The Beat Goes On: Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World Wine Course

9781454913641_p0_v2_s192x300Kevin Zraly Windows on the World Complete Wine Course (revised & updated edition)New York: Sterling Epicure, 2016.

I don’t know if Kevin Zraly has a theme song — a tune that they play when he enters the room or takes the stage — but if he doesn’t have one I would like to suggest “The Beat Goes On.” I think it fits him like a glove.

Windows on the Wine World

Zraly was instrumental in getting the wine beat going here in the United States through his work at the Windows on the World restaurant in New York and his high-impact teaching at the Windows on the World Wine School.

Zraly’s tenure at the restaurant lasted from its first day of business in 1976 (a key year for wine in America) until September 11, 2001. You know that date, I am sure, and it will make sense when I remind you that Windows on the World was located at the top of One World Trade Center.

The restaurant was gone after 9/11, but the beat went on. The school moved uptown, but didn’t really miss a beat until Zraly decided to retire from teaching this fall, after 40 years and more than 20,000 students. So now the school is gone, too, but the beat still goes on in the form of the latest edition of this book.

A Confidence Game

The Windows on the World Complete Wine Course is the closest thing that most people will have to taking the actual course with Kevin Zraly and it is valuable resource both for the wine novices that it was written for and for wine veterans, too.

Newbies learn enough about wine to develop the personal confidence they need to enjoy wine and not be unnecessarily intimidated by it. This confidence is vital to wine sales in restaurants and shops, too. Remember: no one has to buy wine and many do not because they are afraid of making a mistake.

Wine veterans will appreciate the book, too, because Zraly’s enthusiasm is totally contagious and reading it reminds us of why we fell in love with wine in the first place.kevin-zraly-sm

What’s new for this edition? The basic structure remains the same, which is a good thing. Zraly’s brilliant original strategy was to organize the class and then the book around a typical restaurant wine list — whites on this side, reds on the other, sorted by regions and so on.

You get key information about the regions and the wines plus suggested producers, food pairings, comparative tasting prompts and a lot more. Where some books seem to be written for technical WSET exam prep classes, Zraly aims to prepare his students for real world exams — choosing and enjoying wines at restaurants and shops.

More. Give Me More

The text has been updated along with the graphic design and I think both are great. Wine is changing so fast that it is hard to keep up (and impossible to be really complete), but this edition does a good job in both respects. The graphics work because the bright colors stimulate the mind’s eye and are used to convey information in a consistent style. Sue noted that the design allows a great deal of information to be packed onto each page. It is attractive and useful, not distracting as is so often the case.

I have always admired previous editions of this book, but I wanted more. More countries and regions and maps and — most important — more Kevin Zraly. More Zraly because it is his dynamic personal relationship to wine (and his student/readers) that makes this book great.

I think I will always want more in terms of wine regions, etc. — love to see information here about Portuguese wines besides Port and maybe Georgian wines now that I have visited here. But I understand that this isn’t an encyclopedia and, at 360 pages, it is already pretty big.

But what makes me happiest is that the sense that you are listening to Kevin Zraly, learning from him and getting excited by his excitement — that sense is fuller than ever before. More Zraly? Simply irresistible! That’s what makes the Windows on the World Complete Wine Course essential reading for all wine lovers.

Congratulations to Kevin Zraly on his achievements, awards, and contributions to wine in America. And thanks for this book, which extends his influence into the future. The beat goes on!

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“The Beat Goes On” is a Sonny and Cher tune (Sonny Bono wrote it), but I thought you might enjoy this version by the Buddy Rich band — it really swings. Cheers.

 

Book Review: A Dynamic New History of the French Wine Industry

12912-160Rod Phillips, French Wine: A History. University of California Press, 2016.

Many people think that history is the study of facts and I suspect that they might not be strongly attracted to a book called French Wine: A History. Another book full of facts about French wine? Oh, no!

But history is really the study of change not just facts and it’s that dynamic sense that makes history generally and Rod Phillips’ new book about French wine, so interesting and exciting. Yes, I admit that there are lots of facts here, but Phillips puts them to work telling the story of the changing world of wine, or France, and French wine.

