Pairing a love for Ukraine and wine brought true magic for Carl Steinke.
More than three years ago, Steinke, a retired salesman, began importing Ukrainian wine to Canada.
In 2018, his family traveled to Ukraine for his stepson’s wedding. Struck by its beauty, Steinke and his wife decided to extend their trip and visit Lviv in western Ukraine. The city, famous for its restaurants, coffee and stone lions, quickly won their hearts.
While dining at a local restaurant, the couple asked for good local wine. “They brought us a Cabernet.” But they said a better wine, which was not in stock, is Odesa Black. “They told us we can get it in a store right down the street,” Steinke recalled.
Intrigued, the couple paid the shop a visit and, to their surprise, the man behind the counter opened it for them on the spot. “We sat at a table right in the street and drank it and it was fantastic!” Steinke said.
When he returned home to Canada, Steinke found that despite a large Ukrainian-Canadian community, Ukrainian wine was nowhere to be found. So his import business began.
Steinke’s interest in Ukraine is not surprising: his father, descended from German settlers, came to Canada in the 1920s from a village in the Bessarabian region of southern Ukraine, only 150 kilometers from the Kolonist winery that produces his now favorite Odesa Black.
“My dad used to always talk about the wine that they grew on their farm. That’s when I thought: here is a chance to bring wine from where my father was born,” he said. “The romantic part of the story is that I simply picked up the phone, found Kolonist winery and dialed the number. And after three tries for somebody who spoke English, I got a hold of the owner.”
Based in Odesa Oblast, Kolonist produces approximately 300,000 bottles per year, focused on high-quality dry wines, with some semi-dry and sweet varieties. By 2019, Kolonist wines were gaining popularity in the U.K. and Germany but hadn’t yet found their way to Canada.
Kolonist had never heard of Steinke, but they put their faith in his enthusiasm and commitment.
A door to a new market
With the help of a friend, Steinke learned how to import wine — a tedius, time-consuming undertaking in the highly regulated world of alcohol imports.
Steinke’s home province of Alberta is the only one in Canada with a fully privatized liquor industry. He registered his own import company called Old Country Wines and submitted a business plan and other requirements to the Alberta Gaming, Liquor and Cannabis Board. The liquor board, in turn, handled the importing, the warehousing and the collection of the money after the wine is sold. Once the licensees have paid the AGLC for the liquor, warehouses ship the orders to them throughout the province while private retailers purchase liquor for resale directly.
More than one in 10 Albertans — roughly 300,000 people — have Ukrainian roots. Yet there are only 42 active listings for Ukrainian liquor products in the province.
At first, Steinke brought only seven cases from Ukraine as samples.
“We wanted to see whether or not they were good,” he said. They included Odesa Black and a white wine called Sukholymanske, both produced from grapes indigenous to Odesa Oblast, as well as a cabernet sauvignon. “People here know little about Ukrainian wines and this was a chance to introduce them to good classic dry wines.”
The wines didn’t disappoint. Odesa Black — an inky dark red wine that blends purple-black fruits like mulberry, blueberry and blackberry — quickly gained popularity in Alberta’s liquor stores and restaurants, including Taste of Ukraine, a restaurant beloved by both expats and locals.
A year and a half after the start of the COVID‑19 pandemic, Steinke is excited to once again return to actively promoting Ukrainian wine.
“Certainly the COVID‑19-induced lockdowns have put a large wrinkle in our plans for introducing the wonderful wines of Kolonist and Ukraine to the public, but we continue to make small gains into the marketplace,” he said. “Wine shows are the key to what makes any new product successful and I’m looking forward to interacting with people who love exploring wines.”
It helps that he loves what he is doing. “This is work of passion and fun.”
Ukrainian vodka deficit
Around the same time that Steinke embarked on his wine adventure, three friends — Ivan Pedyash, Serhiy Adamyk and Daniel Krys — decided to take advantage of the Canada-Ukraine Free Trade Agreement.
CUFTA, which entered into force on Aug. 1, 2017, aimed to improve market access and create more predictable trade conditions.
“We saw a deficit of Ukrainian vodka in Alberta with only one other company selling it,” Pedyash told the Kyiv Post. “Considering the best horilka (Ukrainian for vodka) is from Ukraine, we wanted to bring that to Ukrainians here and introduce it to Canadians as well.”
They ordered a few samples and tested them blindfolded. Eventually, they opted for Kozak Vodka from Bayadera Group, the largest distributor of alcoholic products in Ukraine.
Importation proved difficult. “There are extra fees and hidden taxes that are only learned through experience,” they said.
So far, the group has made two shipments to Canada. At one point, their vodka was in 70 stores.
These days, the partners are eager to keep promoting Ukrainian Kozak vodka in Alberta. The pandemic complicated their work, but they remain optimistic.
“For the most part, many store owners are quite eager to work with a new product and especially such high quality as Kozak,” they say. “We are hoping to expand the consumers of Kozak Vodka in the future because Ukrainian ‘horilka’ is the best ‘horilka,’ and once more people try it they will find that out as well.”
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