CRICOVA, Moldova -- Deep in Moldova's vast underground wine city, near the intersection of Cabernet Street and Pinot Boulevard, the first man in space had a cosmic experience popping corks and emptying bottles.
"Those who produce this wine deserve all the gold on Earth - and if this is not enough, I'll go to the moon or to other planets to get some more," the late Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin gushed after an all-night tasting in 1966.
His well-lubricated words are scrawled on a framed photograph that hangs outside the lavish, goblet-shaped subterranean tasting salon of the state-owned Cricova Winery.
Its millions of dust-caked bottles of vintage wines and champagnes are a Cold War-era cache of immense wealth stashed well out of sight - if not mind - of the down-and-out in Europe's poorest country.
"The economy is in dire straits. I can feel it," says Grigore Luchian, 42, a baker in the nearby capital, Chisinau, where many people grumble about corruption and a do-nothing bureaucracy in the former Soviet republic.
Cricova's marble, oak and stained-glass opulence stands in staggering contrast to the daily struggle for survival that plays out 260 feet above its musty labyrinth of 40 miles of wine-laden tunnels.
The average Moldovan earns just $50 a month. Aching poverty has prompted thousands of young women - some willingly, some enticed and entrapped - to eke out a living in the sex trade. Other Moldovans are involved in smuggling arms, drugs and cigarettes.
"It's a tough neighborhood," concedes William Hill, head of the Moldova mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. "Some have called it Europe's largest illegal duty-free shop."
With crime and corruption come acts of desperation: In July, a doctor was arrested for helping a man sell one of his kidneys in Turkey for $4,000.
Up to a million of Moldova's 4.5 million people have left to take menial jobs in other countries. The cash they send home to their families each year exceeds the government's $600 million budget, international aid agencies say.
"The population is unemployed, unhealthy and uneducated," Hill says. "You wonder how long this can last before Moldova becomes more sub-Saharan African than European."
Enter Cricova, which produces satiny merlots and cabernet sauvignons, crisp chardonnays and pinot blancs and dry champagnes that few ordinary Moldovans can afford to sample.
Guided tours of what's billed as the world's largest underground winery, which doubled as a bunker for top officials during the Cold War, are by appointment only and cost $25 - two weeks' average take-home pay.
"We have a saying: 'The state comes only to take, not to give,"' says guide Tatiana Ursu.
She hustles visitors past the collection of trophy wines, a jumble of bottles with an average value pegged at $3,000. They include a stack of 1935 Moselles from the personal stash of Hitler aide Hermann Goering, a prized 1938 Chateauneuf du Pape from France, a 1939 Luiggi Bosca from Italy and numerous obscure vintages from across the former Soviet Union.
The real stars, though, are the local wines, made from grapes grown in a temperate climate in soil so fertile it is almost jet black.
Some experts say a little Western-style promotion could expand sales in the West and turn wine into an economic boon for Moldova. Currently, roughly 60 percent of Cricova's wine is sold to money-strapped Russia.
In recent years, Moldovan wines have held their own in prestigious international competitions against the best from France, California, Australia and elsewhere.
Moldova's communist-led government, languishing on the fringes of Europe and at times appearing torn between East and West, sees no irony in the contrast between its wine wealth and its citizens' poverty.
"I don't think 'desperately poor' is the exact situation in which Moldova is today," President Vladimir Voronin, who declined to be interviewed, said in written comments to The Associated Press.
"Despite a high percentage of people who call themselves poor, there is a much greater proportion of people who believe in tomorrow. Our people have not lost their hope in a better future."
Voronin sees prominent roles in that future for Cricova, which he calls "Moldova's calling card."
Eight hundred locals labor underground in temperatures of 53-57 degrees, turning inverted bottles by hand on wooden racks that stretch as far as the eye can see. The tunnels are claustrophobic, damp and dark.
"They've gotten used to it, even though a person is like an insect down here in this immense place," says Ursu, the guide.
"A plus is that they can have a glass of cabernet every now and then down here. It boosts their morale and spirits."
On the Net:
Moldovan wines: http://www.vinovitis.com/moldovawine
Official tourism site: http://www.turism.md/eng
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