along with those who keep them hostage.”
Notably, in response to the increased sanctions announced yesterday, the Swedish economist Anders Åslund, author of Russia’s Crony Capitalism, tweeted: “I am not happy to see the Pumpyansky family [and two others] sanctioned. These are real self-made Russian businessmen in the private sector. They should not be sanctioned just because they have to attend Putin’s annual oligarch meetings.”
As New Yorker journalist and Putin biographer Masha Gessen observed, in a 2014 New York Times column entitled “The Myth of the Russian Oligarchs”: for oligarchs in Russia, “Giving up any pretense of independent political action has remained a condition for staying wealthy and safe.”
In the face of humanitarian catastrophe in Ukraine, can we forgive the complicity of the Russian oligarchy on account of their paradoxical political powerlessness?
THE SCALE OF EXPOSURE
Last week, before sanctions on the Pumpyansky family were announced, I noted that Dmitry Pumpyansky had figured among the Russian businessmen (including twelve other billionaires) summoned by Putin for briefing at the Kremlin on February 24th at the outset of the Ukraine invasion.
Seeking perspective on the issue, I got in touch with his son, thirty-five-year-old Alexander Pumpyansky. (Subscribers can read the full interview here.)
Pumpyansky fils was born in Yekaterinburg, and moved at age sixteen to Switzerland, where he studied business management and economics. He has resided in Switzerland ever since, managing his family’s investment portfolio outside Russia, which also includes the Languedoc estate Prieuré Saint Jean de Bébian, which he and his father purchased in 2008.
Reached by phone in Geneva last week - before yesterday’s round of sanctions - Pumpyansky acknowledged that the sanctions had already been “impactful in terms of public relations.”
“Unfortunately, we hear a lot of criticism,” he said. “And I can understand, what with the present situation. The geopolitical climate is not easy.”
Pumpyansky confirmed that Domaine Ganevat was a family purchase in conjunction with his father. He explained his father’s presence at the February 24th Kremlin briefing as a business necessity. The family’s group employs 85’000 people in Russia. It is ineluctably exposed to the consequences of the war.
“I have a lot of Ukrainian friends, who live still there. And we have lots of Ukrainians who work in our company in Russia. It’s unavoidable that we’ll be together, and we must work together, especially now, when there are political conflicts, because if there’s hatred created on a human level, it’s much more complicated,” said Pumpyansky. “We’re doing everything we can to prevent that.”
Throughout the 2010s, many in the Jura wine scene used to make good-natured jokes about Jean-François Ganevat’s sizable platoon of interns, who, it was rumored, he’d employ to do things like de-stem trousseau with nail scissors. The Pumpyanskys responsibilities as an employer are on a different scale. Domaine Ganevat is among the least of their liabilities, when it comes to exposure to Putin’s war of aggression in Ukraine.
But Pumpyansky is sensitive to the concerns of fellow natural wine lovers.
“All of Ganevat’s professional clients can be reassured,” he says. “I adore what they do, I adore Fan-Fan, and I'll do everything I can perpetuate the spirit of the estate - and to prevent the present events from impacting the estate.”
For more on the issue, see my March 3rd interview with Domaine Ganevat owner Alexander Pumpyansky.
UPDATE - Saturday, March 12th: According to new reporting in Le Progrès by journalist Arnaud Baston, the Pumpyansky family is in the process of selling its shares of both Domaine Ganevat and Prieuré Saint Jean de Bébian.
UPDATE - Wednesday, March 16th: According to new reporting in France 3 by journalist Isabelle Brunarius, Jean-François Ganevat has partnered with the longtime manager of Pumpyansky’s Languedoc estate Prieuré Saint Jean de Bébian, Benoit Pontenier, to purchase both estates from Pumpyansky. Brunarius reports that Pumpyansky transferred ownership of both estates to an unnamed middle-man on March 4th - the day after my interview with Pumpyansky, during which he declared no intentions to do that.
I should note that Jean-François Ganevat specifically did not want to go into debt running his estate for years. And Pumpyansky maintains very positive relationships with both Ganevat and Pontenier. So it seems very likely this new arrangement was concocted as a way to wait out the sanctions until Pumpyansky can repurchase both estates.
Was this foray into reporting on the activities of Russian billionaires interesting? It is atypical of the NOT DRINKING POISON newsletter, which is otherwise more concerned with the activities of French paysan-vignerons who retain one foot in the barter system of exchange. If you dig that kind of thing, please subscribe!
A 2015 write-up of the Prieuré Saint Jean de Bébian wines by Andrew Jeffords at Decanter, including quotes from Alexander Pumpyansky.
My English translation of the Ganevats’ September 2021 statement regarding the sale of their estate to the Pumpyanskys.