Marius Iliev has long been known as the "TEC millionaire", being one of the first highly successful businessmen since 1990. However, if things continue at today’s pace regarding its vineyards in Dobrogea and Dealu Mare, probably its name will end up synonymous with the Horses from Letea and prince Matei Domains. Wines of Romania talked leisurely with the main shareholder of the Vintruvian group – to get an interview in two or three parts – about the birth, development and philosophy behind the company, about people and passions, about the toxic characters that populate the social networks, about the promotion of the Romanian wine inside and outside the country, about associations, oenoturism, grape varieties and other "burning cessions" from the agenda of the day. Today we present the first part of the discussion, in which the star is Via Viticulture Sarica Niculitel. A place started from insolvency and became a star of Dobrogea wines.
An old butada related to the wine world says that if you want to make a small fortune, you take a big fortune and invest it in wine. How valid is it?
It depends on what the time horizon is. In the short term, that’s right, especially if you want a big business. At a small business, you put in a little money and you make a little money. For a large business, you initially invest a lot of money, which you can only recover in a longer period, and the wine is already notorious for the long periods it requires. The brand must be built, only then we can have the hope that the profit appears.
I was reading, before I entered the world of wine, about some investors in Bordeaux who only after seven years understood what it is about in their business. It didn’t take that long here, but after three or four years – in August it’s been seven years since we entered this business – we started to see traces of profit. Now things have already begun to take shape, and that great wealth invested at the beginning is beginning to recover. And hopefully it will lead to an even bigger one…
In the early years, there was a lot of silence around the business in Sarica Niculitel. It was only with the rebranding that it began to gain visibility…
That’s how it seems. In general, that you are heading to these channels where visibility is higher – TV and classic media in general – you need a critical mass. When you do not have a degree of market penetration, when your product is not available in many places, you make a lot of noise in vain. You pay a significant cost, but the one you are addressing has nowhere to find the bottle of wine. The first year of branding was 2016. The first wines were from the 2015 harvest, or even older, what we found in the wine cellar, but since 2016 branding has begun and there has not been a year in which the growths are not spectacular. Not necessarily 2016, when we grew from nothing to something, so it could not have been spectacular in numbers, but especially then, when the growth continued, year after year. Large increases, until today, which means that we have also adapted our communication strategy to harmonize with this evolution.
What did you find at Sarica when you joined the shareholding?
It was a company that had a vineyard, in a rather pitiful state, but capable of producing quality wines, but with high costs. In general, any vine put on a good place, on a suitable terroir, if you give it the right thing, if you do the necessary work, has the ability to produce a quality wine. But the cost can be very high, if the vineyard is not easy to maintain, if it does not have the right density, the right form of driving , if you do not have the right equipment and so on… And from a winery standpoint, it was almost zero in technology. There were five large stainless steel pools and polystif pots, a very large press, meaning everything was designed so that you could produce a bulk wine, in very large quantities, and you did not have the possibility to process some smaller parties, of grapes that would have had the necessary qualities for a good wine.
In 2015 we sacrificed some grapes of inferior quality to be able to make some better wines. Good wine needs smaller amounts, cold, controlled temperatures, especially when you talk about white or rose wines, you can’t make wine – that is, you can, but not by today’s standards. We managed to make some good wines in 2015 so that in 2016, when we launched the Horses from Letea and the Horses from Letea Limited Edition, the wines were well received by the market.
What was, however, the road to Sarica? Because at that time, Sarica did not make the worst wines in Romania, but there was no guiding lighthouse either… How did your investment target become?
They were only very rarely present with bottled wines, most of the wines were sold in bulk, and what existed in the bottle, something like Awarded, was far from our intentions.
So, apart from a few promising things, there was no reason to invest there…
If we look back, there is a beautiful history of that vineyard, with quality wines, some of which we have tasted, before entering the shareholding, wines kept since the ’80s in the pits from Sarica. I was impressed by some, and the stories told by the older employees, who had caught those times, were stories about a successful wine cellar with quality wines. But Sarica Niculitel was never promoted "to export", as they say, because during communism many were leaving for export. And many of the wines from Sarica were sold under the Murfatlar brand, which is why Sarica Niculitel entered the general perception as a company that sells cheap wines.
