It’s not every day that eager cries of “Gaumarjos” and the clink of Champagne flutes echo through a Welsh bookshop. But they did on February 17 when I launched “The First Toast is to Peace, Travels in the South Caucasus” out into the wide world.
About two dozen people turned up for the party at Book-ish, a book shop in my home town of Crickhowell in South Wales.
We had Georgian-style toasting. We had Champagne, Saperavi and Mtsvane wines from Georgia and Caucasus canapés. A friend who worked a long time in publishing wrote with thanks for a “really fabulous party – much the jolliest book launch I have ever been to”.
I was the first tamada (toastmaster) and naturally I intoned “Mshvidobas gaumarjos” – to peace.
A big thank you to my daughters Megan and Rachel, the illustrators of the book, and to friends for making it to the celebration.
Thanks too to Book-ish and to Welsh chef Zoë Powell for cooking up a Caucasus storm at my place after the book shop event ended.
”The First Toast is to Peace” is available from a number of websites, but if you cherish small book shops please support Book-ish. I also commend buying from my publishers at silverwoodbooks.co.uk.
Now I am back where I started, at home in Wales, trying to make sense of it all. I fell in love with the Caucasus. I don’t want to over-analyse why I love it so, but I have John Wurdeman’s words ringing in my ears – thoughts need decantation, not only wine.
Stories need a beginning, a middle and an end, so here are my final thoughts to round off the tale – personal musings on a few threads that feel important to me after my four visits to the region.
I knew beauty and joy in the Caucasus – that is the front-page headline. While I can also experience joy at home, I came back to my own hearth feeling emotionally richer and more content. I don’t wish to lay upon the peoples of the South Caucasus the allegation that their region is perfect. It is not. But I found it profoundly beguiling and nourishing, a reminder to me of the importance I attach to wild nature and to the life of the spirit.
There is a sense of the sacred in the Caucasus; you feel it in the air and it is a complex and many-layered thing. A deep understanding of spirituality in the Caucasus would probably take a lifetime of study, but what is immediately striking is that this part of the world cleaves to religious belief – and this after seven decades in an atheist empire, the Soviet Union.
When my mind dwells on Caucasus spirituality, I personally tend to think of the Georgian region of Tusheti, where there are Christian churches but also many pagan shrines called “khati” adorned with animal horns. Both in Armenia and Georgia, the world’s oldest Christian nations, paganism lives on even today as an element in the spiritual mix.
Falling in love with the Caucasus is a fate that has befallen many visitors. I am not alone! This land of resilient people and awe-inspiring peaks higher than the Alps gets under the skin of many a traveller and never leaves them. It is the polar opposite of bland. Writers, of course, leave the fullest accounts of their passion. One of my main learnings has been the discovery of at least a small portion of the literature inspired by the Caucasus and savouring just how wonderful it is.
Many of the titans of Russian literature have gone to the Caucasus and been shaped by their travels – Alexander Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov, Leo Tolstoy, Maxim Gorky, Osip Mandelstam, Boris Pasternak and Vasily Grossman come to mind. If you took the Caucasus out of Russian literature it would leave a gaping hole. I wonder whether any other mountain chain in the world has served as such a powerful muse.
Tolstoy’s case is particularly striking because Caucasus themes inspired him at every stage in his career, after he volunteered for the Russian army at the age of 23 to fight against the Chechens. Even his final novel, the magnificent “Hadji Murád”, is set in the North Caucasus. He wrote it half a century after he first went there in the early 1850s and he wrote it during a period when he spent much of his time denouncing fiction. “Hadji Murád”, an almost unbearably moving tale of the horrible waste of war, is one of the masterpieces of world literature.
Looking beyond Russian letters, English-language authors too have found their voice after setting foot in these lands. Take Englishman Douglas Freshfield, a member of the first team to climb Mount Kazbek back in 1868. He also wrote extensively, and very touchingly, about the Caucasus. In his two-volume work “The Exploration of the Caucasus”‘ Freshfield seeks to play down his literary skills and describes himself as a matter-of-fact mountaineer. But Freshfield was so much more than that – he was a writer.
On one of his journeys he travelled through some very remote parts of Abkhazia, entering by way of Svaneti, up to the northeast. In a chapter entitled “The SoIitude of Abkhasia” he describes the view on the upper reaches of the Kodor river.
“It was not so much any individual peak that fixed the eye as the glory of the whole landscape – the rolling leagues of forest, the broad hills bright in the early sunbeams, the flashes of light in the depths; here a cliff, there a sinuous reach of river, nowhere any sign of human habitation.”
