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Ancient Georgian winemaking loses one of its modern founders

Published:  13 April, 2018

It's sad to report the passing of Georgian winemaker, Soliko Tsaishvili. He had been diagnosed in the early stages of pancreatic cancer in 2016 and while receiving treatment since, friends reported that he succumbed to the illness on April 10th.

While perhaps not a household name to lovers of Burgundy and Bordeaux, Soliko was primarily responsible for reinvigorating kvevri winemaking in a country where the process has been used for at least 8,000 years yet was largely forgotten. There had been a big crisis in Georgia in the 1980s in terms of wine quality due to the fact that wine had simply become a commodified business with little regard for quality or tradition. Due to this, Soliko decided to make his own wine back in 1989. He bought Rkatsiteli grapes from different villages in Kakheti and made it in his wife's cellar in the capital, Tbilisi.

The 1990s were difficult years in Georgia as it transitioned to democracy under the auspices of the USSR. Soliko continued working in academia as a philologist as well as the editor of a literary journal. In 2003, he bought a house in the eastern Kakheti region that conveniently came with 1ha of vines. It was at this point he made the decision to step fully into the world of wine. In 2003-2006 he worked to install more kvevri in the cellar as well as buy more vineyards to turn his project into a more serious operation.

Even with this, the whole enterprise was still something of a hobby as Soliko put it. Three of his friends had joined in at that point and then an Italian by the name of Luca Gargano visited and tasted the wines in 2005. He decided to buy the entire stock to sell in Italy as well as eventually join Soliko and his friends as a partner. This boost from Luca and the involvement of Slow Food made everything about the much more serious, and thus "Our Wine" was officially born. They choose the name to evoke a larger sense of community and to emphasize that wine should be shared, that it's for friends as well as for everyone.

With their export outlet to Italy as well as other countries over time, it opened the sales channels that they needed but it was still hard to sell the wines locally in Georgia where large producers still dominate. Even in the later aughts of 2000, Soliko (and many others) were justifiably dismayed that proper Georgian wines weren't available in their country of origin. This is why he, along with others including John Wurdeman of Pheasant's Tears, realized that they needed to create a bridge to reach the Georgian public and thus, Vino Underground was born in 2010.

In the years that followed, the work of this cellar paid off as others joined them in creating a united front of Georgian wine made in kvevri. To a large extent it has become the most well-known type of wine from the country despite still being at most 2% of the total production.

Soliko will be greatly missed as he was a person of curiosity, determination, and a lover of great wine. His efforts can be looked back upon fondly as restarting a generation of winemakers in Georgia which have put its wines back on the vinous map as well as seen the Georgians reclaim one of their traditions and share it with the world.

"Truth is not found in other people's grapes. You can't call that your wine. Truth is in growing your own grapes." Soliko Tsaishvili (1961-2018)