By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
For years, Georgia didn't have to worry about selling itself. Russia, its largest neighbor, was also the biggest buyer of its wines, prized by Russian nobility and Communist elites alike. After the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 and Georgia became independent, Russians continued to lap it up, accounting for up to 90 percent of Georgia's wine market.
But when Georgia threw in its political lot with the West, relations began to sour. Tensions rose last year in disputes over border control and energy supplies, and last spring Russia banned Georgian products, including the wines that were Georgia's second-largest export (the largest being scrap metal from old Soviet tanks, tractors, and factory machinery), and accounted for almost 10 percent of its total exports.
The Russian government said wine imports were banned because of concerns about quality control. Georgians, noting that bad fakes had long been produced in Russia and pointing out that no other countries had complained, called it an attempt at economic intimidation.
The effect was something like cutting off California wines from the rest of the United States. It left Russians without their favorite Kindzmaraulis and Khvanchkaras and it left a lot of wine languishing in Georgia.
For Tsereteli, it injected a new sense of urgency into his quest to introduce Georgian wines to the American palate. An adjunct professor at American University who also teaches energy security at George Washington University, his second career revolves around marketing his country.
He is executive director of the Washington-based America-Georgia Business Development Council and founder of Georgian House of Greater Washington which promotes Georgia and Georgian products -- especially wine. He is also president of the Georgian Association in the United States of America, which this evening is celebrating its 75th anniversary with a reception at the Russell Senate Office Building.
When Tsereteli first walked into Burka's Fine Wines and Spirits on Wisconsin Avenue, the owner, Chong Park, did not know what to make of him.
Park said he didn't know about Georgian wine or who would want to buy it. "He said, 'Don't worry, I'll sell it. And if they don't buy it, I'll take it back.' "
Now it's the category of wines that has expanded the most in the last year and a half, said store manager Leonore Moog. "It was a total surprise," she said. "They just caught on."
The national market is harder to crack. "With anything other than the recognized countries, it's a very competitive market, and it's hard to defeat people's wariness," said Ray Isle, a senior editor at Food and Wine magazine. "I wish him luck."
Australia and Chile, two countries that have broken into the U.S. wine market, had large, well-established industries and companies that could advertise extensively and undersell more familiar wines, Isle said.
But Americans have become more adventurous, he added, citing some less-well-known wine-producing countries that have made inroads, such as Greece and Austria.
A grass-roots approach is crucial, said Terry Theise, an importer for Michael Skurnik Wines of Syosset, N.Y., who played a large role in introducing Austrian wines to the U.S. market in the 1990s.
"You just have to advocate the wines passionately, and get a lot of samples into a lot of people's hands and say, 'If you don't believe me, then pop goes the cork and splish goes the wine,' " Theise said. "If you've got the gift of gab and you know that what's in the bottle will back you up, then you just bang your head against the wall until the wall yields."
Sales of Georgian wine in the United States have been rising, although tracking them can be complicated. Last year, the Georgian government reported exports of 560,000 bottles to the United States. U.S. import data showed about 700,000 bottles, a discrepancy importers attribute to foreign knock-offs.
The few Americans who have tried Georgian wine have usually tasted the sweeter, less complex varieties sold in stores that cater to immigrants from former Soviet states. Those wines still make up most U.S. imports, but Georgian wine sales in these stores declined about 20 percent last year because of bad publicity from the Russian ban.
"People of Eastern European background, most of them are watching Russian TV, listening to Russian radio -- it was everywhere," said Yuri Dudin, national sales manager for Dozortsev & Sons, a New York company that imports Georgian wine.
The brand Tsereteli sells, Teliani Valley, retails from $9 to around $18 a bottle. Last year his company sold $258,000 worth; this year it expects $400,000 in sales. Offerings include more familiar dry wines in addition to semisweets.
The word "semisweet" can give Americans pause, but many who taste Tvishi, a white, or Kindzmarauli, a red said to have been Joseph Stalin's favorite, are pleasantly surprised. Still, it can be hard when many customers have never heard of Tsereteli's country, let alone his Khvanchkara.
A man at Burka's who said he was from Portugal moved on in search of wine from his own country. ("We beat Portugal, several times, in rugby," murmured Tsereteli's assistant, Irakly Chkhenkely.)
Tsereteli admits that his wines will not please everyone. "Usually whoever goes to Alsatian wines goes to our wines as well. Whoever goes to chardonnay is not going to like ours."
But many do. "Wow," said a Burka's customer. "What's the flavor I'm getting?"
"What do you feel?" Tsereteli said, trying to hold back. "Do you feel a spicy, peppery flavor? What about cassis?"
But mostly, he did not hold back.
"It's not just wine," he said, waving a brochure at a Burka's customer. Wine is simply the best way to sell the rest of his country. And so he does.
"In this part of the country you can throw a seed and it will grow into a tree," he said, pointing to a map. "In 10 years you will know saperavi like you know cabernet."
The customer smiled and put a bottle into her cart.