Georgian wine: An 8,000-year-old tradition is popping corks around the world

Giogi Dakishvili, son of one of the Soviet Union's top wine scientists, stands in the qvevri room of his family winery,, using the same wine-making process as when wine was invented in Georgia 8,000 years ago.

Giogi Dakishvili, son of one of the Soviet Union’s top wine scientists, stands in the qvevri room of his family winery,, using the same wine-making process as when wine was invented in Georgia 8,000 years ago.


TELAVI, Republic of Georgia — I’m standing in a room with six holes dug deep in the ground like time capsules, places you put deep secrets and store for thousands of years. In a way they are.

About 8,000 years ago, not far from where I’m standing, these same types of holes were scattered around this blessed land, this intoxicating bridge between Europe and Asia. The holes back then weren’t time capsules but they did contain secrets. They were secrets to producing a gift to mankind that I hope keeps giving until man’s extinction.

Wine.

Yes, wine’s birthplace was 8,000 years ago, right here. Not in Italy. Not in France. Not in Ancient Greece. But here in this former Soviet republic, the birthplace of Joseph Stalin who had a few sips of Saperavi red while killing 20 million people. Last year, archaeologists discovered clay fragments about 30 miles south of Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital and about 50 miles from where I’m standing with a glass in my hand. The fragments, according to a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, were dated to 6,000 BC and parts of large vases where inhabitants stored wine, underground, in the same type of holes where Giogi Dakishvili is showing me where he stores his.

Keep in mind, 8,000 years ago man was just recovering from the last Ice Age and agricultural techniques were spreading throughout what is now Europe. Thanks to receding ice leading to warmer temperatures, the conditions for growing grapes and making wine were similar to what they are today.

During a recent two-week trip to Georgia, I saw those conditions and understand why this country of 3.7 million people the size of West Virginia has one of the trendiest wine scenes in the world. With a latitude similar to Tuscany and Bordeaux, it has mild winters and 2,300 hours of sun a year (Remember, nighttime hours are part of the cycle.). Natural springs come from the nearby Caucasus mountains which are covered in snow all year round. The humid air coming from the Black Sea to the west allows the growth of 530 unique grape varieties. Georgia is the top grape-producing region of the 15 former Soviet republics behind Moldova.

Combine 8,000 years of history with ideal conditions and Georgians’ fierce independence after centuries of oppression, and you have a wine culture as important to the population as the mountain air they breathe.

“Wine is not only a gastro product for me,” said Irakli Rostomashvili who runs a small family winery out of his home. “It is everything. It is our culture. It is our history. It is our religion.”

***

To pop the cork on Georgian wine [link], I took a marshutka, kind of a large Volkswagen bus and Georgia’s main mode of long-distance travel, an hour and 45 minutes east from Tbilisi to the town of Telavi. The bilingual street signs are handy as the Georgian alphabet, all swirls and lines, looks like spaghetti after being thrown on the floor. The four-lane highway has no lines, potentially problematic as we zigzagged our way into the highlands. Soon, dilapidated, rusted factories and buildings with aluminum roofs gave way to beautiful green meadows and fields lined with grape vines, all outlined with snow-covered mountains in the distance.

Kakhuri Winery's vineyard

Kakhuri Winery’s vineyard


Telavi is the capital of Kakheti, the region that hugs Georgia’s southeast corner and has 60 percent of the country’s vineyards. It’s a pleasant, clean town where its 20,000 people wake up to see the Caucasus to the northeast and the Gombori mountains to the southwest. Rolling green hills and valleys provide the foreground. You constantly walk around with a curious urge for a glass of wine and a piece of cheese.

I organized my tour through the Kakheti Wine Guild which occupies a large corner office lined wall to wall and floor to ceiling with Kakheti wine bottles. Three young, energetic, knowledgeable Georgian women man the phones and greet visitors. They set me up with five winery tours over two days and even arranged for a taxi to shepherd me around for a reasonable fee.

The women are too young to have experienced communism which ended here in 1991. But they heard stories from their parents and studied Georgia’s wine history. It’s a fascinating tale intertwining politics and culture, told best with a glass of ruby red Georgian wine in hand.

Many Georgian families make their own wine. Georgia Travel photo

Many Georgian families make their own wine. Georgia Travel photo


Georgian families have been making wine for centuries. That all ended in 1921 when the communists took over and grabbed all the vines for themselves. They nationalized the wine industry, meaning when the Politburo sat around discussing new ways to oppress its population they drank the semi-sweet wine from Georgia.