The book has a multi-dimensional organization. The nine chapters proceed chronologically starting with the beginnings to 1000 CE and ending with 1945 to the present, when Phillips argues that French wine was reinvented. Each era of history is organized according to a few dominating themes, with case studies that most effectively explore the issues. It’s an organization that works, although I would have appreciated headings within each chapter to make the outline even clearer.

Phillips apologizes in his introduction that this theme-based approach means that some regions — Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne in particular — get more attention than others, but they are the places where change is often more dramatic or apparent. He notes that any attempt to treat all the regions equally would dilute the narrative and, in my view, turn this from a dynamic history into a stale book of facts.

Wine, the wine industry, and shifting wine markets all treated here. Examples? Well, the chapter on the Middle Ages provides much to think about. The British loved a wine they called Claret, for example, which today means a dark red wine from Bordeaux. But that’s not what the term meant back in the day when it was coined.

Clairet wines came from many places besides Bordeaux and their key characteristic was that they were not dark red. They were fairly clear (compared with red wines), field blends of red and white grapes of various degrees of ripeness that were pinkish more than red. They were the default non-white wines until the 17th century, Phillips tells us, which suggests just how much French wine has changed.

That same chapter explores the changing role of wine in the French diet at the time. Wine was more than a drink, it was a very significant source of calories as the high consumption levels reported here suggest.

Factoid alert: I could not help but be a little envious when I read the list of provisions for the 1251 wedding of Alexander III of Scotland to King Henry III’s daughter Margaret: 1300 deer, 7000 hens, 170 boars, 60,000 herrings, 68,500 loaves of bread … and 96,500 liters of wine. Wow, what a feast.

A great deal has changed over the years in both the wines and their role in our lives, but it is a mistake to think that the most dramatic changes are in the long-ago past (the Middle Ages) or even the more recent past (Phylloxera in the 19th century, the rise of the appellation system in the 20th century).

My favorite chapter examines the last half-century, which Phillips suggests is a golden age of French wine. I learned a lot from his analysis of the French wine industry in the early post-war years. I was impressed by the discussion of the French-Algerian wine relationship and Algeria’s rapid decline from its position as the world’s largest wine exporter (mainly to France) to its much more marginal role in global wine today.

I was particularly interested in Phillips’ take on the changing status of wine in French society and French wine in the global market. The analysis is typically thorough and thought-provoking. He notes that the decline in per capita wine consumption in France, for example, coincides with the development of a mass market for bottled water.This, plus anti-alcohol laws and regulations, explains a lot. The decline in wine consumption has many effects including, he argues, a change in social behavior as the number of cafés licensed to sell wine and spirits has collapsed.

The more things change the more they stay the same — that’s a famous French saying, and it occurred to me several times as I was reading this book. Concerns about wine fraud and adulteration appear frequently in French history, just as I suspect they will in future histories of Chinese wine!

French Wine: A History is a fascinating book that belong’s on every wine lover’s bookshelf. Highly recommended.

Talking About My Generation: Wine Spectator Turns 40

WS111516_CoverUS.indd“Don’t look back,” Satchel Paige said, “something might be gaining on you.” That’s probably good advice in most circumstances, but sometimes it pays to glance over your shoulder to get some perspective on the present and inspiration for what’s ahead.

That’s what Wine Spectator magazine has done in their November 15, 2016 issue, which celebrates their 40th year. The very first issue was dated April 1-15, 1976.  A lot has changed since then. The magazine has changed, the wine world has changed, and we have all changed, too.

Start at the Beginning

The editors confront all this change in many interesting ways. Several illustrated features that look back at memorable wine world events and trends in each decade and provide interesting profiles of the important personalities who shaped the industry and our perception of it.

Publisher Marvin Shanken and the senior editors provide personal reflections and a gallery of covers captures the dynamic wine world through colorful images. Harvey Steiman’s contribution is an intriguing essay on “The Future of Wine.”

Although I appreciate all the essays and features, I admit that my favorite part of this issue is the reproduction of the very first Wine Spectator that is included with the magazine.  It is impossible to resist the temptation to compare the 288-page current Wine Spectator with its 11-page ancestor. A lot of the change in wine can be seen dramatically just be looking at these two publications side-by-side.

