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Old World Experimentation 

East meets West in unprecedented Georgian grape cultivation


01.05.11



They came to California by FedEx in September, two dozen grapevine specimens collected on a government fruit-collecting trip to the Republic of Georgia. They will eventually be rooted at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's tree fruit collection in Winters, Calif., where they may produce their first crop in three years—and Kenwood winemaker Richard Kasmier has called dibs on the fruit.

Kasmier would likely be the first American to make wine using indigenous Georgian grapes. In fact, these varieties may never have been grown in the New World. They include such unknowns as Rkatsiteli, Saperavi, Khikhvi, Kisi, Kakhuri Mtsvivani and Bideshuri—and in a market dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and other superstars, where would these Georgian obscurities have found elbow room, let alone a fan base?

Nowhere, perhaps, except the three acres of Kaz Vineyard and Winery. Here, owner Kasmier will make space for the vines, he says, and the wines they render will fit in well with the rare and unusual lineup Kasmier already produces. His wines number about a dozen, some of them blends, others 100 percent varietals, and with grapes like Alicante, Lenoir, De Chaunac and Marcel Fos making up the mix. Though Kasmier has dabbled in most of the usual reds and whites of the Californian industry, he has also grown bored with them.

"I just don't have interest in competing with all the Cabernets in the Napa Valley, and I don't find them very interesting to make," says Kasmier, who founded his operation in 1994. "Everyone already makes them. Other places are like the McDonald's of winemaking, as far as I'm concerned. They do the normal wines. I do the 'Abby Normal' ones."

Kasmier has firm and developing plans to make wines beginning next fall with the Chinese, Indian and African varieties currently growing at the USDA's fruit cultivar collection in Winters, a site called the Wolfskill Experimental Orchards. The collection is one of many regional locations of the National Clonal Germplasm Repository system and contains about 7,000 fruit cultivars. Branch cuttings for planting or grafting are provided freely to farmers and other individuals with an interest in growing crops commercially—but with just two clones of each cultivar, the Wolfskill orchard's annual yields can hardly supply a commercial operation.

"So I'm probably going to make a 'Chinese blend' of many varieties, and an 'Indian blend' and an 'African blend,'" Kasmier says. Eventually he will grow the vines himself, identifying the best varieties, eliminating the others and dedicating entire blocs to new and unusual grapes—perhaps even those outside the standard industry species, Vitis vinifera.

"As long as it has sugar," he says, "I'm interested."

As for Kaz's Georgian-style wines, they're still a far-flung figment of imagination. Kasmier has done the math: it will be at least three years before he gets his hands on any wood from the newly-collected vines. When he does, he says he can propagate 50 new plants from a single mother vine. Three more years would pass before they produced any fruit, and the wine would follow.

"So," Kasmier says, "we're talking a decade."

Eight hundred of which have passed since winemaking began—in Georgia, no less. The event, evidenced by shards of clay bearing chemical traces of grapes and wine, was perhaps inevitable, since V. vinifera itself also appears to have originated in or near Georgia approximately 6,000 years before Christ. Since then, the species has diversified into 525 indigenous varieties, according to a paper by grape researcher Teimuraz Glonti with the Georgian Institute of Horticulture, Viticulture and Oenology.

In Glonti's report, presented in June 2010 at the 33rd World Congress of Vine and Wine in Tbilisi, Glonti cites the Bible and the travels of Noah. "The history of Georgian wine includes two big periods: before and after the Flood," Glonti writes. A subsequent quote from the Bible—"And Noah began working and created vine . . . and made wine"—alludes to Noah's role in the birth of winemaking. According to Glonti, molecular traces of red wine in scraps of pottery indicate that Georgians were intentionally fermenting grapes prior to the Flood.

Then arose the waters, but not before Noah led his expedition through the Lesser Caucasus mountain range in southern Georgia. Here, with a sharp eye toward varietal differentiation (for surely there was no room for accidental duplicate copies onboard his vessel), he collected his germplasm and catalogued his accessions out of reach of the giraffes and the arboreal primates. So the story goes.

Noah and his noisy entourage then sat out the Flood on the high slopes of Mount Ararat while the waters uprooted vineyards and temporarily erased the winemaking culture of the Lesser Caucasus. Afterward, according to Glonti, Noah didn't simply replant his grapevines in the nearest suitable patch of soil; rather, Noah took the effort to return precisely to where he had originally collected the vines, thereby reintroducing them to the land of their birth. Here, they diversified over time into the huge range of genetic variation we see today in Georgian grapes, and whether the flood in the Bible was real or not, it is almost uncontestable that V. vinifera was born in or very near Georgia.

And while the Great Flood would have only stalled the region's wine industry for a few seasons, the crash of communism devastated it. During the Soviet era, Georgia was a leading source of the Soviet Union's wine. After the Soviet Union crumbled, so did the wine industry, and grape acreage dwindled from 340,000 acres to some 90,000 acres today. Many grape varieties fell mostly off the map during this time of attrition, and as surviving wineries were transferred from government to private ownership, Georgia's winemakers found themselves abruptly in the deep end, treading water in a global wine market dominated by Europe, California and other powers.

In the early 1990s, a group of Georgian wine reps—farmers, vintners and investors alike—paid a visit to the Wine Institute in San Francisco, where they queried communications manager Gladys Horiuchi for tips on gaining a foothold in the American wine market.

"They were brand-new to capitalism and were trying to learn how our market worked," Horiuchi says. "But it became clear that their winemaking methods at that time were very antiquated. Their grape-growing techniques were good, but they had such old equipment. It became a very basic learning expedition." Another assembly of Georgian wine reps—again, boots and suits—returned just this February to the Wine Institute, intent on understanding the workings of California's thriving wine industry, Horiuchi says.

Currently, only a half-dozen wineries in Georgia export wine to America, according to information provided by the Georgian Institute of Horticulture, Viticulture and Oenology, but the effort to expand continues. During the USDA's 2010 collection excursion, the director of the institute asked the American leading the expedition, USDA geneticist Malli Aradhya, if the USDA could help to establish Georgian grape varieties in the vineyards of California.

"The world knows Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Merlot, but nobody knows Georgian varieties," Teimuraz Dekanosidze said at a discussion in his office.

Aradhya did not need to be convinced. He and the government branch he works for have long recognized Georgia's significance in the history of wine and grapes.

"We've realized the importance of Georgia in grape research," Aradhya explained to Dekanosidze, who has since been replaced as director by Iason Burdzgla. "There are 8,000 years of history here in domesticated grapes. Where else on earth can you go to more effectively conduct grape research than Georgia?"

The 25 grape varieties that the National Clonal Germplasm Repository system acquired from Georgia this September are currently beginning a three-year term in quarantine at UC Davis. Genetic analyses could eventually reveal just who these grapes are, where they came from, if they were born before the flood or after, who their cousins are and what, if any, famed European winegrape superstars owe themselves to the grapes of the Republic of Georgia.

In 2013, perhaps, the maturing vines will be tagged with identification collars and rooted in their new home at the Wolfskill Experimental Orchards, amid thousands of fruit trees and many rows of vines, 45 species of grapes in all, 3,000 cultivars, and two copies of each. It's Noah's Ark without the water.

And Kasmier in Kenwood, bored bonkers by Cab, Pinot and Merlot, will be waiting for the fruit.





  • East meets West in unprecedented Georgian grape cultivation

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