Freshfield makes it clear that for him the Caucasus was a welcome change from the roar of late 19th century London; it was an experience of spiritual solace.
“Men may still, as in past ages, look to the mountains for their spiritual help. In the shining silence of the storehouses of the snow we may find a welcome interlude to the perpetual gloom of our northern cities and the din of a commercial civilisation.”
In our own times too, the Caucasus has proved to be a muse. U.S. journalist Wendell Steavenson lived in Tbilisi at a time of economic hardship and acute power shortages in the 1990s. She fell head over heels for the place and proceeded to write “Stories I Stole”, an electrifying love song to Georgia. It is a non-fiction work of great beauty and her attention to detail is Tolstoyan.
One friend of mine has told me that I have become a Georgian “infatué”. (I know, this word isn’t in the dictionary. But it should be.) I plead guilty and when I read Steavenson I feel I am in good company.
I have heard the view expressed, in my own country, that the Caucasus region belongs to “the periphery”, whatever that means exactly. A big part of my learning is that in my gut I know that the Caucasus is not peripheral. It has become important in the contents of my head and I am still on a journey to understand it more deeply.
The Caucasus region is evolving and changing and trying to find its place in a turbulent world. So, I would like to look briefly at forces that are pulling the three countries of the South Caucasus further apart and forces that are bringing them closer together.
That same Russia, whose poets have sung the praises of the Caucasus, has been a deadly player in the geopolitical game in these parts and still plays a central role, very much in the spirit of the classic adage “divide and conquer”. Travelling through the region, I found that I had to decant my thoughts on Russia. To change the usual metaphor a little, Russia always felt like the bear in the room.
Taking a deep historical perspective, it is clear that Russia has had within it a strong expansionary dynamic. British historian Orlando Figes, in “Natasha’s Dance A Cultural History of Russia”, writes: “From the capture of Kazan in 1552 to the revolution in 1917, the Russian Empire grew at the fantastic rate of over 100,000 square kilometres every year.” The hunt for lucrative furs first drew the Russians on.
Today, Russia cannot expand in the same way. But this long history of pushing out the boundaries of the empire for earthly gain surely means that it has no model for how to build a friendly, co-operative relationship with immediate neighbours. It has to build such a model from scratch. Several of the countries that have escaped Russia’s grasp, such as the Baltic states, Ukraine and Georgia, are not on friendly terms with the Kremlin.
I pick up too another sort of restlessness in Russia’s history, a yearning to be relevant on the world stage. At its best, this has been pitched in high-flown idealistic terms. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, in a speech on Pushkin in 1877, said: “Yes, the vocation of the Russian man is indisputably an all-European and a world-wide vocation. Perhaps indeed to become a genuine complete Russian can only mean (in the last resort, let me emphasize) to become the brother of all men.” In the light of 20th century history, these words have a hollow ring. I think Dostoyevsky was sincere and I am left with a feeling that today’s nuclear-armed Russia, with its bristling fleets and fighter planes, is still searching for its vocation in the world and is not a happy bear. And this disgruntlement is not good for Russia. Nor is it good for its neighbours or for the world.
One priority for the countries of the South Caucasus is to shape and implement policies towards Russia. When the Soviet Union tottered towards its end there was ebullience, a sense of release. Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan had their troubles when the Soviet empire fell and trade links were disrupted, but they all shared a sense of turning a page of history and starting anew.
In the first instance, both Georgia and Armenia moved away from Russia.
The Polish foreign correspondent Ryszard Kapuscinski was in the Armenian capital Yerevan when the Soviet Union was in its death throes. In his book “Imperium” he writes: “Russian signs, posters, portraits — it is all gone. The city is undergoing a period of intense and scrupulous de-Russification. Many Russians are leaving; Russian schools are closing, as are Russian theatres. There are no Russian newspapers or books. They have also stopped teaching Russian in Armenian schools.”
It is fascinating to read this now because Armenia has since done a U-turn and become a close ally of Russia. In Yerevan there are now Russian newspapers, books and theatre. Even more to the point there are Russian soldiers, invited in by the government to provide defence and patrol the border with NATO member Turkey.
Georgia, on the other hand, actually fought (and lost) a war with Russia and pro-Russian separatists control a fifth of its territory, to the great chagrin of Georgians. In other words, the two countries have given diametrically opposed answers to the fundamental question “What sort of relationship shall we have with Russia?” It is true that Tbilisi, since the 2008 war, has sought to improve its ties with Moscow. But there is still a gulf between the Russia policies of the two countries. Today’s Georgia aspires to be part of the European Union and NATO.
