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WITH A LITTLE HELP, KOSOVO’S WINE INDUSTRY BEGINS TO RIPEN

December 11th, 2009 61 comments

Written by Joe Linstroth

Photography by Evan Martin

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RAHOVEC, KOSOVO – In any discussion of the world’s emerging wine-producing regions, Kosovo’s Rahovec Valley rarely garners a mention, and with good reason. For the last fifty years, the wines produced here have offered little to talk about and, with the exception of Germany, have rarely found their way outside the Balkans. But ten years have passed since the war with Serbia, and the winemakers in this agricultural town of about 25,000 have begun the long rebuilding process with the hope to one day carve out a little piece of the international wine market and enjoy the respect that comes with it.

With just 2 million people, Kosovo will never be able to compete with the big boys in terms of production. Nor does it have the name recognition to keep afloat in the massive international “wine lake” by producing the same old varietals like chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and merlot. But what Kosovo does have in abundance is pristine terroir and indigenous grape varietals – two ingredients that make Kosovo’s goal far less unrealistic than it may seem.

“I’ve never seen better conditions for growing grapes than I have in this valley,” says David Rowe, who, as a former editor of Decanter wine magazine and now an international wine consultant based in Bordeaux, has seen his share of the world’s vineyards. Rowe has been coming to Rahovec for years as a consultant winemaker for Stone Castle Vineyards, the region’s largest winery.

Rahovec was once the crown jewel of wine production in the former Yugoslavia. It was also the scene of some of the worst fighting during the 1999 war. While the turbulent history is never far from the surface, the winemakers in Rahovec, with significant help from the German government, are dedicated to finding a way to extract the enormous potential nature has bestowed them.

Diving Headfirst

On the northern ridge of the Rahovec Valley, just outside of town, the locals gather at the community pool, seeking relief from the intense summer heat. Teenagers jackknife off a rusty platform just 100 yards from the edge of a vineyard. But this is Kosovo, where even a cool dip can come with a reminder of the still delicate situation here. On the days when NATO’s German contingent is conducting an exercise at the nearby firing range, the staccato bursts of machine-gun fire blend with the slapping water and youthful laughter to form an eerie racket more akin to a sound installation in a postmodern art gallery than a poolside picnic with the family.

The view on the other hand is a reminder that Mother Nature has no politics. The hills roll on for miles, all coifed with thousands of rows of vines, their round scalps seemingly parted in every direction by a thick-toothed comb. The valley is entirely surrounded by mountains, a geographic rarity that has created a microclimate ideal for growing grapes. The region has more than 200 days of sunshine and rainfall is optimal. The continental climate’s harsh winters induce the dormancy needed for a healthy grapevine’s annual life cycle.

From afar, everything a wine region needs seems in place. But a trudge through the vineyards and a tour of a local winery reveal a dizzying array of problems.

“Although on the plus side the climatic conditions are almost perfect for viticulture,” says Rowe, “on the minus side there is a lack of professionalism.”

The first challenge has been to figure out where to even begin. Does it start with the winemakers, who lack knowledge of international wine standards? In the vineyards, which suffer from neglect and poor maintenance practices? Or at the administrative level, which must overcome a dearth of resources to implement policies — not just a window-dressing wine institute — that will ensure a reliable product necessary for the highly competitive international wine market? So far, the answer has been all of the above.

Humble Beginnings

A sour odor of sweat blankets the cramped, narrow room in Kosovo’s Wine Institute. The tiny air conditioner, when switched on, struggles in vain to counter the scorching July heat and the radiating bodies of twenty-five local winemakers, oenologists and government representatives from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Rural Development. All the major players in Kosovo’s struggling but proud wine industry have gathered here for a two-day training led by Carsten Heinemeyer, an international wine consultant based in Germany. Speaking in short spurts so his ethnic Albanian translator can keep up, Heinemeyer starts from the beginning. Empty wine glasses line the edge of the U-shaped table. They lie in wait until after lunch, when Heinemeyer will conduct a blind tasting with local, regional and international wines side by side — a liquid dessert of humble pie.