The fall of communism in ‘91 kick started Georgia’s wine industry. It began modestly. Georgia’s handle as “The Tuscany of the Soviet Union” was met with more smirks than sales. In 2006, Russia, which made up 80 percent of Georgia’s exporting wine market, announced an embargo on Georgian wine, claiming they didn’t meet sanity requirements. Georgia defense minister Irakli Okruashvili, displaying unusual honesty and an insight into the, ahem, loving nature between the two countries, admitted that “many (Georgian) wine producers exported falsified wine to Russia because Russia is a market where you can sell even turds.”

Without its chief market, Georgian wine makers had to adjust or die on the vine. They upgraded their production methods. They improved the quality. They expanded the variety. And they looked for other markets. Then it exploded. Last year, according to Georgia’s National Wine Agency, 76.7 million Georgian wines were sold to 53 countries.

But to understand Georgian wine, one must understand Georgia culture. It’s a land that has been overrun by the Arabs, the Mongols, the Turks, the Seljuks, the Russians and the Russians again.

And that was just Friday.

Oh, and did I mention the Black Death? That came in the 14th century and wiped out about half of Europe’s population. Throughout their tumultuous history, Georgians turned to the one thing they always had in abundance. It was not soldiers. It was wine.

“Wine helped us survive ancient times,” said Giogi Dakishvili, who runs his family’s Vita Vinea Winery. “Persian invasion, the Turkish, Soviet occupation. Now we have freedom.”

Georgian toasts, called "Supra," are often conducted by professional toastmasters. Georgian Cuisine photo

Georgian toasts, called “Supra,” are often conducted by professional toastmasters. Georgian Cuisine photo


They’d forget their troubles around the table, raise glasses and toast to what they did have. Family. Friends. And, of course, wine. Toasts have become so important to the Georgian wine culture that it has its own word: supra. The supra is even a profession. Georgia has professional toastmasters, known as tamadas, who attends parties or family gatherings and leads toasts.

Toasts in Georgia are art form. Some toasts are so moving, grown men cry. Some laugh. And everyone takes part. The toasts go around the table, and you’d better have something to toast or will be the subject of that night’s scorn.

Usually the first three toasts are to God, thanking Him for the food and wine which, despite Soviet times, always seemed in big supply here. Other toasts are more specific, ranging from the love of a woman to a new appliance. Under the Soviet Union, the supra was the one time Georgians could express themselves. And today at a table of 20 people, after 20 toasts, the Georgians don’t express themselves all that well.

“It’s a way of communicating,” said Zurab Ramazashvili, owner of Telavi Wine Cellar, one of Georgia’s biggest wine dealers. “You keep talking around the table. The subject could be love, betrayal, country, women. It’s for all people.”

How’d this become a cultural spectacle rather than a simple “clink” between two friends? The story goes that when God told the world’s people to gather when he gave away the land, the Georgians showed up late. He asked why. They said they were toasting him. God then said, “If that’s the case then I will give you the best piece of land, the one I was reserving for myself: Georgia.”

And this is where I spent two weeks drinking wine.

***

I spent two days in Telavi bouncing around five wineries like a thirsty sailor. The Telavi area has 20 commercial wineries, not counting the small family operations. Reservations aren’t needed. Visitors are welcome and tasting fees aren’t much. Mine ranged from 7 to 10 euros. Add in taxi fees that were 10 euros the first day and 27 the next and it amounts to a pretty cheap weekend.

The winemakers all spoke English but be careful. The tastings aren’t like they are in Italy, France and California where you get just a “taste.” Many poured about half a glass. This is where taking taxis is advantageous over renting a car.

Here’s a look at the five wineries I visited. Contact the Kakheti Wine Guild (www.kwg.ge, 350-279-090) for more information:

Kakhuri Winery

Kakhuri Winery


KAKHURI WINERY.
This is where Georgia’s communist past puts on its gray trenchcoat. Kakhuri’s winery is a big, gray stone block. If it had raised letters instead of small windows it would look like a tomb. Until 2000 it was a silk factory. Today, it houses one of the leading commercial wineries in Georgia.

The woman who gave me a private tour took me into a scruffy warehouse with dirty white walls but they were lined forever with French oak barrels. Here is where they store their wine for six months.

