Yuri Vanetik was appointed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to be the California Lottery Commissioner. And prior to that, the celebrity governor appointed the Ukrainian-American lawyer to serve on the California Criminal Justice Commission. Vanetik is a political operative and a Washington insider who occasionally lobbies congress and represents foreign businesses and political leaders— some of whom have become lifelong friends. But with all of the people he’s met and all of the places he’s seen— having traveled throughout the Americas, Europe, Asia, and the Caucasus— Vanetik says that his most fascinating encounters have been with people who he’s met through a shared love for wine.
A wine collector for over 22 years, Yuri Vanetik has tasted wines in Israel, Greece, Cyprus, Ukraine, Poland, Turkey, Moldova, Germany, China, Republic of Georgia, Canada, and some 20 different regions that would never come to mind when you think about wine.
His wine prowess isn’t exactly a secret— having been the subject of a feature in Robb Report— but outside of the occasional magazine interview, Vanetik is private about his wine preferences, the places he visits, and the relationships he cultivates through a mutual passion for wine.
Vanetik says that wine has not only led him to new business projects, but has also helped him to resolve complex problems for his clients.
“Whether I’m meeting with a candidate for president from an embattled Eastern European nation or a corporate executive in the South of France, the discussion often digresses to wine,” smiles attorney-cum-political strategist.
“The reason is simple,” he explains. “Many alpha-type people who search for meaning and want to have an impact on the world around them drink and collect wine. It is a magnet for the curious and the passionate. I remember a meeting I once had with an influential religious leader in Israel. He was stern, difficult to penetrate and relate to, and the negotiations were going nowhere, until the topic of Israeli wine came up.”
Vanetik vividly recalls the tangible shift in energy when his business “adversary” affectionately recommended a 2016 Gva’ot Masada Bordeaux-style blend, fondly describing its notes of chocolate ganache and cigar tobacco and intimating, as if to a close friend, that the blend can age better than a Bordeaux red.
“We instantly connected.” Vanetic laughs whimsically.
“Discovering wine with someone or sharing a passion for a certain region or even vintage is like discussing your puppy playing with your grand kids,” Vanetik continues. “People smile and their guard is down.”
But to earn a seat at the most exclusive of tables, a mere love for wine won’t quite cut it. You have to have the taste— and the knowledge— of a fine sommelier. Vanetik makes it clear—you will be measured by the type of wine you drink.
“I was recently discussing terms with a potential client from Eastern Europe,” Vanetik recalls. “He promised that if our work together was successful, I would be gifted a case of 1992 Screaming Eagle— a rare California cult wine that for many is prohibitively expensive. The businessman who boasted of drinking “Screagle” as he referred to it, was surprised that I appreciate Domaine de la Romanée-Conti or DRC as it is known for short, and began to treat me as an equal rather than as a service provider.”
Vanetik asks me if I know of DRC. I do not. But rest assured, I am not alone. Domaine de la Romanée-Conti— which prices its ‘entry-level’ wine Corton at more than €1,000 and the Monopole La Tache for more than €4,000 euros— selectively opens its doors to exclusive importers or the most pedigreed fine wine journalists and only produces a few thousand bottles a year in order to preserve its rigorous quality standards.
“If you are thinking about stopping by the winery, don’t waste your time because you won’t get in,” he smirks. “Ironically, the adjacent street is called Rue de Temps Perdu, the street of lost time.”
Wines like these become the story of legends. Ownership alone is a purveyor of status. For this reason, some who buy do not intend to drink, but to collect or acquire for investment— often to the dismay of producers.
“Wine in business can make you equals and can turn rivals into collaborators,” the oenophile tells me, as he describes the “old guard” of business people and bureaucrats in Eastern Europe, who frequently think of professionals as “a concierge with a graduate degree.”
For the authentic few who share the passion and the palate for exquisite wine… its stories and its history… the joy of sharing it with others… the highs of collecting it… When they find one another, it breaks down walls and creates bonds… it is the great equalizer and transforms “doing business” into a cultural experience.
“I recall visiting Moldova and meeting with various business leaders there,” shares the avid storyteller. “The businessman who later became a client took me on a tour of the famous cellars and told me of the historical genesis of his favorite wine, Negru de Purcari. He told me a story of how the baptismal act was established in 1827, when Tsar Nicholas I issued a special decree establishing the first specialized winery in Bessarabia at Purcari…”
He goes on.
“Some time ago, I negotiated the acquisition of a hotel in the Caucasus. The opposing counsel— an Austrian attorney— started to talk about Georgian wine, and how the unique way of making wine in Qvevri is the oldest known method of wine production… Well, we talked for a while and it turned out that he collects a rare California wine popular with adherents to wine critic Robert Parker’s preferences and scores. The rare concoction is called Sine Qua Non… Once the big law firm partner learned that I also collect his favorite wine, he melted with excitement. Now we refer business to each other.”
This love for wine… It has opened tremendous doors in business for the Ukranian-American. It has been a superior negotiating tool, and a means of showing gratitude and respect to those with elastic resources, who are not easily impressed.
“Wine in business transcends culture,” he says.