Walter Friedl has had a long relationship with Romania. Indeed, perhaps love affair would be a better term, as his passion for the country is clear from almost as soon as he speaks. Originally from Vienna, he first came to Bucharest before the 1989 revolution as Austria's commercial attache, he met and shook hands with Romania's notorious tyrant Nicolae Ceausescu and was an eyewitness to the revolution.
By Liam Lever
Walter started his diplomatic career in Bogota, Columbia and since then his work has taken him all over the world – Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia and Brazil. But he married locally and chose Romania's Dealu Mare region to establish his LacertA vineyard, which adds weight to his positive assertions for the country.
Walter is an energetic 50-year old, and his office is that of a busy man. It looks like a place for hard work – we have to clear a space on a small desk to conduct the interview. And he not only looks busy. Answering phone calls in German, English and Italian, Walter runs an insurance company and a vineyard as well as being a founding board member for the Austrian Business Club in Romania. When asked what he does in his free time he answers simply and directly “I don't have free time.”
There's something of a parallel between Walter Friedl's descriptions of the opportunities in Romania and the rich, black soil of Dealu Mare. Almost as though one has simply to cast a seed into Romania's fertile economic soil and a business will blossom. Of course he doesn't believe it is that simple and he acknowledges that here times are hard, mainly because of imported economic problems.“If the German machine isn't working nicely, we feel it here in Romania,” says Walter, but he does suggest that opportunities for small businesses exist here that don't elsewhere in Europe. He encourages young people to get involved saying, “Romania is a European country, with European conditions and European people and so much is missing! Go touch it and you can become number 1 in the sector.”
When asked outright what he considers his biggest achievement, Walter's answer is not his vineyard, as might be expected, but the Austrian Business Club in Romania, of which he is a co-founder. What he describes as a “powerful” business group includes five of the 15 biggest companies in Romania and grew from an original 50 members to 350 in the last ten years. It is also, he says, Romania's largest bi-lateral chamber of commerce.
However, when we turn to wine a light comes into Walter's eyes. He is clearly a wine lover. His enthusiastic description of Dealu Mare has something of an Elysian touch to it. The area is, according to Walter, perfect for wine. Walter's biggest challenge when setting up his winery was acquiring land. He describes negotiations somewhat reminiscent of the squabbles in the French film 'Jean de Florette.' He recalls trying to make a deal with three brothers, one living in Ploesti, one in Paris and one in Los Angeles, who argued and changed their minds numerous times before agreeing the sale. Despite the difficulties in getting the 82 hectares together, the decision to take control of the whole process – from vine to bottle, was, according to Walter, vital to get the desired quality of wine. Next year will be the vineyard's tenth in business and LacertA now produces a range of red and white wines.
Walter Friedl bemoans Romanian wine's image and the current lack of producers and tourism infrastructure in the Dealu Mare region. He is keen for tourism to develop in the area as it will have a knock on effect for local wine producers and there is already a Romanian wine route (Drumul Vinier). Walter Friedl has great faith in Romanian wine, he sees potential and believes it should be up there in the premier league of world wines. He is a fiercely passionate advocate for both Romania and its wines. “I wish Romanian wine was given the same chance as any other wine in the world,” he says, and talks of the image advantage Italian and French wines have with buyers.
And what of the future? Well,for Walter Friedl at least, the future is Romanian. He is irrepressibly enthusiastic about the country and its people, and his enthusiasm is infectious. This, however, is not a man looking at the world through rose tinted glasses, nor yet the non-Romanian speaking expat bubble type. Here is a man well acquainted with the problems facing Romania, the frustrating lethargy of infrastructure development brings a somewhat tired sigh, it is becoming a mantra in Romanian business. “Electricity, water and energy infrastructure is not developing as fast as we want."
A love affair may well describe Walter Friedl's relationship with Romania, but this is no first flush of a new infatuation. He's definitely going steady with his adopted country and loves her all the more for knowing her better.
(photo source: Walter Friedl's personal archive)