1976 and All Thatwinespectatordebutissue

Many of my friends read Wine Spectator for its wine reviews and ratings — they start at the back of the magazine, not the front — but the 1976 issue provides very little in the way of consumer guidance. It was more of a wine trade publication, filled with news and features not wines and scores. The page one headline, for example, was “Hearings set to define ‘estate bottled’ wines,” something of more interest to industry readers than consumers.

“California wines win high awards” is the lead article on page 10 and, since it was 1976, the year of the Judgement of Paris, I expected to read about the now legendary triumph of California wines over their more famous French rivals. But the Paris tasting was on May 24, 1976 — more than a month in the future when this issue hit the streets.

The awards that Wine Spectator reported here were those given at the Oenological Institute’s International Wine Awards in London and the big California winners were Inglenook and Italian Swiss Colony, both then owned by the United Vintners. The 1972 Inglenook Petite Sirah received the highest mark of any American wine while several Italian Swiss Colony wines were awarded silver medals. Italian Swiss made no vintage-dated wines at the time, according to the article, something that set them apart from most of the wines judged in this international tasting.

It’s a Corker!

Wine Spectator today is filled with advertisements — especially the 40th anniversary issue, which features many colorful full-page tributes by industry supporters. Not many ads in the 1976 issue by comparison. My favorite is “It’s a Corker! from Paul Masson,” which highlights the real cork stopper in the “new generic magnums” of Burgundy, Chabils, and Sauterne.

Other ads promoted Concannon’s Muscat Blanc, Ambassador’s Colombard Rosé, Voltaire’s Zinfandel and Chenin Blanc (Voltaire was a Geyser Peak Winery brand), B&G, Sebastiani, and Llords & Elwood (“makers of ultra-premium, award winning champagne, table wines, sherries and port”).

Wine Spectator today features both more advertisements and very different ones. Wine ads dominate, but you will also find those bought by non-wine companies that seek to promote their lifestyle products to the affluent readership base.

Back to the Future

A lot has changed since Wine Spectator #1 and Harvey Steiman’s essay sums it up very well. Back in the day when Steiman first discovered his interest in wine the world was much simpler. Baby boomers understood that Old World trumped New World and pretty much nothing could beat France (Bordeaux for reds, Steiman writes, and Burgundy for whites).

The boomers’ challenge has been to broaden their understanding of wine (more countries and regions) and to deepen it, too, learning about more varieties and styles. We have come a long way, but Steiman thinks there is still a long way to go for us to fully appreciate,  embrace and enjoy the wonder and diversity that wine promises.

Talking About Generations

He is optimistic about the future, pinning his hopes in part on the Millennials, who are undisciplined in good ways and more open to new places, faces, and experiences. Starting from 2016 instead of 1976 and with Millennial attitudes, the sky could be the limit. Fingers crossed.

I think Steiman is right about this, but it is important to appreciate (as I am sure he does) that the generational shift is not the whole story. Generational categories sometimes hide as much as they reveal. We think of baby boomers as driving the wine boom in the U.S., for example, but don’t forget that most boomers don’t drink wine and a great many of them consume no alcohol at all. Sometimes the changing patterns within and across generational groups are as important as the differences between them.

It is important to put wine in context. The world of wine in 1976, as represented by that first issue, was pretty closed. If you look at recent Wine Spectator issues, on the other hand, you can see that it is not just wine that has changed but our idea of wine and how we relate to it, which I believe reflects changing social patterns generally, and not just about wine. For readers of Wine Spectator, wine is not just a drink but part of a sophisticated lifestyle, which is why food and travel are featured so prominently in the magazine and celebrities make frequent appearances, too.

Congratulations on Your (and Our) Success

Wine has been a success in the United States because it has become more and more relevant to the way that consumers live their lives now. As the cultural context continues to change, wine will need to find its meaning and its place. The fact, which Steiman highlights, that wine is not one thing but a great many, gives us confidence that the best days are still to come.

Congratulations to everyone at Wine Spectator for a great 40 years of telling wine’s tale. Looking forward to the next chapter in your (and our) story.

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Second Thoughts on Wine Strategies for Georgia, the Cradle of Wine

127895The Republic of Georgia is a wine economy in transition from its former status as a main supplier of wine to Russia and the former Soviet countries to an emerging position with sales in these markets plus Western Europe, North America and Asia.

Conventional Wisdom?

