Every year on May Day people who love wine come to celebrate at Stirbey Winery. The birthday of Princess Maria Stirbey, the last owner of the domain before 1949, is a cause for celebration in Dragani area. It is the 10th Anniversary celebration of the Stirbey domain. Ten years ago their first bottled wine was brought out. However, this is not the story that I need to share with you. I will tell you about the noblemen Ileana Kripp and Jakob Kripp. They are a charming couple and their story appears to be ripped out of history books.
It all started when Ileana, the niece of Princess Maria Stirbey and a young and beautiful noblewoman, and Jakob Kripp, a poor nobleman from Tirol, Austria, meet by chance.
First and foremost, I would like you to tell me how you met.
Ileana Kripp: (smiling) We met in the vine.
Jakob Kripp: It was in a winery in Germany, the Rhine Valley. My sister’s husband was a wine maker, so it is there, in the vine, that we saw each other for the first time.
What were you doing there?
Ileana Kripp: The house which I lived in at the time was near the vine. I hardly knew anything about wine then, but I would sometimes go to the vine to harvest the grapes. Back then I worked in a bank. Even though that was the first time I had laid eyes on him, we still learn new things about each other every day.
What followed next?
Jakob K: We got married in 1997 and I really wanted to know where Ileana came from. She would always speak highly of Romania but she hadn’t been back to her country for a very long time.
Ileana K: I returned to Romania after 28 years of being away. I missed my country terribly. Even though I was reliving my childhood I was afraid of what might happen if I returned. At the border I began crying like a small child.
What were you most moved by?/ What led to that reaction?
Ileana K: They were tears of sadness because I looked around and I didn’t like what I saw. However, they were also tears of joy because I was extremely happy to be back home.
A/N In 1947, everyone with close ties to the Royal Family was banished from Stirbey Castle. King Mihai was going to Queen Elisabeth II’s wedding. In the meantime, members of high-ranked families were either locked inside the castle or thrown out on the street and all their properties confiscated. The communists were hoping that the king would never return, but much to their surprise he did and was treated same way as the others were.
Ileana was born in a high-ranked family. Her grandmother was a Bibescu and her grandfathers were Costinescu and Bratianu. She had to flee the country when she was only 15 years old. When Henri Coanda, who was a close friend of Ileana’s grandfather, was asked to return to the country he said that he would do so under one condition: every person whose name he had written on his list should be allowed to leave the country. Ileana and her father were on that list, but unfortunately her father had his passport seized at departure. After hours of negotiations, Margareta, Henri’s wife, told Ileana that they managed to help 54 people to flee the country and that her father was the last one, so they would soon see each other again.
How did you manage to find your birthplace?
Jakob K: Ileana really wanted to return to Sinaia. However, once we got there she was overwhelmed with fear.
What was she afraid of?
Ileana K: The unknown. It was that fear of remembrance and reality. She was afraid that she might not fit in anymore, that maybe things had changed considerably.
Jakob K: She didn’t want to stay but I insisted that we stayed overnight; I knew everything was going to be fine eventually.
How was the day that followed?
Ileana K: It was a beautiful sunny day, so we could admire Sinaia in its entire splendor. On the way we met with the dairymaid (her eyes were moist with tears). Twenty-eight years had passed and she hadn’t changed a bit. In truth, everybody was unchanged. It was as though I had never left. Suddenly, everything that had been keeping us apart for so long came to a standstill and I was again fond of all the people that were once dear to me.
When did you decide to stay in Romania?
Jakob K: Once we got used to the surroundings, I insisted on helping Ileana recover a part of the inheritance that had been taken away from her. In 1999 we went in Dragosani in a Lada car. I immediately fell for that place so I decided to buy it in case they didn’t agree to give it back. Amazingly though, the IAS were glad to see us. You must be asking yourself why. Well, simply because vineyards wait for nobody. The IAS was even asked to look for the old owners; they were fair and they had taken good care of the vines. Therefore, we were lucky to start with vines that were in a very good condition.
When was the first wine produced at Stirbey Winery?
Jakob K: In September 2003 we harvested the first grapes. Oliver was not in the country, but I phoned him and told him to come because I knew it was the right moment to harvest the grapes. He thought it was not possible, nevertheless he came back. When he saw the grapes he realized that he had to begin the process of winemaking the next day. The high potential of the area amazed him once more.