Most of the winemakers at the training, despite decades of experience, are getting their first introduction to international wine standards; their first exposure to detailed descriptions of common mistakes in winemaking; and their first lessons on ways to avoid and correct them. It’s a delicate task.

“When it’s about problems with the wine, this is always very difficult to talk about because to talk about the mistakes in their wine is the same as talking about the beauty of their daughter,” says Marcel Schwickert, head of the German Technical Cooperation’s (GTZ) Program for Economy and Employment Promotion, which is funded by the German government.

“They say, ‘She’s the most beautiful one,’ and my question is always, ‘Okay, she’s the most beautiful one but have you already been able to marry this daughter to somebody?’”

Germany is alone when it comes to providing international aid to the Rahovec wine industry. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the territory’s other major international contributor to private sector development, commissioned an extensive study of the industry in 2006, but in an email response, officials said the wine sector lacked the potential to benefit from short-term investment.

Schwickert sees the long-term potential in Rahovec. This is partly because Germans have a long history here. Since 1957, they have been the largest consumers of Kosovar wine, importing millions of liters a year from the state-owned factory that is now Stone Castle and selling it at rock-bottom prices under the Amselfelder label. GTZ has been involved in Kosovo’s wine sector for the last three years, says Schwickert, mostly helping to establish the Wine Institute and surround it with an administrative framework. Schwickert has brought Heinemeyer to Kosovo to begin the next phase, which will last an additional four years and focus exclusively on the wine producers.

Off Notes

After visiting many of the area’s wineries, Heinemeyer complements the moderate alcohol levels and high acidity of Rahovec wines. Yet nearly all of them, he says, exhibit at least one, if not several, obvious faults, such as oxidation and excessive sulfur dioxide. He maintains, however, that with education and dedication, these faults are correctable.

“The wineries don’t need hardware. What they need is software,” he says, pointing to his head.

Flaws can be difficult for the local winemakers to spot because it is how they have been making wine in Rahovec for decades. Unfamiliarity with international wines and winemaking practices is problematic, especially when the ultimate goal is to compete in the highly competitive international market, where critics and connoisseurs await with a quiver full of semantic arrows that can kill a wine region’s reputation faster than a viticulturist can say phylloxera.

“Our message was: ‘When you start fishing, the fish has to like the worm, not the fisherman,’” says Schwickert.

The former Communist mentality that measured success in liters still remains. Most growers in the region aim for producing as many grapes as possible, and with the current system in which the fruit is purchased by the kilogram, there is little incentive for the farmers to alter their methods. But in the delicate art of winemaking more is not better.

Efforts are underway to encourage grape producers to limit their yields through practices such as “green harvesting.” When the green berries appear, farmers selectively trim some bunches away, concentrating the vine’s energy into fewer grapes, elevating their color and flavor. With thousands of grape farmers in the Rahovec region, implementing this practice is a daunting challenge.

Schwickert says he plans to bring in more international experts to help wineries identify the problems in the vineyards and assist in the drafting of standardized parameters that will form the basis of long-term contracts between the wineries and growers – a necessary first step toward revitalizing the vineyards in Rahovec.

Solo Artists

The wine industry in Kosovo was privatized in 2006. At the same time, the provisional government passed a series of regulations, collectively known as the Wine Law. A year later, it established the Wine Institute in Rahovec to implement the new policies. This process, at times chaotic, has resulted in two tiers of wine production, one with seven licensed wineries and the other consisting of independent winemakers, like Faik Vuciterna, who operate with little to no government oversight.

Vuciterna works his family’s hectare of vines with his two adult sons. Knowledge of his craft comes from his father and grandfather, and during the winter months, he supplements the old ways with modern techniques taken from books written by French and Italian experts. Last year, Vuciterna managed to squeeze 3,000 liters of wine out of a winery the size of a vaulted two-car garage. During fermentation, he says he sleeps on the room’s bare concrete floor, listening for the gurgling mash to hit the right pitch. He bottles the finished product himself and sells it to restaurants in Pristina, Kosovo’s capital, and in neighboring Albania. The budget is so tight that he cannot afford to hold any wine back for further aging.

