Levi Bruce

Inderbir Singh Riar, Associate Professor

Theories of Modernity ARCH 5020

April 10th 2020

Russian Influence on the Wine Industry and Culture of Georgia

1. Introduction

Wine culture and history in the country of Georgia is as unique as it is long. The earliest traces date back to the Neolithic age and the traditions developed through the history of the region continue into the contemporary period of the country. The status of the region has fluctuated over time, though different rulers, invaders, and politics due its location between the East and West of Eurasia. Throughout this tumultuous history, the people of Georgia have managed to maintain their national identity and culture, one where wine is a cornerstone. Within the last 200 years of Georgia's history, winemaking and its culture has undergone drastic changes, notably through the Russian control of the region, during both the Tsarist regime and the following Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) regime. Both periods helped foster and grow the agricultural industry of grape production and winemaking, but paradoxically also led to a certain level of destruction to the industry. Under the rule of the Russian Tsars, Georgia gained access to the European West and adopted many of the winemaking practices of France, which at the time were considered the pioneers of modern winemaking. This also included the diseases that were present in Western Europe, primarily phylloxera, which decimated the grape crops of Georgia over the following decades.

Following a brief period of independence Georgia was controlled by the USSR. The policies initially promoted independent wine making under the rule of Vladimir Lenin and his New Economic Policy, commonly referred to as NEP. Following Lenin, as Joseph Stalin took control of the USSR after his death, the Five-Year plans were introduced into the Soviet Union starting in 19281. These plans focused on mass collectivization and industrialization of the agricultural industries, drastically changing the face of agriculture in many of the states under the Control of the Soviet Union. In Georgia specifically this led to a wine industry that was focused on high yield production. These plans helped to rebuild the lost vineyards, but in time led to the decrease in quality of wine produced within the industrialized "Wine Factories" put in place by the Five-Year plans2. What can be seen during this period of Soviet control, is drastic economic and systematic changes within the winemaking industry of Georgia, but its national history, culture and tradition with wine remained. To understand how they were able to hold on to their national identity, we must first understand their history with wine, and then investigate the effect of Russian control from the late 19th century until the dissolution of the USSR. in 1991. Through the analysis of different policies of the USSR including Lenin's NEP, Stalin's Five-year plans, the de-stalinization of the Soviet Union affected the agriculture industry, and specifically how they applied to Georgia's national identity. Through this thorough analysis we can see that the USSR were successful in rebuilding the wine industry through collectivization and industrialization, but counter to their ideals of assimilation of nationalism through this process, the Georgian people maintained their identity through their rich relationship with wine.

2. The History of Wine in Georgia

Wine is embedded within Gerogian culture and their national identity in a variety of ways. Georgians have managed to maintain their unique traditions and practices despite many occupations of external forces. One of the most notable aspects of wine for Georgia is the claim to the origins of winemaking. The claim indicates that the birthplace of wine originates in the Transcaucasia region, which includes modern day Georgia, as well as, Armenia and Azerbaijan. The first recorded claim that Transcaucasia and Georgia were the center of wine making, was posited by Russian botanist N. Vavilov in the early 1900s.Within the last decade further research has been done to validate this claim. Research indicates that winemaking practices in the region could date back to around 6000 BCE. Multiple sites located South of the Capital of Georgia show traces of tartaric, malic, succinic and citric acids in clay pots, which are biomarkers for wine and grapes3. Alongside these research based results there is also imagery that coincides, like the clay jar from Kharamis Didi Fora that shows a bas-relief of grapes (PLATE 1). It is important to note that there are indications of winemaking in other regions that also date back to the Neolithic age, like in Iran, but what is indicative of the research in Georgia is that whether it was the origin or not, their history with winemaking and grape cultivation has lasted many centuries.

