Romania's Robin Hood of wine

Wednesday, 29. June 2016 - 11:00

No one actually needs wine. It may provide a living for people that make or sell it, and pleasure for consumers in its various roles of accompanying food, helping social events run more smoothly or simply as another alcoholic drink. However, it is rather a luxury that could be done without if necessary and the effort the trade puts into promoting it sometimes seems frivolous. It is good to come across events that break this mould, and bring wine and the trade together to do real good for society. One inspiring example is the ROvinHUd exhibition in Romania (pronounced to rhyme with Robin Hood, that great champion of the downtrodden).

Romania's modern day Robin Hood is wine lover Zoltán Szövérdfi-Syép. He's combined his day job of working for disability rights charity Ceva de Spus (which means ‘Something to Say’) with his love of wine by starting the ROvinHUd wine fair in Timişoara in 2014. A team of young people or self-advocates from the charity are heavily involved in setting up and running the event, which in its first year raised money to pay for a modified minibus designed to take wheelchairs. Disabled people in Romania still face huge discrimination and there’s an almost total lack of support services, or even things like wheelchair access to public transport and public buildings that are taken for granted in so many countries. And the impact of past brutal treatment of orphans in Romania is well known and still very real for many who survived that system. This highlights how important the work of this charity is. Co-president of Ceva de Spus, Raluca Poescu, said, “We don't want to be pitied for our disabilities but appreciated for our abilities.”

Giving something back
In 2015, nearly 30 of Romania's best and most dynamic wineries took part in ROvinHUd, along with a series of eight masterclasses led by three Masters of Wine and other speakers. The wineries are carefully selected by the organisers on the basis of quality and this year several applicants were turned down; although Romania’s wine sector is currently dynamic, with new wineries appearing regularly, quality is not universally good. Szövérdfi-Syép explains his idea, “We have a small group of Hungarian ‘wine lovers’ in Timisoara where I started to go to tastings many years ago, and still do. After a while it wasn't enough for me just to participate at the tastings, but I wanted to learn more about wine. So I decided to start the WSET courses at Borkollégium in Budapest, which was close; I did the studies and the exams in my mother tongue [Hungarian]. He adds, “After I graduated, I wanted to give back something to the community. So in 2012, I started to organise, as a volunteer, monthly tastings in order to raise funds for therapy of children with autism.” He said this allowed him to create trust-based relationships with the wineries, and convince them he could present their wines properly. “The money raised went to a social cause, so it was a win-win situation. At the same time, I was very disappointed by existing wine fairs in Romania. The quality wineries didn't participate, the tickets were cheap and the visitors were looking for semi-sweet reds.”

Szövérdfi-Syép decided to organise something better. He took VinCE Budapest as his model, taking advice from Ágnes Németh, “The organiser of that amazing wine show.”  Szövérdfi-Syép then took this further, “I am not a profit-oriented person, and I was thinking about added value. It was obvious that it had to be an event organised for the benefit of self-advocates at Ceva de Spus, because they have to overcome so many challenges and the Romanian wine community already knew my involvement in the disability field. So we organized the first wine fair in Romania where we selected the exhibitors and all the profit was used to buy an accessible minibus for wheelchair users.”  Initial set-up costs were mitigated by strong support from volunteers who contributed website design and PR, while the local community was also supportive in giving discounts on room rental, printing materials and wine donations, and so far all the speakers have attended free of charge. There was also an ‘early bird’ price for exhibitors, so three months before the event, there were sufficient funds to pay for airfares for speakers, purchase wines where these weren’t donated, and in some cases pay for shipment.

In 2015, 11 self-advocates were involved in organising the event. Szövérdfi-Syép explains, “When we say self-advocates, we mean people with disabilities who are getting to know their rights and fighting for them, making their voice heard.” The team included people with physical or intellectual disabilities, with visual impairments, epilepsy or with Down’s Syndrome. Each had a clear responsibility. Roles included managing the information desk, selling tickets and admission bracelets, providing tasting glasses and the exhibition booklet.  Two self-advocates were in charge of the cloakroom and others controlled access to the tasting room, emptied spittoons and brought ice. One particularly time-critical job was washing glasses between masterclasses, with around 500 glasses to clean and change over; even with a glass-washing machine, every glass was dried and polished by hand.  Szövérdfi-Syépagain again: “A huge job, but the participants had perfectly clean glasses. We think that the success of an event is in the details like glasses and ice.” He also gave credit to the team of volunteers who worked with the self-advocates. 