“Maybe we work in a primitive way,” says Vuciterna, standing amidst the long shadows of vines perched atop a hill adjacent to the town’s center. He points to a circular scar in the earth where he says the Serb military used his land for a strategic bunker ten years ago.

“They destroyed the whole city. We couldn’t work for two years in our vineyards and had to start over,” he explains.

Now, as the Rahovec region reassembles the pieces, thirty to fifty winemakers like Vuciterna operate outside the legal framework because the benefits of official recognition have yet to materialize. The government offers no subsidies; the only exporting they can realistically consider is to Albania, which many already do anyway; and, domestically, they avoid the government’s high excise tax.

“I’m a small fish. There are big fish and they can do more,” Vuciterna says.

By far the biggest fish in Rahovec is Stone Castle. Purchased in 2006 by two Albanian-American real estate developers from New York, the behemoth, with its vast underground cellar and rows of 50-foot fermentation silos, was once a dominant state-owned wine factory in the former Yugoslavia. Today it is one of the largest privately-owned wineries in the world, with a capacity to produce 50 million liters of wine, though, if Rowe has his way, it will never hum at full throttle.

“Stone Castle has been built with industrial-scale winemaking in mind,” Rowe says. “My idea is to start developing a winery within a winery, a smaller-scale operation for the top-quality wines coming from the new vineyards.”

According to GTZ studies, Stone Castle dominates the market, growing or purchasing over 85 percent of the grapes in Rahovec. There is one medium-sized company, Haxhijaha, with a five percent market share. Five smaller wineries split the remainder.

The seven licensed wineries are subject to the regulations laid out in the Wine Law. They include annual laboratory analysis, quality rankings by a five-member panel appointed by the Ministry of Agriculture, and a domestic excise tax. Many agree that the government’s role in the wine sector, though in need of improvement, has built a strong foundation.

“For the first time there is an institute that has to take care of the activities and the needs of the sector from the government side,” says Schwickert.

Kosovo Needs a Mondavi

The Rahovec wine industry is still in the early phases of rebuilding. So far, the focus has been on pruning vineyards, modernizing winemaking techniques and sharpening government policies. These efforts all point eventually to the creation of a cohesive strategy for the export market. Kosovo’s slow pace of development has had one advantage. It has allowed the industry here to learn from the errors made by others in the Balkan region.

“They should definitely not make the same mistakes as the Bulgarians, who aimed at the lowest price point in the export market,” says Rowe, who consulted for a Bulgarian winery ten years ago. “Once you establish a very low price point it becomes almost impossible to get out of that.”

Among the local winemakers, there is no consensus on which varietals deserve the most attention. Few mention native Balkan varietals like prokupe (also known as prokupec in Serbia) and vranac (vranc), both reds, and the white grape, smederevka. More often, international varietals like cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir and chardonnay attract the winemakers’ attention. But the international market is already overflowing with more established regions producing these varietals, and many sophisticated wine drinkers have developed chardonnay and cabernet fatigue.

“People do get tired of these same eight grape varieties that everyone produces,” Rowe says. “People who know a bit more about wine are looking for something different, and countries like Kosovo can provide for that gap in the market.”

Heinemeyer notes prokupe could produce excellent results. But he resists describing the grape’s flavor profile, stressing that it will change with improved knowledge and winemaking practices.

Discussing the potential of vranac, Rowe is quick to highlight a future role for the Wine Institute.

“I think the priority for the Institute is to work on clonal selection,” he says. “It may be that there is only one clone of vranac, but I suspect there are many different clones in fact, and it’s only by identifying and selecting the most appropriate clones that we can get the best out of that and other grape varieties.”

In addition to clonal selection, Heinemeyer and Rowe say a thorough and professional cadastral study of the region will help. In the past, due to the government’s heavy production demands, vines were planted without careful consideration of soil-type. GTZ plans to help the government begin the arduous, but necessary, process next year.

To consolidate all of the new information, the winemakers at the training recently formed an association that they hope will develop a way forward. They have committed resources to help offset some of the costs, including footing the bill for Heinemeyer’s accommodations. As the association matures, it will eventually be asking for more help from the fledgling Kosovo government, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008. It remains unclear what sort of assistance the foundation will receive.

