Calgary Herald (Alberta, Canada)
April 22, 2004 Thursday Final Edition
Savouring life important for wine distributor
by Kim Carson
Alla Wagner is an impressive woman with fair skin, thick black hair
and unwavering, pale blue eyes.
She is one of 150 or so Armenians in Calgary and her baptized name,
Ashkhen, is that of a third-century Armenian queen.
The movie, The Passion of the Christ, was the first thing we talked
“Have you seen it?” she asked. I said yes, and that I found it very
“To me, this movie is about cruelty — a cruelty that doesn’t exist
between everyday people, but is driven solely by politics. Forgive
me, I have strong opinions about this. This cruelty has always
existed and it continues today. This is why we must remember history
— not so that anyone can feel self-righteous — but so these acts of
cruelty aren’t committed again.”
This Saturday, April 24, is the commemoration day for the 1915
Armenian genocide by Turkish troops in which more than two million
Armenians were massacred or displaced.
To date, neither Turkey, the U.S., nor even Canada has acknowledged
the genocide. The general idea is that if Turkey apologizes, it will
have to compensate.
“But I don’t want to say this is an ‘Armenian’ problem,” Alla is
quick to explain. “It’s the problem throughout the whole world.”
This is not the first time Alla has expressed herself politically.
For a young girl growing up in Armenia’s capital city of Yerevan
during the era of Soviet rule, taking part in political movements was
a regular event. The closing down of Armenian language schools in
favour of Russian schools was something she fought hard against.
“Politics aside, I was quite an artsy-fart when I was a kid,” she
Alla studied art, sang in bands, and learned every kind of dance
available to her — Armenian traditional dance, Georgian and other
folk dances, belly dancing and ballroom dance.
“Armenian children are expected to entertain their family and guests.
At some point, every child is expected to do something — sing, play
a musical instrument, recite poetry.
“In that part of the world, if you’re a child with talent, there is
no way you will not be noticed. Whether or not your family has money,
you will be singled out and your talent will be cultivated.
“On the other hand, I wanted to be a ballerina — to study in the
state classical dance academy and dance at the Bolshoi. However, I
was measured and tested and it was decided that I didn’t have what it
takes. That was the end of it. I cried my eyes out for days.”
Alla completed her degree in library sciences and bibliography. She
went on to do her masters in St. Petersburg in 1983, just as Mikhail
Gorbachev was coming into power and the Soviet Union began its slow
collapse. Though she began as a teaching assistant at the Institute
of Culture, she never finished her studies.
“Academics were losing their positions in society. There was no money
for them and, frankly, they had nothing to sell. They were people of
respect and status who had suddenly become absolute nobodies with
nothing. Many killed themselves.
“As a young woman, I felt this situation held nothing for me. And I
refused to follow my parents’ advice, which was to marry and settle
So 20 years ago, Alla came to Calgary by herself after getting the
idea from some Armenian-Canadians she met at a wedding.
– – –
Alla’s intelligence and tenacity grace her as much today as ever. She
now lives with her two teenage children in the southwest
neighbourhood of Somerset. Her parents and brother, having followed
from Armenia, also live in Calgary.
Over the years, she has cultivated a new passion — wine.
Alla is a wine distributor in Calgary, dealing in organic, old-world
wines from Eastern Europe, particularly the republic of Georgia. She
travels throughout Europe and has 17 hectares of Georgian land on
which — if the political situation settles — she hopes to start her
“This area, the east coast of the Black Sea, is beautiful. It’s a
place I traveled through every summer of my childhood. It’s famous
for its Saperavi grapes and it’s similar in appearance and climate to
the Okanagan Valley, only the winters are much warmer and
Alla has visited many of the vintners in this region. She’s
fascinated by their work, which involves ancient techniques (the wine
history of Georgia is more than 5,000 years old). Yet each vintner
has his own secret ways that are unique.
“It’s funny, these vintners don’t even drink much wine. It’s the
work, more than the final product, that’s an art to them. You could
call it devotional. This is what I love most and what I want to learn
Yet as a woman used to overcoming obstacles, Alla’s greatest
challenge now is not related to politics or wine; it’s the daily
management of a condition she developed 12 years ago — travelling
rheumatoid arthritis — in which parts of her body alternately become
swollen and intensely painful.
“Like all else, the most important thing is that it doesn’t interfere
with my life. Because I have no intention of stopping. Over the
years, I’ve developed systems for dealing with it, but sometimes I
overdo it and then my family ends up paying,” she admits sheepishly.
“Truly, I look forward to the day when I can relax a bit and do
something more soulful.”
Politics, cruelty, passion, and day-to-day challenges aside, perhaps
one day Alla — Ashkhen — will be able to live peacefully in her
homeland, travel to the Black Sea area, and take up the art of making
If you know of an interesting candidate for Calgary in Character,
e-mail Kim Carson at [email protected]
GRAPHIC: Colour Photo: Kim Carson, for Neighbours; Alla Wagner
relaxes in the verdant tranquility of the Devonian Gardens.
From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress