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petit conte russe en anglais

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Becoming a wine star in Moscow

Three years ago Juliana Grigorieva, a diminutive 27-year-old Muscovite, had never tasted
wine. Last year she won Russia's second-ever national sommelier competition. The first
time it was held, one year after taking her first sip of this cosmopolitan substitute for the
vodka bottle, she had come second.

She was raised to become a musician, graduating from one of Moscow's conservatoires as
a singer of Russia's stirring country music. But to earn extra money in the wake of Russia's
economic meltdown in 1998 she took a job as a barmaid in one of Moscow's better
restaurants, Nostalgie. The restaurant happened to have a particularly good wine list and in
Alexei Sidorov a sommelier who is now one of the leading lights in Russia's infant sommelier

Juliana is clearly determined and initially felt rather threatened by this catalogue of
incomprehensible names. She pestered Alexei with questions about his wines and soon fell
in love with them and the world they represent. Moscow now has three wine schools (and,
partly thanks to the amount of advertising available in a burgeoning market, no fewer than
five wine magazines). Juliana enrolled for a two-month course at one of them and was,
according to her instructor, urbane Francophile Yuri Zybtzev, 'clearly a brilliant student - very
serious, talented and artistic'.

Yuri is my interpreter while I grill Juliana for, to her chagrin, her English is not yet fluent. She
does not demur at his effusive description of her talents but explains, through him, that
thanks to her musical training, she is used to performing.

She admits that, since she is short and looks younger than her age, her boss was originally
unwilling to let her join him in serving Moscow's new, free-spending élite. And even though it
did not take long for this serious, and seriously talented, young woman to prove her worth to
him, she was initially laughed at by some diners-out because she is, still unusually in
Russia, a female wine waiter.

As a rule, she says, she is careful not to make immediate recommendations at the table but
if asked, she tends to recommend something a bit cheaper and a bit better than the original
choice - which is presumably not too difficult in this culture relatively new to wine drinking
where a few big names still hold ultimate sway.

Russia is just emerging from its France-above-all-else phase as far as wine drinking goes,
with a handful of its many rival wine importers championing some of Italy's finest growers
particularly. New World wines can go brilliantly with the powerful flavours of much of the food
served here, but a clumsy attempt to offload some dubious Californian wine on the Russian
market a few years back threatened the entire reputation of New World wines for a while.

Chile and Argentina are now finding their way on to restaurant wine lists however, at
relatively low prices considering Russia's 20 per cent import tax on wine, and many diners
are now choosing these exotica in preference to the Georgian and Moldovan wines that have
represented the great majority of wines on offer in Russia for so long. Indeed such is
Georgian wine's reputation in the Russian capital that a high proportion of what is offered as
Georgian wine is nothing of the kind - neither Georgian nor, in some cases, even wine.

As for Juliana, she seems to have squeezed an entire life of wine drinking preferences into
her three short years as a connoisseur. She began by admiring big, powerful reds. She then
transferred her affections to more subtle reds such as red burgundy but now hardly chooses
red wine at all (unlike Russian wine drinkers as a whole who drink more than two bottles of
red to every one of white) and favours light, refreshing whites.

As a celebrated sommelier in a fast-growing wine market (Russian wine sales have doubled
in the last four years) she has already been invited to tour Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne,
Portugal and Chile. And what were her impressions of foreign wine regions? 'I noticed that
wine tastes different in the place where it is made from how it tastes here in Moscow. And I
now realise that some very good wines are made outside France.'

I asked what her friends and family thought of her new career. 'I have no friends, and no
husband' was the rather Russian response. 'My work takes up so much time. But what few
friends I have love wine now.' And she confesses that at first she was frightened of telling her
parents about her new interest, knowing how set they had been on a musical career for her.
Her success in the competitions has softened the blow however.

This year, as Russia's foremost sommelier, Juliana took part in the olympics of wine
waitering, the Champagne Ruinart Trophy in Rheims. She was unplaced and admits that
she needs three or four more years' experience, and a foreign language, before she will
make her mark here.

For now she is already co-manager as well as in charge of wine at an as-yet-unnamed new
restaurant venture in Moscow as well as assistant to president of the Russian Association of
Sommeliers, thereby passing on her knowledge to an increasing number of enthusiastic
04 Déc 2002 09:24 #1

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