Last week’s column reported on the main sectors of the Georgian wine industry and presented a working hypothesis I developed before our recent trip there. Home production of wine for family use is very important in Georgia and crowds out the commercial product to a great extent, so the focus is on exports. But what strategic focus is best: which wines and which markets?

The traditional markets in Russia and the former Soviet nations represent the past, I hypothesized. The future? The most distinctive element of Georgian wine today are the high quality natural qvevri wines that have been much in the news recently, but is that too small a niche to support the industry? And production of these wines is very limited in any case.

So by process of elimination, I said,  Georgia needs to focus on what’s left — distinctive indigenous grape variety wines made in a clean international style that can compete in global export markets like the U.K., U.S. and Canada.

That is a conventional idea, I noted at the end of last week’s column, and I am generally suspicious of conventional wisdom. Georgia is an unconventional wine country, so I needed to learn more. I’m still trying to make up my mind, but I think my hypothesis was both right and wrong, too. Here is my report.

Orovela Saperavi: Export Onlyimage_2408901_full

If you want to see what the future of Georgian export wines in the international style might look like consider Orovela. But don’t look for these wines in Georgia — they are strictly for export and are essentially unknown in their country of origin. You can, however, find them in the United Kingdom at Waitrose stores and Whole Foods and in restaurants, too, where they are possibly the most successful Georgian wine in the market.

Current exports to the U.K., the U.S. and other markets are fairly small at 40,000 bottles, but there are plans to ramp up quickly to 200,000 bottles and then a million bottles in a few years. That’s big by Georgian standards.

The name, Orovela comes from a traditional plowing song, but the project is as contemporary as can be. Brothers Giorgi and Vasili Sulkhanishvili saw an opportunity for Georgian wine exports, began investment in 2000, and rolled out the brand in 2004. There is one red wine, a Orovela Saperavi,  and Oro chacha, which is Georgia’s signature grape spirit (think grappa). oro5-160x284

Quality was a key factor right from the start and this has paid off. Jancis Robinson declared the 2004 Orovela the best Georgian wine she ever tasted, for example. A search of the Waitrose website reveals that the Saperavi is a “buyer’s choice” selling for £16.79. Vasili told us that the wine is available in selected East Coast markets in the U.S. and sells for $30-$35 in shops and perhaps $100 in restaurants.

The packaging of both the wine and the chacha is beautiful and effective in communicating the wine’s origin and story. Orovela is a completely professional project, carefully designed and tightly focused, reflecting, I believe, the brothers’ international drinks industry experience.

Orovela isn’t the only example of an international-style wine made with Georgian grapes for export markets. We visited both Chateau Mukhrani and Telavi Wine Cellar and were impressed with the substantial investment and obvious commitment to quality.

The idea that Georgia could be successful in global markets with wines like these is certainly valid.But is it the best strategy for the industry? These markets are insanely competitive and effective product differentiation is critical. Are these wines different enough (there is little room for “me too” products) and can that difference and the quality be communicated effectively as Orovela has done?

Back to the Future?p1110808

I wasn’t prepared for what I discovered when we started tasting natural qvevri wines and meeting the winemakers. The wines varied a good deal, of course, but many of them were simply stunning and not at all the rustic products that I imagined. Wines from Gotsa Family Wines, Pheastant’s Tears, Iago’s Wine Cellar and the Alaverdi Monatstery especially stood out. The wines had real tension — they were alive in the glass. No funk, nothing mousy, just great wine. I was really impressed.

I admit that visiting the wineries and meeting the people made a difference, as it always does. I was moved by Iago Bitarishvili’s hard work and humility, for example, and excited by Beka Gotsadzes’ energy and ingenuity. The fact that these people can make natural wines like this using traditional Georgian methods is something to celebrate. The wines and the stories that come with them are the product differentiation I was looking for.

Maybe these are the wines that Georgia should highlight, I thought. Certainly they tell an authentic story of Georgia and its wines. But there are problems. The domestic market for such wine is limited, as I explained last week, and natural wines are a niche (albeit a growing one) in the global market. In any case, production of these natural qvevri wines is small and the best makers routinely sell out now. Market expp1110789ansion requires new investment and new players.

The natural qvevri wines are a great symbol for Georgia and its wines, but can they open doors for other Georgian wines? Not sure.

