war on the rocks

Culture and Qvevri: Dispatches from the Kremlin

April 8, 2016

As I mentioned in my previous dispatch, Georgia is probably the greatest country that you’ve never had any desire to go to, even though you should. Nestled in the Caucasus Mountains just south of Russia, Georgia has welcomed American influence over recent years, and it shows. The capital, Tbilisi, is an incredible blend of ancient and modern influences, with a fourth-century fortress carved into the mountains overlooking the city contrasting sharply with the sleek, government buildings sprawled throughout the city. To the dismay of this expatriate Democrat, I even came across a statue of Ronald Reagan in the center of the city — something you would never see in Russia.

Walking through Tbilisi, we saw entire streets draped in scaffolding with signs that said “The Tbilisi Development Fund,” which I learned is an American project with the aim of developing the Georgian economy (which isn’t doing too great). Overall, Tbilisi seemed brimming with energy and hope for a brighter future, contrasting greatly with what I see and feel here in Moscow.

While the city’s architecture is transforming, it seems that traditions remain solidly intact, and the greatest Georgian tradition is winemaking.

I had tried Georgian wine before, and it impressed me, but I’d heard told that the best wine in Georgia doesn’t come from a bottle, but from a jug — a plastic jug typically seen on the floor behind the counter in any given store. Hell, it wouldn’t surprise me if you could buy homemade wine at your local doctor’s office in Georgia. Every restaurant has their own house-made tipple, and we found that we could not resist at least sampling a bit wherever we went.

The Georgian wine tradition can be traced back over 8,000 years, so there is definitive historical evidence that the Georgians know what they’re doing. One unique aspect of winemaking in Georgia is the use of qvevri — very large clay fermenting vessels, often buried underground or planted in wine cellars, though occasionally left above ground to encourage more spontaneous fermentation. I learned that qvevris filled with fermenting grape juice will occasionally be sealed and buried in the ground for half a century — a testament to Georgians’ dedication to their traditions. Such authenticity is lacking in today’s fast-paced, mass-produced alcoholic beverage market, and it seems that this may be a reason for the sudden spike in popularity of Georgian wine and cuisine; Georgians seem to be more concerned with product quality than profit. We were able to purchase high-quality wine for very little money, often paying four or five dollars per liter.

The wines available for purchase are abundant in type. My personal favorite was Saperavi, which, as far as I understand, is native only to Georgia. Compared to South American and Western European reds, Saperavi is softer and less acidic, with no lingering bitterness, providing for an all-too-pleasant experience, even if you are pouring it from a plastic water bottle with a torn-off label. Georgians typically prefer a semi-sweet red, which was constantly offered to us wherever we went. The first words said to us by our hotel’s owner were “let’s have some wine!” Such occurrences were commonplace throughout our stay in Tbilisi and we rarely turned any offers down, which is likely why my memories of Georgia are quite romantic and happy.

Georgia is a bit more relaxed than Russia, and Tbilisi gets a lot more sun, which was refreshing in February after several months of darkness in Moscow. The streets are cobblestone and the houses lean over the alleyways as if they too have had one too many. The people there were some of the friendliest I have encountered in Eurasia — very willing to help and very generous when it came to sharing their alcoholic wares. Even the stray animals were nice! Everyone just seemed happy, and it was infectious.

On our first night in Tbilisi, we stopped into a small, cave-like tavern where the staff immediately swooned over the children in our party, pinching their cheeks and providing them with bubbles to blow while we waited for our victuals (the cheek-pinching was an ongoing phenomenon — my girlfriend’s daughter couldn’t go a step in the city without a grandpa or grandma coming up to her and touching her face). They then spontaneously started to dance and took the time to teach us some moves, not expecting any reimbursement for their services. It seemed as though the locals were simply eager to share with us what they value most — their culture. That night, I had a bit too much “culture” and awoke the next day with great regrets about not properly hydrating. Even still, I knew from the first moments in Tbilisi that I would want to return — a desire that lingers on in dreary Moscow, where winter is putting up a hell of a fight in early April.

I will never contend that wine is a reason for general happiness, but I guess it doesn’t hurt given its enormous cultural role in Georgia. I revere cultural traditions because they are what create a nation. International borders and political practices try to put a visible finger on what defines a country, but it’s really what the people do naturally that creates it. Winemaking and drinking in Georgia are avenues for companionship and conversation in a place that has seen its fair share of troubled times, and the wine keeps them going. Wine isn’t consumed in Georgia in order to forget socioeconomic troubles, but rather as a reminder that land and possessions can be taken away, but tradition always remains, holding the nation together.

Luckily, however, the wine can be physically taken away and smuggled back into Russia. …

გაუმარჯოს!

 

Max Shelton is an American currently living, working, and drinking in Moscow, Russia. In his spare time (while not drinking), he enjoys writing, reading, and watching Better Call Saul. He finished his MA dissertation at Middlebury College in Russian about American intervention in the Russian Civil War between 1917–1922.

 

Photo credit: Hans Peter Schaub