On a sunny spring day my boyfriend, Barry, and I emerge from passport control at Tbilisi airport, each clutching a gift. No, it’s not a tourist brochure or a pen with a logo. Rather, it’s the small bottle of blood-red saperavi wine given to all foreign arrivals. “Welcome to our Republic of Georgia,” the passport stamper had exclaimed, apparently genuinely delighted to see us. We’ve arrived in the world’s most compulsively hospitable country. Here, a visitor is considered a gift from God. Flowery toasts with the gravitas of a sermon are fueled by wine fermented in amphorae buried in the earth. Here, epic feasts called supras cover tables so densely with platters that not a square inch remains bare. Being a guest in Georgia requires heroic overindulgence. This I recall from my two previous visits, as our car speeds into Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, along George Bush Avenue. Yes, Dubya was a guest back in 2005 and got a road named after him, thanks to a hefty U.S. aid package. Oh well—no country is perfect.
The Republic of Georgia is an utterly singular post-Soviet nation of more than 4 million people, bordered by Russia, Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Visitors come here for the culture and for the diverse landscapes—arid desert, subtropical tea plantations, snowcovered peaks, rolling vineyards—packed into a country only slightly larger than West Virginia. Myself ? As a Russian born in the vanished Atlantis called the U.S.S.R., I flash back to the sunshine- and vitamin-starved days of my socialist childhood, when we Muscovites worshipped Georgia as our Soviet Mediterranean, a land of fragrant clementines and inky wines, of passionate dissident filmmaking and operatic corruption—where the Soviet straitjacket somehow didn’t apply.
Back in 1970s Moscow, my mom was the hospitable one and my father a bit of a misanthrope. But his disposition would dramatically change after his annual solo vacations in Georgia, which he regarded as his own private Eden. Back from those trips, he was possessed by some hospitality demon, sometimes literally dragging home stray Georgian strangers to announce to my bewildered mom: “Welcome my brother and guest.” One such brother, a rugged comrade in a felt highland hat, camped for a week on a cot in our tiny apartment, filling it with robust hangover breath. Mom was not pleased. But personally, I couldn’t be angry with Dad, because it was from him that I developed my childhood obsession, at long distance, with Georgia.
I finally set foot in my childhood fantasyland long after we emigrated, while doing research for my first cookbook. It was spring of 1989, and Tbilisi was reeling in shock after anti-Kremlin protests had left 20 dead. But my hosts, a pair of young local architects who were distant friends of my father, overwhelmed me with largesse. Strife or no strife, this is what the tradition demanded. An entire week passed in a blur. Baby lambs had their throats slit for roadside picnics by Byzantine churches; qvevri, those underground amphorae of wine, were unsealed in my honor. Two years later I returned with my then-boyfriend, who was writing a book about the collapse of the U.S.S.R. During a prodigious feast at a winemaker’s house in what would soon become Georgia’s breakaway Abkhazia region, we watched, stunned and exceedingly drunk, as Gorbachev made his resignation speech on a flickering TV on Christmas Day, 1991. How did I greet the dawn of the new historical era the next day? With the world’s most epic hangover.
I hadn’t returned since, completely missing Georgia’s own political hangover, the post independence chaos and civil unrest of the Shevardnadze regime. Nor was I around for the 2003 Rose Revolution that swept in young, Western-educated Mikheil “Misha” Saakashvili. This would-be reformer improved infrastructure and eliminated petty corruption— only to turn into a dictator. In 2013 he finally lost control of Parliament, and shortly afterward he moved to Ukraine. Georgians these days grumble about the new ruling party’s unfulfilled promises, but still, tourism is booming. What’s more, wine industry types—some from such lofty spots as Noma in Denmark and El Celler de Can Roca in Spain—are flocking to Georgia to discover its 8,000-year-old winemaking tradition and its more than 500 grape varieties, which are being revived by a new generation of vintners. Eager to witness this excitement, hungry as ever for Georgian food, and curious to see if it is still the world’s most hospitable land, I planned a trip starting in Tbilisi, then heading north into the Caucasus mountains and ending in the winemaking Kakheti region in the east.
