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.
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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.
Wineries there are prone to cite references to the region's wines in the works of Homer and Apollonius, and Kakheti, the province in eastern Georgia where the Alazani Valley (pronounced al-ah-ZAH-nee) lies, calls itself the world's cradle of wine, a claim it guards tenaciously. Whatever its precise date of origin, Georgian winemaking is without dispute an ancient tradition, and ever since local wines were first fermented in this region's distinctive clay pots, they have been made with intense devotion.
One dark interlude provides an exception: Soviet agricultural policies played havoc on both the vineyards and the craft, requiring growers to tear up ancient varieties to make way for higher-yield vines, and then encouraging the use of juice additives (especially sugar) to spike alcohol content and wine diluters (especially water) to increase production volume.
The result was predictable. By the time the Kremlin loosened its hold over its southern republics, many Georgian wines had become, in a word, bad. They tended to be sweet (Stalin favored some of the sweetest of all, and party bureaucrats imitated his tastes, skewing production toward sweetened wines). They also tended to be thin, which took some doing, given how robust the Georgian varietals usually are.
SOVIET SOUR GRAPES
Moreover, as recently as even a few years ago, as smugglers and counterfeiters proliferated in the post-Soviet wine trade, the Georgian wines sold in shops and kiosks often were not wines at all, but spiked cocktails, sold under faked Georgian labels. They tasted something like carburetor cleaner with a whiff of fruit.
All of these abominations were best left on the shelf.
Travelers making their way to Kakheti will find that much has changed in the last few years. Several investors have reclaimed many of the vineyards and updated the old wineries, often with European help. Many old, marginal vineyards have been replanted with traditional Georgian varieties (the country claims to have more than 500 varieties in all), reversing much of the Soviet mismanagement and poor taste.
The Kremlin is still proving a nuisance, however, and the provider of subplots.
The Russian government announced this spring that Georgian wines and spirits could not be imported or sold in Russia. These products, it said, were contaminated. Georgia immediately claimed that the announcement was a political retaliation for the nation's westward orientation and its efforts to enter NATO, another example of Russia's use of trade levers to exact revenge.
TBILISI VS. MOSCOW
Several months on, there seems reason to trust Tbilisi over Moscow. Russia has never made its supposed testing public, and no other country has followed Russia's example. Further, a spokesman for the US State Department said analyses this year of Georgian wine and spirits by the US Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau “did not raise any health issues.”
Georgia, outraged by Russia's announcement, has embarked on an effort to open new markets. The timing is fortuitous for travelers. In the land of the Russian wine ban, the wine industry is recovering its old skills, and outsiders are welcome, even cherished, as they experiment with the results.
As a Georgian friend and I wandered into the vineyards on a bright late-September day, we were stepping into a new era of Georgian wine. Moscow's loss was our gain.
This is not to say that Kakheti has gone Napa. It has not. The valley remains impoverished, and there is little yet in the way of tourist infrastructure, with few hotels, scant amenities and very basic restaurants. Those seeking luxury should look elsewhere.
But it is possible to experience the region's wine trade as never before. And because so much is new, the visitor decides how deep the plunge. In the fall, you can pick alongside the work crews, or sit at a winery and have a fresh local meal to accompany samples from several bottles of the valley's specialties: from the blood-dark saperavi (pronounced sa-per-AV-ee) to the airy and golden light Tsinandali (pronounced t-sin-an-DAH-lee) and many in between.
There are two distinct ways to experience this valley's tradition of wine.
The first is to visit the wineries proper, some of which have begun to cater to tourists. Our first stop was at Shumi in the village of Tsinandali, where a Swiss and Georgian venture has built a winery that is making delicious, clean wines.
As we pulled in, the new press was mashing saperavi to purplish-black juice. A peek into the cool darkness of the cellar found the remnants of last year's vintage's aging in oak. The grounds include a tasting area and outdoor grill and patio, where staff members soon served freshly grilled beef, cheese and warm bread.
PRIDE AND TRADITION
As the saperavi harvest kept streaming through the winery gate, wagon load by wagon load, Akaki Tsopurashvili, a manager, sat and ran us through a series of toasts. Toasting is a high Georgian tradition; visitors should be prepared. One man will be appointed as the tamada, or toast master, and offer thanks and bits of wisdom in a near-continuous performance. The event can last hours, even almost to morning.
Toasts will be made to peace, to the occasion that brought you together, to ancestors, to children, to families and to the women who have made your life possible — for this toast you must drain your glass — and to your hosts. You can expect to toast Georgia, and Georgia's allies (the US now ranks high among them) and wine, and perhaps the glories of battles won and the memories of the fallen in battles lost.
On this day, Tsopurashvili pressed on ambitiously, even though we all had work to do. It was a matter of pride, and tradition. “Always when we pick the grapes we must have a feast,” he said.
More bottles kept coming. The day before, he said, they had feasted on a goat, as harvest traditions can require.
As we managed to find our way back to the gate, into glowing late-afternoon light, we headed quickly for the second way to explore Kakheti's wine scene, by seeking out local growers and pickers. Kakheti is essentially one vast wine village, and almost every house seems to have its foundation laid over kvevri, the subterranean clay pots in which wine is fermented according to a millenniums-old technique.
A stop at one village, Shashiani, found a huge segment of the population engaged in the labor. Trucks lined the road, laden with the day's pick of saperavi grapes for sale to a nearby winery. A turn into the neighborhood found families busily pressing their own grapes.
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.
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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