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Stalin’s Wine Myth

By Malkhaz Kharbedia

Aside from the existing economic and social issues, there are other factors that hinder the development of Georgian wine. Perhaps, the most obtrusive among those factors are the myths. On one hand, there is a mythical perception of wine in the country and on the other hand, there are the ingrained myths that feed the misguided approach to wine and prevent it from revealing its true merit.

Furthermore, people often use some dubious criteria to evaluate the wine in Georgia, in the place, where man first conquered the grape. One such criterion entails the name of Stalin and his personal appeal to wine. Unfortunately, putting his name on labels or marketing a wine as “Stalin’s favorite,” though more commonly used during 90s and earlier, is still practiced by many as one of the strategies for wine promotion. This type of marketing is most likely stimulated by the Post-Soviet setting and one can also expect that the resumption of Georgian wine imports in Russia may rekindle the lurking urges for the glorification of the infamous Comrade in the wine industry.

Almost every renowned wine of Georgia is associated with the name of Stalin, Khvanchkara being at the top of the list among them. The supreme ruler of the Soviet Union confiscated this wine from the noble family of Kipiani and ‘gave it to people’ (the wine began to sell with its current name, Khvanchkara, in 1943). It was the time of forced industrialization and total collectivization of agriculture when noble families had to give up their private vineyards and wine factories. But most importantly, it was the time when Stalin, as the supreme Soviet figure occupied the niches of all sectors. (One should also mention that Georgian Cognac underwent the same process when the name of its founder, David Sarajishvili, was overshadowed by the name of Stalin. The list of legends about the political leaders and their special appeals towards various wines and spirits goes on. The claim that Churchill favored Eniseli Brandy is another example).

Even today, a great number of people living in the regions of Khvanchkara, Korjo, Tola and Sadmeli instantly associate their favorite wines with the name of Stalin. As local legend goes, the second wine, greatly appreciated by the Comrade was Kindzmarauli, which was created presumably during the war. The local folklore still whets the cliché that Stalin favored this Kakhetian wine the most.

The following two varietals, Goruli Mstvane and Chinuri (as well as Atenuri wine), share the third place in the list of the wines favored by Stalin since they have originated from the birthplace of the Soviet leader, the city of Gori. Tavkveri and Usaxelouri varieties come in the fourth and the fifth places respectively, the latter being one of the most famous and treasured wines that would be bestowed only on Stalin by the Soviet peasants. The list of Stalin’s favorite wines also includes some of the treasured wines passed down to us through many generations of winemakers: Mukuzani, Tsinandali and Napareuli.

The list goes on and on. However, the most important fact that proves itself is that for decades, either a famous varietal or an origin of almost every wine in Georgia has been firmly connected to Stalin and these wines have even become the sitting targets for his name. Stalin was literally the country’s primary vine-grower, wine maker and most importantly, wine gourmet. Meanwhile, for fear of plots and intrigues, he had the cupbearers serving him to test wines for poison as well as other people including notable guests and officers performing the same job for him.

Speaking of wine testing, Simon Sebag Montefiore, while revisiting the life of Stalin in his book, “The Court of the Red Tsar,” sources a tale originated again from the myths and tells the story about Beria and Mikoyan trying the wines they brought Stalin ahead of the Soviet ruler. The story goes on with Stalin telling them: ‘Being Caucasian, you understand wine better than others, so try it.” Since it became clear that he was testing the wines for poison, Beria and Mikoyan stopped giving them to him. So Stalin provided his own wine and genially opened the bottles himself. Montefiore devotes several pages to describing Stalin’s bacchanalian parties, how he forced wine on his guests and how the drinking at these Bacchanals involved many indecorous jokes, vomiting or pant-wetting/soiling incidents.

Indeed, this is not the story that needs to be told. What’s most important is that Georgian wine is still stuck in the Stalin cult and in his “gourmet”/bacchanalian perception of wine. Not even that, some time ago, a man from the Imereti region asserted at a Supra (Georgian toasting ceremony) that the locals of Telefa (which is the village in the Terjola region) used to send Stalin a lamb daily. His words cheered everyone up making their emotions spill over into exuberance. Then they all named the wines that were favored by the Soviet ruler and literally every single Georgian wine turned out to be in the list of Stalin’s favorites.

Doesn’t this story make a good mythical scene? There was a dragon with a ravenous appetite sitting in the center of the world who was served with lambs and an abundance of wine daily and who indulged himself continiously. And, his providers felt happy that their lambs and wines were appreciated and approved by this monstrous dragon, which is obviously a metaphor for the Soviet Leader.

This concept of Stalin’s mythical appetite (whether it took over during his lifetime or after that) has played havoc with the name and the image of the Georgian wine for years. I don’t know about others but for me, personally, it is tragic that a lot of people in Georgia are still quaffing wine with Stalin’s sense of taste. They still confine the ancient culture of Georgian wine, one of the biggest and precious achievements of the county, to various mythical contexts.

Unfortunately, even foreign tourists participate in disseminating these mythical stories while writing with alacrity about them on their blogs, making movies or purchasing contemptible and tasteless bottles of wines labelled with images of Stalin.

Well, what can one say when it works for the producers of Stalin’s wine? They have taken the advantage of this catchy branding strategy that has been in practice for a long time and that doesn’t require too much of an effort.

Indeed, such is the nature of us, Georgians, we like it when things take care of themselves.

© Georgian Wine Club/vinoge.com

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May 2023