And so here we are, Barry and I, on Dubya Avenue. Only instead of zooming along it straight to Tbilisi as most visitors do, we pull up by Kakhelebi, a restaurant a few miles from the airport, recommended by Georgian friends. Instantly I’m glued to its thronged takeout window, where golden khachapuri pies, a vision from childhood, preen in their many cheesy varieties. Inside, on low couches under a blue-and-white ceiling, Barry and I gasp at a huge burnished bread loaf as Jubo Khundadze, the portly manager, covers our table with platters. A young saperavi vintage is poured. “To ancestors!” Jubo begins toasting. “To Georgia’s beauty! To Russian women [me]! To Jewish men [Barry]! To gvino [wine]!”
At this generous table I unleash years of cravings for Georgian classics like velvety, walnut-stuffed eggplant rolls and plump dolmas dabbed with thick buffalo yogurt. Other tastes—delicate fried kalmakha tree mushrooms strewn with walnuts and tarragon— are new to me. Kakhelebi’s owner, Chichiko—a Microsoft rep here in Georgia—opened the place as a hobby and a labor of love, sourcing everything from the abundant farms of Kakheti. He prides himself on the sizzling meats—sweet baby lamb chops that taste like meat lollipops, and succulent mtsvadi (kebab) from fat Kakhetian calves. This is farm-to-table as a way of life, I reflect, over tea from mountain herbs gathered by shepherds.
Barry and I end our first afternoon sifting through the detritus of the Soviet twentieth century strewn chaotically at the Dry Bridge flea market. “Your childhood, my beauty,” a vendor cries out, offering me a Brezhnev-era orange polka-dot tea set. And Stalin is everywhere—endless portraits of Georgia’s native son, whose cult status will not die.
There is no escaping him, even in the romantic candlelit garden of Cafe Littera. Some patrons at a corner table are singing “Suliko,” the tyrant’s favorite song. The garden belongs to the art nouveau mansion built in 1905 by a brandy magnate and then appropriated by the Soviet Georgian Union of Writers. Now, where nomenklatura scribes once devoured their elite rations, well-heeled Tbilisians are sampling chef Tekuna Gachechiladze’s menu. Platinum blonde and blue-eyed, stylish even in a chef's jacket, Tekuna offers us a taste of her beef tartare highlighted with adjika, a fiery chili paste, and tangy djonjoli, pickled flowers of the bladderwort plant that Georgians adore. Plump wild Black Sea mussels bathe in chakhapuli, an ethereal springtime slurry of tarragon and tart green plums.
Tekuna went to New York in the early aughts to get a PhD in psychology, but somehow ended up at a cooking school. When she returned to Tbilisi in 2006 she ran a stylish brasserie, then, as the executive chef for Misha’s administration, she cooked for Joe Biden. Now at Littera, and at Culinarium, her own cooking school with a restaurant, she’s creating modern riffs on classic Georgian flavors for the twenty-first century. Exhibit A: her iconoclastic “elarji balls.” Here, elarji—Georgia’s white grits and cheese—are reimagined as fried puffy croquettes, gooey with smoked suluguni cheese and presented with a smooth baje sauce of almonds instead of the usual walnuts. Skandal!
Early the next day, we head into the Caucasus mountains some 120 miles from Tbilisi, bound for Pasanauri, the tiny hamlet that my father always described in a hot whisper as the place for khinkali, floppy Georgian dumplings with elaborate pleats resembling Ottoman turbans. A phone number texted by a foodie friend leads us to a homespun gazebo in the overgrown garden belonging to Zura Isitashvili. Zura and his wife, Mariam, are former teachers whom the post-Soviet chaos drove to running a semi-underground khinkali joint in their humble house. Entire movements have been founded on things less delicious than these silky purses of dough that cradle the hand-chopped meat of well-exercised mountain cows. Holding my dumpling by its knot, I carefully bite through the wrapper and let the peppery broth dribble into my mouth while Zura tells us that president Misha and various oligarchs have feasted in his unkempt garden. “As teachers we wanted to contribute sions: “But if khinkali bring joy, our lives are not wasted.”
That evening we visit star vintner Iago Bitarishvili in Chardakhi, a sleepy wine-making village 20 miles north of Tbilisi. “Georgians have two sacred places for weddings,” he says, as we sit on the terrace of his modest home looking out over a scruffy vineyard. “The church—and the wine cellar.” I sniff out notes of wild mint and honeysuckle in Iago’s remarkable amber wines, which he makes from the light-skinned chinuri grape. A pair of egg-shaped qvevri almost the size of VW Beetles show their backs above the grass. These beeswax-lined clay amphorae, set underground, have been used for fermenting Georgian wine for 80 centuries.