Looking out for decades, Armenia sees its future in alliance with Russia. In 2015, when I was in Yerevan, I submitted some questions by e-mail to Armenia’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Shavarsh Kocharyan, and he replied on November 18.
I asked whether the agreement over the stationing of Russian troops in Armenia had a time limit. He replied: “According to the agreement between Armenia and Russia signed in 1995 and according to the protocol on amending the agreement signed in 2010, the deployment of the Russian military base in Armenia has been extended till 2044.”
Armenia has agreed to pay part of the cost of the base and this close alliance with Russia is not universally popular. One Armenian woman told me how cross she was that a restaurant in the country’s second city Gyumri had a menu only in Russian – Gyumri hosts the Russian 102nd Military Base. But the alliance is a fact of life. Not only is there a military pact, but Armenia is heavily dependent on Russia for energy supplies such as natural gas and fuel for a nuclear power station.
Now Georgia’s leaders want to take their country into NATO. At the very least this would deepen the divide with its southern neighbour Armenia. Mirroring the situation in Armenia, this pro-NATO stance does not enjoy full support in Georgia. I know my guide in Svaneti, Lasha Tkeshelashvili, believed Georgia should have a policy of neutrality. I don’t see how taking Georgia into NATO could make the Caucasus or the world any more peaceful. It doesn’t feel like wisdom. In a worst case scenario it could even be a trigger for a cataclysmic conflict between NATO and Russia. Extending NATO into the human fault lines of the Caucasus could make even less sense than building nuclear plants in an earthquake-prone zone. Why tempt fate?
The pro-Russian alignment of Armenia is understandable when you look at the world from an Armenian point of view. A century after the Genocide, Armenians still see Turkey as the historical enemy and feel they need Russia as a friend. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict also comes into the equation in a big way.
Armenians are attached to holding onto this region, taken from Azerbaijan in war, and this attachment means they cannot afford to have Russia hostile to them. Even though it is allied to Armenia, Russia still sells arms to Azerbaijan. Russia is in a perfect position to stir up trouble, were the alliance with Armenia to falter.
I asked the deputy foreign minister about the Armenia government’s view of the Russian arms sales to Azerbaijan. He made Yerevan’s unhappiness perfectly clear.
“Russia is the ally of Armenia. Our cooperation with Russia includes all the areas, including the military field, we buy weapons from Russia. Indeed, we are not pleased with the fact that Russia also sells arms to Azerbaijan.”
One view among students of South Caucasus affairs is that it suits Russia for there to be no solution to the Karabakh conundrum.
“Russia uses the conflict to keep its influence in the region,” said a political analyst from a European Union country in Yerevan.
Over the years since the May 1994 ceasefire there have been attempts by the international community to settle this conflict, which still claims lives. But with bigger matters like the Syria war demanding attention diplomatic energy has drained away from Karabakh.
I heard a telling comment from someone who took part in a meeting of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in Vienna in November 2014. It is the OSCE’s so-called Minsk Group which has sought to bring a peaceful settlement for Karabakh. This particular meeting looked at a range of international questions.
“When Karabakh came up, some people left the room and others started texting,” the participant told me in a conversation in Yerevan.
The conflict is one huge barrier to better political co-operation – soldiers facing one another on a front-line running from north to south at the heart of the South Caucasus make a mockery of any real attempt by governments to build regional unity.
The Welsh call it “hiraeth”, while the Portuguese talk about “saudade”. It is nostalgia, a longing deep in the soul. It struck me on my travels that the people of this region are experiencing more than their fair share of “hiraeth”.
The older people among the ethnic Armenians who now have Karabakh all to themselves long to stroll by the Caspian Sea along the Baku Boulevard as they did in their youth. But war has deprived them of that pleasure. There are trenches, guns and bullets between them and the sea – a border as firmly closed as any border can be.
The ethnic Azeris who used to live in Karabakh but had to flee long for their homes and those glorious forested hills. But war has deprived them too.
Ethnic Georgians forced out of Abkhazia during the bloodshed of the early 1990s long for their homes on the Black Sea shore. But war trumped their hopes.
In Yerevan, Armenians look out over Mount Ararat on the other side of the Turkish border and remember that before the Genocide that part of the world was inhabited by Armenians. One day, on a Yerevan omnibus, a man said to me within moments of striking up a conversation that “all Armenians dream of Ararat.”
