Soso Bitskinashvili stood astride a produce trailer as the tractor towing him bounced and rumbled along the dirt trail. Before him, at the end of the expanse of vineyards that fill the Alazani Valley, the Caucasus ridge rose sharply toward the sky.
We had set out for the fields of eastern Georgia, after a night of pressing grapes and feasting, at the not very respectable hour of 9:30am. We were a convoy of grape pickers, three vehicles and perhaps 15 people in all, the oldest car a dented Volga Gaz-21, circa 1963. Call us Soso's work brigade, a nickname that borrows from Soviet phraseology, which no longer really applies.
After passing for about 30 minutes along what seemed like endless rows of vines, we came to Soso's nearly two-hectare patch. With a yelp of unmistakable joy, he leapt from the tractor, bounded off a stack of hay and plunged into the work, snipping and clipping bunches of golden-green rkatsiteli grapes.
Beside a picker's shed in the shade of a walnut tree, other delights were laid out: fresh bread, cheese made of sheep's milk, a jug of amber-colored wine.
“Pick the grapes,” Soso, 44, implored our crew throughout the ensuing hours, as gradually more people drifted from the work to the table.
It was of little use; a tonne of bulging grapes glistened on the trailer. The walnuts and bread had pulled most of the help away. Soso's son stood to make a harvest toast.
So goes another day of harvest season in Georgia, a nation in the oft-turbulent South Caucasus that is throwing its arms open to Westerners of all sorts.
Since a bloodless revolution in 2003 swept away a corrupt post-Soviet old guard, a decidedly pro-Western government has begun to rebuild and revive this tiny country of 4.4 million, and lure in Western help. One result, after decades of Soviet occupation and more than a dozen years of disorder and decay, is that Georgia is awakening to the possibilities of tourism, which in Georgia can take impromptu forms.
Last year, Mikheil Saakashvili, the young, Columbia University-educated president, unilaterally threw away rules requiring Westerners to apply for a visa to enter the country. For Americans and Europeans, booking tickets and passing through the aeroportchik, the tiny airport outside Tbilisi, Georgia's capital, is now simple and swift.
The timing has coincided with ever more things to do. New resorts have opened along Georgia's Black Sea coast, and more are being built. Tbilisi has seen a boom of restaurants serving exquisite local fare, and a mini-boom of new hotels, both of the Western and the much more interesting Georgian variety.
THE ORIGINS OF VINICULTURE
The Georgian section of the Caucasus Mountains, the spectacular series of ridges that defines one corner of Russia's southwestern border, has seen the old trickle of trekkers, mountain bikers, skiers and birdwatchers become a steadier flow. They are journeying to previously alluring destinations, like the peaks around 5,047m Mount Kazbek and other, less familiar mountain redoubts, like Tusheti, where the trails wind along trout streams as they climb into the thinning air.
And then there is the wine.
Georgia believes it was the place where man first conquered the grape. The National Museum of Georgia cites archaeological evidence suggesting that winemaking may have begun there as long as seven or eight millenniums ago, long before moving westward to Europe's famed slopes.