Although it may seem an odd topic for this blog, I would be remiss to write about my Fulbright experience in Georgia without mentioning wine. To be sure, in the United States, I enjoyed a nice bottle of chardonnay, but never have I experienced the variety of wines, the passion of the winegrowers, the dominance of the grape in a culture, and the inclusion of this important commodity into so many components of the Georgian way of life.
When my husband and I first arrived here, we were driven from Tbilisi to Telavi through gray, wintery villages, with hectares of stark grapevines lining nearby vineyards. When we moved into our home in Telavi a few days later, we noted many dark brown, dormant grape vines bordered the yard, as were all our neighbor's homes. As spring came, what a change occurred in the landscape... light purple violas popped up in our yard, pansies appeared in the local parks, villages were no longer dominated by gray, but by the green grass in nearby fields where baby lambs and their mothers romped, by blossoming fruit trees, and by villagers pruning grape vines. Billows of blue smoke could be seen where the villagers sat by the grape vine fires, cooking skewered chunks of pork over the coals of the burning prunings of the grape vines. Georgians insist that the smoke from the grape vines give the skewered barbecued pork a distinctive, delicious flavoring, and I have to agree.
A few weeks later, with our yard's vines neatly pruned, the seemingly dead, brown stalks of vine start to bud with beautiful light green leaves. When we visited a Georgian friend last weekend, he proudly showed several different varieties of grapes growing in his yard, some just for eating. Large terra cotta, earthenware vessels, called kvevris, were tucked in a corner of his yard. Throughout the countryside, next to churches and monasteries, in backyards of village homes, visitors will espy kevris. When not used decoratively, these vessels can be found submerged in the ground, often in the basements of homes. They are filled with the juice of the grapes, sealed, and reopened after the grape juice turns to wine.
Our friend next showed us his workshop, a couple of metal barrels, with intricate coiling systems in one, and piping to the other, where he makes his own cha cha, often called Georgian brandy or Georgian vodka. Cha cha is a Georgian spirit made from the leftovers of the winemaking process. It has a multitude of uses; when I developed a cold on my first day in Telavi, my guesthouse owner tried to have me drink some for breakfast, saying it was a very good cure for the cold. Having had some the evening before, I am sure if I had accepted the drink, I would not have felt the symptoms of the cold at the very least! I was told that some sixth grade students misbehaved at an area school and wrote on their desks and walls. Their punishment? Each needed to bring a half a liter of cha cha to school the next day to clean up their mess; apparently, it will clean anything!
One of the true glories of Georgia is its wine. Georgia is considered to be the birthplace of wine, with evidence of its use dating back 8,000 years. Last weekend, my husband and I attend the Georgian Wine Festival in the Ethnographic Museum in Tbilisi. This open-air museum is situated on a hill, which we climbed in a packed van, taking hairpin turns every hundred feet or so. Situated among some old Georgian museum homes and heritage displays were dozens of tents, all serving their unique brands of wine. One large tent included village wines -- often villagers combine all their grapes and create a white and red wine specific to their village. There was a celebratory atmosphere at the festival, with a multitude of generous wine samples, traditional dance performances, and haunting Georgian songs filling the air. Whether the wine is made in the winemaking facilities found in the basements of many Georgian homes, made in large batches in villages, or made in commercial wineries, its unique flavors delight the palette of the most discriminating drinkers.
As my time in Georgia is drawing near to an end, I find myself savoring many components of this experience, even small things that are part of my daily routine. It is hard to find Georgian wine in the United States, and when I return, I will continue to appreciate the taste of a good California wine. However, I will deeply miss the easy availability of the multitude of richly flavored Georgian wines, and the good friends whom I have toasted with this delicious drink.