In 2011 when Alice Feiring first arrived in Georgia, she felt as if she’d emerged from the magic wardrobe into a world filled with mythical characters making exotic and delicious wine with the low-tech methods of centuries past. She was smitten, and she wasn’t alone. This country on the Black Sea has an unusual effect on people; the most passionate rip off their clothes and drink wines out of horns while the cold-hearted well up with tears and make emotional toasts. Visiting winemakers fall under Georgia’s spell and bring home qvevris (clay fermentation vessels) while rethinking their own techniques. But, as in any good fairy tale, Feiring sensed that danger rode shotgun with the magic. With acclaim and growing international interest come threats in the guise of new wine consultants aimed at making wines more commercial. So Feiring fought back in the only way she knew how: by celebrating Georgia and the men and women who make the wines she loves most, those made naturally with organic viticulture, minimal intervention, and no additives. From Tbilisi to Batumi, Feiring meets winemakers, bishops, farmers, artists, and silk spinners. She feasts, toasts, and collects recipes. She encounters the thriving qvevri craftspeople of the countryside, wild grape hunters, and even Stalin’s last winemaker while plumbing the depths of this tiny country’s love for its wines.For the Love of Wine is Feiring’s emotional tale of a remarkable country and people who have survived religious wars and Soviet occupation yet managed always to keep hold of their precious wine traditions. Embedded in the narrative is the hope that Georgia has the temerity to confront its latest threat—modernization.
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About the Author
Alice Feiring is an internationally known author, journalist, and essayist who lives in New York City. She has been the wine correspondent for Wall Street Journal Magazine and Time and now freelances for the New York Times, Wine and Spirits, and Omnivore. Winner of both the James Beard and the Louis Roederer wine writing awards, Feiring is the author of Naked Wine: Letting Grapes Do What Comes Naturally and The Battle for Wine and Love; or, How I Saved the World from Parkerization.
Read an Excerpt
For the Love of Wine
My Odyssey Through The World's Most Ancient Wine Culture
By Alice Feiring
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESSCopyright © 2016 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
Jet Lag and the Challenge
After another gulp of an amber-hued wine, all I could think of was bed. I'd endured a twenty-hour travel day and was impossibly jet-lagged while life was bursting all around me in the crumbling sandstone Georgian city of Tbilisi. I was with my friend John Wurdeman, a burly expat and owner of the winery Pheasant's Tears, which had made the wine in my glass. John tried to rouse me out of my stupor and pushed the addictive Georgian cheese bread, khachapuri, my way.
Sitting in the outdoor café after a heady meal, I was lost in a blur of the country's exotica, blue fenugreek, and marigold flowers — spices that help make the Georgian cuisine justifiably famous. But the natural wine of Georgia, like the one in my glass, was the real reason I was here now and had returned repeatedly to this country. It was spicy, strong, varied stuff. While commercial winemaking is still in its infancy (many producers were just emerging from making wine for their families and bottling commercially for the first time), the potential for further greatness is all there. And it's not just because of Georgia's 525 (and counting) unique grape varieties or even that it has an unbroken tradition of vinifying in the qvevri, which has become the newest fad in the western world. Another gift Georgian winemakers have given to the New World is making wine with what is known in the business as "skin contact." White wine in that country is made like red wine, in contact with the skins. Instead of being pressed off their skins immediately (so that the wines have a gentle straw color, almost clear) the grapes stay with their skins for up to eight months and, on rare occasions, longer. This process has resulted in tastes in wine that are exotic — beeswax and orange blossom water and strawberry tea, in addition to the wine's bitter and savory power; this process was the emotional thread that drew me in. It was the depth of natural Georgian wine culture. Those who made wine naturally with an eye to tradition were at risk. The little guy is always in danger, and championing the little guy has become my life's purpose.
"So let's figure this out. Where do you need to go?" John said.
John was helping me arrange my plans, which as of my arrival were still unformed. "I need to go out west. All I know is this region, Kakheti," I said. That was where John's winery was and where the lion's share of the country's wine production was focused. "So Imereti, Racha, those places for sure. I want to see what once was and what can be. Mostly I just need to get the feel for the land and the people."
