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Tuesday, October 25, 2005 | The winemakers of the tiny ex-Soviet country of Georgia have had a hard time of things. Three times in the nation’s history, the country’s vineyards and wineries were razed by the government of the Soviet Union to make way for other grand projects of the once-mighty USSR.
But these days things are looking up for wine producers in the land that has been dubbed the “birthplace of wine.” Back in production after a hiatus of several decades, the wines that once made Georgia proud are now flowing freely into Europe, and have just begun to trickle into the United States, starting with the test market of San Diego.
Georgian “gvino” has been received enthusiastically by local restaurateurs and oenophiles, who have been particularly impressed by the quality and value-for-money offered by such wines as Saperavi, Napareuli and Tsinandali, all of which are being imported by one company, Georgian Wine Imports of San Marcos.
“They are drinking very well,” said Chef Bernard Guillas of La Jolla’s Marine Room restaurant. “I was very impressed.”
Guillas, who began something of a love affair with the wines of Georgia when a close friend convinced him to try a few bottles last year, recently returned from a trip to the mountains of Georgia. There, he said he found some truly outstanding wines. He was particularly enamored by a wine called Khakelauri, a wine that he said is only produced in very small quantities.
“Oh, it’s beautiful, man!” said Guillas of Khakelauri. “It’s unbelievable, it is so different.”
There’s only two bottles of that wine in San Diego, however, and they’re both at Guillas’ house.
For the everyday consumer, however, there are the three wines being imported by Georgian Wine Imports that are produced by the same winemakers as Khakelauri, Telavi Wines. Bringing those Georgian wines to San Diego is the brainchild of San Marcos resident and Georgian national Omari Mikaberidze.
Mikaberidze is large of character and of stature. His broad smile tells all about how he feels about the wine of his homeland, and his knowledge of the history of Georgian wine is as extensive as his capacity to charm and coax one into trying a glass or two.
“I love wine,” Mikaberidze said, grinning, as he took a healthy slug of Tsinandali, one of the only white wines his company is bringing to the United States.
According to its tasting notes, Tsinandali has “the creamy butterness of a Chardonnay with the spice of a Sauvignon Blanc.”
This wine is backed by Guillas and also by Edmund Moore, owner of The Bungalow restaurant in Ocean Beach and an expert on wines, who said he was “pleasantly surprised” by the quality of the Telavi wines. Indeed, Moore said he’ll be making space for them in a new wine store he’s opening across the street from his award-winning restaurant.
Guillas described Tsinandali as the perfect wine for a sunny summer afternoon.
“It doesn’t have to be (enjoyed) with food,” said Guillas. “But it would be great to have some food accompanying it. You know, it’s just a nice glass of wine.”
For red wine fans, Mikaberidze is importing Napareuli, a full-bodied wine somewhat similar to a strong, smooth Cabernet, and Saperavi, arguably the company’s showcase wine, that is similar to Chianti.
Guillas said both are excellent, but his favorite is the Saperavi.
“It’s a bigger wine,” he said, “It’s very comfortable wine. It’s not aggressive, it’s not too astringent. You still have nice, fruitful wood, you still have some tobacco, some vanilla, all that’s coming from the barrels.”
Those are French oak barrels, in which the Saperavi is aged for at least 12 months, further developing its character and taste.
The core character of the wine, of course, comes from the varietals (grapes) used in the wine-making process. The varietals used by Telavi wines are not found anywhere else in the world. Mikaberidze explained that while the communists were in power and ran Georgia from Moscow, those varietals were only kept alive, literally, by the hard work of a few committed enthusiasts.
“The only way that Georgian wines actually survived was because people kept them in their homes,” said Mikaberidze. “It was literally underground, because you can’t have Georgians without wine.”
Like any complete newcomer to the Californian market, Georgia faces a number of hurdles in convincing the public that its wines are worth tracking down. Historically, San Diego has been known as a good test market for new wines, said Dominic Colangelo, a wine connoisseur and a teacher of wine technology at Mira Costa College.
“I guess San Diego represents a cross section of America,” said Colangelo. “Not only where people come from, but maybe in palates as well.”
Colangelo, who has never sampled Georgian wine, said Mikaberidze and his company will have a hard sell on their hands, competing as they are with literally hundreds of thousands of wines worldwide.
“They don’t have a reputation at all,” he said. “They’re starting from zero.”
That’s what Mikaberidze was planning on. He hopes to educate San Diegans, one by one if he has to, of the glories his country’s wine has to offer. He has already managed to convince some of the city’s top restaurateurs to back his wines; his next mission is to bring some of Georgia’s heritage to the general public.
“We have confidence that if we do our diligence,” he said, “by informing people and doing the tastings … then people will try it and like it and stay with it, because it’s very easy to drink.”
With that, the big Georgian raised his glass to his lips and drained it.
For more information on Telavi wines, visit www.georgianvino.com or call (800) 735-7418.
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