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Here from Bulgaria, He's Tasted Success with Wine as Life Line.

By Brian O'Neill

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

How does a successful gum salesman in southern Bulgaria wind up a wine dealer in Pittsburgh?

OK, that's probably not a question you've ever asked. I hadn't either, but since my wife and I met Milko Miladinov at a wine tasting at Cassis on the North Side in April, I've found that his immigration tale is engaging whether told over sangiovese or retold over coffee.

He grew up in Plovdiv, a town that predates the Romans, surrounded by vineyards and orchards. By the time he was 14, he knew how to make wine because his father, an engineer, grew grapes on the family land.

That would not be the young Mr. Miladinov's profession. After earning a degree in business from his hometown university, he took a job with Wrigley, the Chicago chewing gum giant, and helped build its market in Bulgaria.

By 1997, he was 25 and married with a young daughter. The salary of his wife, Maria, a pediatric nurse, helped but wasn't even enough to cover the utility bills, so he'd put in long hours in sales, getting home around 10 o'clock most nights.

Then he won the national lottery, only it wasn't money. His application was accepted to make him one of 3,000 in this country of 8 million eligible to move to America.

Neither he nor his wife spoke English. She'd taken French in school and he German. Many of their friends had gone as tourists to Germany, Spain and South Africa and stayed illegally for a better life. The Miladinovs couldn't pass on this opportunity -- as much as it scared them.

Maria was pregnant with their second child, but they spent the equivalent of ,000 -- more than his wife's annual salary and about four months of his -- to hire a firm to translate their legal papers into English for the visa interview. They aced that interview and Mr. Miladinov went ahead to America.

He came here because a high school friend worked in a machine shop in Squirrel Hill. Mr. Miladinov expected a rough-and-ready coal town, not a city of universities and hospitals.

His hometown friend helped get him into an apartment with three Americans and a man from Nepal. Mr. Miladinov, who had a company car and an expense account in the old country, found a job unloading produce in the Strip District.

"Very good for my self-esteem," said this man with a taste for sarcasm as well as wine.

He took a second job with Primanti Brothers in Oakland, learning how to put fries in sandwiches -- "it was revolutionary." The general manager there, Nick Jordanoff, the grandson of Bulgarian immigrants, liked Mr. Miladinov immediately. So when Mr. Jordanoff opened the restaurant, Old Europe, on the South Side, he hired the affable Mr. Miladinov to work out front.

By then, Maria had arrived with daughter Vessela and newborn son Antoni. The Miladinovs rented a South Side apartment and Vessela started kindergarten at Phillips Elementary while dad worked 70 to 80 hours a week. He greeted guests three nights a week at Old Europe while working full time with Linett Co. in the East End, making industrial ladders.

Through his restaurant work, he met a man from Capital Wine and Spirits who liked Mr. Miladinov's story and hired him as a salesman in 2000. Ten years on, he's still in the business, the past couple of years with Winebow, whose international wine list goes on almost as long as the World Cup tournament.

The Miladinovs have been homeowners in the North Hills -- first in Reserve and now Shaler -- for about a decade now. As we talked Monday afternoon over a couple of little cups of ambition outside La Prima Espresso in the Strip District, about every 10th person said hello to him. One was Ronald Molinaro, owner of El Pizzaiolo in Mt. Lebanon, who said Mr. Miladinov had a done a great job helping tailor his all-Italian wine list to Pittsburgh's up-down-up economy.

Mr. Jordanoff, who'd gotten Mr. Miladinov his early restaurant jobs, described him as one of his best friends. "He's one of those guys who knows how to do everything," from fixing a carburetor to choosing the right wine.

In Pennsylvania, wine sales are difficult because a merchant can't buy directly from a dealer. A restaurateur makes his choices with a dealer who then must send those orders to a state store. So I had to ask which was tougher, Eastern European bureaucracy or the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board.

The state system has improved dramatically in the past decade, he said with his ever-ready smile, but "dealing with the PLCB, I felt like I was right back at home."
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Publication:Sofia News Agency
Date:Jun 15, 2010
Words:782
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