“If we want to do something, we must have a strategy for the wine sector,” says Bekim Hoxha, chief of the permanent secretary office in the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Rural Development. “But we’re not ready yet.”

Heinemeyer stresses patience. “We need leaders, pulling forces, people who can be a reference – the avant garde.” In other words, someone to do for the Rahovec region what Robert Mondavi did for Napa Valley and Nicholas Catena has recently done for Argentina.

The stakes are high. More than 4,000 grape growers in the Rahovec region rely on wine production for their livelihood, according to a government study conducted last year. Others here estimate the number is much greater. Kosovo is a mostly rural territory that depends heavily on agricultural production and establishing a robust export wine industry is crucial. With these stakes in mind, the Rahovec wine community is putting its collective nose in a wine glass and taking on the challenges that lie ahead.

“We cannot produce planes or automobiles, but we have all the natural resources to make wine,” says Bashkim Koronica, a longtime professor of viticulture and oenology at Kosovo’s main university in Pristina.

A healthy wine industry could also do more than boost a beleaguered economy in which unemployment has hovered above 40 percent for years. Producing great wine instills pride in a country and culture in ways that a spicy pepper or a dense potato cannot. In the words of Hemingway: “Wine is the most civilized thing in the world.” After years of receiving international support, producing great wine is a way for Kosovo to present itself in full regalia to the world and, much more simply, to give a little something back.

Toasting the Future

After lunch, the winemakers file back into the steamy room for a blind tasting. Heinemeyer fills the glasses in front of them and then asks each person to rank the wines, encouraging them to think about the flaws mentioned during the morning’s presentation. Fejzullah Berisha is quick to offer his comments, as he has been throughout the day. Berisha is Stone Castle’s chief winemaker and thus the elder statesman in the room. It’s a bold move. Everyone is aware that their wines are mixed in with their international competitors, and silence is the predominating response to Heinemeyer’s prodding. Number Two is the worst and Number Five has a significant flaw, Berisha says. The consultant removes the sleeves revealing the wines Berisha singled out are both from Stone Castle. With a genuine smile on his face, the winemaker throws his hands up in the air. The room gasps with laughter.

“Of course it’s always difficult to convince the big boss he has to learn something, but they are willing,” says Schwickert. “It’s promising.”

At the training’s conclusion, Berisha is the first to stand and offer a toast to Heinemeyer and Schwickert. For the last two days, some of Kosovo’s best and brightest in the wine industry have been knocked down a few pegs. This is a rare moment when Kosovo’s past has been a blessing, for bloated egos are difficult to come by in a place that has seen so much turmoil and is in need of so much rebuilding. Amidst the idle conversation as everyone sips sparkling wine, it is as clear as the blue Rahovec sky in the window that they are prepared to pull their weight. Success is not preordained; nor will a fine Rahovec wine purify all of the vinegary notes from the past. It could, however, allow the rest of the world to taste a hint of Kosovo’s pride.

PARALLEL EDUCATION SYSTEMS THREATEN KOSOVO’S LONG-TERM STABILITY

December 2nd, 2009 54 comments

Written by Joe Linstroth with additional reporting by Vullnet Malazogu

Photography by Evan Martin

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KAMENICA, KOSOVO — Diplomatic disputes have largely replaced gunfire in Kosovo, which is ten years removed from war, and currently one of the most crucial battlefields is education.

At the Maksimovic primary school in Kamenica, an ethnically diverse city in eastern Kosovo, 170 Serb and Roma students are taught that Kosovo is still part of Serbia. The Serb government in Belgrade provides the school’s curricula, as well as the faculty’s salaries.

“There is no trust,” said Zoran Pejcev, the school’s director, through a translator. “We don’t know that if we leave the government of Serbia we can trust the Kosovo government will accept us, that they will give us wages, that they will integrate a new system. There is so much hesitation.”

In an adjacent building just thirty yards across a cracked asphalt playground, ethnic Albanian children are taught that Kosovo is now an independent state. The ethnic Albanian leadership in Kosovo declared independence in February 2008, and the curricula designed by the new government’s Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MEST) emphasizes the historical moment.