Georgia has three main types of wine: semi-sweet, still the favorite of their main Russian market; dry reds, which have grown in popularity and I’ll compare favorably with many of their Italian counterparts; and sparkling wines which have been around since the late 1800s but are now starting to win awards.

Kakhuri's tasting room.

Kakhuri’s tasting room.


Another room is filled with five-liter plastic jugs filled with white wine. They look like giant bottles of honey. On the tasting room wall are nine mini bottles of different flavored chacha, the Georgian vodka they make from grape residue.

My favorite of the five wines I tasted was the Kindzmarauli, a semi-sweet red wine made with 100 percent Saperavi grapes, the most common red grape in Georgia.

Irakli Rostomashvili shows off one of his wines in his family winery.

Irakli Rostomashvili shows off one of his wines in his family winery.


ROSTOMAANT MARANI

This little family winery goes back to the 1920s. It all ended in 1921 when communism settled in for its long stay and the Soviets took over all wine production in major factories. Nicolas Rostomashvili had to give up the one thing he loved to do. Five years ago his great-grandson, Irakli, restarted the winery in the family home. The Rostomaant, named after his great grandfather, is just one of many small family wineries sprinkled around Kakheti.

With Georgian families, wine is more than a business. Rostomashvili sells about 1,000 bottles a year.

“Wine must be deep,” said Irakli, 38. “It must say something. It has so many vitamins, I don’t want to eat anything. When I have a headache, I drink two glasses of wine and it helps me.”

I walked along a path under a huge tree and past a pile of firewood to his modest, brick tasting room where a woman has laid out plates of Georgian cheese, bread and walnuts. Next door, he showed me a room with five holes that are the trademark of Georgian wineries. While modern wine-making methods are being used in all wineries, many winemakers, from the big commercial dealers to guys like Irakli, make wine the same way the inventors did 8,000 years ago.

When he makes wine, Irakli includes the skin, stems and everything else and places it in clay pots, known as qvevris, lined with beeswax. They’re placed in these holes for six months to two years, depending on the wine. After two months, he examines the qvevri. The end result is the most natural wine you’ll ever taste. He uses five times fewer sulfites than the full-sulfite wine you find in the U.S. His five qvevris produce 3,500 liters of wine.

Me and Irakli outside his home winery.

Me and Irakli outside his home winery.


This ancient method is now being used in some wineries in Italy, France and the U.S.

“I can’t say it’s better or worse,” he said. “It’s totally different. It’s hard. You need a lot of work, cleaning, patience.”

His wines are no worse than the large commercial wines I tried. My favorite was his Saperavi 2017, a rich, deep red to which he adds no sulfites. The best part? It retails for about $12;.

The qvevri room at Telavi Wine Cellar.

The qvevri room at Telavi Wine Cellar.


TELAVI WINE CELLAR

Ramazashvili looks tired. The owner of Telavi Wine Cellar and Georgia’s famous Merani wine is the antithesis of the wine people I’ve met over the years. They’re happy, bubbly, energetic. Ramazashvili looks like an overworked, underappreciated factory drone from the USSR, circa 1978.

“I’m never happy,” he said with a wry smile. “I’m always thinking of ways to get better.”

He’s done quite well so far. His winery has won more than 600 awards which cover an entire wall of his large, corporate-looking tasting room. Telavi makes 70 different wines, ranging from table wine to wines coming from a single vineyard. They sell 5 million bottles a year.

Telavi began in 1915 but also fell victim to Soviet nationalization. Ramazashvili took over in 1997 after a stint as a professor of medicine an d then a doctor, who under communism, received just slightly better pay than some of the better lab rats.

“I changed my life,” he said. “I go into business. If you’re a private doctor you get paid but people had no money.”

Ramazashvili rarely drinks and doesn’t do traditional toastings.

“I have so many opportunities to drink outside,” he said. “I’m too tired.”

The Telavi plant is huge. One warehouse is lined with hundreds of oak barrels. Another room has 40 qvevris, all lined up like miniature missile shelters. Here the reds ferment for six months and the whites 12-18 months.

My favorite was the semisweet Tvishi white made from 100 percent Tsolikouri grape from the west part of Georgia. It’s pleasant, soft with a mix of fruits.

Vita Vinea's family vintage bottle.

Vita Vinea’s family vintage bottle.


