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.


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.

(Republic of) Georgia on my mind: Wine tourism’s future in the “Cradle of Wine”

In a few days Sue and I will be jetting off to the Republic of Georgia for the first United Nations World Tourism Organization Global Conference on Wine Tourism.We have been trying to learn all we can about Georgia and its wine and wine tourism industries in preparation for the trip. I thought you might be interested in three of the resources we have found especially useful.

Taber’s Final Frontier

George Taber spent the best part of a year circling the globe collecting wine tourism experiences that he chronicled in an entertaining 2009 book called In Search of Bacchus.  Most of the places Taber visited would be on any globetrotter’s wine tourism map — Burgundy, Bordeaux, Tuscany and so on — and his reporting and first person accounts are very interesting. Taber waited until the final chapter to veer off the conventional road map to visit Georgia, which he calls wine’s “final frontier.”

Taber had a great time in Georgia, the “Cradle of Wine,” 8000 vintages and counting. He loved the people and culture and was fascinated by the wine, reporting on the traditional wine-making process using big clay jars called Qvervi (which are buried in the earth as shown below) to ferment and store the wine until ready to drink.

Taber comments on consumption patterns as do most who write about Georgian wine. A rule of thumb, he notes, is to allow for two or three liters of wine per person at a supra banquet or celebration, where tradition requires that guests drain their glasses after each toast.

When celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain visited Georgia (see video above) he also cited high alcohol consumption and complained of frequent hangovers, although this might be Bourdain being Bourdain as much as Georgian tradition. I will let you know what I find out.

Wine Tourism as Economic Developmentqvevri1

My wine economics colleague Kym Anderson visited Georgia a few years after Taber to analyze the wine industry’s potential as an engine of economic development. His 2012 report, Georgia, Cradle of Wine: the next “new” wine exporting country? (pdf), makes good reading.

Anderson found the wine market quite segmented. Most of the large domestic demand was satisfied by basic traditional wines, a surprisingly large proportion being home-produced. Industrial production of wine for export to former Soviet countries made up a second market segment. Rising quantities of wine are made for export to other markets (including US, Canada, UK, etc), where quality expectations are different than the Russian market and production adjustments necessary.

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.

Anderson clearly sees potential for Georgian wine exports if industrial and agricultural upgrading continues, but he is especially interested in wine tourism, which he sees having potentially greater  impact on rural incomes and employment. Georgia’s decision to host the UNWTO program is consistent with this priority. International tourism is an important income source for Georgia and wine tourism has growth potential.

Anderson makes a number of specific recommendations for upgrading hospitality and winery facilities to make them more appealing to wine tourists. We will be interested to see what progress has been made in this regard in the short time since Anderson’s report.

Back to the Future of Winefeiring

Natural wine proponent Alice Feiring seems to have found her “tribe” in Georgia. Her 2016 book For the Love of Wine is an entertaining, informative and deeply personal account of her encounters with Georgia wine and wine-makers.

Feiring is taken by the naturalness of the Qvervi wine-making process and the dedication of those who kept this tradition alive during the long Soviet wine winter. Whereas Anderson’s concern is economic development, Feiring worries more about the soul. She sees Georgia’s past as a path to a better, more soulful future.

But she worries these traditional wines are threatened by a new foe — those US, UK, and EU markets that seem to demand “me too” wines made in an international style with lots of additives and manipulation. For Feiring, Russian communism and international capitalism are “twins separated at birth” in the sense that each destroys the essence of wine in its own way.

Feiring’s mission is to support those who seek to make high quality traditional wines. But there are problems. The Georgian domestic market for such wines with their necessarily higher price compared with home production is not large enough to support the craft industry, which means that buyers must be found in other countries.

Feiring’s tribe needs to grow to support the wines she treasures. The natural wine movement is growing in part due to her determined efforts. Perhaps wine tourism will convert visitors to natural wine (and Georgian wine) ambassadors.

That is a sip of what I’m learning and a hint of the sorts of questions we hope to explore. Georgia is definitely on my mind!