He nodded his head.
I can't overstate how remarkable I find it that the Georgian approach to wine production has survived vicious invasions by those who have banished and pulled out native vines, and that it has survived the assault from Soviet industrialization. But could it survive the influence and seduction of the international wine market? Could Georgians resist the onslaught of wine consultants intent on modernizing their tradition? Could they resist chemical salesmen trying to infiltrate both the wineries and the vineyards? Many emerging countries have lost their identities and traditions once they have entered competitive foreign markets. Take, for example, Greek wines. Back before, let's say 2002, the vines were all Athiri, Roditis, and Mavrodaphne. Then came an influx of European money, and there was a rush to modernize, to buy new oak barrels and technology, and the Cabernet and Merlot vines were sunk into the ground. The new Greek wines tasted placeless. Most of them still do, though that is finally beginning to swing around. A few years back Bulgaria made a big pitch to American wine writers. In a test tasting in a marketing office its winemakers showed off their Syrah and their Chardonnay. We writers told them the world doesn't need another oaked Chardonnay; what it needs is a true Bulgarian experience. I've yet to have a wine made from Mavrud, but Bulgarian Cabernet? Even though I don't need it to enrich my life, I admit I've tasted it.
Georgia almost made this misstep. I saw this soon after I had my first Georgian wine in 2008.
It was a Kisi.
I was thrilled by it, and when in 2009 Georgia came to New York to show its wines, I was first to arrive. I was dismayed. Instead of the wines made in ancient pots from rare grapes, the only wine made in qvevri came from a winery named Pheasant's Tears. What's more, there were almost more Chardonnays and Merlots than I could find in Napa. I left thinking it was just another sad story of a country coming onto the international market. But just a few years later, in 2011, when I visited Georgia for the first time, I realized that there was another spirit that was indomitable, and that was the one I cared about. I hoped that Georgian winemakers could do what few before them had been able to do: stay true to themselves. I sensed there was enough pride in the Georgian character to safeguard traditions and to not fall for the quick money trick of entering the market with a cheapened product. Yes, I sensed it, but was it true? For my own satisfaction, I wanted to explore. I wanted to go deep into the people, to travel, to drink, and to debate. I wanted to find out if there was enough common sense, enough pride in Georgia's history, to resist the pratfalls of modern winemaking marketing pressure. But not that night.
As if sensing my yearning to go to bed, another of the natural wine gang, Niki Antadze, showed up to transport me to his parents' house, where I was crashing. Wearing dark glasses and sporting a not quite freshly shaved chin, he looked like a perfect French film noir star. Actually Niki — son, father, husband, former ski instructor, club owner, and royal before the Soviet invasion — is a serious winemaker. I had met John and Niki on that first visit to Georgia in 2011 and have seen them since in different countries — more often, in fact, than I see my friends who live uptown in New York.
Niki eased into our booth. John poured him a glass of the Kisi we were drinking and the two of them talked about their plans for me. Usually I liked to go it alone. A car and a playlist was all that I needed. But on this trip it was finally time for me to try to understand where Georgia had come from and where it was going, so I'd be handed off from one winemaker to the next, like some game of Pass or Perish football.
Niki took off his Ray-Bans, lit up a Marlboro, and started talking to John in rhythmic Georgian, a language in which — after about four words — I was lost. "Don't worry," said John, seeing my wrinkled brow. "It's going to be great."
When Niki finally said to me, "Let's go," I quickly raised my glass, exclaimed "Gaumarjos!" and flamboyantly drained it Georgian style. I gave John a kiss on the cheek, and we walked toward Niki's car on Leselidze Street.
In the car he said, "It is good to see you."
It was always good to see Niki and be around his energy, which sometimes was so zen that I thought of him as the Skinny Buddha.
"How is your brother?" he asked.
My brother was in trouble. "The chemo stopped working. He had been going into the hospital a couple of days a week, but he can't anymore. He has hung up his stethoscope. He's feeling useless and irrelevant."
He shook his head. What else could he say, although the feeling of compassion was there. He started up the car. He had a detour in mind. "Friends of mine are having a party."
Niki always knew where the parties were.
