Friday, October 23, 2009

TBILISI, Georgia | When Russia boycotted Georgian wine in 2006, Georgia lost 80 percent of its export market for wine overnight. Now, Georgian winemakers look back at the ban as a blessing in disguise.

Wine is a central element in Georgian culture, and for hundreds of years, Georgia was the primary supplier of wine to the Russian and Soviet empires. Owing to massive demand and Soviet production quotas, the volume of Georgian wine production soared while quality plummeted.

But, according to Shota Kobelia, commercial director of Georgian wine producer Teliani Valley, when relations between the Kremlin and Georgia’s pro-Western government soured to the point of an embargo, many winemakers saw an opportunity.

“Sure, the ban hurt us because we lost our biggest customer. But during this time there was no competition. Now we have an opportunity to sell to more-profitable markets, and we have been pushed to create a much better product,” Mr. Kobelia said.

Russia abruptly imposed the ban in March 2006, claiming that Georgian wines were contaminated with pesticides and impurities, and the Kremlin later extended the embargo to other Georgian products, such as bottled water. Experts and commentators roundly dismissed the move as a pretext for Russia to punish the pro-Western Georgian government, which came to power in the bloodless “Rose Revolution” in 2003.

Three years later, Teliani Valley wine is sold in 23 countries, and the company is Georgia’s No. 1 wine exporter. As it has upgraded its winemaking equipment and techniques, the company has seen its revenue from exports grow by 13 percent to 17 percent annually, Mr. Kobelia said.

In the United States, Mamuka Tsereteli founded Georgian Wine House, a Maryland-based import company. Mr. Tsereteli was born in Soviet Georgia and originally came to the United States in 1994 as a diplomat. He now teaches international relations at American and George Washington universities.

Since its founding in 2006, Georgian Wine House has put Georgian wine - including Teliani Valley and Pheasant’s Tears - on the shelves of more than 50 stores and restaurants in the Washington metropolitan area, and in five other states as well. Calling himself a “cultural promoter” rather than a wine merchant, Mr. Tsereteli holds lectures and wine tastings on weekends at various stores and at area Whole Foods supermarkets, which sell Georgian wines.

“I wanted to promote Georgia and wine in general. And, you know, I wanted to have good wine for myself,” Mr. Tsereteli said with a laugh. “It’s a good business: If you can’t sell it, you can always drink it.”

Although growth has been steady, Georgian wine companies still face difficulties being competitive on the open market.

First, while Georgia has an ideal climate for winemaking, the small country lacks sufficient land to produce the sheer volume of wine that can be squeezed out of regions, such as California’s Napa Valley.

Second, Georgia does not produce the peripheral products needed to package wine. Teliani Valley imports bottles from Italy, corks and wax caps from Portugal and boxes from Turkey - all of which drive up costs.

Furthermore, Georgia - aside from being commonly confused with the U.S. state - is more associated with war than wine in the West since its brief conflict with Russia in August of 2008.

Mr. Kobelia said his priority is making Georgia into a brand and marketing a type of wine comparable to what Western consumers currently buy. However, he said Georgian wine’s future eventually will lie in producing “boutique wine” - premium wine made in limited quantities for niche consumers.

While Georgia’s larger producers are focusing on branding first, some small Georgian vineyards have already begun to develop premium artisanal wine for export.

John Wurdeman, originally of Richmond, has lived in Georgia for 12 years. He established Pheasant’s Tears winery in 2007 with partners David Waldman and Gela Patalishvili. Pheasant’s Tears is one of the only wineries in the world that produces wine in complete accordance with techniques used in Georgia as far back as 6,000 B.C.

Pheasant’s Tears currently produces about 40,000 bottles annually, one-third of which is exported to the United States. Unlike most wines produced by modern methods - including Teliani Valley’s - Pheasant’s Tears wines are organic and go through the entire fermentation process in amphora - large clay vessels buried underground.

Mr. Wurdeman said he believes strongly that Georgian winemakers should go back to their roots, rather than attempting to compete in the general wine market.

If “we could start making wines that could sell in the $200 price bracket and that were put out in limited quantities, then it would really change and develop Georgian wine in a positive way,” he said. “I think that it’s like a bird trying to fly through glass right now. The Georgians are saying, ‘We’ve taken out a $3 million loan from the bank, and we want to make a mass wine that’s going to be superpopular in California.’ Well, it’s not going to work. They have their own inexpensive jug wine, and they don’t need it to be sent from the Black Sea,” he said.

Mr. Wurdeman said he was first attracted to Georgia in 1990, when, at age 15, he bought a cassette of traditional Georgian folk music and was enthralled.

Now raising a family with his wife, Ketevan, in the picturesque town of Sighnaghi in Georgian wine country, he has continued to devote his life to promoting and preserving traditional Georgian culture, all of which centers on wine, he said.

“The more you dig into Georgian traditions, the more you see how it goes together: the folk music, the religion, the wine and the art - all fingers of the same hand,” he said.

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