We appreciate everyone who helped us prepare for this trip including the officials and staff at the UNWTO and the Georgia National Tourist Administration plus Mariam Anderson, Prof. Kym Anderson, Nino Turashvili, Viktoria Koberidze, Irakli Cholobargia, George Akhalkatsi,  and Hermes Navarro del Valle.

When Will Wines from Asia Hit U.S. Shelves? (Hint: They’re Already Here!)

chinasaleMost people are surprised when I talk about the growing wine industry in Asia. In working on my next book  Around the World in Eighty Wines I have sampled interesting wines from China, India, Thailand, Korea, Japan, Vietnam and even Bali. And I know there are more out there waiting to be discovered.

Why are people so surprised? Stereotypes are part of the answer — wine isn’t part of the way that we usually think of these countries. But availability is also important. We understand that wine is made in far-away New Zealand because we see it on store shelves. When will Asia wine arrive in the U.S. market?

Flying Below the Radar?

Asian wines are a little more visible in Europe and the U.K. Reports from Paris suggest that Chinese wines can be found in many places (perhaps reflecting in some way the boom in Chinese investment in Bordeaux) and Berry Bros. & Rudd, the London wine seller, proudly advertises its commitment to Chinese wine offerings. Sue and I enjoyed some lovely Thai wines from Monsoon Valley on our last visit there to London, too.

Asia wines are pretty much flying below the radar in the U.S., but they are here if you know where to look. I found a nice Korean raspberry wine at one local Asian market, for example, and a Chinese wine — a Changyu Cabernet — at another. A brand of Chinese wines crafted specifically for the U.S. market appeared a few years ago and made a bit of a splash, but now Dragon’s Hollow wines seem to be hard to find.

Not Sherlock Holmes

You won’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to find wines from India if Rajeev Samant has his way. Samant is founder and CEO of Sula Vineyards and his wines are not just here, but are getting a good deal of attention. They were featured in the May 2016 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine, for example. The Sula Dindori Reserve Shiraz was named an Editors’ Choice and the Sula Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc and Shiraz all received ‘Best Buy’ recommendations.

Wine was probably  not high on priorities when Samant was growing up in Mumbai, but things changed when he came to the United States to attend Stanford University and work for a while in Silicon Valley. Visits to Napa Valley and wineries like Robert Mondavi left their mark.

Coming home to India, Samant accepted the challenge of reviving a family farm near Nashik. He cast about for crops that would provide higher margins and wondered if wine grapes might thrive. With help from a California flying winemaker, he learned tropical viticulture and made the necessary winery investments.

The rest, as they say, is history, but that phrase doesn’t begin to capture the challenges that Samant has faced and overcome over the last 20 years. Sula is today India’s largest winery, with capacity to both service the growing India domestic market and also make targeted export sales.

The Mondavi of Mumbai

The Stanford University alumni magazine published an article about Samant a few years ago, calling him the “Mondavi of Mumbai,” a reference to Robert Mondavi, who was also a Stanford graduate.  It was a bit of journalistic hyperbole then, but the title is not without merit today.tasting1

Samant seems to have followed the Mondavi blueprint in many ways, both in breaking new ground in wine production and promoting his products and the region through wine tourism. The Sula Vineyard winery includes attractive hospitality facilities and hosts concerts and festivals, too.

The operation is world class. Or at least that’s what the experts at The Drinks Business believe — they presented Sula with the prize for  Best Contribution to Wine and Spirits Tourism at their London awards ceremony in May.

Once the Novelty Wears Off …

The thing about wines from unexpected places is this. People will try them once just for the fun of it, but the quality and value have to be there to earn a repeat sale. Sue and I have had an opportunity to taste the Sula lineup and we think the wines pass the test.

No one comes to this URL looking for tasting notes or point scores, so I won’t give any, but the Sauvignon Blanc was particularly noteworthy. It managed to walk a fine line. It was made in an international style — clean, crisp, balanced — but it had its own character, with a rather nice finish that wasn’t Marlborough or Napa or anywhere except Nashik. Not a me-too wine, if you know what I mean, and therefore a good addition to the wine shelf.