Within this long history in the region starting from 6000 BCE, Georgia's relationship with winemaking has evolved in many facets, partly due to the many influences it encountered with being located as a crossroads of the East and West. Georgia encountered consistent invasions from neighbouring countries, changing hands from Christian control to Muslim control over the last couple of centuries. Yet even through the many rulers and regimes, even ones like the "anti-alcohol" influence of the Turkish and Persian control, their unique winemaking and traditional practices continued to persevere within Georgia4. It is clear that despite the turmoil that Georgia faced it maintained a strong industry of winemaking, this presence can be seen in Jean Chardin's travels through Transcaucasia. Chardin travelled from Mingelia through Georgia to Persia during 1671-73 and noted the presence of wine on multiple occasions while in Georgia. He noted that "In no other country do the inhabitants drink so much, or such excellent wine.", He described wine being sold on street corners throughout the cities, and grape vines growing in the many gardens and squares of towns and villages5.

The next major period for Georgia's wine making culture and industry came following Russian occupation under Catherine the Great's rule, and solidified through the annexation of Georgia by Tsar Paul I at the beginning of the 19th century. This Russian Tsarist control of the country led to the first major influences of modern winemaking in Georgia, with its new connection to Western Europe through Russia. Classic European winemaking spread within Georgia in the 19th Century, with the aid of Prince Aleksandre Chavchavadze, who was considered a "brand ambassador" of Georgia, along with being one of largest producers and exporters of wine in Georgia6. Although this introduction of modern winemaking helped to elevate the Georgian image and recognition within the wine world, it also eventually introduced diseases. Stealthy killers like the devastating phylloxera which by the early 1920s ravaged the crops in Georgia. Noted by Dimitri Tabidze, upwards up to a loss of 70% in vineyards within the region of Kakheti occured by the 1920s, which was the largest and most diverse regional producer of grapes and wine at the time 7.

Up until this point in Georgian history, despite all the changes of rulers and conquerors, the Georgian people were able to maintain their sense of nationalism and culture centered around wine. These unique traditions and identity can be seen in their celebrations and their methods of wine production, most of which are present in contemporary Georgian culture as well. Of these traditions three are of note and unique to the Georgian people; the supra, the qvevri, and their amber wine. Supra in Georgia refer to their tradition of feasts, which are centered around wine and the ritual of toasting. Paul Manning, in his essay on the Georgian supra, outlines the importance of this feast within the Georgian culture along with describing it succinctly:

...the supra is a feast, characterized by an extremely abundant display of traditional foodstuffs; at the same time, the supra is an occasion for ritualized drinking, involving the consumption of large quantities of wine (an average of one or more liters per participant); lastly, the drinking of wine at the supra is attended by ritual toasts, directed by the toastmaster or tamada, in such a way that the ability to consume large quantities of alcohol and speak eloquently are brought into alignment.8

The supra as described above, is not only for important celebrations, but also for smaller events that are worth note and it seems that the Georgians find any excuse to host a supra. In Alice Feiring's autobiographical travels through Georgian wine country, she describes one of many supras she attended, explaining that the "Georgians rarely eat, they feast" finding many reasons to host an extravagant supra often decided the evening of 9.

Within the celebration of the supra is the wine that is toasted, and drunk in copious amounts. Georgian wine production differs quite a bit from that of Western Europe and the well known modern production of France, even after the influence of their production methods in the 19th century. The two aspects of their wine production to be noted as unique are the Amber wines, and the use of a qvevri used for the fermentation process. The qvevri, also known as a churi in Western Georgia, is a conical clay vessel ranging in sizes from a couple of liters to upwards of 1200 (PLATE 1). The vessel has evolved over the centuries within Georgia, with the first traces of what is recognized as the qvevri shape dating back to the Iron Age 10. What is also important to note with the vessels is its placement within the marani, Georgia's equivalent to the cellar of western european wine making. What is unique is the fact that the marani is in most cases just a shed or shelter with the qvevri submerged into the earth right up to the neck of the vessel, so just the lid is visible on the surface 11. Not only was the marani a place for the production, but it is noted that the space was used for "baptisms and other Christian rites", the space was seen as a spiritual and religious space for the Georgians. The process of using a qvevri is a unique process. In 2013 has been recognized as an UNESCO Intelligible Heredity for not only the wine that it produces but also the cultural significance it holds within the Georgian culture12.