Too much unrequited longing is not good, but just possibly it can become a fuel for the creation of a better South Caucasus.
I know of at least two initiatives that seek to transcend borders and I wish them well.
The first is the annual One Caucasus Festival, which started in 2014 and brings together musicians and other creative spirits in the Georgian region of Marneuli. The festival’s website explains why this region was chosen as venue.
“The Caucasus suffers from many conflicts. The region of Marneuli is a borderland of Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and is known for being a place where many ethnic and religious groups have been living in peace for many years. It is quite unique in the Caucasus which continues to suffer from a range of conflicts and tensions. Our aim is, with the support of the local municipality, to create an inspirational & safe space to foster the meetings and collaboration of young people from the entire Caucasus region.”
The website says that funding for the festival is international, with some financial support coming from the governments of the United States and Poland, Warsaw City Hall and the French Institute of Georgia.
The other project that straddles borders is the planned Transcaucasian Trail from the Black Sea to the Caspian. Given the political complexities of the Caucasus, it is remarkable that brave souls have embarked on this venture. In years to come, this has the potential to be second to none among the great trails of the planet.
The website transcaucasiantrail.org lays out a vision of “a world-class, long-distance hiking trail that crosses the Greater Caucasus and Lesser Caucasus and connects diverse communities and ecosystems, providing lasting and wide-ranging benefits for people and the environment.”
Each of the two intersecting trail corridors will be about 1,500 km long and the website says that the work to create these trails will unfold over the next five years.
It lists as one of its aims “improved cross-border cooperation that contributes to the stability in the region.”
The trail’s website addresses the question “How will you build a trail in a region with breakaway territories and frozen conflicts?”
The answer: “It won’t be easy and it may take many years but we believe it is possible. People have crossed these mountains for centuries and we hope it will become easier to cross certain areas in the decades ahead. By starting to build a trail we would like to help spur more positive and ambitious approaches.”
The spirit of Douglas Freshfield is surely following all of this with keen interest.
One of my favourite words in the world is “Gaumarjos”. I learned to love this word in Kakheti, a region of eastern Georgia famed both for its wine and its tortured history of foreign invasion.
“Gaumarjos” is the standard Georgian toast and it means “To your victory”. The emphasis is on the first syllable and you speak the toast with feeling. In this word of sinew and muscle are fused the celebration of wine as central to national culture and scorn for Georgia’s enemies.
If you have been to Georgia but haven’t spent an evening rising to your feet again and again, declaiming “Gaumarjos” with all the others at table, then you need to return and make a proper job of it. One wine-soaked evening in particular stands out in my memory, but I mustn’t run ahead of myself.
After Abkhazia I travelled over to Kakheti by marshrutky, via Tbilisi. I wanted to fill another gap in my knowledge of Georgia. In earlier travels I had missed the pretty town of Sighnaghi, a few kilometres before the Azerbaijan border.
Sighnaghi is a two-hour, six-lari ($2.60) ride from Tbilisi. It is an engaging, hilly town, all cobbled streets and red-tiled roofs. My guide book is right – the town, perched high above a plain, has a very Italian feel. Somebody has had the daft idea of basing quad bikes smack in the middle of it, but the overall impression is still of a town in beautiful countryside, peaceful but plugged in to the wider world. I found my guesthouse, which faced north with beguiling views of the plain below. Beyond, hidden in a heat haze, were the Caucasus.
My focus in Sighnaghi was to learn about Georgian wine, but first I had to attend to my health. More than a week after falling ill I still wasn’t right, so for the first time in the Caucasus I went to a doctor. There was no-one waiting and I walked straight into the surgery for a Russian-language consultation with a Georgian doctor. She said I had had food poisoning and gave me instructions on diet. She also prescribed pills and charged 30 lari ($13) for her time. I got better and was impressed by Georgia’s health service.
Before delving into the world of wine I also took in the local museum, which teaches the visitor some of Kakheti’s doleful history. Persia’s 17th century ruler Shah Abbas I invaded Georgia three times and on his third go devastated Kakheti and took 200,000 captives. The museum says Abbas wanted to take Georgia’s farmers and warriors to Iran and to eradicate Georgia as a serious rival in the silk trade.
The museum is something of a shrine to artist Niko Pirosmani (1862-1918). It has 14 paintings by him, the biggest collection outside Tbilisi. Posthumously, Pirosmani rose to fame in his native land but in his own lifetime he was poor and generally unknown. The museum strikes a plaintive note when it informs visitors: “Pirosmani passed away in loneliness and obscurity in 1918. Even the location of his grave remains unknown.”