These parallel education systems threaten to further entrench ethnic divisions in the territory, where NATO troops, international observers and aid organizations have remained since the war’s conclusion to maintain peace and assist with rebuilding the territory’s infrastructures. Kosovo’s future political and economic stability, many here say, depends on the governments in Pristina, Kosovo’s capital, and Belgrade to find a compromise on many issues, not least of which is education. Most of Kosovo’s Serbs and Albanians live, work and go to school in isolation from each other. Without education reform — without some movement toward reconciliation happening in the classrooms among the future generations — the long-term strength of Kosovo as a state will likely remain tenuous at best. So far, little progress has been made.

“There is no motivation for either side to integrate,” said Oliver Schmidt-Gutzat, head of the Department of Human Rights and Communities for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Mission in Kosovo. Last April, Schmidt-Gutzat’s department released a report that, in part, criticized the lack of progress toward integration in Kosovo’s schools.

Serbs like Vlasta Simic said they are caught in the middle of a political game between the governments in Belgrade and Pristina.

“Like tennis,” said Simic, whose family has lived in Kamenica for four generations. A printer by trade, he has been unemployed for three years. His wife, Jadranka, works at the Belgrade-funded Serb municipality in Kamenica. The Serb institutions – mostly local municipalities, health care facilities, and schools – are the few places, he said, where Kosovo Serbs can find jobs.

“A lot of wages come from Serbia, from Belgrade,” he said. “But in the end, I don’t feel any of them, this government in Kosovo or the government in Serbia cares about us.”

But until the political situation is resolved, Simic said he would be hesitant to send his two children, who attend the Maksimovic school, to another school with Albanian children to learn from a curriculum designed by the Kosovo government.

“The situation that we are living in at the moment, if one Serb does that then I would be like a black sheep,” he said. “All the families need to accept it. It comes back to politics. The fish smells from the head.”

Simic’s sentiment is not an isolated one. The international organization Save the Children has been trying to integrate Kosovo’s Serb and Albanian children through its Mozaik project since 2006 with little success. The project aims to create a multicultural preschool model and has six programs in five municipalities. The goal of the project is to breakdown the ethnic divisions before they form by fostering an environment where children from different ethnic backgrounds can just play together. The ones in Kamenica and Oblic, another town with a sizeable Serb minority population, focus on integrating Serb and Albanian children. While they have waitlists for the programs at other sites targeting the Bosniak and Turkish minorities, the project managed to only attract three Serbian children last year. Rrezearta Zhinipotoku, Save the Children’s advocacy and communications coordinator in Kosovo, said ideally the project would have ten Serbian children and ten Albanian children at each of the two sites. Attracting Albanian parents has not been a problem, she said.

While frameworks exist — namely the Bologna Process and the Comprehensive Proposal for the Kosovo Status Settlement, more commonly known as the Ahtisaari Plan — to guide Kosovo’s Serbs and Albanians toward a compromise, both sides have yet to agree to recognize the other’s diplomas, much less institute a second-language curriculum or integrate classrooms.

“The framework would be there if everybody would adhere to it,” Schmidt-Gutzat said. “Again, there is no willingness to sit together and find practical solutions because this would be seen as a recognition.”

Diploma recognition is at the heart of the dispute. For Belgrade, recognition of diplomas issued by Kosovo’s Ministry of Education would signal an acceptance of independence, which it has refused to do. Many Kosovo Serbs fear losing access to Serbian universities, especially when their only option in Kosovo for higher education is at the university in Mitrovica, the ethnically-divided city in northern Kosovo, which also refuses to acknowledge diplomas issued by MEST.

“There is not a motivation for Serbs or any others who want to follow the curriculum here if their diplomas here are not recognized in Serbia,” said Schmidt-Gutzat. “It’s political, but it’s a fact.”

The first step is the development of a Serbian curriculum that is agreeable to MEST officials. According to Kosovo law, the government is required to provide education in both of its official languages, Albanian and Serbian. MEST officials, however, said it is up to Kosovo Serb representatives to participate in the curricula’s design.