In 2015, the net profit made by ROvinHUd was just over €8,100.00 ($9,100.00), though this allows for some investments into glasses, wine coolers and a secondhand professional glass-washing machine. The funds will be used for an accessibility campaign, because the better long-term solution is not to buy adapted minibuses, but to make public transport accessible.

The actual financial profit may be modest at this stage but, for Szövérdfi-Syép, “The most important ‘profit’ of this event is that all the exhibitors and visitors were speaking extremely positively about the involvement and the quality of the work of people with disabilities. And this is what we want, to change the mentality and the approach of people without disabilities.”

What the workers thought
Dana Nicolin has a physical disability due to a kickboxing accident and works as a purchasing analyst. “Besides the fact that we want to raise more awareness about the difficulties that we, the persons with disabilities, are dealing with in our daily existence, we also wanted to make people see us for what we really are, and to prove to them that we can also live a normal life despite our disability,” she said. “What I liked at ROvinHUd wine fair was the fact that it gave us the chance to work as a team, to help each other and to understand each other.” What she particularly liked is seeing how impressed the public was with their work.

Elisabeta Moldovan, co-president of Ceva de Spus, has an intellectual disability and spent 23 years in different orphanages and residential institutions for people with intellectual disabilities, in what have been described as horrible and inhuman conditions. She says, “For me the wine fair was a successful one across all the three days. I liked that we had a lot of work to do: I washed the glasses after the visitors tasted different wines. I liked also that we had many visitors and I have met new people. I liked that the members of our organisation had specific tasks and if somebody got tired we replaced each other.”

Foreign language graduate Raluca Popescu, a powered wheelchair user with a severe physical disability, who is particularly benefiting from the accessible minibus, is also co-president: “What I love about ROvinHUd wine fair, is that through wine, people can bond together and suddenly all the barriers break down,” she said. “It was my pleasure to greet and see the smile on people’s face while I politely welcomed them to enjoy the event and asked them to show me their bracelets. I felt useful and included and I wish this for all persons with disabilities to feel this way. People with disabilities have many abilities, and what a wonderful way to show this through the ROvinHUd wine fair.”

For the wineries, especially the small to mid-sized players who are relatively new and in many cases are still establishing themselves in the Romanian market, there is a huge potential benefit in good-quality events that raise wine knowledge and culture, and consumers’ willingness to pay more premium prices. Cristiana Stoica, owner of Avincis winery says, “I think ROvinHUd is more than a wine fair, it is rather a very special tool for promoting wine education in general.” She said that it’s part of Romania’s progress in looking more closely at those in need. “Through ROvinHUd, wine lovers and wine educators are providing a very constructive way for granting more support and attention to people in need. And this is perhaps because wine is also part of the Romanian culture.”

Preparations for the 2016 event are well under way with guest speakers already lined up.  Szövérdfi-Syép hopes to double ticket sales, as Timisoara has 300,000 residents but only 400 tickets were sold in 2015.  He says, “We are still searching for what we want, in which direction we want to go with this wine fair. What is sure is that it has to be organised at a very high quality level; it has to bring something new every year; the masterclasses have to be presented by international experts and we want people with disabilities involved.”  And for the longer term, Szövérdfi-Syép says: “I have a dream. To create a winery where people with disabilities are working and creating elegant wines with personality and finesse.”

ROvinHUd has already demonstrated that it offers a winning combination of high-class wine promotion along with genuine and useful support for the self-advocates of Ceva de Spus. It gives wine and wine producers a useful role in contributing to society and in helping to show the wider community that focussing on ability is the best way forward.        
Dr Caroline Gilby

This article first appeared in Issue 2, 2016 of Meininger's Wine Business International magazine.