Victoria Aslanian is the CEO of ArmAs in Armenia—which includes a winery, distillery and hospitality facilities. Born in the city of Yerevan, she has lived in Armenia, the U.S. and Europe, is fluent in English and Russian, and worked with her father Armenak when their family spent six years building an estate in the Aragatsotn Province in western Armenia. She studied at the University of California, Berkeley, and later remotely obtained an executive MBA.
ArmAs and the associated Keerk label produce 12 wines on the market. The family also produces grapes used to make brandy, and have services to produce wines from other producers’ grapes. Grape varieties used to make ArmAs wines, as well as wines from their Keerk label, include Karmrahyut and Areni for red wines, and Kangun, Rkatsiteli and Voskehat for white wines.
We met on a recent weekend when we were both in Paris, soon after Victoria spoke at a conference for the Armenian General Benevolent Union—AGBU, and its collaboration with France.
She described challenges and rewards of making wines in Armenia, and how the domestic vintners’ scene has dramatically altered during the past decade.
‘My father purchased 180 hectares [440 acres] of rocks in 2007. We built a 17-kilometer brick wall around it. We call it the Great Wall of ArmAs. It’s undulating terrain.
‘When I was 18 I lived in Florence in Italy for a few months studying art history. I picked up Italian. That came in handy when we had 35 Italians living at ArmAs full for years during construction. As a child I won gold medals in a science fair in applied engineering and physics. My father was a structural engineer. I wanted to follow in his footsteps. When we built the winery, I understood much of the engineering.
‘ArmAs is short for my great grandfather Armenak Aslanian who was the winemaker in our family. Village winemaker. ‘Keerk’ in Armenian means passion. We say ArmAs is our name, and Keerk is our approach.
‘Our family revitalized the wine education industry and wine service industry in Armenia. Before, if something broke down, we had to call someone from Europe to come, and then pay them an exuberant amount of money to fix it. No longer. We were the first to do wine tourism on this scale. Most importantly, there used to be no market to speak of in terms of fine wines. Now, it’s almost embarrassing if you are caught drinking a non-Armenian wine in Armenia.
‘We started from scratch. From grape to glass, literally. We say man versus nature—phase one. Man versus man, with the winery and team—phase two. Then man versus the market. All three are ongoing.
‘Man versus nature: in 2011 we were expecting our very first harvest, 800 tons of grapes. We were going to sell them and reinvest in the winery which was still under construction. In five minutes we lost it all. Massive hailstorm. Nothing of the like had been in Armenia in at least 40 years; we know that because we studied the past 40 years of meteorological reports—wind rain, snow. But, we say—looking at the wine glass half full—then okay, if it had to happen, and I guess it had to happen, it was better in 2011 and not in 2012 when we were expecting our estate grown grapes for our estate bottled wines.
‘Now when it’s going to hail we know. By experience. We can even smell it, and of course we listen to meteorological reports. When we see it, basically we shoot this propane pill from any of three guns located on the estate into the clouds. As soon as it hits, a reaction takes place that disperses the cloud.
‘We have 100 hectares of scattered planted vineyards and also have 40 hectares of scattered orchards throughout the estate—so that flavors and aromas impact the soils and vines and grapes.
‘Some people invested in this country blindly; others were smart. Some got land from the government. We did not. What we have done so far is individual. It’s commendable. But imagine how far we could go. I used to take the politics of everything very hard. But my father said—and I took it very seriously—‘Listen, take it easy. Some people will come and go. We will stay. Keep your head down. Keep your head up. Work. That’s it. That’s what we do.
‘I was born in what was the Soviet Union—in Yerevan, Armenia. I left right as it was collapsing, then visited very often, practically every summer. Saw the transition. Saw it during the dark years, as we call them. Because at one point there was no water, no lights. Saw it through complete and utter corruption and more corruption and revolution.
‘Now, the city of Yerevan excites me. Gives me hope for the future. Yerevan is fun and wonderful. So many nice new places. When people visit, they feel like they’ve made a discovery. It’s not what they were expecting. The Yerevan Wine Days festival has a huge, huge turnout. People love it. When we started in 2007 there were three, maybe four wine producers. Now we’re getting closer to 200.
‘It never ceases to amaze me that despite everything and anything, we still have progress. We still go forward, and things get better. They get cleaner, more peaceful, more beautiful, more elegant, with better services, nicer places, industries flourish and what excites me most—the change in mindset. Like some wines—the finish is lasting and persistent, much like the culture itself.
‘Last summer I moved back to Armenia. There is nowhere else I’d rather live. I love it. It’s home. They say that in love there is a sense of ownership. I make a comparison to native grape varieties—those that are indigenous. Our native grape varieties thrive in their native soils. I can say the same of my soul. It thrives in my native soil.
‘Autumn—my favorite time of year. First of all, it’s not too hot. Secondly, the leaves change so you have these gorgeous blankets of greens and oranges and reds and yellows. So beautiful. On any day when Mount Ararat is shining through, somehow it lifts my spirit. It’s innate.’
The country of Armenia is 29,700+ square kilometers in area, or about 11,500 square miles in area—about the same size as the U.S. state of South Carolina, or of the country of Belgium; its annual wine production of some 13 million liters (3.4 million gallons) is somewhat larger than that of the U.S. state of Michigan or approximately the same as that of Luxembourg, but less than Slovakia.
‘Considering we are such a small country, if we just export our raw materials, it’s never going to make a difference. So to make wine from grapes, or top of the line cosmetic products—this is the way to take it to the next level. I was invited here to Paris to speak about that. It’s a big deal. The Armenian General Benevolent Union is the biggest and wealthiest benefactor for different Armenian causes. They are involved in a lot and have been around quite some time.
‘The country is getting more and more diverse, especially now. We now have so many Russians and Ukrainians. Which is very good. Although prices of everything have gone up, quality and demand also are going up. New wines, new markets, new events. Tourism—previously most of our tourists to ArmAs were from the United States. Now, most are Russians.
[In 2020 there was a 44-day serious armed conflict that involved Armenia, Azerbaijan and the disputed terrain of Artsakh.]
‘After 44 days of war in 2020, the country was literally in mourning. Months and months of that. People couldn’t take it anymore. They needed to go outside and live. There was this palpable shift in mentality. Streets are vibrant once more after heartache, disappointment, tragedy. But you don’t honor that by stopping living. You honor it by saying—We will be happy; we will progress; we will build; we will smile. That’s what we did. And that is no small feat.
‘You know what? Take it easy. Enjoy what you can. Greatest pleasures in life? Relations we have with people; the joy we take from them, and give to them. Then the basic senses. What I love about wine, and also about great company, is both tend to do the same. They awaken a sixth sense. With wine we feel it, we see it, we smell it, we taste it and we hear it [clinking wine glasses] and when we enjoy it—a sixth sense arises as well. In great company it’s also true—from the energy that arises.
‘What to say of a nation where the only thing we have to share with the world is our culture—our destiny and fortune? We’re changing that, with exports of wine. It will take a while. But Armenia? The per capita awesomeness is off the charts.’