Within the country of Georgia there are over 400 recorded indigenous Vitis vinifera grape vines, with different regions having a preference for certain varietals. Wine across Georgia is quite diverse and the exact amount of native varietals are scientifically debated, but within all the options of grapes, a unique aspect of Georgian wine that is present across the countries different wine regions is their Amber style of wine. Unlike that of the qvevri and the supra it is not so much a tradition but a process method of wine, nonetheless it is a unique marker that is significant to the Georgians identity. Amber wine falls under the category of a white wine, but what is unique about it is the addition of what Georgians call chacha to the pressed juice of the grapes during the fermentation process. Chacha is the skins, pips, and stems of the grape, which is normally left out of the fermentation process in what is widely known as white wine, but in the case of Georgian wine it is added anywhere from a couple of days to a few months13. This biologically matter not only gives the wine a unique amber colour, but also imparts a unique flavour which described in some cases as "dried stone fruits, fig, baking spices, caramelized orange peel" alongside a texture known as tannins, which is recognizable as the dry mouth feeling found in red wine14. Not only does Georgia practice these unique traditions in the winemaking industry, it is worth noting that wine production is one of the country's highest value yielding crops alongside that of tobacco.

3. Soviet Policy, and Georgia's Agricultural landscape.

At the turn of the 20th century Russia underwent drastic political changes, eventually leading to the forming of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and in turn the invasion of Georgia. The climax of the Revolutions in 1905 marked the eventual end of the Tsardom in Russia, eventually leading to the leaderless revolutions of 1917 led by "resentment over the economic and social conditions that had prevailed in imperial Russia," and the Tsars15. After the protests the different political parties of Russia, primarily the Mensheviks (One of the Minority) and the Bolsheviks (One of the Majority) fought and struggled to seize power of Russia. During this time as Russia dealt with Civil war between the White and Red Armies, Georgia managed to become an independent state separate from Russia with the protection of Germany16. Although this period did not last long, the government in place did attempt to initiate the first instances of collectivization in the agricultural industry of the country. The plans included nationalization of lands with following collectivization, and limitations on individuals, but at the time Georgia was facing economic strife due to Russian Blockades and interference, which led to the government selling the land to the "peasant small-holders"17. The period of independence in Georgia ended in 1921 following the invasion of the Red Army by Stalin and Grigory Konstantinovich Ordzhonikidze, who installed a Soviet regime18. At this point in Georgia's history we begin to see a transformation occur within their agriculture and wine industry installed by the various agrarian policies enacted by the USSR. The first being the NEP put in place by Lenin, followed by Stalin's system of Five-year plans, and finally the de-stalinization of the USSR following his death.

Following the civil war and the formation of the USSR, Lenin and his Russian Communist Party (of Bolsheviks) began to implement what was known as their New Economic Policy. The policy was put in place to assist the dying economy after the Russian Civil War as well as address the peasantry. For Lenin the success of the USSR as a socialist state rested within the power of the peasantry, in his Draft Of A Manifesto To The Peasantry, he outlines that "It is for you to decide, peasant comrades!" and that the transfer of land would be for them, the working people of the USSR19. What was enacted within the actual policies of the NEP in a way countered the ideals of Lenin. The plan generated a new form of entrepreneurs in agriculture referred to as kulaks. These kulaks allowed for one to be able to own land and hire waged workers for whichever form of agriculture the individual chose. Although this form of agriculture was counter to the ideals of the time, it was needed to assist the economy of the USSR at the time and was only seen as a temporary measure. In the case of Georgia and its agriculture, it allowed for private wine growing, which focused on rebuilding and replanting many of the vineyards that were lost to Phylloxera the decades preceding20. For the most part during Lenin's period of the USSR Georgian mostly maintained its independence with many Georgian's being integral and seated in high positions of the Soviet Regime in place 21.

