Starting in 1859, the year when the Romanian principalities united, Romanian society started becoming more and more European, from every point of view. Generation by generation, Romanians started achieving their political objectives of consolidating their state and of obtaining independence in 1878, the Romanian model of economic and social development followed the European one. The elites led the changes, which then trickled down to other social classes.
One of the examples of Romanians turning more European is champagne. At the factory in Azuga, on Prahova Valley, in the southern Carpathians, a good part of the Romanian history of champagne was written. The first attempts to make it here were made as early as 1840 to 1841, when jurist and agronomist Ion Ionescu de la Brad produced champagne for Prince Mihail Sturdza. 43 years later, in 1884, the Muller-Reich champagne factory opened in Braila for local consumption. However, industrial manufacture of champagne started with the Saxon brothers Wilhelm August and Heinrich Rhein. They were fabric traders who set up shop in Azuga, where they opened a fabric factory. In 1890 they opened a furniture factory, and in 1892 a wine warehouse that became the basis of champagne manufacture. In 1889, they opened a brewery, encouraged by the policies of King Carol I, the great builder of modern Romania, as shown to us by historian Dorin Stanescu:
“Carol I had a very smart policy. He offered all these investors concessions for land on long term, allowing them to build manufactures, with a modicum of rent. It was about the level of the wages of one worker. This was no effort for an industrialist. In addition, he also gave a blank check to these enterprises which were being built one by one in Prahova Valley, buying shares. Carol I, then the entire royal family were shareholders in the factories in Azuga.”
The champagne was well on its way to being on the Romanian list of preferences. The wine warehouse kept by the Rhein brothers was doing very well, and the awards they received at big international exhibitions, such as the one in Paris in 1900, provided great opportunities for the two entrepreneurs. Demand for champagne grew along with its popularity, as shown by the advertising at that time. The Rhein brothers built in Azuga a cellar to keep wine, which still exists, and could accommodate their entire output of wine. In 1902, they stored there their first batch, 40,000 bottles. After 3 years, required for aging the champagne, in November 1905 the Rhein company put on the market their first industrial batch. In 1906, they got the first recognition for sparkling wine made by Rhein at the Universal Exhibition in Bucharest, in honor of King Carol I's 40th year on the throne. Here is Dorin Stanescu:
“At this exhibition, the Rhine company had a special pavilion, visited by the king and big crowds of people. As far as we know, 2 million people visited the pavilion at the exhibition, and the Rhein company won a gold medal for the quality of the champagne made in Azuga. From then on, Rhein champagne simply took over the Romanian market. It became the most popular champagne in the Old Kingdom.”
In Azuga, they wrote the best page in the history of Romanian champagne. They brought in grapes from the best vineyards in the country, and quality was tested by experts. The presentation was nothing to laugh at. The bottles were brought from Germany, the labels were printed, and the foil to cover the corks were brought from Western Europe. The Rhein company was expanding rapidly. In 1909, they had their initial public offering, with King Carol as a shareholder. In recognition of their performance, the Rhein brothers were decorated by the king, and became purveyors to the Royal House.
WWI brought with it great disruptions. In the autumn of 1916, fighting reached Prahova Valley, and Azuga was taken over by the German army. German soldiers celebrated victory of the Romanians with champagne, with each soldier getting 6 bottles. After 1918, the company's finances did not look good, but they soon they back on their game. However, soon other companies started providing competition, especially Mott, founded by another German, Wilhelm Mott. He had been a master champagne maker at Rhein. In 1913 he left to set up his own factory, in Bucharest. In the late 1930, Rhein lost primacy on the market to Mott, after years of dominating. After WWII, the two companies, Rhein and Mott, were nationalized as a brand called Zarea. After 1989, both brands came back to life, getting back to tradition.