VITA VINEA WINERY

Dakishvili’s tasting room looks like a dining room of a hunting lodge. Inside the big, beautiful brick room are three overstuffed black chairs and a moosehead over a fireplace. On a long tasting table made of stained wood, Dakishvili, 47, talked about being the son of one of the USSR’s top oenologist, which is basically a wine scientist.

“It’s a lifestyle,” he said. “It’s not only a business. Every family member is in wine production.”

It brought a good income, even under communism. The family compound is a large yet homey complex on the outskirts of Telavi. The snow-covered mountains can be seen from their front yard. He remembers under the USSR how the shops had so little. The meat and poultry were always frozen.

“But we had a lot of wine,” he said.

He started the business in 2008 and produces most of his wine in his eight qvervis. His white wines are so amber they almost look orange. The business is taking off. He produces 50,000 bottles a year and exports to the U.S., United Kingdom, France and Japan.

“Maybe in the past we didn’t promote,” he said. “We weren’t prepared to promote our wine in a good manner. Now it’s a totally different reality in Georgia. The wines are high quality and well promoted.”

My favorite was his First Vintage 2007, a gorgeous red from the family’s first batch of grapes.

Me in Vaziani Company.

Me in Vaziani Company.


VAZIANI COMPANY
Frankly, my notes from this winery are a bit blurry. My tasting room host, Tamara Meskhishvili, engaged me in an intense conversation about the pluses and minuses of Stalin while she poured me, not four, not five, but 12 tastings, each one about half a glass.

I do recall her pointing outside the tasting room to a huge baobab tree she claimed was 2,000 years old. She also gave me good looks at qvevri, explaining that each one weighs 2 ½ tons and men, specifically trained to make them, take six months to make one.

After the 12 tastings, Meskhishvili told me I had something in common with Stalin. My favorite wine was a Khvanchkara, a semi-sweet wine that’s the No. 2 seller in Russia today.

It was also Stalin’s favorite.

Republic of Georgia: A hike through wine’s birthplace is a yummy treat but Georgians would like a bigger bite

A hiker rests high above the town of Mestia.

A hiker rests high above the town of Mestia.


TBILISI, Republic of Georgia — The statue of St. George stands high above Freedom Square in this charming riverside capital. Like a gold beacon, the country’s namesake sits astride his bucking horse as his sword slays a dragon beneath him. Until 2006, the statue was Vladimir Lenin, another man who slayed a few dragons then created a nation of them. He also set the stage for one of Georgia’s favorite native sons, Joseph Stalin.

Georgia could use another hero, and maybe one not so violent. A country of only 3.7 million people, its tourism is starting to boom. More than 2.7 million tourists came in 2016 bringing in $2.16 billion. However, broiling underneath its growing international reputation like molten lava is turmoil and unrest. Keep in mind Georgia was once called “The Tuscany of the Soviet Union.” Sure, that’s a little like being the best violinist in Nebraska but after nearly two weeks in Georgia I can confirm that its food and wine are planetary stalwarts. Add in some mountain scenery and spectacular hiking in the highly underrated Caucasus mountains and you have an outdoors/culinary vacation few countries its size can match.

Georgia is the gateway to Western Asia. It’s a Christian Orthodox country bordered by the Islamic republics of Azerbaijan and Turkey with Russia still looming hauntingly to the north and Armenia peacefully to the south. Despite gaining independence in 1991, Georgia has two breakaway republics under Russian control called South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Mysterious and foreboding, they are like Austin and the panhandle telling the State of Texas to take a hike and do not enter.

Bidzina Ivanishvili. likesuccess.com photo

Bidzina Ivanishvili. likesuccess.com photo

Mikheil Saakashvili. Telegraph photo

Mikheil Saakashvili. Telegraph photo


Unlike other former Soviet republics enjoying prosperity such as Czech Republic and Lithuania, Georgia can’t find its serenity, even 27 years after communism. It’s basically run by its richest man, a former Soviet oligarch named Bidzina Ivanishvili whose fortune equals one third of the country’s entire gross national product. He founded the Georgia Dream party that now rules the country with somewhat of an iron fist. Protests abound. Tents have been set up in front of the Soviet-era Parliament building, a must stop on the Tbilisi walking tour. Protests and strikes are coming as common as street construction. As recently as May 12, 4,000 people protested the overnight drug raid of two nightclubs by setting up camp in front of Parliament and dancing well past midnight. Earlier this month, prime minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili resigned.