Ileana K: The first wine came out in 2004. Safta Rosetti, my aunt, turned 90 at the time. Her mother was Barbu Stirbey’s younger sister, that is his last great granddaughter. It was with her that I had my first glass of bottled wine (Romanian wine grapes, Prince Stirbey)
When did you first cross paths with the current wine expert Oliver Bauer?
Ileana K: [laughing] We were drinking beer in town.
Jakob K: My brother was working in the wine industry at the time and a young winemaker showed him an interesting CV. We met with Oliver in a pub, we had a beer and we seemed to connect right away. A few months later he moved to Stirbey.
What convinced you that Oliver was fit?
Jakob K: Apart from his obvious talent for winemaking, I was drawn to his passion toward our project.
How did the winery look like when you took over?
Jakob K: Even though there were fruit-bearing vines, the winery had not been used in a long time. The building is a 100 years old and when we came back the vine was impoverished.
Ileana K: We found, nonetheless, maps and documents which prove that the land has belonged to the family for over 300 years. Nearly all noble families had a patch of land in that area. Indeed there is some sort of nobility to wine.
Together you’ve managed to produce one of the most renowned premium wine labels in Romania, Prince Stirbey. What does this mean to you?
Ileana K: When he gave his traditional speech on May 1, Jakob said that 10 days had passed since the first bottled wine was produced, when in fact he meant to say 10 years. That, of course, is how it feels. Ten years ago we didn’t know what to expect, we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. Much has happened ever since and we are trying to enjoy each and every moment in Dragasani. I would be lying if I told you that we no longer hit rocky ground anymore. Every day is a new day and this is what keeps us going.
How would you describe the winery now?
Ileana K: We were among the first winemakers to open the door to customers and visitors. Sirbey Winery is always filled with happy people who always feel at home and leave heavy-hearted. It appears as though they are looking to have another glass of wine and they are.
Are we to understand that wine-making tourism is really working?
Ileana K: Together with the other wine-makers in the area we offer up an attractive and interesting touristic package. We went from zero tourists to over a few thousand. I am hoping that in the future the winery will be twice as developed.
Jakob K: I still believe that we inspire and encourage one another. We are delighted that our foreign friends are continually surprised by our Romanian wines.
Baroness Ileana Kripp, main questionnaire:
Red grapes variety: Cabernet Sauvignon – I like it because it is a frisky wine-making adventure.
White grapes variety: Romanian Tamaioasa – Its elegance appeals to me.
Favourite region in the world: I love the seaside, but Toscana is what I am truly fond of.
Vintage country: Italy, Toscana.
Key words: balance and personality.
Wine industry in Romania is…still too industrial.
Romanian wine is… on the brink of proving its worth.
Baron Jakob Kripp, main questionnaire:
Red grapes variety: Pinot Noir – is the variety that best suits my personality.
White grapes variety: Feteasca Regala – The way I see it, it is a singular wine.
Favourite region in the world: What I like most about Tyrol Mountains is the calm of the region.
Vintage country: Italy, Piedmont – Barolo.
Key words: simplicity, authenticity, balance and elegance.
Wine industry in Romania is... still at its onset. We currently lack family wineries and I suppose the load is too heavy for foreign wine-makers.
Romanian wine is... surprisingly diverse.
I have one last question for Mrs Ileana. How did Jakob manage to gain your affection?
Ileana K: [she gazes at Jakob and smiles] He wins my heart every day and I have no idea how he does that. Every time I get up my heart is in his hands.
The baron gazed back at her, trying to hide his emotions and not engage in any gestures of affection, which he probably would not have done if we hadn’t been there. A short moment of silence then followed, but it was removed by the tinkling of glasses.
The wine that bears the name of Prince Stirbey is wonderfully reflected in the exceptional story and resonance that lies behind it. The Kripps, together with an extraordinary team of people led by Raluca and Oliver Bauer, have succeeded in inspiring wine-makers and wineries throughout the country. What is more, they’ve managed to inspire and amaze the people who have tasted their exquisite wines, and they continue to inspire us every day.
3 May 2014