'There's a museum in London called Vinopolis," says Omari Mikaberidze, CEO of San Diego-based Georgian Wine Imports. "And the first room in that museum is dedicated to Georgian winemaking. It says that Georgia is the birthplace of wine. Some historians suspect that the word 'vino' came from the Georgian 'gvino.' And in the Sixth Century, Georgia became the first country to establish viticulture as an academic major."
A couple of hundred years before that, says my Oxford Companion to Wine, Georgia adopted Christianity, and "the first cross was made of vines to show that the Christian faith and the vine were the most sacred treasures of the nation." To this, Mikaberidze adds, "Christianity has a very strong root in Georgia. There's a saying, that people become true friends after they break bread and have a glass of wine together. It's almost like Communion. That's another reason why wine is such an integral part of the culture."
"Integral part of the culture" has a nice ring to it; it gets at the way I'd like to see wine treated: not as the sole province of sensual aesthetes, but as the completion of the table's joys. Sublimity is possible but not required. And in this case, that integral quality seems to be holding. Mikaberidze tells a story about a chef who visited his home and tackled the family ramhorn. "When Georgians have a feast, they call it the Georgian Table. It's very organized -- there's a master of ceremonies, and he toasts.
"There are seven toasts that have to be said at any feast. It doesn't matter whether there are 2 people sitting there or 165 -- always, there have to be those seven toasts. Three of the toasts are major toasts. Those are for the mother -- who is usually the hostess -- for the country, and for the prayer houses. For those, you have to drink the horn, and when you drink the horn, it's bottoms up. You have to show the empty horn after you drink, and however many drops fall out, that's how many enemies you have left. The horns vary from family to family, depending on how brave their feasts are. Our family horn actually takes one and a half bottles." Now there's a country where wine snobbery probably isn't rampant. It's hard to consider the hints of stone fruit and garrigue as you chug your way toward the one-liter mark.
Of course, all this could be regarded as a collection of extraneous fun facts, the sort of thing the tour guide tells you as you settle in at a winery's tasting bar. They have no necessary connection to what's in the bottle -- Georgian wine could be purest plonk, and all of the above could still be true. Mikaberidze's account of the weather in his home country is a little more germane. "Georgia is actually the ultimate wine-growing climate. The wine country is surrounded by two mountain ranges, so there's almost no precipitation. Irrigation comes from the river that runs down from the mountains, bringing minerals to the soil. They stress the vines, so that the roots have to go way down, searching for water. That's why you have such concentrated fruit."
Happily, Georgian wine -- at least, the Georgian wine I've tasted -- is not plonk. Mikaberidze started Georgian Wine Imports at the urging of friends, one of whom ran the wines by some local chefs and sommeliers and got their nods. Nor is it the same old thing -- just now, Mikaberidze is bringing in three wines from Georgia's Telavi Wine Cellars: two very different Saperavis and a Tsinandali, which is blended from Rkatsiteli and Mtsvane. The wines hit some familiar notes. Surely there's an obscure Italian white that tasted to me much like the Tsinandali, and the Napareuli is plush and rich in a way reminiscent of some Napa Merlots. But it's not a Napa Merlot. You can tell by the $12.99 price tag -- and by the Napareuli appellation.
Appellation is a relatively new concern in Georgia, taken up as the country's industry tried to rise once more from the political forces that plagued it throughout the 20th Century. Until recently, says Mikaberidze, "There were a lot of false Georgian wines. People would take Romanian wines, Ukrainian wines, Moldavian wines, and they would stick a Georgian wine label on there. That hurt Georgian wines, because people weren't sure what they were getting. Now, there's an effort from the government to actually establish a standard. They borrowed from France -- the way they divide the wine regions. Each wine from Telavi wine cellars carries the name of the region the grapes were grown in. They're all estate bottled; that's how we differentiate ourselves from the 'fake' Georgian wines."
Pedigree is important for maintaining a reputation, but Mikaberidze's main pitch to the American market is more along the lines of the Georgian Table than the French Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée. "Our message is clear -- we try to make wine as non-intimidating as possible." Easy to buy, easy to drink. "Wine is there to be the companion of a good dinner and a good conversation. The start of it is the price. We want to help Americans understand that there is nothing mystical about wine." Georgia's Most Favored Nation trade status helps in that regard. "There's a new government, one that's a lot more open, more oriented toward the West. The US and Georgia are strategic partners; the US is kind of the guarantor of Georgia's stability. We have it a little easier than some European countries when it comes to bringing in our products. We pay less tariffs, things of that nature."
Still, even without the mystery of what exactly makes 750 ml of wine worth $75 or more, there is the problem of obscurity. Vowel-starved words like "Mtsvane" can be trouble for a public still wrapping its tongue around "Viognier." Mikaberidze turned to local PR firm Nuffer-Smith-Tucker for help. Explains account executive Jesse Lovejoy, "Our marketing strategy has been to develop descriptions that reference familiar wines." The Tsinandali has "a little of that creaminess of Chardonnay, but also the crisp acid of a Sauvignon Blanc." The Saperavi gets compared to the Sangioveses of Chianti, while the Napareuli is paired with Cabernet.
The result? A number of local shops have started carrying Telavi wines, including the Wine Bank and Holiday Wines in Escondido. "We've had a very good response in Washington state," says Mikaberidze, "because there is a significant Russian population there, and a very good distributor picked us up. And we're reaching out in Texas, because they are more open to imported wines." California still tends to drink its own, but Georgia has made local inroads. "We're on the list at Pomegranate, which is a local Georgian restaurant. And the Marine Room and Thee Bungalow. We've also targeted some Asian restaurants, because we feel Georgian wine has the capability to be a good companion to Oriental cuisines. They have a similar background to Georgian cuisine -- the richness of spices, the use of curry and other exotic flavors. And we're expanding to some of the Hispanic restaurants. We don't want to limit ourselves to our home base."