“But the Soviets interrupted the world’s most ancient winemaking tradition,” Iago harrumphs. “Their obsession with monocultures and industrialization reduced our 500-plus varietals to just a small handful. They pumped out sticky-sweet wines and abandoned the qvevri.” So in 2006 Iago, a former agronomist who grew up on his father’s vineyard, became one of the first to commercially bottle qvevri wines. Now his annual 3,000 liters can barely satisfy the demand from the world’s best importers and sommeliers.
Over pork kebabs grilled by his dad, Iago outlines his startlingly artisanal vinification method. Pick grapes at a bacchanalian harvest. Stomp them with your feet in a wooden trough. Dump them into a qvevri along with the “mother” (the skin and the seeds)—then wait. The diabolical part comes after the wine is drawn off, when someone must climb down a ladder into the qvevri to clean it. Immediately I recall my favorite 1970s Georgian movie, in which a fat vintner gets trapped in a qvevri. And I’m struck by the raw power of terroir and the deep connection to nature one experiences drinking wines like Iago’s chinuri. “When Georgian men went to battle,” Iago says as we leave, “they would take a vine branch with them, as if to say: If I die, I want to be fertilizer for wine.”
Over the following days we drink a lot more wine in Kakheti, the agricultural region southeast of Tbilisi where rows of vines spread for miles. We begin our tour of Kakheti at the tasting table of Alaverdi Monastery, which is set with serious stemware and shiny spittoons. Alaverdi’s 11th-century limestone silhouette rises against the dramatic purplish shadow play across the Great Caucasus ridge. In the nineteenth century, explains Father Gerasim, the fiftyish red-bearded, black-robed winemaker here, the monastery’s rare frescoes were whitewashed by Russian imperialists. In the twentieth century, atheist Soviet imperialists destroyed most of the eleventh-century wine cellar, storing gasoline in the qvevri. But the monks started over. In 2006 they blessed their first vintage, and now they run a model facility marketing their wines under a savvy “since 1011” label to drive home their millennial history.
The next morning, squinting into the bright light with throbbing heads, we go looking for khashi, Georgia’s soupy, garlicky hangover cure, on the steepsloping cobbled streets of the pretty hilltop town of Sighnaghi.
What happened yesterday after Alaverdi?
Oh...yes...there was a long alfresco lunch at Nikala, a village restaurant where saffronhued wines were poured with abandon and the long wooden table groaned under tiers of platters piled with boiled village hen, boiled village cow, blazing tomatoes, and khinkali the size of babies’ heads. More amber wine followed at Wurdeman’s new winery, still under construction. Here, through the winey haze, I caught bits of Wurdeman’s story. How he, a Virginia-born vegetarian hippie, went to study painting in Moscow in the ’90s, then came to Georgia to explore its complex polyphonic singing and wound up marrying a local singer.
He opened both Pheasant’s Tears winery, with a Georgian winemaker named Gela, and the antique-filled Pheasant’s Tears restaurant in Sighnaghi. That’s where we crowned the evening. I seem to recall Mads Kleppe, the blue-eyed Norwegian wine director of Noma who’d just landed from Copenhagen, professing his fascination with Georgia’s viticulture history before he fell into a cloudy wine–induced stupor. I remember Riccardo from London crying: “I prefer wines tasting of shit to wines tasting of plastic!” I recall, absolutely, platters of wild leeks in sharp walnut sauce, just-caught mountain trout, and country pies filled with peppery greens all rushing out of the kitchen. And as our tamada, the all-important Georgian toastmaster, Wurdeman delivered florid homilies about passion, poetry, and, naturally, gvino.
Then, suddenly, it’s time for heavy-headed good-byes. Back at Tbilisi airport, Barry and I debate how to sneak our stringy cheeses through customs, and what to do about the jugs of homemade wine we’re loaded with. And as always in Georgia, I’m way too hungover to reflect seriously on the political and historical shifts I have witnessed—because regimes will change, dictators rise and fall, but the supras and qvevri, the singing and flowery toasting, the pouchy dumplings and cheese-oozing pies will always conjure up an improbable fairy tale. And that’s exactly how the Georgians like it.
>>Next: Yes, You Can Travel to Georgia