“Imagine the situation if we write the curricula, if we approve it and send it to them to implement,” said Kushtrim Badrami, head of the ministry’s Center for International Cooperation on Education, Research and Technology. “You know what the reason would be that they do not implement it? ‘Who are you to tell us about our curricula.’ To prevent this, we say come on, sit down and write this curricula.”

The Ahtisaari Plan, which was brokered by the former Finnish President and Nobel laureate Mahti Ahtisaari in 2007, established a framework for the implementation of Serbian education curricula. It allows the use of Belgrade-designed curricula in Kosovo Serb schools, but they must go through MEST for approval. For subjects such as mathematics and science, there would likely be little dispute, but it is in the areas of history, language and culture that will prove difficult to find mutual agreement.

Anticipating this, the plan outlines the formation of an independent commission that consists of three Kosovo Serb representatives, three Kosovar Albanians, and one member appointed by the International Civilian Organization (ICO) to review all Serb curricula and ensure they conform with the Kosovo constitution. The commission’s decisions are rendered by majority vote.

“This commission should have been established long ago. The ICO pushed, it was established officially in April of this year, two days before the publication of our report, and the commission has not met a single time,” said Schmidt-Gutzat in a July interview.

Christophe Pradier, who is the ICO-appointed member of the commission, stressed patience.

“We are at the beginning of the process,” he said in August. But he added that there is a September 2010 deadline to review the Serb curricula and propose some revisions.

Even if the conditions outlined in the Ahtisaari Plan are met, they would seem to further entrench ethnic divisions.

“The existing rights, even if properly implemented, are not an advantage for integration and you can still have separate education systems,” said Schmidt-Gutzat. “If you don’t put an obligation to learn the [other] official language then you, to some extent, support segregation.”

Continued segregation could have long-term consequences for both sides.

MEST officials said they saw little need for Kosovo Albanian students to learn the Serbian language.

“Of course, it’s good to know one more language but there are not real benefits,” said Enesa Kadic, head of the Division of Communities and Gender, which handles minority education issues for Kosovo’s Ministry of Education.

Yet with unemployment hovering above 40 percent and a trade deficit of 900 million euros during the first half of this year, Kosovo cannot afford to further isolate itself from the regional economy.

“There is a whole generation now from 30 [years old], or maybe even a bit younger, that doesn’t speak any kind of Serbo-Croatian anymore, and they are surrounded by countries that speak this language, except for Albania,” said Schmidt-Gutzat. “So for them it is a loss because they are not able anymore to communicate with their neighbors.”

For Kosovo’s Serbs, long-term segregation could mean a significant reduction in their population, especially in enclaves south of the Ibar River, which forms a natural boundary between the predominantly Serb north and the mostly ethnic Albanian south. Already, many Kosovo Serb students who continue their education matriculate to universities in Serbia. With the scarcity of jobs in Kosovo and the students’ inability to communicate in Albanian, the territory’s dominant language, many of Kosovo’s best and brightest Serbs do not return home.

“Many of the university students would like to come back, but there are not many job opportunities for them – there is nothing to offer them,” said Pejcev, the Serb school director in Kamenica.

Integration in Kosovo’s schools is an unrealistic goal, most here say. The level of optimism varies as to whether the two sides will find any common ground on education reform in the near future. The one thing Kosovo’s Serbs, Albanians and international observers do agree on, however, is that dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade must begin in order for a viable state, one that can support all of its citizens, to emerge.

“The war happened ten years ago,” said Pejcev, sitting in his sparse office. “But now there is a political war that has gone on since then and that political war needs to end in order for us to have better lives.”

