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Imports Dry Up for Russian Wine-Lovers

June 30, 2006

MOSCOW (AP) _ Russian wine-lovers face their second crisis in a year under a law taking effect Saturday that will keep virtually all foreign vintages out of liquor stores for at least several months.

The new law, combined with a series of bureaucratic bungles, will force 30 percent of Russian liquor stores to close indefinitely because they will have nothing to sell, one wine industry official predicted. And the problems might strike a death blow to many small distributors already in dire financial straits after Georgian and Moldovan wines were banned this spring.

The law, which aims to block counterfeit wine sales, requires distributors to place new, government-issued excise labels on all wine and liquor. But a series of delays and misunderstandings has meant few properly labeled imports will be ready in time.

As a result, liquor stores are racing to move all their imported wines off the shelves ahead of the deadline, with no idea when they’ll be able to restock with inventory that is legal to sell.

The inevitable economic toll underscores the obstacles that remain for business in the country. Some stores _ particularly smaller ones that specialize in imported beverages _ are closing indefinitely.

``Until July 1 _ The Best Wines on Sale,″ a huge red-lettered sign on the Wine and Delicatessen Boutique in central Moscow declared Friday. No oenophile includes Russian wines as among ``the best.″

``Do I fear for my job? Yes,″ Oksana Nazarova, a sales associate, said as she stood amid the bare shelves of the Wine Salon in central Moscow.

An official at the Wine and Spirit Union of Russia said his organization estimated the value of the beverages that become illegal to sell on Saturday at $900 million.

``Our alcohol market hasn’t experienced anything like this before,″ said Oleg Vlasov, the assistant to the union’s president.

The country’s market for imported alcohol won’t stabilize until November, he predicted, saying an estimated 30 percent of Russian liquor stores will close indefinitely because they will have nothing to sell.

Russia banned imports of beloved Georgian and Moldovan wines in May, officially because they did not meet sanitary standards. Critics said the move was aimed at punishing the two former Soviet republics for their increasingly Western leanings.

At the Wine and Delicatessen Boutique, customers anxiously asked director Alexandra Golubeva about the future of fine wines in Russia. The boutique is closing Saturday, but she could not say when it will reopen _ or if she’ll be able to pay all her employees.

``Nobody knows,″ she said repeatedly.

Michel-Laurent Pinat, the delegate-general of a French association of alcohol producers, said exporters were ``very, very disturbed.″

``They really want to do business with Russia because it’s a really good market, and it’s a market with an increase every year,″ Pinat told The Associated Press. ``But it’s more difficult than they thought.″

Although the law also affects distilled spirits, most of the anxiety is focused on wines. Russians in search of the stronger stuff can rely on their country’s vast array of vodkas and its middling cognacs.

Employees at Moscow’s Marriott hotels were working into the night to compile and print a new, temporary wine list, a spokeswoman reported.

Nazarova, the wine saleswoman, put a stamp of Russian fatalism on the whole affair.

``We’ll live, and we’ll see,″ she said, shrugging.

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