. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Teaching Russians How to Drink

ST. PETERSBURG -- Wine tasting may seem a bourgeois tradition, but one well-established "temple of wine" has been bringing the art to the Russian masses for nearly three decades.


"We've always striven to reach a wide audience," said Maria Vertlugina, administrator of the Nektar restaurant and wine-tasting hall. "We try to bring wine culture to simple people."


In a society where drinking is often associated with excess and hangovers, Nektar was founded on the premise that people need to be educated in the culture of drinking. The idea was the brainchild of a visitor from western Ukraine struck by the disparity between St. Petersburg's grandeur and the pathetic sight of drunks on the street, an eyesore even in the Brezhnev years. With the blessings of the local government, Nektar opened in 1968 and was quickly dubbed the "Institute of Bacchus" by the local press.


Today, the crowd hasn't changed much. Students, families and even pensioners come to enjoy themselves, some showing up for each new monthly program. Although well-dressed, the small gathering lacks the ostentatious element of the nouveau riche.


"New Russians aren't interested in listening and learning," Vertlugina commented.


One recent visitor, Olga Silanova, 26, recalled her first visit to Nektar as a student. "It was first-class. I went with a friend, and we knew we were drinking with style," she said.


Shortly after opening 28 years ago, Vertlugina said people quickly started flocking to the corner site just off Moskovsky Prospekt to get a taste of the high life. For two rubles, guests had a 45-minute introductory lecture and another 45-minute "practical" in which they sampled the evening's selection of wines and liquors. Guests wishing to indulge in new-found favorites could retire to the bar upstairs or buy their choices in the sales hall, open only to those with invitations.


"We were always very careful," said Vertlugina, who has worked at Nektar for 18 years. "We couldn't serve people just off the street."


Nektar often introduced people to drinks hard to come by in the Soviet Union, recalled Valeria Fedoskova, who has worked there since its opening.


"People strove to come here," she said. "Rum, gin and whiskey were available only in beryozki and at Nektar."


During the "dry years" of perestroika, Nektar was forced to cease its program and relinquish its impressive collection of more than 200 wines from across the world. Saved only by the dedication of its staff, Nektar turned to non-alcoholic drinks, at times even offering "juice-tastings" for school children.


Allowed to return to its original task in 1989, Nektar faced new challenges in the new economy. No longer able to rely on local officials for free rent and access to a wide assortment of wines, Nektar founded a joint venture with the Finnish gourmet coffee company Meira, expanding its sales line to include local and imported candy and coffee. There is also a caf?, and the old wine cellar has been transformed into a restaurant offering Russian and European cuisine.


Beyond the heavy wooden arched door, however, the tradition continues. Each day, visitors young and old pay 18,000 rubles ($3.80) for a 45-minute indulgence in high culture. Sessions are held in a candle-lit room lined with a frieze-like painting depicting the wine-making process in a combination of Greek classical and Stalinist design. Sitting at the head of the wooden table surrounded by the 10 chosen wines of the evening, Vertlugina recounts historical and anecdotal stories about the wines and wine-making, etiquette and medicinal benefits. Waiters fill the glasses on visitors' wooden trays a few at a time, from dry white wines to fruity aperitifs to smooth vermouth.


The rise of new customs borders has hampered purchases from previous suppliers, forcing the staff to rely more heavily on Western wines. Nevertheless, wines from Georgia and the Crimea often make up the larger portion of the selection.


With wine and liquor now widely available, Fedoskova said, Nektar's original task remains unchanged. "Young people today see a pretty bottle and buy it, not knowing the difference between wines," she said. "You have to learn how to drink."