Sula isn’t the first wine from Asia to arrive on these shores and I expect we will see more and more of them now, especially if (as I worried in a previous column) the recent UK Brexit vote makes London a less desirable wine market and more of these wines are directed our way. If that’s what happens, I guess London’s loss is our gain.


This brief video does a good job telling the Sula story. Watch it — I think you will be surprised!

Alentejo Wine in Transition: History and Changing Times in Portugal’s “Lodi”

seloSue and I recently returned from historic Évora, Portugal where I am spoke at the 10th Alentejo Vine and Wine Symposium. We spent about a week in the Alentejo wine region and learned a lot. This is the first of a short series of columns loosely organized around the theme of the disruptive intersection of old and new which I have found in many corners of the wine world, but none more clearly than Alentejo.

Portugal’s Lodi

The map gives you an idea of Alentejo’s location. Évora is about an hour east of Lisbon and give hours south of the Douro Valley. Portuguese leaders once thought that this region would be Europe’s grainery (more Kansas than Lodi, I suppose), but the landscape we saw was more pastures dotted with cork trees and vineyards, some of which are quite large by Portuguese standards.lisboa-alentejo

I think of Alentejo as the Portugal’s Lodi for several reasons. The first is the summer heat, which reaches up to 40 or 45 degrees Centigrade (100 to 110 Fahrenheit) or even higher in July. Difficult to grow high quality wine grapes in such baking heat. But, as markets shift, both regions feel the need to increase quality and so producers are pushing hard. And both regions are implementing important sustainability initiatives that are part of their new identities.

They both produce quite a lot of wine, too. Alentejo accounts for more than 40 percent of the wine consumed in Portugal. But the market is changing and the region must adjust and evolve. The domestic market has not fully recovered from the global financial crisis and price pressure is extreme, especially in the lower price tiers. At the same time, the traditional export markets — especially former Portuguese colonies Angola (#1 on the export list) and Brazil — are struggling.

Drawing Strength from the Old and the New

Alentejo is drawing strength from its past in this transition and from new ideas and initiatives, too. The sense of history is never far below the surface here. Évora is a Unesco World Heritage site, for example, with Roman ruins around every corner. The Romans made wine in this region and the big clay pots they employed are inspiring today’s winemakers (watch for a future column on this).

Portugal was once part of the Arab world (“Portugal,” we were told, means “orange” in Arabic and this was not hard to believe with orange trees everywhere). The name Alentejo itself reflects this history. Alentejo comes from Al Entejo (just as mathematic’s algebra was originally al gebra).

Old practices and a wealth of indigenous grape varieties are more than living history — they form building blocks, but bold initiative is needed for glue. The next three columns will explore this dynamic.

First I will introduce you to Adega de Borba, a big cooperative winery that is moving decisively into the future. Then I will take you into the world of cork by visiting Amorim cork’s processing plant in Alentejo and its high tech labs and production facilities in the north. Finally, we will go back in time to the wines made in big clay pots when we meet with winemaker Domingos Soares Franco at José Maria da Fonseca‘s José de Sousa winery.


One of the highlights of the conference was a dinner that featured a group of men who sang the famous Cante Alentejano that is unique to this region. It was a moving experience to hear the singing that turned to pure joy when we learned that the singers were winegrowers — members of the Vidigueira  cooperative. And to top it off, we were drinking their excellent wines. What an experience!

What Next for U.S. Wine? Unified Symposium’s “State of the Industry”

whatnextSue and I are in Sacramento for the annual Unified Wine & Grape Symposium trade show and meetings that start today and run through Thursday. This is the Western Hemisphere’s largest wine industry gathering and there is a lot going on this year, both on the trade show floor and in the ambitious seminar program.

I will be moderating the “State of the Industry” panel on Wednesday and also speaking about the global wine market “big picture.” Nat DuBuduo of Allied Grape Growers will explain what’s happening in the vineyards (Allied’s most recent newsletter suggests Nat will have some dramatic statistics to reveal), Steve Fredricks of Turrentine Brokerage will examine bulk wine market dynamics and Jon Fredrikson of Gomberg, Fredrikson & Associates will break down the U.S wine market and name his Winery of the Year.

