Wed, Oct 11, 2006 - Page 13 News List

Boozy nights in post-Soviet Georgia

Georgians are proud of their viniculture history and believe the country was the place where man first conquered the grape

By C.J. Chivers  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

BOTTOMS UP

This is quintessential Kakheti, where almost every household makes wines, often for personal use but also for sale. Each household is intensely proud of its achievements. Wine is fundamental, a taproot of Georgian culture and psyche. In the villages, making and drinking wine is not a mannered, refined pursuit, but as basic as drawing water from a well, a thing to be enjoyed regularly and simply.

A notice to those who explore this life: According to tradition, Georgians believe that guests come from God. Moreover, ask about a family's wine and you will have paid your interviewee a high compliment and be offered a challenge.

What often will follow is a detour into Georgian hospitality, which is an adventure in itself, as you will be greeted as if you have come on foot over the snowy ridge, cold, lonely and starving. Food will be piled, wine will be served, and countless toasts will be made.

So it happened that we came in the evening to the home of Shaliko Kakiashvili, who was busy with his family and neighbors transferring more than a tonne of rkatsiteli grapes from a trailer to a hand-cranked press. We joined in, hustling bucket by bucket to the press, and taking shifts cranking.

HOSPITALITY RULES

Soon, after we had worked up a sweat and the last grapes had fallen crushed with the juices into the kvevri, a table was pulled into the open air and we began to eat again.

A good-natured argument ensued, as Shaliko and his neighbor, Soso Bitskinashvili, quarreled over who would be our host. It ended when they agreed they each would. First, we would feast at Shaliko's. Then, in a few hours, we would move up the street to Soso's house.

Shaliko quickly excused himself to return to sleep in the vineyards. His plot of saperavi grapes had ripened, he said, and he planned to guard them overnight so no one stole any of the crop. He left his son Giorgi as host and tamada.

After cheese and bread, and many toasts, Giorgi raised a glass and vowed to see us again. “A mountain will never meet a mountain, but a man will ever meet a man,” he said.

Soso led us away to continue the party through an hour that felt just short of dawn.

Several hours later, after a brief bit of sleep, we formed a convoy and headed out to Soso's vines. It was a new day, requiring new labors. The grapes must come off the vine.

As the day warmed, the best grapes were left in bunches on the dark soil, and when the trailer was full of the fruit that would be pressed, the pickers made a final round through the vines to pick up the selects. These would be dried in the sun, for raisins.

As we prepared to leave the fields, to return to Shashiani for more grape crushing and yet another meal, Soso's son Piruz, 25, stood. Time for yet another toast.

“I hold my grandfather's name,” he began. He gestured to the vines. We had been eating walnuts from that tree for hours.

“He did all of this,” Piruz said. “He planted these grapes, and planted this walnut tree, and we are now taking our harvest. He did this, but now he is dead, and I want to drink this wine and thank him.”

Back into the cars we climbed, for the harvest that seemed as if would never end.

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