"You know that cooking school I told you about, Culinarium?" So much for bed.
After a few hairpin turns, passing the late-night vegetable stalls that never seem to close, we got out of the car in the artsy Vera neighborhood. We walked past the darkened square, where people were laughing, smoking, joyously just being. We reached an unmarked door, and Niki pushed it open. Inside was a gleaming stainless test kitchen stacked with the city's smartest, coolest, most cosmopolitan professionals, all toting cocktails. I immediately felt frumpy, unshowered, gritty from the plane, shorter, and a good twenty years older than everyone else. I sampled whatever was in everyone's martini glasses, but it was sweet — strange for a country where bitter and compelling are more common than sweet.
"This is my friend Alice," Niki explained to a man who I understood was a business partner of Tekuna Gachichiladze, the chef who ran the school. He was pleasant looking, if a little guarded. "She's a wine writer from New York City."
Seeing that I was taken care of, Niki deserted me for his friends.
"A wine writer? And you're here for Georgian wine?" he asked me.
"Of course," I answered.
"What have you done since arriving?" he asked.
Trying to sip the too-sweet cocktail, I responded, "I ate a radish that burst with such juiciness it was shocking."
For some reason he was unimpressed. I tried again. "Then I fell in love with sour, bitter, yogurt soup. It's hard to find in the States."
I was suddenly self-conscious about my passion for food and flavor, and I feared he must have thought I was a freak.
"Would you like a glass of wine?" he asked, noticing my barely touched drink.
The wine he was offering me was from a box in the corner, which was labeled "Provençe rosé." This is exactly the kind of wine I avoid: processed, mass-produced, and highly sulfured. But in Georgia you accept hospitality even if it consists of a wine you'd rather not smell, let alone drink. You must, or you risk insulting your host. I said, "Of course."
He twisted the spout, and I could tell by the smell that it was going to taste like a long-lost, shriveled cucumber from the bowels of a neglected refrigerator. He tried to reassure me: "It's cheap and it's good."
It might have been cheap, but it was anything but good. I set the glass down while he settled on the adjacent stool.
He then bragged that he was planning to study for a prestigious certification in London that could lead to the ultimate credential in wine education, Master of Wine. "I'm taking the WSET exam."
"Really," I said. I was trying to comprehend how he was planning to study wine yet didn't have the awareness to know he was pouring me crap.
"I'm going to be leading more wine classes here, so I wanted some credentials. Bio wine is bullshit," he said. "It doesn't make a difference in the taste, and it's too expensive."
Reaching for a glass of water, I pondered how a thinking person could actually believe agriculture was irrelevant to flavor. It was confounding, but I saw it frequently: people who were committed to organic produce forgot that grapes that made wine were produce as well. This wasn't a Georgian problem alone; it was global. It was commonplace to eat organic yet drink conventional. It is a disconnect that makes no sense to me. So I said to him, "But your cooking school is about quality ingredients. Why wouldn't you do the same with wine?"
"It's all the same."
"You are taking wine classes to be an expert, and you think all wine, conventional or natural, is the same?"
"Well, of course it's not. There are different grapes; there are good wines and bad wines."
"But you like organic food, don't you? Most of the food made in Georgia is grown organically."
"Food here is cheap. Wine should be too," he argued.
I certainly agreed that wine should be affordable, but I know I overpay at the Greenmarket to support my farmers so that they stay in business. And I am willing to do that — as long as it's not crazy — for wine.
I pushed back. I pointed out that he was suffering from the same affliction as many of the food-obsessed around the globe: lower standards for wine than for food. Gaining momentum, I said, "So you go to the foreign-owned Carrefour and pick up some dreck French wine instead of supporting homegrown artisans? I understand the need for inexpensive party wine, but it reflects on your taste, on your philosophy, no? Is your cooking school cheap?" The Georgian wine-and-food-pairing class he was offering later in the week was going to cost $125. I continued: "But Niki makes organic wine. Do you like his?"
"Niki's wines, well, they're special." He seemed to use "special" in the way the French do: as a synonym for "eccentric" or "peculiar."