Past is Prologue?

My confusion reached a peak when we visited Teliani Valley winery, which is a large diversified producer. Production is about 3 million bottles divided 30% domestic, 70% exports, 30% semi-sweet wines for the traditional markets, 70% dry wines, and 90% conventional wines with 10% made in qvevri.

After a brief tour of the big factory-style facility, we were asked to choose wines to taste. Could we try three red wines, I asked? An international-style wine, a qvevri product and one of the semi-sweet wines popular in Russia and other traditional markets.

The wines were produced and the results were interesting. The oak-aged international Saperavi and the qvevri  wines were fine, but not especially memorable. No electricity here. Well made, but not distinctive.2014042019

The semi-sweet wine was different, which caught me by surprise.  100% Saperavi from the Kindzmarauli vineyard, it was fruity and, well, delicious. To paraphrase my favorite philosopher, Charles Barkley, it tasted like itself — it was good because it wasn’t trying to be something else. It was the surprise hit of the tasting. It was the wine that we would want to taste again.

Sweetish red wines enjoy a growing market in the U.S. (although their sweetness isn’t always advertised). High quality wines like this might have a bright future, not the dim past that I had imagined.

One Wine to Rule Them All?

My working hypothesis was based on the conventional idea that Georgia needed to choose a clear, simple strategy to move forward in the global markets — to decide which of its wines to take the lead.

But Georgian wine isn’t one thing, it is many things. And I think any attempt to over-simplify — to choose the one wine style to rule them all — is bound to fail.

International style, natural qvevri wines, and the semi-sweets, too. These are all Georgia wines and Georgia is all of them and more, too. My hypothesis was off base, but the journey of discovery it provoked has taught me a lot.

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Thanks to all the wine producers who met with us during our Georgia expedition and to the Georgian National Tourism Association for all their help and encouragement.

Republic of Georgia: First Impressions of a Wine Industry in Transition

qvevri1Sue and I were fortunate to be able to extend our visit to the Republic of Georgia at the conclusion the  of United Nations World Tourism Organization’s (UNWTO) first Global Conference on Wine Tourism. The conference’s focus was on wine tourism, but we wanted to learn more about the Georgian wine industry itself.

Georgia’s DNA

As I explained in an earlier column, I came to Georgia full of questions about the wine industry here and with a preliminary hypothesis to help me shape the inquiry. Here’s what I was thinking.

Georgian wine is very old and the wine culture is strong. I have never been anywhere where wine was so central to the culture. Wine and vine were everywhere we looked. Wine grapes were a central element, for example, of a Soviet-era war memorial we saw in Sighnaghi. And grape vines are at the heart of the image of Georgia as a Christian nation. Saint Nino fashioned the first cross using her own hair to bind two lengths of grape vine. Wine is Georgia’s DNA.

A great deal of the wine that is consumed is produced by families for their own use and to give to friends and neighbors. The fact of such large family production necessarily shapes the market. Not much imported wine enters Georgia, for example. And a great deal of the commercially produced wine must be exported.

The Russia Factor

Russia was for many  years the largest export market for Georgian wine and because of this the focus was on semi-sweet red wines made in state-owned factories and often sold in bulk. Quantity was a priority over quality. But then came the Russian embargo of Georgian and Moldovan wines in 2006 and in an instant the most important market, accounting for perhaps 80 percent of sales, was gone and did not return until 2013.vino1mo

The Russian embargo was the worst thing that could have happened to the Georgian wine industry in the short term and the best thing in the long run. In retrospect it is easy to see that such complete reliance upon a single foreign market for wine sales was not a healthy situation.

The sudden loss of that market forced Georgian producers to develop new markets, improve quality to be competitive in those markets, and find strategies for product differentiation to raise margins and secure market niches.

Silk Road to China

A recent report lists Georgia’s five largest export markets as Russia, Ukraine, China, Kazakhstan and Poland although there have been substantial sales increases (albeit from a low base) to Germany, the UK, and Canada.

The recent  rise in the Chinese market has been particularly noteworthy and follows on investments in Georgia wine shops and culinary centers that were established in China. There are ambitious plans to open 100 Georgian wine houses there.

