I’ve heard so many popular stories and tales about Mihai and they are almost as popular as those about turning water into wine. He has been in the wine industry for nineteen years now. He worked the first eight years at R&D Institute for Wine-Growing and Wine-Making, Valea Calugareasca, where he earned his reputation as a “prodigy winemaker”. However, the more we delve into his past and attempt to find out more about how he came to work in the wine industry the more interesting it gets:
When did you first entertain the idea of making wine?
MB: I used to make wine at home using the old fashioned recipe. Clearly now I cannot brag about that anymore.
Can you briefly tell me how you’ve reached your current destination? When and how did you manage to become the wine expert of one of the most top rated wineries?
MB: In 1994 I worked as a mechanical engineer for Valea Calugareasca. At some point they ran out of Chiefs Winemaker and they suggested that I took up the position. What it may seem strangely odd and yet beneficial about this is the fact that I started practising straight away and only after a while did I start reading about it. Thus, I can proudly state that most of what I’ve accomplished and learned so far comes from practice.
A/N The story that I was telling you about at the beginning of the interview: when Mihai was hired at the winery he started fiddling with fermentation. The end result was remarkable. The wines had become unrecognizable and everybody was wondering how that had happened and how he succeeded in doing such an admirable job. So I suppose you could say that Mihai has earned his time in the limelight. From that point forward everybody knew him as the “prodigy winmaker”.
How did you manage to learn all the techniques of wine-making in such a short period of time, with no training whatsoever?
MB: I suppose that in my line of work genetics weighs more than science. It all started with my grandfather who was self-taught and could identify the variety of grapes by its string, and continued with my father who taught me to love the earth. I come from a family of eager agriculturists. My family are the ones who set me up for life and I owe my achievements in life to them.
Considering that you didn’t know much about wine-making, how did you approach the idea when you were appointed Chief Winemaker?
MB: I had relished the prospect of making wines and I immediately knew how much I appreciated it. Such was my devotion for what I was doing that it all came naturally. When I had started working, I began reading and I took some specialty courses.
How did you meet Walter and how did you go into partnership with LacertA?
MB: In 2003 I was attending a Master’s Degree programme in Wine Production in Germany. Walter, who is an Austrian diplomat, asked at the IBD-GTZ programme (program of the German government for economical promotion and labour force development) about a winemaker and that is how we got in touch. Walter’s wife, Larisa, who is Romanian and probably would not have returned to the country otherwise, decided that Romania would be the best place for a winery born out of passion for wines.
They say it was love at first sight and that you are the first and only wine oenologist with whom Walter has ever spoken about this subject. Nonetheless, that was a rather large investment. What do you think that made him trust you in the first place, without even tasting the wines you had made before?
MB: We sometimes foster instant connections with people. I and Walter have been on the same wavelength about most of the important issues ever since we first met. I had to make a decision then and nothing could hold me back from doing just that. It was chemistry, plain and simple.
Red wine grape varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon
White wine grape varieties: Feteasca Alba
Wine-producing country: White wines - South Africa
Red wines – Spain
Key words: structure and girth
Favourite aspect of the job: winemaking period – because it cannot be reproduced. Every wine processing is unique, as it is every bottle of wine.
Romania has well-established and growing wine industry.
Romanian wine is rather expensive (at least good ones)
In 2013, Walter Fridel, an Austrian diplomat, set out on a journey out of a passion for wines which could have easily been mistaken for a hobby. At the time he had a vineyard with only 17 ha of vines and a villa which had been designed by Ion Mincu. As time went by, his small business turned into a larger one: 82 ha of vines (replanted with the help of SAPARD and Reclamation Foundation) and one of the most impressive wineries in the country. By 2010 the vineyard had fructified and Mihai Banita and his team perform to the best of their ability in order to bring out the best qualities in wines.
Today, LacertA – named after the small lizards that run amok in the vines and which are instrumental in influencing the quality of the land – is small, modern and centers around premium wines. It is a winery which I can only speak highly of and it is beyond a shadow of a doubt one of my favourite places in the country. Its amazing architecture and wine tasting rooms, the people who work there, as well as the stunning landscape and wine flavours will instantly take your breath away. For all these reasons, LacertA should be at the top of a “must see” list.
Text: Alexandra Hash
Photo: Alina Iancu