Author: Robert Linkous
By hook or crook, by science and archaeology, Georgian government intends to dig up or nail down the “cradle of wine,” and prove it is not in a neighboring country. Still, in the wide world of wine there must be room enough forthe Georgian and Armenian wine cultures. Already from the north Georgia is encroached upon along its “creeping” border with Russia; surely to the south it is not too late for peace in our time.
Indeed, a new venture in Yerevan, Old World Wine Tours, looks forward this year to its first full season of being the only people who offer combined tours of wine regions in both countries. By emailMatt Bartelsian, who has done marketing for the company, explained: “Georgia is known as the birthplace of wine (about 8,000 years of history), but recently the world’s oldest winery was found in Armenia (about 6,100 years old) and is soon to be open to the public.”
Meanwhile, for about a year in central Yerevan a wine bar and shop, In Vino, has been doing its best to span the globe. Of its some 700 wines, most are imported. The small selection of Georgian wines simply reflects their limited availability in Armenia, from which In Vino’s choices featuretop-class growerslike Armas, Karas, and Tariri.
To edify both the curious and connoisseurs, there are an impressive array of wine reference books and a regularly changing lineup of ten wines by the glass, each thirst-provokingly priced at 800 AMD (about two USD) each. A typicaltasting recently enabled comparisons of two dry blended whites, two full-bodied reds, and tworosés, one being Armenian, the other imported.
Behind In Vino is Vahe Baloulian, a globetrotting, acknowledged authority on Egaming who now resides in Southern California. In a lengthy interview he promised of In Vino, for a clientele about 70% Armenian, 30% foreign, “The whole idea for this place is more wine education than money making,” with “education” sometimes an uplift for those who might be “otherwise taken by vodka.”
Furthermore, in partnership with Baloulian, Irina Ghaplanyan, who discovered fine wine while in London pursuing a Master’s in diplomacy, plans to start this year a Yerevan Wine Academy to be recognized by the highly regarded, London-based Wine & Spirit Education Trust. The like already exists in Tbilisi, where it was apprehended that pitching Georgian wines effectively involves comparing them to those made elsewhere.
“The Armenian consumer is proud of his/her wines,” Ghaplanyan noted in an email. Nonetheless, “People in Armenia with an increased exposure to good wines pouring into our market from all over the world, are hungry for knowledge on wine, in order to make informed purchases.” Good, very good, and even extraordinary imported wines can be found around Yerevan, as is the case in major cities in Ukraine and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, while in Georgia almost all shelves are packed out with the domestic product.
Also in Yerevan is another venue for shopping and sipping, Sommelier.Through visiting Armenian wineries, training from experts visiting from as far away as Portugal and Argentina, and independent study on the Internet, sommelier Garik Bayanduryan earned his expertise. At times he even posts himself just outside the door of Sommelier, offering tastes of something tasty to strollers passing by.
One bitterly, almost unbearably cold January evening recently, bundled up from head to toe, Bayanduryan could be spotted dispensing hot, bracing belts of seasonal Glühwein, to bringsmiles to faces once teeth stopped chattering, and even inspirefrozen fingers to grope for wallets and purses.
Inside it is much cozier, with modern, boutique décor. Imported wines predominate, but Armenia is strongly accented as well. Bayanduryan foresees advancement for his country’s wine industry, though it may take a while longer to transcend the Soviet era perception that “Georgia is for wine, Armenia is for brandy.”
Bayanduryan’s hopes are shared by Baloulian, though Armenia has “a long way to go to become competitive” - presently contention between Georgia and Armenia for export market share is a non-issue. Still, during Soviet times there were Armenian winemakers, he assured me, who “did good work” of which they were “proud.”
Nowadays, said Baloulian, the catch-up strategy is “not to reinvent the wheel, but buy the wheel,” in the form of high-powered winemaking expertise from abroad, including probably the most renowned of the flying winemakers, Bordeaux’s Michel Rolland, who has consulted for Tariri.
And should the Armenian government put its own shoulder to the wheel, and jump into the big dig for the missing cradle? Since his government officially is “poor,” explained Baloulian, it cannot easily justify supporting the wine industry, except in a broader way by helping agriculture, production, and export. Besides, he himself actually is “happy government does not hinder the process,” he allowed, a view that might be echoed by Georgian wine industrialists not always over the moon about the Georgian government’s hands-on policies on grape prices.
Another irony is that inarguable proof of ownership of the cradle may be a mixed blessing for Georgia, no matter how undeniable its value for tourism. In past the excellent Hvino News web site has chronicled how one journalist after another has come to Georgia and basically writtenvarious versions of the same “cradle” story. But novelty sells bottles, quality and value sell cases – and containers. Importers, retailers, and restaurateurs might want to hear more about, “What have you done lately?”
Then too, hearing the clamor for the cradle and qvevri, some may be given pause by how very much seems to be riding upon the future of Georgian wine. In production Georgia is not France or Chile by a long shot; it is more in the ballpark with Moldova and Japan. But are there many – or any – other countries in which wine matters more?
Emzar Jgerenaia, Director of the Department for Science, Culture and Civic Education at the National Parliamentary Library, and professor of sociology at Ilia State University, can explain.To begin with, Georgia is a “rural culture and country.” Since the Soviet era industry has languished; factories once active in the Rustavi area and elsewhere no longer function; they “all were a Soviet invention, and a product of Soviet ideology,” when “money was made by the state, not by businesses.”
Then there was the denial of access to the latest technology. “But we still have the resources,” Jgerenaia insisted, only – he would quote a neologism coined by a fellow scholar – it is a “necro-economic” business climate now. Two decades and counting since Georgia declared its independence, it still relies heavily on imports; in its “economy of death,” what goes mostly are “wineries, hotels, restaurants, small businesses…”
Said Jgerenaia, “It is important to mention that the spirit of progress is terra incognita in our culture.”
But speaking of “terra incognita,” Yerevan’s Old World Wine Tours is venturing into Georgian wine country, yet already Bartelsian finds that there is “tremendous interest in what we offer,” notwithstanding that “Georgians have been far more advanced than the Armenians in terms of wine tourism.”
Still, the success of the combined tours will turn on cooperation and mutual respect, and if the Armenians are modest about their wine, looking at what is on sale in Georgia might suggest that some believe that in the past 8,000 years no one else in the world has figured out how to make the stuff.
But as it happens, in Tbilisi there is a counterpart to Yerevan’s In Vino and Sommelier, Vino Underground. True, it offers Georgian wine exclusively, but about six times a year, usually after bottle exchanges at wine fairs abroad, it hosts foreign wine tastings that have a devoted following. And Vino Underground would be well pleased to do that more often, said co-owner and winemaker Ramaz Nikoladze, if only more wines were available.
But what about the ordinary Georgian wine drinkers who are not students of wine? Nikoladze thinks they are not much different from their ilk in France and Italy, where they will gladly give the foreign product a try, but then“they will always buy French and Italian wine.”
Though Transcaucasian hands may grasp at the cradle of wine for years to come, it is hard to argue with an insight as perceptive as that.