Visiting a Champagneski Factory in Ukraine – William W Wilen – Ukraine 2003

My Fulbright Scholar teaching experience in Ukraine was one of the most culturally informative and memorable experiences in my traveling academic life as a teacher education professor at Kent State University. I was the first Fulbrighter to serve as a senior lecturer at the Horlivka State Pedagogical Institute of Foreign Languages located in the eastern section near the Russian border. My wife, Kathy, and I were there for the 2004 fall semester where I taught a course on instructional methods to two classes of EFL students.

We were overwhelmed with how well we were received and treated, and we tried to show our appreciation for all the cultural activities and visits with which we were involved. It almost seemed like everyday we were exposed to new cultural learning experiences which served our needs and interests. There is one fascinating travel experience that comes to mind as I think of what story to tell fellow Fulbrighters. After finding out about my interest in Ukrainian wine, the university rector asked me if I would like to visit a “champagne ski factory.” Since my hobby for over 30 years had been making wine, judging in competitions, conducting tastings, and writing articles about wine, I was enthusiastic about a new wine experience. Naturally, my first thought was trying to associate the contrasting ideas of champagne and “factory.”

A small group of faculty friends and our son Andrew, who was visiting us over the Thanksgiving holiday, traveled to Artyomovsk about a 40-minute drive away from Horlivka toward the Russian border. We then walked 70-80 meters down into a huge 24 hectare underground complex of gypsum caves that housed a massive Soviet sparkling wine production. We were told it had been built around 1950 and that 500 workers were employed here with the men operating the machinery and driving the trucks while the women worked at every stage of the production line. 22 million bottles were under various stages of production. Rather than producing bulk sparkling wine, this location only used the French process of “méthode champenoise” using popular Ukrainian wines including Saperavi, along with European varietals. We toured through several production rooms and ended up in the grand tasting room. As we were served a couple of red and white wines and four sparklers, from dry to semi-sweet under the label of Krimsekt, our guide said we were “kings and queens enjoying a feast of wine.” They all were all very pleasant, especially tasting in such a fascinating underground setting.  

One sad diversion during our very informative and upbeat tour through the factory was coming across a monument carved out of gypsum in honor of the 3,000 people, mostly Jews, buried alive by the Nazis in 1942. Their remains were discovered in the caves when the area was liberated in 1943. A sad ending to an otherwise amazing vinicultural experience.

William W. Wilen – Fulbright to Ukraine 2003

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