10 Years Later, Kosovo Remembers Bill Clinton

December 2nd, 2009 46 comments
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Audio & Narration by Joe Linstroth

Photography & Videography by Evan Martin

-Translation by Vullnet Malazogu

Profile: IN BULGARIA, A ROSE AMONG ROSES

December 2nd, 2009 46 comments

Text and Audio by Joe Linstroth

Photography by Evan Martin

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“The whole world renders homage to me, and I render homage to the Master Petar Deunov from Bulgaria.” — Albert Einstein

KURTOVO, BULGARIA — For Dimitra Grambelova, affectionately known as “Baba” Dimitra or Grandmother Dimitra, her daily hikes up to the crest of a foothill near the base of the Stara Planina mountains are more than just healthy doses of exercise. The dirt path worn in the tall grass above this hamlet in central Bulgaria is where she finds inspiration for her songs and poetry.  It’s where she has built her temple of worship, or perhaps where one has been built for her. The chirping finches and mimicking mockingbirds, the bells and bleats from the village flock interrupted by the shepherd’s occasional barking, the worn rocks that time and weather have shaped into a frog or a woman’s lips; they all speak to her in a single voice — the voice of a place only a divine hand could bestow.

Baba Dimitra’s spiritual connection to the land here is forged by the teachings of the Bulgarian philosopher Petar Deunov. Though the height of his popularity began at the turn of the century, Deunov still has a smattering of devoted followers in Bulgaria, as well as around the world. These devotees call themselves the Universal White Brotherhood, a reference to purity not racial bigotry.

Deunov’s philosophy is a combination of physical meditation exercises, spiritual writings that stemmed from his peripatetic lecturing, and rhythmic, circular dances, often done in groups, that all strive to bring one closer to the Divine. Some of his stuff is out there, like his practice of phrenology, but as a whole Deunov’s philosophy seems to blend the more enlightened tenets of other religions, both Eastern and Western, into his own cohesive set of Christian beliefs. Central to them is the notion that all things in nature transcend their physical form and offer the purist way to grow closer to God.

At age 76, Baba Dimitra believes that her conversion to Deunov’s teachings 15 years ago was what rid her of the various ailments, including kidney problems, that were starting to pull her down life’s rickety back slope. She credits the thinker for her decision to return to her childhood home in Kurtovo after years of working as a forester and living in Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second-largest city. He also gave her the youthful energy that fuels her daily hikes, and the motivation, five years ago, to plant a field of roses here.

The village of Kurtovo is situated on the eastern edge of the Karlovo Valley, one of two flat, fertile expanses that stretch along the southern base of the Stara Planina mountain range. Roses have been grown for their oil in the two valleys for more than 300 years, and to this day, Bulgarian rose oil is prized around the world for its purity and fragrance.

The roses in Baba’s field will make their way from the valley’s sandy soil to a local distillery, which will extract the oil using only water and heat. The yield from each rose is astonishingly miniscule. It takes approximately 5.5 million roses to make one kilogram of rose oil, which sells on the international market for about $7,000. The distillery will most likely export the finished product to France or the U.S., where it will be added to the cosmetics and fragrances of well-known brands like Estee Lauder and Aveda. More recently, Bulgarian rose oil has also become popular as a food supplement in Japan. Some believe that when ingested, the oil’s bouquet permeates the sweat glands.

The profit for rose farmers is meager. Baba Dimitra will fetch only about $1 for every 1,100 roses, which she picks by hand. But for her the profits are secondary to the beauty they add to what would otherwise be an overgrown field. Through Deunov’s teachings, she has developed a preference for the simpler life, no doubt augmented by the generally depressed conditions of life in Bulgaria’s villages. A small pension covers the bare essentials.  She grows fruits and vegetables and crafts cheese from local sheep’s milk. What she can’t buy, grow or make, she barters for with her neighbors — a common practice in village life here. Last year, she traded her grapes to a nearby winemaker for his hand in chopping the winter firewood. She lives alone, with occasional visits from family and friends, but she says she is never lonely with Deunov and the mountains close by.

To the more empirically minded, Baba Dimitra’s beliefs may seem like bloated hyperbole at best. Others may just dismiss her as a crazy old woman. They wouldn’t be alone. Many of the village’s 250 pensioners and farmers, as well as some of her family members, already think she’s been pricked by one too many thorns. It is doubtful, however, that any of them have ever gazed across the valley at the sun sliding behind the distant peaks while the crickets lend their rhythm to one of Baba Dimitra’s melodies. After such an experience, only the most frigid of souls could deny the possibility that something or someone unseen has touched this place. And the goose bumps are evidence enough that the old woman’s mind is as fit as they come.