One wine executive we talked with noted a “Silk Road” connection that works in Georgia’s favor. Georgia has negotiated a preferential trade agreement with China and Chinese traders and investors who visit the country taste and enjoy the Georgian wines, learn about the country’s 8000 year wine history and its Silk Road connection. Nothing could make more sense than to buy Georgian wine with its long history and connection to China. Very smart of Georgian producers to leverage this cultural advantage!p1110666

Natural Wine Buzz

Here in the United States much of the buzz about Georgian wines concerns natural wines made using the traditional qvevri clay containers to ferment and sometimes age the wine wines. Alice Feiring is a leading advocate of these wines and her recent book For the Love of Wine gives a highly personal account of her passion for them.

No one we talked with is sure how much Georgian natural wine is made by families for their own consumption, but commercial production is relatively limited. One producer estimated total output of perhaps 120,000 bottles more or less with several wineries in the 3000 to 6000 bottle capacity range. Little of this wine is sold domestically in Georgia because of its relatively high cost and the existence of family-produced alternatives.

So the focus is clearly on export to markets where natural wines have a strong presence including Italy, France and Denmark, and developing natural wine markets such as UK, Canada and the United States.

Given all of this my working hypothesis when we left for Georgia was this. The Russian market is the past, now they need to look to the future. But which future? The natural qvevri wines are Georgia’s key to differentiation in the new markets, but high quality natural wine is too narrow a category to carry the ambitions of a great wine producing nation.

Process of Elimination

My hypothesis, based on the process of elimination, was that the way forward is for Georgia to focus on increasing the quality of their conventional wines, making them in a clean international style and differentiating by stressing a small number of exciting indigenous grape varieties (perhaps red Saperavi and white Rkatsiteli and various blends) from among the dozens of native Georgia wine grapes.

In other words, I saw Georgia in a very conventional way, much as I view Turkey or Portugal, for example. That was then. What do I think now? Come back next week to find out.

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Thanks to the Georgia National Tourism Administration for inviting us to extend our visit to Georgia and generously providing  us with help in visiitng the wine regions and meeting wine producers.

Practical Guide to Wine Tourism in the Republic of Georgia: UNWTO Lessons

tbilisi-001Sue and I  recently returned from the United Nations World Tourism Organization’s (UNWTO) first Global Conference on Wine Tourism in Tbilisi, Georgia and we are still processing the experience.

One interesting feature of the conference is that the sessions weren’t confined to the usual convention center or hotel ballroom locations. The organizers boldly took the program on the road to four interesting wine tourist venues.

This experiment provided an interesting opportunity to talk about wine tourism while actually being wine tourists. Here is what I think I learned in the process.

First Impressions: A Georgian Supra

The conference opened with a gala dinner (hosted by Georgia’s Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili) at the beautiful Funicular Restaurant, which is located high on the hill overlooking Tbilisi next to the television tower. The view from the patio was spectacular (see Sue’s photo above), especially as the sun went down and the lights came up, highlighting the monuments. It felt like you could reach out and the touch the city.0a1_6242

There was good Georgian wine at the dinner, but the focus more more on Georgian food, wonderful polyphonic singers and traditional dance groups. Professor George Bagashvili was the master of ceremonies and he explained all that we were seeing and hearing. He deftly led us through the traditional series of supra toasts, but in a tourist-friendly way (without the feared requirement to drain endless glasses or horns of high-proof  chacha).

The gala dinner at the scenic restaurant was a reminder that wine tourism is first and foremost tourism and it is generally a mistake to think of it out of the context of other tourism opportunities. There will be some who will come to Georgia just for the wine, but most will be attracted by the complete package — sights, sounds, culture, people, food and so on with wine playing a larger of smaller part in each case. The dinner was a great introduction to Georgia’s best and a good lesson that wine tourism is most effective when it is embedded in the broader context.

1011 and All That

We loaded into coaches the next morning and headed east toward  Kakheti, the main wine region and the location of our first meetings. We stopped at the historic Alaverdi Monastery, were wine has been made using the traditional qvevri method since 1011.

We toured the monastery, visited the marani cellar with its qvevri vessels, and tasted one of the wines, a complex golden Rkatsiteli shown below. After the tour we adjourned to a cafe where we had coffee and cups of delicious matsoni (local yogurt) with local honey and walnuts (a fabulous combination).

