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Hard Times For Georgian Wineries : Traditions: Unrest in region has taken toll on millennia-old vineyards. Households keep art alive.

October 28, 1995|CHRIS BIRD | ASSOCIATED PRESS

SAGAREDZHO, Georgia — Beneath the jagged peaks of the Caucasus mountains, a brigade of Georgian grape pickers stumbled through weeds and ragged vines to bring in the harvest for a local winery.

The newly privatized vineyard, located in the heart of Georgia's wine-growing region northeast of the capital Tbilisi, was a far cry from the neat, sandy vineyards of France or California.

The war and economic chaos Georgia has experienced since independence in 1991 has hurt wine production, already suffering from 70 years of Soviet-style management that put quantity over quality.

The status of most vineyards and wineries in Georgia is in limbo, with most owned neither by the state nor private. Many pickers have not been paid for months.

But harvesting continued this fall, with trucks and trailers full of juicy, sweet grapes filling up the usually quiet country roads. "There was no hail this year so the harvest will be good," said brigade leader Elena Kotsitsashvili.

Georgian winemaking dates back thousands of years. The Georgian Orthodox cross represents vine branches lashed together with the hair of St. Nino, reputedly the daughter of a Roman governor who brought Christianity to Georgia in the 4th Century.

After Georgia won its independence from the former Soviet Union, a group of California-based businessmen spotted the republic's winemaking potential and established a U.S.-Georgian joint venture called Chalice Wines.

Shareholders include former U.S. Secretary of State George P. Shultz, who once sparred with then-Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, now Georgia's leader.

The anarchy that has reigned in Georgia at times threatened to scuttle the American venture with the Georgian company Sameba, a winery 30 miles east of Tbilisi in the town of Sagaredzho.

"Drunk guys with guns would break into meetings and demand wine," recalled the company's chief winemaker, Hughes Ryan, who worked previously in Napa Valley, the heart of Californian wine country.

But since relative order has been restored in the republic, "our main market will be Russia," said the joint venture's manager, Bill Boucher, of St. Louis, Mo.

Boucher said he has eager buyers in America, Europe and Japan.

But the business still has troubles to contend with: the fighting in nearby Chechnya.

"We had five wagonloads of bottles come in September and we were supposed to get more but we can't because of the Chechens and the war up there cut our rail," said Boucher, who first plunged into the turbulent waters of the former Soviet market with a bread factory in St. Petersburg.

"We couldn't get bottles in and couldn't get the wine out," he said. Boucher managed to procure a shipment of bottles from Bulgaria.

With the help of his own generators to beat the regular power outages, Boucher now produces around 30,000 bottles of red and white wines a day.

Whatever challenges commercial production faces, the ancient art of winemaking is as strong as ever in private households.

Nodar Khomizharishvili, 71, fussed around his marani, a special room for making wine found in every proper Georgian household. The marani's walls were decorated with paintings of grapes, warriors on horseback from Georgian legends and a portrait of Khomizharishvili's grandfather proffering a drinking horn.

The wines were stored in kvevri" --a kind of large, stone amphora. Khomizharishvili poured out glasses of thick, dark, red wine to accompany the cheese pies and other dishes laid out on the marani's marble table.

The wine, with smoky traces from the local hooch poured in on top to seal the bottle, was delicious. Khomizharishvili took the role of "tamada", or toastmaster, and bade everyone drink to Georgia's heritage.

"Gauma Jos! Good health" he intoned solemnly, and, as tradition dictates, carefully downed the wine down in one gulp.

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