One has to be special to make wine the way Niki does. He, like those of his generation, as well as the generations before him, had always longed to make wine. But it was not an approved profession in Soviet times. Unless one worked for a state wine factory, the only legal way to make wine was for personal consumption. Most who lived in the countryside had their little marani (winery) with some buried qvevri. A decade after perestroika, dreams of something more started to take hold among those who had wine production in their veins. Niki had felt a growing desire to go back to his roots. "My grandmother told me that the family made wines in Manavi. She showed me a plot of land and proclaimed, 'That's the spot for Mtsvane,'" he'd once told me. In 2006 he bought three hectares where his ancestors had once worked the land, left the club and ski life, and gambled his family's future on the hope that he could grow vines organically and make wine in qvevri. Of course he was "special." What kind of person has the patience to wait until 2013 to release his 2008 Mtsvane because it was only ready to drink then?
Here Niki's friend was blasé about it all; he didn't appreciate the difference in the tastes of his local wines. He wanted them to lose their individuality; he wanted them to be unrecognizable from, let's say, those of Chile. He thought it weird that the traditional whites of Georgia were made as if they were reds, with extended skin contact. This skin contact, rare for white wines, is what gives them strength, backbone, tannin, and color — giving them the name "orange wines" — and stability. And yes, the cooking school business partner was correct: they weren't cheap. But for the most part they weren't ridiculously expensive either. Given their quality, the fact that most are available under twenty-five dollars a bottle is extraordinary. Given the love, care, and work put into every bottle, they are far less expensive than, say, Italian wines made in this fashion.
The thought that this man was about to get a useless degree in order to pose as an expert was utterly depressing to me. His attitude about wine was the danger that the new and hopeful cohort of natural winemakers in Georgia were up against. I had seen the same thing in New York; I had seen it in Paris and Rome. But I was sad to see it in Tbilisi, in a country with such a long-standing tradition of natural wine and winemaking.
It wasn't too much later that Niki finally nodded to me that we could go. It was early in the morning, and the city people were still enjoying the nearby park and a photography installation that was flashing between the trees in the dark. I was upset, but Niki, ever composed and rational, wasn't. "He's a good man," he said. "When fashion changes, he'll change as well." Then he told me of his own plans. He was starting to complete his winery. It was to be near his vines in Manavi. He would build a little hut to sleep near the vines; the walls of his winery would be fabricated by laying in straw bales. He would have about three months to finish the work, yet he hadn't broken ground.
"You're really going to have it in time for this year's vintage?" I asked, incredulous, forgetting that even though the country is notoriously on GMT — Georgian Maybe Time — when there's motion, things can happen quickly.
He shrugged as if to say, "If God wills it."
His car climbed the hills outside of the city to the quiet place where his parents' house was located, where I could finally fall into bed. As I lay there, I berated myself for not being harder on his cooking school friend. But as I fell asleep, I thought to myself: there are some people I can take on in person; others I take on in print.
This hot soup is so soothing after one has stepped off a plane at the end of a red-eye; there's something healing about its complex tang. Most of the world's yogurt soups rely on garlic for flavor, but in Georgia it is the high acid yogurt they call matsoni and the fresh herbs that really deliver the punch. What's more, it's an essential food to have in one's quiver when traveling in a country of hard drinkers, as it's the traditional hangover remedy.
On one of my first nights in Georgia, I convinced Niki's mother to share her recipe with me. But it was on later visits that I had a lesson in making the soup from John Wurdeman's friend Lia, who went into more detail about the soup-making technique. There are many variations, and from what I could see, as is usual, every family has its own particular twist. Some recipes call for the inclusion of rice. I prefer it without.
Excerpted from For the Love of Wine by Alice Feiring. Copyright © 2016 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations Introduction 1. Jet Lag and the Challenge 2. Of Prophets and Toasting 3. The Lost Art of Qvevri 4. Wine and God 5. The Dreamers 6. Stalin’s Last Winemaker 7. Yom Kippur and Chinuri 8. The Talented Earth 9. Lessons of Lamara 10. The Grape Hunters 11. Crush Pad Imereti Style 12. Gurian Revival and Being Honored 13. Polyphony and the Future 14. The Power of Butchki Postscript Acknowledgments