How a CD in the state of Virginia led to a wine rebirth in the country of Georgia

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Marco Werman: Finally today, ever had a glass of Georgian wine? You know, from the former Soviet Republic of Georgia? If you have, you can probably thank John Wurdeman. He grew up in Richmond, Virginia but wound up running a winery in Georgia called Pheasant’s Tears. Here’s how that happened in Wurdeman’s own words.

 

John Wurdeman: In 1991, I skated to this alternative record shop and there was a CD at the front of the row called “Georgian Folk Music Today.” So, I bought it, popped it in the stereo and I was just blown away by the harmonies. That’s how it all started. A handful of things make Georgia special as a wine destination. One is they have an 8,000-year-old tradition of using clay vessels and fermenting the wine and storing it there. The clay vessels are called qvevri. The qvevri is permanently installed under the ground, and so you use it again and again, and you can use it for centuries. There’s also 525 endemic grape varieties, making it the greatest biodiversity of viticulture in the world. So diversity -- a huge amount of diversity in a really tiny place. From 525, we dwindled it down to 4 varieties that were commercially available in Soviet times. I never really made a decision to start a winery. It kind of happened. I was painting one August evening and a man drove by on a tractor and invited me to go to his home for dinner. I was a bit irritated because I was focusing on the painting and I knew every minute could be my last -- the sun was going down very quickly. He kept persisting, inviting and inviting me to come to his home for dinner, so I did and I found someone that was as passionate about wine and the old grape varieties as I had been about polyphonic songs. Seven years later, we’re exporting wines to 22 different countries and often it’s just one or two restaurants that have it, but it’s become quite a big part of my life and changed the whole scene in Georgian wine. We went from being 2 or 3 that were working naturally with qvevri to well over 30 now, and now we’re back up to about 60 varieties. I think great traditional music isn’t created by the person singing it, but the songs are sung through them. I feel the same way about wine. You don’t say you make wine in Georgia, you “raise” wine.

 

Werman: John Wurdeman talking about raising wine in Georgia. He told this story to reporter Bruce Wallace.