May 26th was/is Independence Day in Georgia, officially commemorating the day in 1918 when the Democratic Republic of Georgia was established in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution.
It’s a major national holiday filled with parades, fireworks, fairs and an outpouring of national pride.
This year was even more special, because it also marks 25 years since Georgia’s independence (damoukidebloba -დამოუკიდებლობა) from the Soviet Union.
Even though we’ve lived in Georgia in the past, this year was actually our first year spending Independence Day in the capital of Tbilisi. How did we celebrate? By eating and drinking, of course.
We had an afternoon lunch date with John Wurdeman, founder and co-owner of Pheasant’s Tears winery and one of the vanguards of Georgia’s natural wine movement. If you’ve spent any amount of time in Georgia or are into its food and wine, chances are good that you’ve heard of “Georgian Johnny.”
John is an American, has lived in Georgia for more than 20 years, and is as deeply in love with this country, its people, traditions, cuisine and wines as anybody I know. In addition to running the winery, John is an artist & polyphonic singer and co-owner of four restaurants as well as a tour company. (I would highly recommend reading more about him and other winemakers in Alice Feiring’s excellent new book, “For The Love of Wine.”)
We were meeting him at Azarphesha, one of his excellent restaurants (and in my opinion one of the best in Tbilisi) located in the Sololaki district of Tbilisi, right behind Freedom Square. It being Independence Day, Freedom Square was closed to traffic for parades, presentations and displays of military equipment.
So it took awhile to get there.
Once we got there and sat down, John brought out a case of wine that he was sampling, putting together recommendations for a wine list at a friend’s restaurant overseas. A few years ago, there were only around a dozen all-natural wine producers in Georgia. Now there are around 40, and that number continues to grow as winemakers embrace the history and techniques that truly make Georgian wine special.
It was a treat to taste so many all-natural qvevri-made wines, some so new they didn’t even have labels.
John ordered a half-dozen or so dishes to the table, all of them either contemporary takes on Georgian classics or new dishes that highlight the best local, seasonal and organic ingredients.
Many times during this trip it has crossed my mind that Georgia and America are moving in different directions when it comes to buying food. In America, most people get their food from grocery store chains, and buying fresh/local/organic food is (usually) more expensive and harder to find. “Slow food” and “organic” are the buzzwords of the day, as more people aspire to move their pantries in that direction. But in Georgia, eating fresh/local/organic is just the way of life for most people. Only in larger cities are there grocery store chains, and usually only the affluent can afford to go there. Packaged & frozen foods and imported products are becoming more desirable in some circles, not less so.
After lunch we walked off our huge meal on Rustaveli Street, the main artery running through central Tbilisi, which was also closed to traffic due to the Independence Day celebrations.
It was an impressive and fun event! Great to see so many Tbilisians out enjoying themselves on the very street that not even 20 years ago was filled with flying bullets, gangsters and darkness.
Later that night we reconvened with John at Vino Underground, Tbilisi’s first wine bar featuring only all-natural qvevri wines. When it first opened a few years ago, natural wine was hard to find in Tbilisi. Most wine stores wouldn’t carry it and restaurants wouldn’t sell it. They wanted what they were used to: factory wine from the Soviet area.
So, John and a small handful of like-minded souls pooled their resources and opened their own bar. Vino Underground became a place where natural wine producers could sell their wine and also hold tastings, create food menus to pair with their wines, etc. Today it is thee place in Tbilisi to learn about and enjoy some of Georgia’s best wines, and regularly welcomes visitors and dignitaries from all over the world.
That evening was a benefit dinner for a friend of theirs who had gotten injured. A young chef used the impossibly small kitchen to create a six-course meal, with wine pairings to match.
I’ve been to wine pairing dinners in the States before. At most of them, you get a few sips of a few wines. But these were not sips or even small pours. These were full glasses. And when your glass was empty? They poured you more. I shouldn’t have expected any less.
At one point, even a bottle of absinthe was opened.
As the night went on, more and more bottles of wine were opened and enjoyed. Tired from a long journey back from making tea in Guria the day before (more on that tomorrow), we finally had to bow out at 1 AM. I’m told the party continued for a few more hours. I’m not surprised.
These guys (and women) love what they do. They love their wines. They love each other. Their independence from old ways of thinking has gotten them this far. I can’t wait to see what happens next.