Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Ambassador Lukas BEGLINGER: Our decision to stay in Georgia reflects optimistic view of its perspectives and continued support to Georgian people

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18.12.2018 (Hvino News). For a professional diplomat, His Excellency Ambassador Lukas BEGLINGER has made a very unusual career twist. At a recent farewell reception in Tbilisi, he announced that he opted for early retirement from the Swiss diplomatic service. 

The reason why he left a prestigious government job is that he and his wife decided to stay in Georgia, and to focus on something completely new – the Georgian wine export.

In an exclusive interview to Hvino News, Mr. Beglinger answered our questions, uncovering what motivated him to trade a comfortable ambassadorial position for a somewhat unpredictable private entrepreneurial venture.

Alexander Kaffka, publisher of Hvino News: Dear Lukas, thank you for your time. Formally, you are not an official anymore. But, in the eyes of many people, you will remain a very influential figure for many years to come. A decision such as this one must have a political dimension, especially now in the aftermath of presidential elections. It sends a strong message, confirming a high level of internal stability of Georgia, supporting the positive image of the country. Do you agree, and is this part of your intention?

Lukas Beglinger: My early retirement from the diplomatic career was motivated by purely private, personal considerations, and so was my and my wife's wish to stay in Georgia. Of course, we would not have taken such a decision in the absence of sufficiently stable and favorable conditions in Georgia. In this sense, our decision reflects our optimistic view of Georgia's perspectives and our intention to continue supporting the Georgian people on their path towards a better life and increased prosperity.

AK: My next question is not why, but when. When was the first time the idea of remaining in Georgia came to your mind? Perhaps there was some event, or a meeting with someone, which became a cornerstone affecting your decision?

LB: The idea of remaining in Georgia coincided with my decision to retire from the diplomatic service, roughly a year ago. It was motivated by our desire to get to know the country, its various regions and its people more thoroughly, and to engage in new activities which are close to our hearts and personal interests, in particular Georgian wine and other unique products, as well as mountaineering.  Thankfully, my wife is as much interested in wine as I, and in addition, she is an expert in marketing, which facilitated our decision to jointly launch a wine export business. Many of our friends who are active and knowledgeable in those areas encouraged us to pursue our plans.

"Georgia's position as the world's cradle of wine and its multi-millennial wine making tradition are unmatched and need to be safeguarded, promoted and protected abroad"

AK: Did you always want to become a diplomat? Have you ever thought about winemaking in earlier years?

LB: I wanted to become a diplomat since my early student days. My enthusiasm for wine also originated in those days, when I had the opportunity to work during grape harvest for the wine agency of the Canton of Bern, with the mandate to control the quality, i.e. the sugar content, of grapes delivered to wine producers. That was more than forty years ago, and ever since, I kept in close touch with the world of wine, not least because my younger brother worked for some years as a wine journalist and later became an amateur wine producer.

AK: I see that you and your wife have been genuinely interested in winemaking for a long time. But you have a wide choice of countries where you could settle down and devote yourselves to this trade. After all, your home country Switzerland also has a vibrant wine industry. So, why you decided to live and work in Georgia? After all, Georgia’s quality of life is not so high.

LB: Georgia's position as the world's cradle of wine and its multi-millennial wine making tradition are unmatched and need to be safeguarded, promoted and protected abroad. For us, this is a much more attractive, worthwhile undertaking than marketing conventional wine from any other place - an undertaking which requires our continued presence in Georgia. Moreover, we appreciate Georgia's multi-faceted quality of life, in particular the outstanding hospitality, openness and friendliness of the Georgian people which more than compensates shortcomings in other areas.

AK: Is it true that you will move from the Ambassador’s residence in downtown Tbilisi to a country house a rural area. Are you expecting a serious difference in quality of life?

LB: Yes, we will move to a house in the countryside, some 40 km outside of Tbilisi. This will amount to a fundamental change of our environment and neighborhood -  a change we welcome very much, after having spent decades of diplomatic life in crowded, noisy and polluted capitals. Besides, we will live close to some of Kakheti's vineyards.

AK: What’s your typical day like now?

LB: I truly enjoy being now master of my time, my priorities and my activities. As our wine business has already started, taking care of our customers, suppliers and other business partners is a daily task. But I can organize my agenda in a flexible way now, devoting more time to work in and around the house, to sports, music and other hobbies which I had to neglect during my diplomatic life. Next year, I plan to do a work-based internship at a reputed Kakhetian wine company whose wines we export to Switzerland, with a view to improving and deepening my theoretical and practical knowledge of traditional Georgian wine-making.

AK: You have spent several years of very active diplomatic work in Georgia and the whole South Caucasus region. You are familiar with many local specifics, such as traditions, mentality, and ways of doing business. You will now have to use your knowledge in daily communication with Georgian and Swiss business partners. What are the main lessons you have learned regarding the cultural differences, which exist between Georgia and the West?

LB: Business practices in Georgia vary, depending on the sector and individual companies concerned. It is therefore imperative to carefully select the business partners you work with, based on mutual trust, professionalism and high standards of product and service quality. In comparison to Western countries, I do not think that Georgia's main distinctive feature is of cultural nature; it is rather the challenge of getting rid of practices of past decades which were characterized by a general neglect of quality, short-term business management and a lack of compliance with standards, rules and regulations.

AK: What problems Georgia has to overcome to be more successful and better known at the world market?

LB:  The challenges I just mentioned are important impediments to Georgia's competitiveness and success on international markets. Take the example of qvevri wine, which is a unique feature, symbol and comparative advantage of the country's wine industry. As of now, there are no binding rules and standards as to what constitutes an authentic, high-quality qvevri wine in Georgia; hence, there is no international protection of this unique trademark of Georgian wine while it is increasingly imitated in other countries. Similar challenges exist with regard to the professional education and training of wine-growers and related professions, which is key to the success of Georgian wine.

AK: There’s a common opinion that in Georgia wine is more than a business, since it occupies a special role in history and mentality of the nation. Do you agree?

LB:  Wine is so deeply rooted in Georgia's culture and society that it must be considered an essential part of the country's identity - it means definitely much more than just a business. This being so, it surely deserves to be developed according to the highest standards.

AK: If you can share some of your new company’s plans, I am sure our readers will be especially interested to hear them, since many of our readers work in the international wine trading business.

LB: Our company's name, "Best of Georgia & More GmbH",  reflects our intention to bring some of Georgia's best wines and other specialties to the Swiss market.  Switzerland is an excellent test market for wine, because it is highly competitive, consumers are demanding, open to novelties and ready to pay for quality. We will focus on selling high-quality qvevri style wines, which are in trend, but require a lot of explanatory and marketing efforts. The successful début of those wines at the recent Expovina wine fair in Zurich is very encouraging and testifies to the market potential of such wines.

AK: Any personal touches you would like to add to the interview - for instance family, your hobbies, pets, or your favourite sports…

LB: As a retired diplomat, I will have much more time to devote to hobbies and personal interests which go well with Georgia's special assets and features: mountaineering, skiing, biking, paragliding and other sports; music and literature; gardening, traveling, and much more... My wife tells me that my remaining lifetime is not long enough for all I would like to do, but I prefer to be optimistic.

AK: Thank you very much. We wish you the best of success in Georgia!

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