On paper, Georgia seems to have escaped the post-communist economic collapse experienced in much of mother Russia. Unemployment has dropped steadily since a 2009 high of 16.9 percent to 12. Its inflation rate is only 2.4 percent, and it’s second among all former Soviet republics in foreign investment.

But talk to the people and their dreams from the early days of democracy have yet to be reached.

Nika Tsiklauri and me on Freedom Square.

Nika Tsiklauri and me on Freedom Square.


With St. George looming above and the start of a warm summer settling in on a well-lit early evening, I sat down in one of the many outdoor bars ringing Freedom Square with Nika Tsiklauri. Short, fit, with dark, wavy hair and glasses, the 34-year-old has worked in a bank’s credit card office for 10 years and makes $10,000 a year. For extra money he rents out his family’s two extra rooms up the street as an AirBnB.

“There are many poor people in Georgia,” he said as we sipped an industrial-tasting Georgian beer called Taglaura. “They’re either poor because there aren’t enough high-income jobs or there are no jobs.”

He talked about how Mikheil Saakashvili took over in 2003 at the end of communism and “built the city from ruins.” Saakashvili took a pro-tourism, pro-West slant. He expelled corrupt politicians and attracted Western investments. He reconstructed old, crumbling districts such as the area around Freedom Square which is now one of the heartbeats of Tblisi’s pulsating nightlife.

A woman hoes her garden in Mestia.

A woman hoes her garden in Mestia.


But in 2008 Saakashvili’s military lost a costly war with Russia over South Ossetia. Bitter and defensive, he began governing with an autocratic air and became intolerant of opposition, thus ushering in the likes of Ivanishvili. Many feel the country is regressing.

“He promised people that the development of Georgia will be much faster so everything will be much better but some promises were not kept,” Tsiklauri said. “Like many people in Georgia, like 30 percent of Georgian people think he’s a man of Russia. He’s not interested in politics. He has billions of dollars. But he still feels he maintains his power and it will continue but it comes from Russia.”

Georgia is a classic case of how politics, egos, power and crisscrossing economic systems can stain an otherwise idealistic landscape. Like blood stains on a chef’s apron, Georgia marches on touting its food and wine and mountains. They put on a happy face for travelers and dish out grub, booze and scenery that we’ll all remember much more than resigning government officials, their faces masks of shame.

Barbarestan is based on a 1914 cookbook. Bradt Travel photo

Barbarestan is based on a 1914 cookbook. Bradt Travel photo


I became aware of Georgian cuisine on my first trip to Russia in 2005. My contacts in Moscow glowed about their nights out in the Georgian restaurants scattered around one of the world’s fastest-growing restaurant cities. I joined them and marveled at its grilled meats, semi-sweet red wine and khachapuri, Georgia’s signature thick, gooey cheese pie.

Thirteen years later, I took the recommendation of a Tbilisi friend and dined at Barbarestan, a classic old Georgian restaurant that recalls images of pre-revolutionary Russia when the wealthy bourgeoisie dined in places like this. I walked across huge throw rugs on wooden floors under a vaulted brick ceiling with lanterns holding burning candles. Waiters dashed around in white dress shirts and suspendered trousers.

A waiter came over and handed me the cookbook. I thought it was going to fall apart in my hand. It was from 1914 and the inspiration for the restaurant 2 ½ years ago after a man found the book at Dry Bridge, Tbilisi’s open air flea market. Of the 807 recipes listed, Barbarestan makes 125 of them. The original cookbook dating back to 1874 is even more fragile and is under lock and key.

Walnut salad and khachapuri.

Walnut salad and khachapuri.


I ordered the Lazuri khachapuri, a big, round cheese pie with double cheese on top. It looks like a small, thick, Chicago-style pizza. Instead, its filled with Georgia’s salty gouda-style cheese. I tired of the cheese during hikes but baked in a pie, to go along with another Georgia classic, its walnut salad with sunflower oil, it was a great way to jump into a gastronomic paradise. The best part? The whole meal, including two glasses of wine, was all of 60 lari (about 21 euros).

Yes, as in Italy, no matter how depressed Georgians get about the state of their country, they always have dinner to look forward to. It all starts with wine which is apropos as Georgia is where wine began. It’s true. Archaeologists have found remnants of clay pots here dating back 8,000 years. They were used to ferment wine underground, making Georgia the birthplace of wine, a handle Georgians are never too modest to point out.

