Vladimir Voronen, tea grower at Dagomy’s tea plantation near Sochi.
My assignments here in Sochi have been vastly different than I ever anticipated. I never thought I would be covering dog shelters, or a gay bar in Sochi. And I never thought I would end up at a place like Dagomys tea plantation, on the side of a mountain near Sochi. This place was spectacular, simply beautiful. It was so far away, so removed from the concrete, mud, and hustle of Olympic Park.
Myself, USA TODAY reporter Dan Wolken, and our translator, Elena Vlasova, met with Vladimir Voronen, who has been in charge of growing the tea since 1980, and Ekaterina Soldatkena, who studied agriculture technology and works at the plantation. After a 45-minute taxi ride, we piled into a WAZ, an Army green, four-door, 4-wheel-drive SUV. It was reminiscent of one the old International Scouts, trucks that could go anywhere and really take a beating.
Vladimir gets out and locks the hubs for four-wheel-drive (I haven’t seen that in awhile), and head up this steep, steep, rocky road. After a few hundred yards of bouncing around inside the cab of the truck up this dirt path, everything just opens up. The sky, the land, my eyes. Rows and rows of tea plants that, just like James Taylor’s North Carolina, seems like they just go on forever. We get to the top, and Vladimir, through Elena’s translation, tells us the story of tea in Russia. He tells us how the plantation, during Stalin’s reign, fell into disrepair. He tells us how he doesn’t use pesticides, and how the plants, because of the colder climate, are protected from diseases. I don’t understand his Russian, but I can feel the passion as he talks so lovingly about his tea.
“Of course it tastes better when there’s no poison in the tea,” he said through Elena’s translation.
I wish I had days at this place. I wish I were here during harvesting season. But I will gladly settle for a couple hours on a mild February afternoon to visit. After Dan interviews Vladimir I know we don’t have a whole lot of time left (the taxi driver is waiting), but I find a few minutes to take a portrait of him (above). The sun was peaking through the clouds just before I asked him to step into the spot where I wanted to photograph him. I was also asking Jesus to let the light hang there just long enough to squeeze off a few frames. He obliged. The light was so beautiful, it looked like I was using a softbox the size of Spalding County to light him. It’s the kind of light photographers dream of. I wish I had more time to pose him better, but just like the mid-February visit, I’ll take it.
Rows of tea.
From left: Vladimir, Elena, Dan and Ekaterina.
I would love to have one of these old trucks.
Vladimir reflected in the console gauges.
Tea leaf bud.
Dagomys produces a type of tea called Krasnodarsky, about 330 tons of it per year. In the Dagomys tea shop, I purchase a few bags of tea, though I have no idea what I’m buying. I grab a few colorful bags with Russian writing on them, and a box of tea bags. I haven’t had the chance to try it yet, but I definitely will before leaving here. I’m more of a cold tea and hot coffee kind of guy, but I’m sure this is better than any hot tea I’ve ever had.
Clerk Lena Pavina waits for customers in the plantation store.
All kinds of tea.