Following the death of Lenin USSR policy turned to debate and most importantly that of the peasantry and the agricultural landscape alongside industrialization. His death in 1924 set off a struggle between Stalin and Leon Trotsky to seize power within the USSR, with Stalin eventually managing to secure himself as leader nearing the end of the decade22. As the new leader of the USSR he started to implement his five-year plans, in his writings from 1933 he aptly describes what these plans were intended to do:

The fundamental task of the five-year plan was to convert the U.S.S.R. from an agrarian and weak country, dependent upon the caprices of the capitalist countries, into an industrial and powerful country, fully self-reliant and independent of the caprices of world capitalism.23

He further describes the plan, explaining the collection of small and scattered agriculture and its conversion to large-scale collective farming. The ideal behind this plan was to accelerate industrialization of the country to allow for it to become a classless society, it was a change from Lenin's plans as it sought to remove any form of capitalism.

Enacting these plans within the USSR Stalin began with the removal of all the kulaks put in place by Lenin, followed by the redistribution to the peasantry and the collectivization of the farms within all states of the USSR. Unlike other states within the Soviet Union "favourable climate" allows its agricultural landscape to cultivate higher value produce, which fortunately for the Georgians this was reflected in the policies put in place by Stalin's Five-Year plan24. For Georgia's wine industry this not only meant the removal of all the kulaks of the small independent winemakers in the various regions, but also drastic changes in the plant diversity and the location of the vineyards into fields from the hillsides. These decisions were set in place by the samtrest, the USSR ministry responsible for the wine sector, for two reasons. The first being the collectivization and industrialization of the farms, combining the many small vineyards into large scale producing farms harvested by the collected peasantry. The second reason initiated by the samtrest was to take a "scientific'' approach to the rebuilding of the industry as it had still not recovered from the loss to Phylloxera which was still an issue25. The issue was heavily debated amongst the members of the Samtrest with a couple different systems of grape growing being tested in vineyards, as well as a proposal to remove the vineyards completely to be replaced with other crops. By 1932 nearing the end of the first five-year plan, the samtrest settled on grafting American rootstocks, which had resistance to phylloxera on to indigenous varieties26. Alongside this growing method the ministry also selected only 6 grape varietals to be produced, the selection primarily being focused on those that were popular within the Soviet rule and those that were "unfussy" and provided high yields27. These plans managed to rebuild the industry of winemaking in Georgia in the eyes of the USSR, yields of grapes along with their other warmer weather crops often exceeded the quotas set by the USSR, at least what was recorded28. Although the production of grapes and wine were successful as an industry for Georgia, following the death of Stalin and the change in government, the industry continued in production, but as noted by some Georgians the quality of wine produced was not fit to drink and almost "poisonous" 29. This downturn in quality was a result of the demanding unattainable production levels during the 1960s up until the anti-alcohol policies put in place 1985. The other issue with this wine produced in the "factories" in Tbilisi was due to it being made by strict specifications"set from above" rather than by the grape growers or wine makers 30.

4. Conclusion - Georgian Identity within the policies of the USSR

It is clear through the policies, yields and stories recorded and put in place by the USSR that the winemaking industry was successful as an industrialized industry that Stalin had imagined through his five year plans. Evidently the USSR policy directly affected the wine industry, however it did not alter the national identity that Georgia holds within winemaking and drinking. Examining what was occuring outside the collectivized farms of grape growing and the wine factories, we can see that the Georgian people did not celebrate "Soviet culture, but rather rural and traditional life" 31. At the core of the Soviet state in the ideals of Marxism-Leninism the idea was to " ultimately to transcend national distinctions" consolidating the identity of the Soviet people 32. Manning explains the Georgian return to the rural and traditional life with the word qopa meaning "daily life" or "domestic life" and it is within the act of qopa that the Georgian people maintain their identity and their traditions with wine33. A large majority of the Georgian population lived in rural settings compared to that of other states within the USSRs. It was this rurality that allowed them freedom to maintain their traditions, of supras, qvevri, and wine made from the many native grapes of Georgia. As the quality of the national wine declined, homemade wine became more and more important, privately traded and in a lot of cases sold at illegal farmers markets. In Feiring's book one of her many hosts points out where his grandmother grew mtsvane and where their marani used to stand during the years of Soviet rule 34. Although the wine was important to the people of Georgia their tradition of supra was paramount to their identity. Within the celebration of supra wine served more than an adornment on the feast table, it represented their means of existence, their product of labor of as a peasant, it represented the true Georgian35. The Soviet leadership provided Georgia with industrialization of its agriculture, with the belief that this modernization throughout the state would lead to the assimilation of the national identity of the Georgian people, and the slow removal of symbols and traditions of their nationhood. The USSRs policies were not successful, and the Georgian culture and national identity continued its existence throughout their control of the state. It is also clear that wine played a crucial part of their identity, as evidenced through their traditions and practices prevalent in contemporary Georgia.