Georgian wine at Telavi Wine Cellar.

Georgian wine at Telavi Wine Cellar.


The center of Georgian wine country is Kakheti, Georgia’s far east region where sun-splashed wine vineyards share space with beautiful churches and castles, all with snow-covered mountains as a backdrop. I took a marshrutka, kind of a large Volkswagen bus and Georgia’s main mode of public transport, about two hours to Telavi, the base for wine tasting.

Wine tasting in Georgia isn’t like in Tuscany or Napa Valley. It’s smaller scale in terms of number, facilities and popularity. The Telavi area has about 20 commercial wineries, all within a cheap taxi ride of each other. Many of the wineries were built during communism, meaning you have blockish, concrete, Soviet-style architecture as opposed to the castle-like fortresses and villas of wineries in California and Italy. In two days of wine tasting, I saw only two other customers, both British expats living in Georgia.

But in terms of quality, Georgian wine can share the table with the Italian reds and California whites. Any day. Georgia concentrates on three kinds of wines: dry reds, semi-sweet reds and sparkling wines. The 2015 Okro’s Wines Mtsvano Pet-Nat was voted one of the top 10 wines in the world by Esquire, and the number of other awards I saw covered the entire wall of the Telavi Wine Cellar.

These types of qvevri have been used to ferment wine in Georgia for 8,000 years.

These types of qvevri have been used to ferment wine in Georgia for 8,000 years.


And yes, most still use the same methods as 8,000 years ago when mankind, dressed in animal furs, raised toasts to celebrate the end of the last Ice Age. Almost every winery had a room with round deep holes where they buried the clay pots, called qvevri, to ferment the wine six months, just as their ancestors did. The end result is an all-natural wine without the mass sulfites and preservatives of American wine. At my last wine tasting, a medium-sized winery called Vaziani Company, I tasted 10 wines, all about half a glass each. Yet the next morning, I didn’t have a headache.

I couldn’t walk, but I didn’t have a headache.

Wine production in Georgia goes beyond the commercial wineries which are exporting all over the world, thanks to a Russian embargo, improved marketing and savvy travel writers (which I’ll contribute to in next week’s blog about Georgian wine). Many families produce wine in their own back rooms.

I visited Irakli Rostomashvili who restarted the family wine business, called Rostomaant Marani, after the communists came in 1921 and took over all wine production. He has a small stone tasting room next to a room of six qvevri. Rostomashvili epitomizes the Georgian love affair with wine.

Over a glass of his best-selling Rkatsiteli, a dry white wine, he said, “I like wine. For me, everything is wine. Without wine, everything is nothing.”

A woman sits near the TV tower above Mestia.

A woman sits near the TV tower above Mestia.


One of Georgia’s best attributes is after two days of drinking wine and eating cheese pie, it’s not hard to work it off. I took a five-hour marshrutka ride to the town of Kazbegi, the heart of the old Georgian Military Highway and the entry point for the spectacular Caucasus. Hiking in Georgia is hiking off the beaten path. This isn’t the Colorado Rockies where signage resembles something off an L.A. freeway. It’s not the Alps where hikers sometimes outnumber sheep.

It’s often just you — and a path, straight up and straight down.

However, the peaks are more beautiful than the Alps and Rockies, if not as high as in Colorado. But six are more than 5,000 meters and the range stretches 1,200 kilometers from the Black to the Caspian seas.

They’re covered in snow all year round and they are spectacularly beautiful. Hovering over Kazbegi, a pretty little town of 2,500 at 1,750 meters elevation near the Russian border, is Mt. Kazbek, a gorgeous 5,047-meter extinct volcano. Just below it, like a jewel on a necklace, sits Tsminda Sameba (Holy Trinity) Church. It’s a 1,000-meter climb to the church and then you can hike all the way to the Kazbek base camp with gorgeous views back to the church and town below.

Not believing it could get better, it did. After two days of hiking (which I’ll chronicle in a blog in two weeks), I flew from Tbilisi to Mestia, home of the Great Caucasus in the far north. The 45-minute flight alone, just below the mountain peaks, rivaled the 1987 flight I took past the Himalayas into Kathmandu. Jagged, individual peaks, all covered in snow, outlining green meadows with specks of villages and wind-swept flurries off mountaintops beyond.

A man greets me at Holy Trinity Church above Kazbegi.

A man greets me at Holy Trinity Church above Kazbegi.