It will be a great session. There’s a lot happening in U.S. wine and this may be the best place to go to learn about it.

Uncertain Prospects

The Economist cover shown here captures the essence of my part of the program. The global economy faces uncertain prospects as we enter 2016. Where will economic growth come from in 2016? I will examine the usual suspects and come up with a surprising answer.

I will also highlight four global  trends that I think will be important for the U.S. wine industry  in 2016. (1) The slowdown in the Chinese economy, which is likely to have significant direct and especially indirect effects. (2) The possible renaissance of the Argentina wine export machine (I have written about this in my last two columns on The Wine Economist).

(3) The “Euro-Doillar Twist” that is taking place as U.S. interest rates rise slowly this year and European interest rates continue to move into negative territory. No one really knows how this will play out in terms of direct and indirect effects, which adds a major element of uncertainty to any economic forecast for 2016.

A Very Good Year?

Finally (4) I’ll talk briefly about the possibility of contagion as economic events in one part of the world cascade through the system. With some countries on the brink of crisis, it wouldn’t take much to set off a chain reaction.

I will conclude my very brief remarks by asking if 2016 will be a very good year for the U.S. wine industry? The answer? Maybe! (Which may come as an optimistic surprise after all the gloom and doom of my previous points.) There are definite positive prospects for U.S. wine this year, but lots of potential problems, too.

What next? Lots of uncertain possibilities. Get ready!


A very good year? That calls for Sinatra. “I think of my life as vintage wine …”

Wines & Vines: A Global Perspective on Regional Wine Identity

The December 2014 issue of Wine & Vines is out and it features the usual mix of interesting and informative articles. This issue includes a preview of the sessions scheduled for the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in Sacramento at the end of January, a “Best of 2014” collection, a guide to building an urban winery and much, much more.

Great stuff — the wine industry is lucky to be served by top notch professional publications like Wines & Vines, Wine Business Monthly, Harpers Wine & Spirits,,  Meininger’s Wine Business International, The Drinks Business and  other useful and informative publications.

Wines & Vines has for some time now included content from Practical Winery & Vineyard, which is edited by Don Neel. This month Don chose an article that I wrote for him last year to be featured in the combined publication. It is called “A Global Perspective on Regional Wine Identity: Think Global, Drink Local.”

The article is based on a presentation I made to a gathering of wine makers in Southern Oregon. Some of the remarks are aimed specifically at this under-the-radar region, where some great wines are being made, but I think many of the conclusions I draw are more general. I invite you to click on the link and read the column along with the other Wines & Vines articles.

Sababay Wines of Bali: New Latitudes, New Flavors, New Frontiers

BottlesThe Wine Economist’s chief Hanoi correspondent Ali Hoover recently visited Bali, Indonesia and volunteered to investigate the local wine sector, focusing on Sababay wine. Here is her report.


A decade ago, one of my personal favorite wine celebrities, Jancis Robinson, wrote about a new breed of wine emerging on the market – New Latitude Wines. Joining existing wine region categories of Old World and New World, New Latitude’s name suggests it all: these alternate regions seek to break out from the +/- 30 to 50 degree latitude belt considered the bookends of quality viticulture, due in part to climate change, but also enabled through increasing human understanding of how and when vines grow and advancements in refrigeration and irrigation techniques. Jancis ended her article with hesitation, though, admitting “I still find it hard to believe that New Latitude Wines will ever be seriously good, but then that’s what was said about New World Wines not that long ago.”

Since then, wine has begun to pour into the international market from a myriad of unexpected places. I certainly didn’t think Kenya, Azerbaijan, or Thailand were producing wine, and apparently I’m not alone; the Wine Explorers estimates 80% of wine producing countries are poorly known to the general public.


