Selling America on Georgia, One Bottle of Wine at a Time
Monday, May 21, 2007
Perched in the wine section of the Whole Foods in Springfield, Mamuka Tsereteli spots a shopper and pounces.
"Want to try Georgian wine?" he booms, holding out a plastic cup. Seeing a blank look, he helpfully adds, "Caucasus mountains?"
Tsereteli has been channeling much of his considerable energy lately into building a business while trying to revive the economic fortunes of his homeland. He was born in Georgia when it was a Soviet republic, moved to the Washington area in 1994 as a diplomat, and started selling Georgian wine here in 2005, with 20 cases a month. A year ago his company, Georgian Wine House, got its first account at the Falls Church Whole Foods, and he hopes to sell 500 cases a month soon, mostly around Washington.
With the help of a few shareholders and friends, Tsereteli (who is also a professor of international relations) is applying a sales strategy natural for a man from a small country where everything is personal: He walks into shops and restaurants and talks them into letting him give out samples.
His reasons for starting the business were both lofty and selfish.
"When a country first transforms into statehood, when it is young, it wants to be recognized," he said, quickly mentioning the ban imposed last year by Russia on Georgian wine, which Tsereteli said was an attempt to undermine Georgian independence. "The wine culture is so important to the identity of Georgia, and it's kind of a good entry point for this -- first wine, then food, and then maybe investing in Georgia. And the second reason is, I just wanted to have good Georgian wine around to drink."
Sometimes running between several tastings in a day, Tsereteli and his principal partner, Anton Jorbenadze, have persuaded 36 stores and 10 restaurants -- including Ruth's Chris Steak House and Levante's -- to carry their wines.
"For goodness sakes," John Fuerte, a customer at the Whole Foods store, said with surprise. "Well, I suppose I should try a white."
Tsereteli had only a minute to make Tsinandali, a dry white, seem a little less foreign.
"The grape is pretty widespread," he said. "They're now starting to grow it in Virginia."
If a customer shows interest, Tsereteli starts in on the wines of Georgia, which many archaeologists say is the world's oldest winemaking region, going back 7,000 years. Wine is integral to the culture: Nino, the saint who brought Christianity to Georgia in the 4th century, is said to have fashioned her cross from grapevines, and the statue of Mother Georgia overlooking the capital, Tbilisi, holds a wine chalice.
Tsereteli almost vibrates as he talks up his country, swaying as he praises its wine ("friendly to food and friendly to people"), its weather ("Mediterranean style"), its cuisine ("lots of greens, lots of walnuts, and all sorts of meat"), its location ("it's a bridge between Asia and Europe"). He hands out brochures that show off snowcapped mountains, Orthodox churches and mature vineyards.