One day last year I got an email from a Georgian living in the US who asked why I hated Georgia so much. Everything she read of mine in the Moscow Times was so anti-Georgian, why did I bother living here – or something to that effect. Anti-Georgian? If I didn’t love Georgia I wouldn’t write anything about it at all, let alone live here. It is precisely because I care about this beautiful place I call home so much that I write what I do. Of course I’m critical. I’m anti-hypocrisy and I’ll hold authorities to task wherever I live and will always call things as I see them. Nevertheless, I thought I’d start the new year by lightening up a bit. Georgia has been binging for a month straight and nobody has an appetite for politics right now. That’s why I decided to write a 400 word food and wine story. At least that was my intention…
In August 2008, I was sitting on a curb in Akhalgori with journalist Wendell Steavenson watching Ossetian troops loot the Georgian village. “This whole thing is crazy,” she said. “All Georgia had to do was invite Russia to the dinner table. They would have conquered it with food and wine.”
She, like many foreigners who have spent any time in the country, is intimately familiar with Georgia’s most formidable weapon. It’s not the “strategic partnership” that brings all those Washington lawmakers to Georgia. It’s the food.
Georgians aren’t accidental hosts. Their steadfast belief that their cuisine is the center of the universe and the fact that they live for the chance to impress you – the guest – means you are going to get played. In 2005, President Mikheil Saakashvili picked US President George Bush from the airport, showed him a traditional Georgian dance performance and whisked him off to a nearby restaurant for an unscheduled dinner of henkhali and kabobi. The next day, Georgia became the “beacon of democracy.”
This didn’t digest well with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who implemented a gastronomic foreign policy strategy in 2006 that ultimately backfired. His embargo of Georgian wine forced Georgia to improve its product to make it competitive on the western market. Western foodies are now discovering what the Russians have known all along – Georgian cuisine rocks. Elyse Pasquale of the Huffington Post calls Georgia “one of the world’s most fascinating up-and-coming culinary destinations,” second to Spain.
This month, the Russia-Georgia Economic Cooperation Center ironed out technicalities to get Georgian wines back on Russian dinner tables, which is expected to happen soon, along with Borjomi water and other produce. Before the embargo, Russia made up about 75% of Georgia’s wine exports. While Georgia has since managed to break into other markets, the ban lift will further stimulate the industry and profoundly boost many private vineyards as grape demand increases.
Some winemakers in Georgia, however, see the Russian market as a threat to the many small wineries that have come along and branded traditional Georgian winemaking to a niche international market. Russia, with an underdeveloped wine culture, will create a demand for large quantities of lesser quality wine, they maintain. That might be so, but Georgian wine and products in Russia is good for everyone – especially Georgia, which has a clear advantage in dinner table diplomacy.