Among the surprisingly extensive list of non-traditional wine producing countries is equatorial Indonesia, and Bali in particular. After my visit to Bali last month, I’m happy to report it deserves the overuse of the word “paradise” in reference. Despite a confluence of tourists and a disproportionate amount of surfer types, Bali has preserved much of its cultural essence. The crowd favorite ‘homestay’ accommodation looks more like a new-purposed temple, replete with impressive stonework, koi ponds covered in lotus flowers, and breakfast served on sunny patios in the morning. Crystal blue water, lush green vegetation, infamous coffee shops, yoga retreats, and small boutiques have created a getaway nothing short of idyllic. The abundance of fresh fish and produce, coupled with the laid-back attitude and stunning views lends itself all to easily to a crisp glass of wine, but producing local wine posed its own difficult set of challenges.

The Sababay Project

At a mere -8 degrees latitude, low-quality grapes considered unfit for consumption flood the Balinese market, destined for the omnipresent sidewalk religious offering (pictured below). But it turns out climate wasn’t the biggest barrier to quality wine – education in farming sustainability and viticulture standards was. Seeking to use these advances in modern technology to contribute to their native homeland, Evy Gozali and her mother founded Sababay Winery and the Asteroid Vineyards Partnership. In exchange for agricultural & technical support, Northern Balinese grape farmers commit their yields exclusively to Sababay—the 175 farmers currently producing have experienced yield increases of up to 50% in the first year alone with the new viticulture practices, and some have even reported a ten-fold annual profit increase since engaging in the partnership.


What struck me most was Sababay’s strong Indonesian identity, a true achievement in an industry with a constant tug of war between terroir and global appeal. Beyond their tangible contributions to local agriculture, Sababay produces wine to match the cultural preferences and local flavors. Marketing wine to the largest Muslim country by population in the world is no small feat, but the demand is growing, and Sababay provides an alternative to these new consumers who’re looking for a twist-top wine that tastes good with dinner. The resulting wines, designed to be poured young, are sweet, with low alcohol content, and are a perfect pair for the complex, spicy flavors of Indonesian dishes.

Think Global, Act Local

Sababay does not currently export its wines – they’re 100% focused on local consumers. In keeping with advancements in technology and understanding, they have machinery imported from all over the world and a French winemaker to make the magic happen, but in all other facets of their operation they maximize Indonesian involvement in their leadership, staff, production, branding, and promotion. Sababay’s focus is a wine for the people, as opposed to an award winning wine – though they’ve incidentally done that as well! Their sparkling Moscato d’Bali (my personal favorite) recently won the silver award at the WSA Wine Challenge 2014 in Singapore.

As wine expands its boundaries, both in terms of production and consumption, I believe local identity and alternative branding will play a critical role in New Latitude’s potential success. There are untapped demographics with unique preferences and flavors, and New Latitude presents an opportunity to break out not only from geographic constraints, but traditional flavor profiles as well. In our increasingly global world, it seems the time is right to engage these regions and step outside our delimiting 30/50. Rather than expecting New Latitude to produce “seriously good” wines by our preexisting standards, I think we ought to encourage them to create “seriously relevant and unique” wines that appeal to emerging demographics and engage local consumers. So keep your eye out for these intriguing New Latitude wines on your next vacation, it’s bound to shake up your wine experience and add an extra dimension to your cultural experience.


Update: All of the Sababay wines entered in the Chine Wine & Spirits Awards competition have received medals.  The Sababay Pink Blossom received a double gold! Congratulations to Sababay on this international recognition. To see the details click on the awards link and search for Sababay.



Thanks to Ali for her report. Here is a photo of Ali (red blouse) and the Sababay team.

I’m also impressed by the Sababay wines and also by the values they embody. Here is the winery’s mission statement (taken from the website):

Our mission is to elaborate local products of international standard that are accessible to all to enjoy and to give back to the land and to the local community.

  • Developing a diversified and performing agriculture in Indonesia with reduced impact on the land.

  • Recycling solid and liquid wastes at every steps of the production.

  • Social responsibility in the local community by creating jobs.

  • Constant training of the work force.

  • Harmonious relationship with trading partners and consumers.