Pirosmani’s trademark style is primitivist, spare, quirky — his figures have no expressions on their faces. He was born in a Kakheti village to a family of peasants who owned a small vineyard and some of his art honoured the life of the peasant and the grape harvest.
One painting on display features a peasant in a white belted tunic and black cap, standing with a basket of grapes in front of him. His wife holds a smaller basket, also brimming with grapes, and to his left is a well-laden vine. Another more ambitious composition shows stages of the harvest from picking the grapes to preparing for the community feast.
Pirosmani kept body and soul together by a succession of jobs such as signboard maker, railway conductor and dairy farmer. Most of his paintings were done on black oilcloth, a medium suited to his modest means.
Today Pirosmani is accorded an important place in the pantheon of Georgia’s artistic heroes. The museum describes him as “a live bearer of the ‘cultural memory’ of his country”. In this role of cultural bearer, Pirosmani celebrated wine-making — it was in his blood and as a good Georgian he knew how vital this was to the land of his birth.
In the words of wine writer Alice Feiring: “Wine is the Georgians’ poetry and their folklore, their religion and their daily bread.”
In her study of Georgian wine called “For The Love of Wine”, Feiring says that “Georgia, with its 525 or so indigenous grapes, has the longest unbroken winemaking history. They say it has eight thousand vintages.”
The Georgian National Museum has cultivated grape seeds which carbon dating puts between 6,000 and 8,000 years old. Georgia likes to think of itself as the cradle of wine civilization.
Traditional methods of making wine, using earthenware vats called qvevri sunk into the earth, are still used in Georgia. Not only that, but these age-old methods are now finding favour in other parts of the world. Feiring, an American, says the world has gone crazy for making wine in clay pots and someone is making them in Texas.
With its long history and wonderfully distinctive wines, Georgia has become a kind of super-star in the little firmament of natural wine producers. I meet several wine producers in Sighnaghi and they are a doughty bunch of men determined to keep the flag of authentic Georgian winemaking flying high.
I have an introduction to John Wurdeman, an American artist who has settled in Sighnaghi and is one of the business partners in Pheasant’s Tears, a small wine producer with a big reputation.
Wine connoisseur Dolph Lundgren has described its 2008 Rkatsiteli as “maybe the strangest, toughest, most ass-kickin’, car blowin’-up wine of all”. (Rkatsiteli, one of the world’s oldest grape varieties, is native to Georgia and is used to make white wine.)
A conversation with John Wurdeman
John invites me to lunch at the Pheasant’s Tears restaurant in Sighnaghi. When I turn up he is in full flow in Russian, addressing a tour group.
He arrives at our table a little later and business matters are whirling in his head. “The Latvian ambassador wants to have dinner with me at Azarphesha,” he says to someone, referring to one of his Tbilisi restaurants. But he quickly focuses on the meal at hand.
John is a commanding figure, stocky, bearded, with a warm smile and an obvious ease in the polyglot world he has created for himself. His wife is a Georgian folk singer and the language of the home is Georgian.
So how did a man born in 1975 into a family of artists in New Mexico end up in the Republic of Georgia? He says he first came to Georgia in 1995 when he was an art student in Moscow.
The draw for him was the music, particularly the Georgian traditions of polyphony. “I first discovered Georgia because of a CD I bought when I was 16 years old called ‘Georgian Folk Music Today.'”
In Moscow he started to study Georgian, to go to Georgian concerts and to hang out with Georgians. Members of the diaspora in Moscow invited him to their country in 1995.
“They whisked me straight from the airport to a restaurant. And I am a vegetarian and being a vegetarian in Moscow in the early nineties was not interesting. And showing up at this feast in Tbilisi and there’s all of these small tapas-style mezze plates of gorgeous vegetable, nutted vegetables and roasted vegetables, and then this amber-coloured wine that was being poured freely from the pitcher, toast after toast. I thought I was in artist’s heaven. And they summoned musicians to come, about 10, 12 toasts into the feast, and the musicians that walked in, they ended up being the same musicians who were on the CD I bought when I was 16 years old.”
John sums up the experience in a few words: “I fell in love with the country on my first trip.”
He needed material for his graduate degree in Moscow. His subject was “Does tradition hinder or foster creativity?” Tradition, he felt, could be the springboard for immense creativity. He decided to study, as one illustration of tradition, the Georgian grape harvest and the after-party, where, he says “all the different generations, children and grand-parents and friends and neighbours, come together to work, come together to feast, come together to sing and dance, to listen to toasts, to speak from their heart.”
