Savoring Bulgarian Vintages
By Patricia Henley
Assistant News Editor, Sonoma Index-Tribune
September 22, 2000
Sonoma resident Vance Petrunoff’s life story reads a bit like a Reader’s Digest tale of the Cold War years-plucky entrepreneur escapes communist regime to eventually end up running a company that peddles his homeland’s wines. It’s a tale of success, Sonoma-style.
Having fled of his native Bulgaria in 1985 with the expectation that he might never be able to return, Petrunoff is now president of the Sonoma-based import firm, Bulgarian Master Vintners, LLC (on the internet at www.wineimport.com). He also heads Vintners.com, which opened last year as a trade directory, providing access to vintners and wine wholesalers on a worldwide basis.
The vintages he imports are made in Bulgaria, using German steel tanks, Italian bottling lines, Portuguese corks and an Australian winemaking consultant. The labels are designed and printed in the United States. “It’s an international project,” Petrunoff said. “ That ‘s what I like about it.”
Nestled in the Balkans just north of Greece and Turkey, Bulgaria has a long and rich winemaking history, dating back thousands of years. Bulgaria has growers began planting chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon varieties in the 1970s, and at one point had the largest acreage of Cabernet vineyards in the world.
With the collapse of the totalitarian government in November 1989, the state-owned Bulgarian wineries had to switch to private ownership and new markets. That’s where Petrunoff comes in. “(We sell) more to specialty stores and restaurants, mainly on the East Coast and the Midwest,” Petrunoff said. “Georgia is a good market. So is Tennessee.” After repeated tastings to pick the top ones, Petrunoff now represents three Bulgarian wineries—Menada, Vini and Haskovo—and imports between 5,000 to 7,000 cases each year. In Sonoma Valley, they’re available at the Fruit Basket stores. The wines sell for 6$ to 8$ a bottle, Petrunoff says they compare well with others that retail for 8$ to 12$.
Petrunoff’s life has taken many twists and turns to bring him to this point. In 1975, he was 17 years old and determined to get out of communist-rule Bulgaria. “It wasn’t that difficult (to decide to leave). My family wasn’t one of the privileged families under the communists,” Petrunoff said. “… We don’t talk about the Cold War any longer, but it was scary, to be honest—Bulgaria was known to be one of the closest allies to Russia.” So Petrunoff and three friends attempted to cross the border on foot.
“one of them talked to the police, believe it or not,” Petrunoff said. “They knew we were going, so we got caught.” Still considered a juvenile at 17, Petrunoff was detained and questioned, but he wasn’t sent to prison. Instead, he went on to school. His father took a job in Russia so that Petrunoff could study economics at a university in Moscow instead of Bulgaria.
However, after 3-1/2 years, Petrunoff was expelled, because he had attended various meetings, and made friends with dissidents. With the Olympics coming in 1980, the authorities “got rid of the ‘trouble elements’ in Russia,” Petrunoff explained- and he was ousted.
He returned to Bulgaria, where his parents and brother were then living. In 1985 Petrunoff decided to make another attempt to leave. His father was the only one who knew about his plans. “I got smarter, and I paid my way out,” Petrunoff said. “I found a way to get my passport, and I booked an airplane trip to Tokyo.” A friend at the airline had given him the flight’s itinerary – and when the plane set down for refueling in Anchorage, Alaska, Petrunoff asked for asylum. With Russia just 100 miles away from Alaska and the Cold War in full swing, he got a “very enthusiastic” welcome, Petrunoff said. He was given a hotel room, guards. Once the uproar died down and his paperwork came through, Petrunoff relocated to Denver, Colo., and found a job bussing tables at a restaurant. Besides polishing his English, Petrunoff managed to do a little consulting work on the side, explaining his Eastern European trade opportunities.
In 1987, Petrunoff moved to San Francisco and worked as a doorman at the Hilton Hotel. He also located an editor and graphic designer and began creating an Eastern European trade directory. His designer introduced Petrunoff to the Macintosh computer. “It was a revelation,” Petrunoff said. Three months after he published his directory, the Berlin Wall fell – and interest in Eastern European markets soared. “Good Morning America” mentioned his book in a story. “It was only three years after I came to the states and the book was on ‘Good Morning America.’ I like that,” Petrunoff said.
Petrunoff married American – born Christine in 1990, and in 1991 they decided to move his native land, opening first a Chrysler franchise and then an Apple Computer center. Both businesses were successful, and Petrunoff wined and dined with the new Bulgarian diplomats – drinking Bulgarian vintages, of course. Then in 1995, the socialists won an election and took power in Bulgaria. They raised taxes astronomically on foreign products, so Petrunoff decided it was time to return to the United States. He and his family moved first to San Diego area, and then to the Sonoma Valley in 1997. He and Christine have two sons – Troy, 9, and Christopher, 6, both students at Prestwood Elementary – as well as Petrunoff’s daughter, Anika, 16, a student at Sonoma Valley High.
Once back in the United States, Petrunoff started looking around for what to do next – and remembered the excellent Bulgarian wines he had enjoyed. After the fall of the Soviet Union, some American corporation used Bulgarian wines to bring their money out of that country, Petrunoff said – but they did a poor job of marketing with no eye for quality, he noted. He believes he can do better – and that Bulgarian wines deserve better treatment.
When Bulgarian vintages were introduced in Britain, they sold three million cases in the first year, Petrunoff said, and soon caught on elsewhere in Europe. He hopes to see the same response here. “I want to make this a nationwide product,” he said. Bulgaria’s socialist government was replaced in 1997, and the country is now a center of stability in the Balkans, Petrunoff said. And with his Sonoma-based import company, he is part of that success story.
In 1997, one of his Menada cabernets won the first-ever U.S. gold medal for a Bulgarian wine, awarded at the International Eastern Wine Competition. Other medals have followed, including a silver for a Vini merlot at Intervine 200, a Canadian wine competition. “One of the things I’m proudest of is that I represent one of the industries in Bulgaria that is doing well, which is wine,” Petrunoff said.