A love story in the making
'Ileana and I fell in love in the German wine region of Baden; walking through vineyards of grauburgunder and merlot we decided to continue our journey in life together. We had no idea where it would lead us.
Ileana was born in Romania, a country which had fascinated me for many years, having read about its unspoilt natural treasures, its mountains full of wildlife and its fascinating history. On our honeymoon I immediately fell in love with Romania's enchanting landscapes and charming people. For Ileana it was her first visit for 28 years: she had left Romania as a child with her family because she couldn't see any future in the communist country it had become. Persecuted, land expropriated, they had faced a life without any hope of peace or freedom. But by now the world had changed and Ileana was able to rediscover her ancestors´ country in brighter circumstances, and to re-meet relatives and friends she hadn´t seen for decades.
As a lawyer, I immediately realised that Ileana´s family would have a good chance to get back at least a part of the estate that had been expropriated illegaly under the communist regime in the period 1945-1989. We arrived in Dragasani for the first time in January 1999 to file the restitution claim, and Ileana and I immediately fell in love with the place.
Communism, persecution, repatriation: A troubled history
Ileana´s great-grandfather Prince Barbu Alexandru Stirbey was one of the wealthiest noblemen in Romania. He was a descendent of one of the oldest families of the country, dating back to the 15th century. Their wines were hugely renowned: one beautiful reference I found is a menu from the Orient Express, dating from 1925, with 'Dining Car Stirbey' and 'Muscat Ottonel Stirbey' on the wine list.
Barbu Stirbey carried on this legacy into the 20th century. He was an entrepreneur and very modern in his marketing, establishing a high-value brand for his wines. Putting the esteemed family name on the wine labels gave a guarantee of quality. He even hired a couple of young, creative Romanian artists to make a series of funny adverts for his wines.
However, all this collapsed in 1945. The communist regime, installed by the Soviet Union after World War II, forced the economic collapse of privately-owned agriculture by creating unsupportably high taxes and galloping inflation. Between 1945 and 1950, the communists illegally expropriated all the large properties, including livestock, inventories and machinery, almost overnight. After 1950, all smaller farmers were forced to become members of co-operatives (kolckozes), handing over their land to the kolckozes´ communist managers. Many of Ileana´s relatives – like hundreds of thousands of Romanians – ended up in prison or forced labour camps, and many died there of famine or lack of medical treatment.
Ileana and her parents tried to escape, finally succeeding in 1969 with the help of a famous friend of her family, Henry Coanda, then living in France. He invited Ileana to a French language course, and she came – and obviously lost her return ticket…
Giving new life to old roots
It wasn't until after the Iron Curtain fell in 1989 that things began to change. In the beginning restitution of agricultural land was possible only for very small plots, but in 1997 a new law allowed restitution of up to 50 hectars agricultural land to the rightful owners.
We began the claim for the vineyards in Dragasani in January 1999. And in 2001, 20 hectares of vineyard and the winery´s buildings were handed over to Ileana.
It was then, during a sleepless night in a hotel room in Dragasani, excited about the freshly obtained family estate, Ileana and I plotted our very first plans for the future of the property. Obviously we felt a strong obligation to Ileana´s ancestors, who ended up in prison and suffered so much for the place. But we saw also a huge opportunity in bringing something new to the European wine market: wines of unknown grape varieties from a completely undiscovered wine region, far away from the beaten tracks of wine enthusiasts, who are always curious to discover something new.
My brother is a winegrower in South Tyrol so we invited him to Dragasani and asked his opinion. He said 'if you don´t start to make wine here, I will come and do it!'. The rest is history. We decided to give new life to the old family winery in Dragasani, and starting with our first vintage in 2003, we were the first winery in Romania run by the former owners, producing wines under their own family brand.
We are proud of all of our wines, which would not be possible without the devotion, enthusiasm and passion of our whole team, working in the vineyards in winter at minus 20 degrees as well as in summer in excess of 40-45 degrees. We know though that they are proud to work at Stirbey winery, just as their ancestors before them.'