“I came to Kakheti and went to harvest after harvest after harvest and crushing grapes with the farmers, going to their after-parties and doing sketches and drawings …”
In 1998 he left Moscow for good and came to Georgia to live. He met his wife, Ketevan, and they married the following year. Gradually the idea of winemaking took shape, after it dawned on John that rural Georgia offered much better fare than what was served in so many of the country’s “Soviet-style restaurants”.
“And so we thought ‘What would happen if we made wines that were unabashedly Georgian that could be exported, because most of the wines being exported were from big factories that didn’t have Georgian soul or character. We would make them organic from beginning to end, we would champion some unusual varieties that were less known like this one — Tsiska — and we could tell the wine story to the world. Very quickly after that we realised that the food component was necessary. We started this place eight years ago.”
The gastronomy of Georgia
On Georgian food John talks with knowledge and a touch of poetry. He tells me about one of his restaurants in Tbilisi, Piala, unusual in that it has rotating ethnic menus.
“We are going to do a Svanetian menu and I know the chefs we are going to work with and Svanetian cuisine rocks. There are literally 60, 70 dishes that we can choose from there, from they call them bread of heart, bread stuffed with teff and cheese, with leeks and potatoes. You can take the teff grain and make a porridge of it together with ox cheese, cow cheese. There is a cheese that they make that they press on oak boards that are square and have orange fungus on it. It is like a blue cheese but orange. There is so much more to Svanetian cuisine than people can imagine.”
He talks more about the glories of Svanetian food and then moves to Tusheti. “In Tushetian cuisine there is so much more than the average traveller gets. For instance there is almost like these little gnocchi cooked with caramelised onions and a garlic yogurt sauce. There are cheese pies that are paper thin, that have no yeast in them whatsoever, that are made on whey as the liquid in the dough and inside they have curds that are dried in the sunlight. Really exotic stuff and Georgians themselves don’t even know about it.”
Every now and again John interrupts his gastronomic tour of the Caucasus to draw my attention to what we are eating. We share many tasty dishes, including some delicious oyster mushrooms prepared with yogurt, rosemary, garlic and chilli.
John summarises what motivates him. “It is a lot of work to run all these restaurants, but it is building a sub-culture of natural seasonal organic food and fostering diversity and traditional dishes.”
Georgia, he notes, still has a lot of families growing food and selling in farmers’ markets. But Georgian agriculture is not all organic. “We are trying to spearhead and push a conscious return to organic farming. And that’s, by the way, strained water buffalo yogurt,” says John, pointing to one of the dishes filling our small table.
“And this wine here is a very unusual one. It is a rose Rkatsiteli. So it is actually made from a white grape.” John explains that it has had three weeks of “skin contact”, meaning that the grape skins spent three weeks in the qvevri with the rest of the fruit and the result is a wine that has come out looking red.
An artist at heart
Professionally, John keeps many plates in the air. Among other things he is involved in a music school headed by his wife Ketevan, whom I meet for a fleeting moment during lunch. So I take the conversation to the high ground and ask John “What is your main thing?”
“Well, in my heart of hearts, what still I am most passionate about is painting, although the painting has certainly been slighted in having to share attention from me with the restaurants and the winery, but in all my various enterprises I have, you know, core groups of people that see the day-to-day operations and I am more the idea person, the person that comes in to clean things up, straighten it up a bit and give new inspiration, new direction. And I do paint. I try to paint for a couple of hours each day.”
I tell him that it’s an achievement to keep painting in his daily routine. “It keeps my head sane, otherwise it’s very difficult,” says John, who then races on to tell me about his Living Roots gastronomy and wine tour business, which has a ranch and a planned brewery.
“It is a really interesting project because we take people to the mountains of Adjara or Tusheti or Svaneti, but we take them to the homes that have the absolute top chefs. We’ll bring high-quality silverware and glasses there if it’s a high-end group … It’s been a smashing success because we’ll take people to the banks of a river in Imereti and show them trout caught in that waterfall, mushrooms picked on the banks, singers from the neighbouring village and a wine from that village. I mean you talk about pairing. It blows people’s minds how much there is an underlying harmony in all of that. And then we’ll go to, for instance, Adjara or Racha and do the same thing. And so they’re learning about the culture, the singing traditions, the dancing traditions …”
I ask John whether he has a sense of “coming home” living in Georgia. “Very much so. I grew up, my childhood was in New Mexico and it’s a very artistic and a creative place with a good food scene, but — I don’t want to say anything bad about America because there are definitely very good parts — but I never felt at home there…”
John discerns what he calls a “certain plasticity” in life in much of the West. He receives chefs and artists of different kinds from outside of Georgia every year and it seems part of his calling is to provide them with a refuge from plasticity.