  1. Kenez, Peter History of the Soviet Union. Cambridge University Press, 1999 p. 81 ↩︎

  2. Granik, Lisa. The Wines Of Georgia. Infinite Ideas Limited, 2019 p. 47 ↩︎

  3. Mcgovern, Patrick, et al. "Early Neolithic Wine of Georgia in the South Caucasus." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 114, no. 48, 2017, doi:10.1073/pnas.1714728114. ↩︎

  4. Granik, p. 49 ↩︎

  5. Chardin, John. The World Displayed, or, a Collection of Voyages and Travels. Printed by J. Christie, 1815, p. 375 ↩︎

  6. Granik, p. 232  ↩︎

  7. Granik, p. 43 ↩︎

  8. Manning, Paul "Socialist Supras and Drinking Democratically: Changing Images of the Georgian Feast and Georgian Society from Socialism to Post-Socialism." Université De Montréal, 2007, http://www.mapageweb.umontreal.ca/tuitekj/cours/Manning-Supra.pdf. ↩︎

  9. Feiring, Alice. For the Love of Wine: My Odyssey through the Worlds Most Ancient Wine Culture. Potomac Books, 2016 p. 18 ↩︎

  10. Granik, p. 79 ↩︎

  11. Granik, p. 79 ↩︎

  12. McGovern ↩︎

  13. Granik, p. 74 ↩︎

  14. Granik, p. 74 ↩︎

  15. Taruskin, Richard, and Andrew B. Wachtel. "Soviet Russia." Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 4 Apr. 2020, https://www.britannica.com/place/Russia/Soviet-Russia. ↩︎

  16. Howe, G. Melvyn, and Ronald Grigor Suny. "Georgia - National Revival." Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 10 Sept. 2019, www.britannica.com/place/Georgia/Turkish-and-Persian-domination#ref44323. ↩︎

  17. Lang, David Marshall. A Modern History of Soviet Georgia. Grove Press, 1962, p. 212 ↩︎

  18. Howe ↩︎

  19. Lenin, Vladimir. "Draft Of A Manifesto To The Peasantry." Marxists Internet Archive, www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/dec/06.htm. ↩︎

  20. Granik, p. 90 ↩︎

  21. Kaiser, Claire Pogue, et al. "Lived Nationality: Policy and Practice in Soviet Georgia, 1945-1978." ↩︎

  22. Taruskin ↩︎

  23. Stalin. "The Results of the First Five-Year Plan." Marxists Internet Archive, www.marxists.org/reference/archive/stalin/works/1933/01/07.htm#II. ↩︎

  24. Parsons, J. W. R. "National Integration in Soviet Georgia." Soviet Studies, vol. 34, no. 4, 1982, pp. 547-569., doi:10.1080/09668138208411444. ↩︎

  25. Granik, p. 45 ↩︎

  26. Granik, p. 45 ↩︎

  27. Granik, p. 45 ↩︎

  28. Parsons ↩︎

  29. Feiring, p. 46 ↩︎

  30. Granik, p. 48 ↩︎

  31. Parsons ↩︎

  32. Kaiser ↩︎

  33. Manning ↩︎

  34. Feiring, p. 7 ↩︎

  35. Kaiser ↩︎