The wine tourism here was seamlessly integrated into the cultural elements and featured local food products and the opportunity to purchase traditional crafts, too. A great tourist and wine tourist stop. And this is not an accident.p1110666

Georgia correctly sees tourism as an economic development opportunity, especially in rural areas like Kakheti. The Georgian government has worked to develop tourist infrastructure and marketing strategies in partnership with international development organizations including the World Bank, EBRD and USAID.

The Alaverdi Monastery is an example of how these efforts have come together successfully to leverage history, culture and wine to create real opportunities for local workers and producers while giving tourists a memorable experience.

Tunnel Vision?

If the monastery is a good example of adapting something quite old to create a wine tourism experience, our next stop showed a more contemporary touch. Khareba Winery offers a focused wine tourism experience built around a huge network of tunnels that date from Soviet days. The tunnels were reportedly built with military use in mind before eventually becoming a regional wine storage facility and now a wine tourist attraction.

Our afternoon conference session was held up at the Saperavi restaurant with its great view of the valley and then we walked down the hillside to the tunnel with its exhibits, wine tasting, and a group of polyphonic singers who filled the underground space with sound.

The tunnels are a noteworthy attraction, but there was more. A path meandered through the park-like grounds and along the way the visitor is offered the chance to bake bread in a traditional clay oven, watch chacha being made (and taste some, too), make churchikhela, which are strings of nuts dipped in concentrated grape must. A moveable feast was laid for us along with path with traditional dishes, including mountain trout and spit-roasted meat.

As at the monastery, the experience was orchestrated to create a complicated sensory experience filled with sights, sounds, smells and tastes mixed with a strong sense of Georgian culture. Wine was at the center of the experience, but there were many threads interwoven here.

A Georgian Chateaucastle

Chateau Mukhrani, the conference venue for the final day, was built in 1878 and, as the vintage image suggests, it resembles a French chateau to a certain extent. The likeness has been heightened by recent upgrades aimed at enhancing wine tourism.

The grounds and the facilities are beautiful and the wines are good, too, made mainly in the international style under the supervision of Frenchman Patrick Honef. We especially enjoyed the Reserve du Prince Saperavi that was served at the closing dinner

The reaction of some of the international conference participants was noteworthy. What is a French chateau doing here? Why isn’t this winery made along traditional Georgian lines, like the monastery, for example? The winery’s architecture, which most visitors will find appealing, was a turn-off to those seeking greater authenticity.

So why the disappointment? I think it is a example of something that I call the “globalization paradox.” We love globalization because of its ability to bring things from all around the world to our towns and cities. Good espresso, authentic wood-fired pizza, designer shops — it is great to have these things nearby creating a cosmopolitan local environment.

But there is a downside. Everyone wants these things and for the most part they get them. This means that when we travel abroad we see many of the same things we already have back home and not the quaint frozen-in-time images that we expect.

Globalization makes the local more diverse and interesting, but the foreign is rendered less exotic and disappointingly more like home. Sigh. Do you see how a French chateau in Georgia fits this pattern?  It definitely adds to the wine tourism experience in Georgia, even if it takes away a bit from the experience that  the seasoned international traveler may be seeking.

This video will give you a sense of Chateau Mukhrani and how it has been designed to serve as an attractive wine tourist destination. It is good to remember that wine tourists are a diverse group and a great many of them will enjoy visiting a chateau … even if they do it in Georgia, not Bordeaux.

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How did the conference’s experimental format work? As you might expect some venues worked better than others for particular purposes. And I am not sure that everyone realized that we were both discussing wine tourism and practicing it at the same time, meaning that some teaching moments were probably lost. But I applaud experiments like this and hope the organizers continue to innovate at next year’s UNWTO meeting in Mendoza, Argentina.

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A quick shout-out to George Piradashvili and the staff at Chateau Mere, where we stayed during our brief tour of Kakheti after the conference. Chateau Mere is a good example of how wine tourist infrastructure can be creatively developed to serve diverse visitor needs. Personal thanks to George for sharing his great food, fine wine, and Georgian wine business insights with us.

Global Wine Tourism Conference in Georgia: A Preliminary Report

Sue and I have recently returned from the untwo2United Nations World Tourism Organization’s (UNWTO) first Global Conference on Wine Tourism in Tbilisi, Georgia and I know just what you are going to say. What in the world is the UN doing sponsoring a wine tourism conference and why was it in the Republic of Georgia?

