Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Georgian winemakers to Putin: thanks for the cold shoulder*, Vlad

by James Duren

27.05.2015. History would advise against crossing a powerful Russian politician.

The tiny country of Georgia learned this lesson nearly a decade ago when a spat between then president Mikheil Saakashvili and Russian president Vladimir Putin resulted in a political jab which hurt Georgia in the short-term, but proved to be a significant boost in the long-run.

“Through the Soviet period and into the 1990s, Russians filled their glasses with Georgian vino. That changed in 2006 when, tensions flared between … Putin and … Saakashvili,” The Washington Post reporter Jenny Holm wrote this past week. “Russia banned imports of wine and spirits from the country in a thinly veiled move to chastise its government.”

Faced with the loss of its top export market – 80 to 90 percent, Holm said – Georgia and Moldova, who also faced Putin’s wrath, had to refocus their export efforts. They set their sights on the United States and Europe, shunning the superpower which had shunned them.

“Makers needed to find new buyers for their products, and fast,” Holm said. “Europe and the U.S., with their huge wine markets, looked tempting.”

The problem? Most people couldn’t find Georgia or Moldova on a map, let alone name one of the countries’ native grapes.

“They had to convince potential buyers – many of whom could not locate Georgia or Moldova on a map – that their wines were worth drinking,” Holm said.

Master of Wine Christy Canterbury pointed out Georgia had a tough task not only because the country was relatively unknown but also because those who knew of it perceived the country to be unable to produce good wine.

“There is this perception that the wine must be bad and dirty because the country is poor,” Canterbury said. “But you can also make bad wine in Sonoma. People need to be open to the fact that these countries do produce world-class wines.”

Along with misperceptions of the country came mispronunciation problems – varietals like Rkatsiteli and Feteasca Neagra were, in ease of say, no rosé or cabernet.

“Western customers don’t know how to say the unfamiliar consonant and vowel clusters that mark native Georgian and Moldovan varietals,” Holm said.

Despite all this, Georgian and Moldovan winemakers have been able to create good wine recognized by the international community.

Holm said outside help from the European Union and the United States has strengthened the winemaking process as well as the duo’s branding and marketing strategies.

“What Georgian and Moldovan winemakers certainly have going for them is a good story. They’re underdogs and they know it,” Holm wrote. “They’ve overcome an awful lot to get where they are, and that may be just the thing to entice customers in this ‘new old world’ they’ve found themselves increasingly a part of.”

[*Cold shoulder is a form of body language which occurs when a person is ignoring you completely. It is usually an action represented by turning your back towards the target and not communicating to them even though the subject is obviously attempting to talk to you (Urban Dictionary) - HN]

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