'In the late 19th Century," says Omari Mikaberidze, "Georgia had the best wines on the market. Even in France, the aristocrats preferred drinking Georgian wines. We won something like 14 Grand Prix between 1882 and 1914." Mikaberidze, a native of Georgia now living in San Diego, is the founder and CEO of Georgian Wine Imports and made his adopted city the first market for the wines of his homeland.
Like many wine salesmen, Mikaberidze has discovered that it helps to have a story to tell about your product. "We're doing these community outreach programs so that people can experience not only the taste but also the history, the mystique, a little bit of the romanticism. I've never had this much fun trying to sell something. Buyers see wine reps coming in all day long, trying to pitch this Cabernet, that Cabernet, that Merlot."
Mikaberidze is pitching Saperavi, Napareuli, and Tsinandali instead of Cabernet. Novelty can work either for or against you in the wine business, but he's had some good luck with local buyers. "They taste the wine, and they are pleasantly surprised. They ask, 'Where have you been all this time? Why has nobody heard of Georgian wines?' Iron Curtain. We are the best-kept secret in Russia. The Russian wine market is strongly dominated by Georgian wines; the European wines have a hard time getting in there, because Georgian wines offer such good quality at such a reasonable price." And they come with a bang-up story, even if you don't go any further back than those heady days of the late 19th Century.
The Oxford Companion to Wine notes that the phylloxera root louse combined with various fungal diseases to strike the first blow to Georgia's wine industry, destroying nearly half of the region's vineyards by the opening of the 20th Century. But the bug was only the beginning. Says Mikaberidze, "In 1918, Georgia declared its independence from the Russian empire. Then, in 1921, they were occupied by communist Russia. At the time Russia was very rural; Georgia, too, was historically an agricultural country. The Communists thought rural meant poor. So, they decided to force industrialization. 'Let's move everybody from the land into the cities and build factories.' After that, there was no need for vineyards. In 1922, they chopped up literally every single vineyard. The only reason these varietals survived is because people grew them at home."
The government rethought its position in the years following the Second World War, when Russia needed something to sell. "They said, 'Let's go back to the drawing board -- what worked before the revolution? We used to have this great wine country.' In the late '40s and early '50s, they invited Mr. Rothschild" -- who had a little wine interest of his own back in France. "He started the first wine factory, making sparkling wines. So the industry started to grow." Stalin lent his support, "because he loved one of the Georgian varietals -- a dessert wine, on the sweeter side. He always had to have it with his dinner."
The good years didn't last. The late '60s brought "the second wave of the communist economy, and that was specialization. Each region had to specialize in something." No-brainer -- Georgia gets wine, right? Wrong. "Wine was perceived as a capitalist drink, because of the stereotypes associated with it" -- wealthy industrialists storing up case upon case of priceless Bordeaux while the masses were forced to drink dirty puddle water -- or maybe just bad Merlot. "They didn't have an interest in a capitalist drink. So they chopped up the vineyards again, and they planted watermelons. But watermelons didn't grow all that well in the wine country."
Happily, despite the government's best efforts, Georgian wine refused to die -- thanks to the Georgians. "Georgians without wine is impossible. Every family you visit in Georgia prides themselves on the wine they will serve you. If they serve you bad wine, that is the worst thing that can happen in that family. You could not root it out of the people. They grew it in the parking lots. They created driveway covers with grapevines. The grapes gathered sunlight, and they could say, 'We just grow it for the shade.' That's how they preserved it through the hard times."
The '70s saw yet another resurgence of the industry. Could hard times be far behind? "In 1985, there was Prohibition in Russia, and that meant another wave of chopping up vineyards. From 1985 until the end of the war, you could not find a manufactured wine in a bottle. It was all in 10-liter containers, and it was all made in back yards. They had these little clay tanks that they kept underground. The ground kept the temperature stable, but the number one thing was that it was easy to cover. You could just throw dirt on top of it and nobody would know that you had wine brewing underneath. My grandpa was head doctor for the Kakheti region, which is kind of the Napa Valley of Georgia. He always had the best wine in town; he had friends who were making good wines. Everybody loved coming over for dinners because they knew they were going to have really good wine."
It wasn't until Georgia declared its independence from Russia for the second time in a century that its wine industry began a serious recovery, one that would allow it to make use of the advances made by the Western world. Friends of Mekaberidze's took over the operation of Telavi Wine Cellar, which had been founded in 1915. Telavi brought in modern equipment (bladder presses, temperature-controlled stainless-steel fermentation tanks) and traditions (aging in French oak). They brought in David Morrison, an Australian winemaker who had made his reputation in Europe.
"They've created this fusion of the Georgian tradition of winemaking and the lost knowledge from 70 years behind the Iron Curtain, and they've come up with some very good wines. Last year, they doubled their sales from the year previous." And while they're primarily selling in Russia, they want to start exporting to Europe and America. Mikaberidze says, "They want to compete with the best."