French Vintners Buy Wineries from Sanctioned Russian Oligarch

Wine

On March 9, the European Union imposed sanctions on Russian businessman Dmitry Pumpyansky, 57, his wife, Galina, 56, and their son Alexander, 34, paving the way for the French government to freeze the oligarch’s assets, including the two French wineries he owns, Domaine Prieuré St.-Jean de Bébian in Languedoc and Domaine Ganevat in Jura. It also raised the prospect of consumers boycotting the wines.

Pumpyanksy, born in the Ural district, made his fortune in steel. He is chairman of the board of directors of PJSC Pipe Metallurgic Company, president of Group Sinara, and owner-founder of pipe manufacturer TMK. His son Alexander, who lives in Geneva, oversees the family wineries in France and works in his father’s steel empire.

In 2008, the Pumpyansky family bought the 87-acre Domaine Prieuré St.-Jean de Bébian in the Languedoc. They had been looking for a winery in Bordeaux, but fell in love with Bébian. They invested €4 million in a gravity-fed cellar, looking to improve quality.

In September 2021, the Pumpyanskys acquired Domaine Ganevat from siblings Jean-François and Anne Ganevat. “I bought Domaine Ganevat because I loved the work of Jean-François. We shared a desire to develop this even further,” said Pumpyansky at the time.

Bébian’s director Benoit Pontenier became the president of both estates. Jean-François Ganevat, known affectionately as Fanfan, stayed on as winemaker. He has a cult following for his purist approach, producing several cuvées in the tiny hamlet of La Combe.

The family had been growing wine since the 17th century, but inheritance problems loomed. Pumpyansky offered a solution. “We didn’t choose this man by chance,” said Jean-François. “He’s a real enthusiast.”

But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has changed everything.

On Feb. 24 in Moscow, as Russian forces began their invasion, Russian president Vladimir Putin summoned Dmitry Pumpyansky, along with 36 other businesspeople, to discuss the impact of the “special military operation” (Putin’s euphemism for the war on Ukraine) in the wake of Western sanctions, including asset freezes, travel bans and market and banking restrictions.

“The fact that he was invited to attend this meeting shows that [Pumpyansky] is a member of the closest circle of Vladimir Putin and that he is supporting or implementing policies which undermine or threaten the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine,” said the EU council, in a statement. Russia analysts disagree on how close the oligarchs are to Putin, but their wealth does depend on his government’s approval. Nations that oppose the war hope that sanctions targeted at the oligarchs can trigger policy changes.

By March 4, Alexander Pumpyansky had taken steps to sell the family’s shares in the wineries to an anonymous buyer before the sanctions hit March 9.

“Unfortunately, I never thought we would find ourselves in this situation,” Alexander told Ganevat’s clients. “The French properties won’t be affected by the sanctions because our family is in the midst of selling its shares.”

(The family took similar measures to evade sanctions with regard to their steel conglomerate. The management of TMK has taken control of the pipe manufacturer and the Pumpyansky family gave up its equity stakes in Sinara Group, Sinara Bank and resigned from board positions of the companies.)

Back in the hamlet of La Combe in the Jura, the Ganevats were in shock. “We’re entering a period that could be difficult for us. All of this will probably affect sales. But the situation is completely beyond me. I’m a winegrower,” said Jean-François. “I don’t play politics.”

While it’s unclear whether an asset freeze would have meant closing operations at Domaine Prieuré St.-Jean de Bébian and Domaine Ganevat, the Ganevats fear plummeting sales due to a toxic association with Putin’s inner circle. One U.S. importer has said he will donate his stock of Ganevat wines to chef José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen and its humanitarian efforts to help Ukrainian refugees.

“We are waiting to see how all this will evolve,” said Jean-François. “Because it’s quite sudden.”

A plan has emerged to shift the companies to French ownership. Jean-François and Anne Ganevat and Benoit Pontenier reached an agreement with Pumpyansky to acquire the companies from the anonymous third party. “He’s a gentleman,” Pontenier said of Pumpyansky. “He wants to ensure the continuity of the work at the estates and to keep the 20 employees at the two sites.” Neither Pontenier nor the Ganevats have said who this third party is nor where the money for the deal is coming from.

Pumpyansky wasn’t so lucky with his yacht. On Feb. 21, British authorities seized the 236-foot Axioma—originally known as The Red Square—while it was moored in Gibraltar and flying a Maltese flag. The fate of the Axioma, which leases for $701,000 per week, plus expenses, is unclear.

Jean-François Ganevat]

Jean-François Ganevat is renowned for his Jura wines. Now he faces consumer backlash because of the Russian oligarch who bought the winery. (Michel Joly)


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