When the Russian billionaire Dmitri Pumpyansky joined 35 other businessmen at a briefing by Vladimir Putin on February 24th, he unknowingly opened the door to the second change in ownership in a year of a world-famous small winery.
The fact that he was invited to attend this meeting “to discuss the impact of the course of action in the wake of Western sanctions”, in the words of the Official Journal of the European Union, “shows that he is a member of the closest circle of Vladimir Putin and that he is supporting or implementing actions or policies which undermine or threaten the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine, as well as stability and security in Ukraine. It also shows that he is one of the leading businesspersons involved in economic sectors providing a substantial source of revenue to the Government of Russia, which is responsible for annexation of Crimea and destabilisation of Ukraine.”
On March 9th, both Dmitri Pumpyansky and his son Alexander who is also a senior board member of the same companies were placed on the European sanctions list.
Just six months earlier, Alexander Pumpyansky had been celebrating his purchase of Domaine Ganevat, an estate in the Jura with a cult following among natural wine fans across the world. At the time, Jean-Francois Ganevat issued a statement explaining his reasons for selling. He was, as an English translation published by the Paris-based natural wine blogger Aaron Ayscough revealed, 52 years old and “at a period in my life when I wish to pass things on.” Pumpyansky, whose family already bought the St Jean de Bébian estate in Languedoc in 2008 had, he said, become a friend thanks to his “simplicity, his passion, and his humility”. The new owner’s wealth would help to finance the refurbishment of the winery and “the improvement of our vinification methods through the pursuit of long aging periods and the integration of a supplementary patina.”
Ganevat also addressed Pumpyansky’s nationality.
“I’ve heard it said here and there that he’s of Russian origin, sometimes as if it were a reproach! It’s true that he’s Russian, but insofar as it concerns me, that’s not how I define a human being. He lives near us and above all his human virtues, his knowledge of wine, and knowledge of vignerons convinced me.”
Trying to Explain
In an interview with Ayscough, a week after the invasion and six days before the imposition of sanctions, Alexander Pumpyansky revealed that Domaine Ganevat had not been a personal purchase; like the Languedoc property, it was a family acquisition. He went on to explain his father’s presence at the February 24th briefing by saying that “The people who were summoned were all from the large businesses of the state.
“Our group”, he continued “employs 85,000 people in Russia. So you understand that when there are conflicts like this, there are a lot of things that we need to be informed about. At a meeting like this, you have the chance to meet the leaders of the country, and to understand what’s going to happen, with sanctions, etc. We need to orient our businesses accordingly.”
When given the opportunity by Ayscough to comment on the conflict that had already taken many lives, Pumpyansky said that he has a family in Switzerland and is “integrated” there. “It affects me a lot, when people become aggressive, just because we are of Russian origin.”
The war had, he said, pushing understatement to its limits, been “impactful in terms of public relations… The geopolitical climate is not easy.”
He went on to add that he always tries to “distinguish between what happens in terms of politics, and what happens on the personal level. I find it really a shame, when people mix everything and come out with hate against people who are like them in the end. We all have origins, we all have different passports. That's something we don't choose.”
This last comment which might be read in more ways than one, was arguably not helped by Pumpyansky’s seemingly echoing the views of the Kremlin in commenting that “Russians and Ukrainians came up with the same values. At the base it's the same people.”
In a subsequent interview with Vitisphere on March 8th, Pumpyansky made a very similar point. "Ukrainians and Russians of my age (I am 35) were born in the same country and grew up with the same culture and values."
He continued that "no one in Russia or in Ukraine wants this bloody war. It is a terrible series of errors that unfortunately led to such a dramatic conflict. The current conflict is a political mistake and I think people should be united in response to this aggression."
These words, on the eve of sanctions being imposed on him and his father, were as close as Pumpyansky came to publicly criticising his country’s actions.
The Saint-Jean de Bébian estate will apparently be sold to Benoit Pontenier, its manager since 2008, while the Jura property will once again be under the control of the Ganevat family.
According to Pumpyansky, it was Jean-François Ganevat who had approached him with the notion of selling his estate, and the deal had taken a year to conclude. Now M. Ganevat will face the challenge of finding another owner with whom he feels as comfortable as he briefly did with his Russian steel magnate.