To answer you, I went in to help a friend, who asked me to give him some money, so that he would not lose the investment there. Because he was my friend, I told him that I would give him the money to solve his problem – he had to pay the insolvency rate, he had not paid salaries, he could not work the vineyard, it was the harvest period and he had nothing to harvest with… He would have returned my loan in a few months and everyone would see his life, but I soon realized that he would have no way, that he had no assets to sell and, anyway, the assets were already encumbered by insolvency debts, which were higher than the value at which he could have sold at that time. That’s how I decided to go into the shareholding, which led to other investments…
What knowledge did you have about wine at that time?
The knowledge of a consumer. I’ve never been a great drinker, and I’m not even now, but I liked to order a good wine at the restaurant and I thought I was good at wines… I found that I knew then about 10% of what I know now, and now I know, probably, 10% of what I should know, if I were a connoisseur. But I’m not, I don’t consider myself a connoisseur. And then I was a consumer at the level of "I like / I do not like", by no means at the level of comments, descriptions or tasting notes.
This was the entrance to the company, then we kept investing. In 2016, I had planned to count the company from insolvency and had to pay a fairly large amount. I had the money ready, but I realized that without technology, it’s useless. So we postponed the exit from insolvency and invested in a winemaking department. From own funds, because there are no European funds for companies in insolvency. We built, with a lot of effort, a modern winemaking department, equipped with everything needed, so, in 2016, we started to have many quality wines. If from the 2015 harvest we managed to make about four wines, in 2016 everything went well, they came out both white and rose – not red, because the red wines had to stay – but the whites and roses were very well received. We had then the certainty that there was a great potential, so in the next year we came up with another tranche of money, to get the company out of insolvency.
Has the team changed a lot since you joined the shareholding? Engineers, oenologists, technicians…
Of the bosses, there is none left – engineers, oenologist, etc.. There are a few technicians left. But we have developed, we have grown, we have engaged, we have engaged, from those from whom we have separated, we have separated in good conditions… Our policy is to hire locals, as much as possible, even in top positions. It is not always possible, but look that we managed to rely on the locals – the engineers in the vineyard, the people in the winery are from Tulcea County. It is important both in terms of stability, but also in terms of the dedication they are willing to invest. You know this is an area where passion is very important. Things come out differently when they are done with passion. Fortunately, the locals, especially in Sarica, are very passionate about vineyards and wine. Yes not only, in the whole county of Tulcea. I found people like Adi Dolghin, the oenologist, or like Ionut Gadiuta… Obviously, it’s not just about passion and story, you also have to know your job.
Because it came to passion – does such a business leave room for something else? Is there still time for other businesses?
For now I am a "hands-on" manager, as they say, but as the business grows and the team welds, things change. From 2017-2018 we were joined by Alin Lazarescu, initially in another position, sales, but being also an oenologist and having important technological skills, he became general manager at Via Viticulture and is my main collaborator. Many of the tasks were divided between me and him, and now I am looking to bring in other people to take care of other parts of the business, people competent enough to depend the business as little as possible on me. Otherwise, the complexity of such a business is so great that a man cannot encompass it, especially in the way we have developed the business. Because we are not only talking about Sarica, but also about Piatra Ostrov and Tulcea, three plantations in different places, a few tens of kilometers from each other. To which are added the Matei Domains from Dealu Mare. So four important work points, plus Bucharest, where the sales and marketing departments are. And the business itself has grown in complexity, and that means growing the team. Even recently we have hired some important positions, but now it is necessary to run a bit, before the responsibilities are delegated to them.
Returning to the idea of passion – from the status of a consumer who knows what they come to order until today, with the things learned about wine, has the passion for it also increased?
Yes, clearly! People ask me how I can work so hard, because I basically work from the time I wake up until I go to bed. On the other hand, in any business I’ve had so far, I haven’t seen this schedule that I hear exists about – eight hours I sleep, eight hours I work, eight hours I have fun. There’s no such thing for me, but that’s also because I’ve never looked at work as a burden, a task. For me, it’s all a passion. If I have some activities that could be framed in the idea of work, I don’t see it that way. It’s like playing a game. If you look at things as obligations it’s much harder. If you think that today you have to do an excel, tomorrow you dig a hole, you can cut down a tree, and you perceive these things as a chore, at some point it becomes hard, and such a program is unsustainable. But I don’t see it that way now, nor have I ever done it, in any business.
I mean the old saying with "if you want to not work any day, do what you like"…
Yes, exactly, that applies to me. But, let’s not forget, it remains important to find people to rely on, especially when the business grows. And you have to have comedian people, because you can’t expect another one to do his job as well as you do, as an owner. They may have other goals than you, personal goals – and that’s very normal – and then competence, professionalism and efficiency become very important.