First Things Second

Let me answer the second question first. Georgia is the self-styled “Cradle of Wine,” with documented wine production going back 8000 years so it certainly has standing. It is also probably the most wine-centric culture I have ever experienced. Wine is everywhere. Just about everyone drinks it, most families make it for their own consumption, and its symbolic and practical importance is everywhere to be seen. Wine and vine — these are key elements of the Georgian DNA. Really.

Georgia is a poor nation, especially outside of Tbilisi’s bright city lights. Mexico’s per capital GDP is about $9000 according to World Bank statistics. Georgia’s is about $3800. So anything that can create employment opportunities (especially rural jobs) and spur economic development is welcome here. Tourism of the nature and adventure varieties is a big contributor to national income. Why not leverage Georgia’s rich culture, and especially its deep wine traditions, to create economic opportunity?

So it is easy to see why Georgia would volunteer to host a conference like this — and they did a magnificent job.  But what’s the UN connection?

Wine Tourism Rationale

The basis for UN programs in tourism and now wine tourism is surprisingly strong, as the “Georgia Declaration on Wine Tourism (pdf),” which was promulgated at the conference, makes clear.  The UNWTO’s mandate, for example, states that,  “The fundamental aim of the Organization shall be the promotion and development of tourism with a view to contributing to economic development, international understanding, peace and prosperity, and universal respect for, and observance of, human  rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion”. Tourism cannot accomplish all these goals by itself, but it can be part of the process.

Tourism is one way that we experience and understand other nations, peoples, and cultures. It creates jobs, of course, but it has the potential to also increase understanding. International tourism has been one of the global growth industries of the last 30 years, so it is not unreasonable that the UN pay attention to this economic and cultural exchange vector.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), approved by the  United Nations General Assembly in 2015,  includes tourism as a tool for sustainable economic development. “By 2030,” the document specifies, the UN should “devise and implement policies to promote sustainable tourism that creates jobs and promotes local culture and products”.

The UNWTO had previously identified gastro-tourism as being an important element of its sustainable tourism development program. The wine tourism initiative and this conference were organized as part of the gastro-tourism program.

About the Conference

The first UNWTO Global Wine Conference attracted more than 250  participates from 42 countries. My panel on best practices in wine tourism included speakers from Italy, Canada, Japan, Argentina and the United States  (I talked about Napa’s success and also its challenges).

The organizers designed the program to minimize talking head blah-blah-blah and maximize focused interaction among the participants. (I have never before traveled through 11 time zones and back in order to speak for 10 minutes!) There was a lot of knowledge and experience in the room and it made sense to draw it out through small group discussion.

I think the strategy worked on the whole and  Sue and I feel our time was well spent, but I wish there have been an opportunity for greater depth on at least some topics. The conference moves to Mendoza, Argentina next year — it will be interesting to see how the program evolves.

One interesting innovation was to move the conference out of the typical sterile hotel ballroom or convention center environment and to have the sessions in wineries, where wine tourism strategies could be seen in practice as well as discussed in theory. Come back next week for an analysis of what we learned from these experiences.

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uncorkSue and I were delighted to meet Matt Horkey and Charine Tan at the UNWTO conference. Their fist book, Uncorking the Caucasus: Wines from Turkey, Armenia, and Georgia, was published last week and it is recommended reading  if you are planning a wine tour to  this region or are interesting in these wines generally. Sue and I found their recommendations for Georgia and its wines on the mark.

I like this book so much that I wrote a publicity “blurb” about it. Here it is:

Matthew Horkey and Charine Tan take us along for the ride as they travel the wine roads of Turkey, Armenia and Georgia in their intriguing new book Uncorking the Caucasus. It is exciting to see these ancient wine regions through their eyes and to experience the ways that the very old and the very new come together through wine. A perfect read for wine lovers looking for new wines, new regions, and new perspectives. Pack your bags and join Matthew and Charine as they uncork the Caucasus. Highly recommended.

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This is the first in a short series of columns on the UNWTO conference and the Georgian wine industry. Thanks very much to the UNWTO and the Georgia National Tourist Authority for making our participation in this conference possible.