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Ukrainian winemakers visit California's Napa Valley to learn how to heal war-ravaged vineyards

Ukrainian winemaker Georgiy Molchanov, left, asks a question to Ivo Jeramaz, right, during a tour of a Grgich Hills Estate's vineyard Wednesday, June 5, 2024, in American Canyon, Calif. (AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vásquez)

RUTHERFORD, Calif. (AP) — As the head of an association of winemakers in southern Ukraine, Georgiy Molchanov knows a lot about how to cultivate grapes; not so much how to grow them amid undetonated mines.

But that was the situation he found himself in after a Russian rocket dropped the explosives on his vineyard near the port city of Mykolaiv in August 2022, six months after Russia invaded. The damage — and danger — the mines brought to his business marked one of the myriad catastrophic effects the more than 2-year-old war has had on the eastern European country.

Now, thanks to the combined efforts of the international nonprofit organization Roots of Peace, Rotary International, and the Grgich Hills Estate winery in Napa Valley, Molchanov is taking the steps he needs to reclaim and heal his wounded land.

First, Roots of Peace and Rotary International provided him with the expertise and supplies he needed to safely detonate the mines. Then, the groups teamed up to bring him and five other Ukrainian winemakers to Grgich Hills in Rutherford. During a weeklong stay here, they learned about regenerative organic farming, an agricultural method that prioritizes soil health and ecosystem balance.

“We are discussing how to bring nature, how to bring wines, not harm ... into this land,” said Molchanov, who heads the Association of Craft Winemakers in Ukraine’s Black Sea region.

He and his fellow entrepreneurs have another goal as well: to spread the message that, despite the ongoing war, the Ukrainian people remain resilient and look forward to life in peace.

“People in Ukraine are still alive,” said Svitlana Tsybak, Owner and CEO of Beykush Winery, also located in the Mykolaiv area. “Yes, war is in our soul, in our life, but we need ... to live our lives so, of course, we need to work.”

Tsybak said Russian troops are staked out about 4 miles (7 kilometers) from her vineyard but the war hasn’t directly affected her operations. Her winery started exporting wine to the United States six months ago. She said she wants to learn how to expand the presence of Ukrainian wine in the U.S. market.

Heidi Kuhn, a California peace activist who founded Roots of Peace, has worked for decades to remove landmines from war-ravaged land that she later helps to convert into vineyards, orchards and vegetable fields. Rotary International, which has collaborated for years with Roots of Peace, helped plan the program for the Ukrainian winemakers and funded their travel to California.

“There’s an estimated 110 million landmines in 60 countries, and today Ukraine tragically has over 30% of the land riddled with landmines,” said Kuhn, whose program is known as the “mines to vines” initiative.

In 2000, Kuhn worked with the founder of Grgich Hills Estate, the late Croatian immigrant Miljenko “Mike” Grgich, and other vintners to raise funds to clear landmines in Vukovar in eastern Croatia. The town, located in a winemaking region on the banks of the Danube, was reduced to rubble during the 1991-95 war in the former Yugoslavia.

Ivo Jeramaz, Grgich’s nephew, a native Croatian and a winemaker at Grgich Hills Estate, said he feels deeply for Ukrainians because he understands how heart-wrenching it is to live through war. He said the family winery has for decades helped Roots of Peace.

“This is just the beginning of a hopeful relationship to literally restore the health of this country,” he said. “I hope that not only they see how farming can be conducted without harmful chemicals, but also that they’re inspired and that their hope is elevated.”

Haven Daley And Olga R. Rodriguez, The Associated Press

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