“You can go to a beautiful small town in Belgium, or England for that matter, and you feel that it has been rendered to museum conservation, you know, that it’s not a living thing. It is something to look at as part of the past, that is currently dead, where you can take pictures of it and buy postcards and maybe have tea next door to it, but the idea that a song can be 2,000 years old and people can spontaneously break into it, the idea that an 8,000-year-old vessel is still being used for making wine, that, you know, varieties that were almost lost, of grapes, are all of a sudden reappearing and reclaiming the lands that they are from, that it is an ancient tradition with deep roots that isn’t rendered to a corner in a museum, but is alive and kicking — I think that is perhaps Georgia’s greatest gift to the outside world and the (Western) chefs, the singers, the dancers, they miss that, they are yearning for that. They want food, vegetables, songs that have depth, that quench the thirst of their souls.”
John says of Georgia that “it is still not so polished and so veneered that you can’t feel the real living culture.” He contrasts it with some of the more battered cultures of Western Europe. “And you go, I imagine it is similar in Wales, but you go through Scotland, you go through Ireland, you feel a very proud people that once had a very grand culture, that a shadow of it is still intact and they are holding onto that with pride but, like Corsica the same thing, you feel like it has been so beaten up and so fractured that they can only offer a certain angle of it. But like in Georgian culture, the religion, the language, the singing, the dancing, the cuisine, the viticulture, they are all totally interlocked. And you go to Corsica and they still have the singing, they have lost their culinary traditions, there is beautiful nature, ethnically they are totally confused about who they are.”
John suggests that the strength of Georgia’s culture today stems partly from the historic threat of invasion, which meant “having a sword that needed to be sharp on both sides at any moment.”
“They felt that at any given time they could lose their identity, their religion, their language, their ethnicity. And they didn’t want to take anything from anyone else but they would fight to the death to protect that which was theirs. That feeling of threat and concern indirectly enabled them to actually retain their culture.”
John stresses the need for Georgia to keep its acuteness, to pass on to the next generation the importance of the songs and the winemaking.
“There are easier ways to make wine than making wine in qvevri. We as Pheasant’s Tears, we have wines in more than 25 two and three-star Michelin restaurants around the world, including the top two, generally considered the top two, Noma (Denmark) and Roca Cellars (Spain) both pour our wines in their tasting menus. That’s an achievement for an American artist and a Georgian farmer working together.”
Pheasant’s Tears now sells to 22 countries. It produces 60,000 bottles of wine a year from grapes grown on 24 hectares in five locations.
A U.N. stamp of approval
John’s account of the international success of Pheasant’s Tears puts me in mind of UNESCO’s decision to place the qvevri on its Intangible Cultural Heritage list — basically a U.N. stance that the qvevri is a jolly good thing. John expands on Georgia’s place on the UNESCO list.
“The first thing that was protected as a cultural heritage in Georgia was the polyphony, Georgian polyphony as a masterpiece of intangible European culture. And the second thing was the knowledge of how to build qvevri and make wine in them. And this is very important because uniqueness inherently imbues value. In a world of growing globalism you come empty-handed to the table if you mimic others. But if you have your own uniqueness, then you bring something new, you make the table more diverse.
“And one of the two things that objectively you could say is most unique about Georgia, one would be its wine tradition, its history, the amount of varieties, the methods, the vessel itself and second would be the vast — there is no country, Steve, on earth that has more than 10,000 complex polyphonic songs that are still practised. If you look at all the different variants of the chants and songs it is huge — the archives, the libraries, the recordings. It is absolutely mind-boggling.”
As we talk I learn about yet another project. Pheasant’s Tears is teaming up with a French organic winemaker, Thierry Puzelat, to make wine from ancient varieties of grapes to be grown on terraces left over from the 12th and 13th centuries in the south Georgian region of Meskheti.
I ask John whether he sees his work in terms of what one person and associates can do to heal the Earth.
“I do. I think that — I have given some talks to tourism conferences on this — that tourism can be used as a way to fortify indigenous culture and support sustainable farming or it can be used as a way to dilute indigenous culture and support industrial farming which is ecologically not sustainable.”
