Putin, Berlusconi face Ukrainian investigation over drinking 240-year-old wine in Crimea

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MOSCOW — Ukrainian prosecutors are preparing charges against the director of a winery in Russian-occupied Crimea for allegedly uncorking a 240-year-old bottle for Russian President Vladimir Putin and former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi.

Putin and his old friend Berlusconi spent last weekend in Crimea, touring ancient ruins and visiting the peninsula's prized Massandra winery. Massandra was Ukrainian government property before being nationalized by Russia, following its annexation of Crimea in March 2014. It has rare wine and sherry dating back more than 200 years in its collection; one bottle fetched nearly 32,000 British pounds ($49,700) in 2001.

Ukrainian prosecutors responsible for Crimea said on Friday they are preparing to file embezzlement charges against the winery's director, who they said opened a 1775 bottle for Berlusconi.

"This is one of the five bottles that constitute not only Massandra's or Crimea's heritage, but the heritage of all Ukrainian people," Nazar Kholodnytsky, first deputy prosecutor for Crimea told The Associated Press in Kiev. He said two bottles like that were auctioned off in London in 2001. "The funds went to the state coffers and supported the development of Massandra and wine-making in Crimea."

Massandra's previous director Nikolay Boyko was fired in February after Russian prosecutors filed fraud charges against him.

Kholodnytsky said Yanina Pavlenko, who succeeded Boyko, is wanted in Ukraine for treason after she voted for the Russian annexation in 2014: "Now she's added one more crime to high treason."

When the winery was Ukrainian property, two separate presidential decrees were required to approve the sale of vintage wine from its collection. That means that under Ukrainian law, giving a bottle as a gift without Ukrainian presidential permission would amount to theft. The charges, however, would be moot since Russia currently has full control over Crimea.

Russian television last week showed Berlusconi carefully examining dust-covered bottles of wine while Putin listened to winery director Pavlenko giving them a tour. Later on, Berlusconi brought over a bottle to show to the party, and the director said: "The year 1891."

"Is it possible to drink?" Berlusconi asked in English. The director said "yes."

The Ukrainian prosecutors appeared to be referring to another bottle in their case and it wasn't immediately clear what happened to the 1891 bottle.

Pavlenko, who gave the tour last week, told The AP on the phone that she showed the rare wines to Putin and Berlusconi but declined to comment on whether any wine was drunk during the visit.

Dmytro Vlasov in Kiev contributed to this report.

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