In Georgia, wine ban leaves bad aftertaste

May 15, 2006|By ERIKA NIEDOWSKI | ERIKA NIEDOWSKI,SUN FOREIGN REPORTER

KVARELI, Georgia -- Some 800 tons of grapes were plucked last year from the vineyards of the Kindzmarauli winery at the foot of the Caucasus Mountains, the inaugural harvest for the company.

Its two wine presses, eventually to be joined by three more, are gleaming and new. More than 100,000 empty bottles, stacked high in cardboard boxes, stand ready to be filled with the winery's 13 reds and whites. The bottling line, once in place, will be able to fill 2,500 bottles an hour.

Only one thing is missing as the winery prepares to celebrate its official opening during the fall harvest: a market for its wine.

Until this year, the Republic of Georgia sold nearly 90 percent of its annual wine production to neighboring Russia in a business worth more than $60 million a year to the Georgian economy. But in March, pointing to health and safety concerns, Russia indefinitely halted all imports of Georgian wine, the most recent example of the escalating tensions between Russia and some of the former Soviet republics.

Gennady Onishchenko, Russia's chief sanitary inspector, said the ban was justified because some Georgian wines contained pesticides or heavy metals and others were counterfeits unfit to drink. Georgian officials conceded that some winemakers had sold poor products.

But virtually no one in this nation of 5 million people believes the ban is about the quality of its wines.

"It was a purely political decision, it was obvious," Zurab Nogaideli, the Georgian prime minister, said in an interview.

Russia, predictably enough, has dismissed that accusation,

This is not the first time Russia has been accused of employing economic pressure. The wine ban seems part of an escalating battle as Russia seeks to preserve its diminishing influence among the former Soviet republics and Georgia no less ardently seeks to escape it.

Georgia's Rose Revolution in 2003 led to the election of Mikhail Saakashvili, who has pushed for closer ties with the European Union and the United States and sought Georgia's entry into NATO.

Georgia and Russia have since sparred more heatedly over a series of issues, including the continued presence of Russian troops at two bases in Georgia and the apparent Russian support for separatists in the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

In January, already affected by steep price increases imposed by Russia for natural gas, Georgia suffered energy shortages when explosions damaged a pipeline owned by Russia's gas monopoly, Gazprom. Saakashvili accused Russia of orchestrating the explosions as an act of sabotage. Russia dismissed the allegation as "hysteria" and said the destruction was an act of terrorism carried out by pro-Chechen rebels.

Now, the two countries' trade dispute extends from wine to a Russian ban on Georgian fruits and vegetables and, as of this month, two brands of Georgian mineral water.

Georgia, for its part, hinted that it might retaliate with a ban on Russian beer, though Nogaideli later rejected that move, saying Georgia would "not be like the Russians." In a potentially more serious action, Georgia talked of withdrawing from the Commonwealth of Independent States, the loose union of 12 former Soviet republics led by Russia. Russia has responded that any withdrawal could lead to further restrictions on trade and the movement of people.

"We didn't want Russian troops stationed here in Georgia, and they don't want to drink our wine," said Petre Tsiskarishvili, governor of Georgia's wine-rich Kakheti region, where more than half of the households have ties to the wine-making industry.

"They're just angered by Georgia being so much closer to Europe, closer to the U.S., wanting to reform, wanting to break away from the past," he said. "They're stuck in the past. They don't realize that it's not in the nature of a Georgian person to sell the independence of the country for some short-term income."

Georgia's deputy agriculture minister, Mirian Dekanoidze, was less philosophical: "Russia will beg for Georgian wine someday."

Georgia's winemakers - even as they scale back production and send workers home - almost uniformly speak with optimism about expanding existing markets, including Ukraine and Kazakhstan, and securing new ones, such as China and the United States.

"The scandal is a good advertisement, free of charge," said Dmitry Lebanidze, manager of the Kindzmarauli winery, which takes its name from a semi-sweet red wine said to have been favored by Josef Stalin.

Saakashvili tapped his defense minister, Irakly Okurashvili, to look for new export markets. Okurashvili's most notable achievement to date was to further irk Russia by suggesting that any Georgian wine producer hawking substandard wines in Russia did so only because - pardon the expression, he said - "even fecal matter" would sell there.

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