To Georgia’s wine country

Sighnaghi, prettiest town in Kakheti
Sighnaghi, prettiest town in Kakheti

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.

Niko Pirosmani

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.

Qvevri for winemaking sunk in the ground
Qvevri for winemaking sunk in the ground

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.)

imageA 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.”

Qvevri as decoration
Qvevri as decoration

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.

The view from John Okro's
The view from John Okro’s

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?'”