In Mestia, over three days, I hiked up to a ski resort, took a chair lift back up the next day and hiked to a TV tower then hiked 1,000 meters straight up to a legendary cross that overlooks the entire town. Everywhere I went, every turn I took, every step I made, I had a panorama view of an incredible snow-covered mountain range. In few spots did I see people. It was like walking alone through the Ice Age — except for the daypack full of food.

Each night I made the nightly pilgrimage to Leila’s, a restaurant-bar where in the morning I’d beef up for hikes with khikhlinko, thick, homemade Georgian bread fried with scrambled eggs, a dish so good you wonder why U.S. ski resorts haven’t picked up on it. It’s a native dish of the Svans, the ethnic group for which the Svaneti region is named. Tall stone towers the Svans used for defense are scattered around Mestia like middle fingers.

The Svans were known for taking blood revenge but you wouldn’t know it by the marvelous native dance performances they did every night inside Leila’s. A five-man band playing native songs on drums and guitars while a young guy in long, curly black hair twirled around the floor like a Swirling Dervish. I don’t like ethnic dance performances much. They seem too fake and stilted, packaged entirely for tourists. But in this isolated town in the heart of the Great Caucasus, with so many locals hanging out, it had an air of authenticity. Watching with a big glass of Saperavi, Georgia’s most famous wine, certainly helped me get into the mood.

The nine-hour marshrutka ride back to Tbilisi revealed the old Georgia that the new Georgia has failed to modernize. We chugged down in elevation and came across crude apartment houses with peeling paint and barred windows in small towns long past their usefulness. Factories that once churned out whatever product was essential in Soviet households lay barren and abandoned. Old women bundled up like babushkas wobbled unsteadily along dusty streets.

Once back in Tbilisi I met Anna Surguladze, 22, and her friend, Demetre Nikabadze. I know Surguladze from Rome’s Language Tandem Meetup group where we all sit around and butcher each other’s languages once a week. She represents the new Georgia where everyone under 30 is fluent in English after 11 years of study and everyone over 40 can’t count to three. She is a financial analyst but unlike many of her brethren, she doesn’t want to leave Georgia to find a better life.

“I have experience living abroad for a couple of years,” she said. “I want to have some impact on my society.”

We met at Cafe Le Toit on one of the many bustling side streets off Freedom Square. A gloomy waitress, representative of the generally lousy restaurant service around the country, couldn’t put a damper on the lovely trappings. Cafe Le Toit looks like your grandmother’s living room with big, comfortable chairs, flowered wallpaper and a gaudy chandelier hanging over it all. On the quaint balcony, I asked Surguladze what was Georgia’s biggest problem.

Demetre Nikabadze, me and Anna Surguladze at Zoestan in Tbilisi

Demetre Nikabadze, me and Anna Surguladze at Zoestan in Tbilisi


“Education and economics,” she said. “It’s an education system that’s really outdated. It’s old. Nowadays today’s youngsters are much more free than their ancestors were, than their parents were, because they were raised in the Soviet era and they were taught to think the way it was written in their books. Nowadays in the schools these people teach youngsters, youngsters who are more free and liberal.

“These people who are the teachers, who are their parents, they’re from the Soviet Union. They don’t know what freedom is. They don’t teach children how to analyze things, how to think more openly. They just expect from the children to obey the rules. They don’t teach them creative thinking or help them to become grownups and about life.”

Later, Surguladze took us on a field trip up and down the narrow cobblestone roads in Tbilisi’s old town. With a flight at 3:30 a.m., my game plan was to pull an all-nighter, an easy task in Tbilisi. We wound up in a dive underground brick bar called Zoestan where I continued my tour across Georgia’s wine map, however unsteadily.

Young Georgians seem alive. They laugh. They go out. They dream. They protest. At least, they do much more than their parents did. Surguladze said there is a lot I didn’t see in two weeks.

“Many families are almost nearly starving,” she said. “They don’t have sufficient money to provide for themselves and their kids. Youngsters want to leave Georgia mainly because they think it’ll be better in Europe, with a better perspective.”

As I carried my backpack into Freedom Square to catch a cab, I said goodbye to Georgia, to the wine stores I walked by so many times and the teetering revilers I left behind. I took a last look at St. George, high atop the horse, still shining in gold well past midnight. He slew the dragon in the statue, leaving me with one lasting thought.

Georgia still has so many dragons to slay.