“Small is beautiful”
“I think, Steve, my philosophy would be that a small country has no other option except to do highly specialised products in limited amounts and sell them in a fair trade. And that mass production can only work if you are large enough to be the biggest in that profile. So if we are going to talk about doing resort tourism here we would have to be able to outperform Turkey or Bulgaria or Spain or Cyprus which wouldn’t work, we’re not big enough to be able to do that. But we could do something where people that want organic food and rare wine and interesting ancient polyphonic songs and a visit to ancient monasteries were able to pay a little bit more for a very special and authentic experience.
“Again, resort tourism destroys coastlines. It brings in, you know, cheap genetically modified food from the U.S. and Turkey instead of local food. It is a very dangerous thing. Today we are seeing that a little bit already on the Black Sea where you go to Kobuleti and it looks like a poorly done version of a Turkish coastline where there is shawarma and Efes beer everywhere and to taste Adjarian food you’d have to come to my place in Tbilisi or go to the mountains of Adjara. And yet that is Adjara, right.”
I say that part of the customer base for the resort-style tourism he decries is Russia. So do the Russians he meets have sympathy for the vision of tourism he embraces?
“For sure. I have no love — this is 2010 unsulphured Rkatsiteli, three months’ skin contact — I have no love for the policies of the Kremlin, nor do I have for the bigotry and racism and ambition of Middle Russia, but I do have a huge love for Russian literature, Russian painting traditions, Russian opera …
“The ones that end up coming here are often very curious about natural wine, they are very curious about the dishes that they couldn’t get anywhere else, very interested to taste some variety that is unique to them and it is very refreshing to work with them…
“But I am the last person to focus my businesses (on Russia),” says John. “I mean, we don’t export to Russia, on purpose, because we don’t believe in the manipulation that the Russian government uses … Russia uses imports of mineral water, wine and spirits from Georgia as a political weapon and we don’t want to be a part of it. We welcome Russians here, we hope that one day that changes, but here and now it is not something we want to co-participate in or foster.”
In 2006, when Georgia was moving closer to the West and relations with Russia were deteriorating, Moscow banned imports of Georgian wine. These resumed in 2013, but John is not the only person in Georgia who is wary of close economic ties with Russia.
It has been quite a lunch — great food, conversation and wine — and I express gratitude to John for the distilled thoughts of his on a range of matters. “Thoughts need decantation, not only wine,” says John as our lunch comes to a close.
One very wine-soaked day
Two days later, we meet again. John invites me to join a breakfast with his Japanese importers at the Pheasant’s Tears vineyard close to town. The vineyard is by the village of Tibaani, near its sixth century monastery of St. Stephen. It benefits from long summer sun, more than 14 hours a day, and the soil is lime rock, chalk and dark clay on the surface with sandy loam and gravel below providing good drainage.
There are two men and one woman in the Japanese group and shortly after eight we sit down with John to a hearty breakfast including a delightful sparkling wine which Pheasant’s Tears sells to the Noma restaurant in Copenhagen. It doesn’t come much better than this!
After breakfast I visit the final resting place of St. Nino at Bodbe Convent just outside Sighnaghi. It is a serene place, part of the charm of this little corner of Georgia.
Then at lunchtime I am drinking again, back at Pheasant’s Tears for a wine tasting session laid on for the Japanese. John has invited a Frenchman, Vincent, who also makes wine in Georgia, to come with his wines and all in all we taste more than 20 wines.
The wine writer Alice Feiring, in her work on Georgian wine, enthuses about “sensual explosions of blossom water and honey without the sweetness” and “church-evocative spices of myrrh and frankincense”. I am too far gone in my cups to add anything to that. Part of the charm of the occasion is that John, Vincent and one of the Japanese men all speak Georgian and use it for some of their conversation together.
At evening time we are still drinking, having wandered from the home of one winemaker to another. Our last port of call is the home of John Okro, an urbane British-trained telecoms specialist who now makes natural wine. His house is right at the top end of Sighnaghi with views to die for over the town and plain below. It is here, over dinner, that we clink glasses and shout “Gaumarjos” again and again and again. Many stories get told and I will recount just one of them, as related by John.
Some wine experts from the Languedoc region of France travelled to Georgia, to the vineyard of John’s business partner Gela Patalishvili. They couldn’t believe that he avoided chemicals and kept asking him what he used. The first couple of times he ignored them, but at the third time of asking, he gave a spirited reply.
John told us: “He stood up and said: ‘Every square metre of my vineyard is soaked with the blood, sweat and tears of my ancestors. What the fuck do you use in Languedoc?'”