Baia Abuladze is leading a generation of young winemakers preserving the world's oldest winemaking tradition while propelling it forward to keep up with today's skyrocketing demand.
Any other winemaker would consider them squatters worthy of immediate eviction or worse, but when Baia Abuladze discovered the three thumb-sized chicks that had set up shop in the crook of one of her grapevines, she didn't mind. The 25-year-old owner of Baia’s Wine, located in the village of Obcha, Georgia, just called them welcome, blameless guests. “I know they’ll eat my grapes,” she said with a sigh, “but look at those tiny beaks!”
If Baia’s Wine had a tagline, it might be “live and let live.”
Vineyards on the five-acre family farm are a tangle of weeds, wildflowers, and unfurling vines—a far cry from the usual plucked-and-pruned slopes blanketing much of Europe. Bees buzz and ants skitter between clusters of krakhuna and otskhanuri sapere, indigenous grapes destined for qvevri, clay vessels buried in the ground, where they’ll ferment for a few months (sans additives, save for the occasional whiff of sulfur dioxide) before bottling.
In the glass, Abuladze’s wines are floral and bright with an unplaceable wildness, as if a few sprigs of Caucasus mountain thyme or a tincture of musk snuck into the qvevri before they were sealed. And they’re a rare treat, since the winery produces just 3,000 bottles a year. Some 90 percent of Baia’s Wine is exported to the U.S., where it graces the wine lists of buzzy restaurants like Supra, a new Georgian outpost in D.C., and Maydan, a pan-Middle Eastern hotspot that caters to the likes of Michelle Obama.
Georgians were making organic, biodynamic wine millennia before these terms existed, but today these skin-contact darlings account for less than five percent of the country’s total wine production, despite their fashionability. That’s because they’re hard to make. The absence of pesticides and chemical fertilizers means vines are more susceptible to rot and disease. During fermentation, wild yeasts can turn grape juice into vinegar overnight. Qvevri, unlike stainless steel and oak barrels, demand regular, back-breaking upkeep.
It all poses the question: If global demand for Georgian natural wine continues to skyrocket, is a family business like Baia’s Wine scalable, and at what cost? Over baskets of gooey khachapuri and vats of her mother’s coriander-laced bean stew, I caught up with Abuladze about her place in the industry, the state of Georgian wine, and what’s in store for the future.
Why did you decide to start Baia’s Wine?
Baia Abuladze: My family has made wine for many generations, but the idea to make my own came to me when I was studying in Tbilisi. I was part of a casual wine club. There were men, women, old people, young people. I realized that anybody could make wine. It sounded like a fun experiment. We learned from each other—exchanged tips, that sort of thing. Some of my friends began making their own wine and becoming successful, and I thought, I can do this.
Traditionally men made wine in Georgia. What’s it like being a woman in a male-dominated industry?
BA: I like speaking about this topic. I haven’t received any negative or sexist comments. People are excited about female entrepreneurs. We represent the future for the Georgian economy. Young winemakers are proving that you don’t have to live in Tbilisi to be successful. Many of my friends from the village are moving back here. Before I started making wine, I was a normal student with a few good friends. Now I have 5,000 friends on Facebook. I’ve been on all the popular TV shows and in a number of videos. I’m not sure if this attention is because I’m a female winemaker or a good winemaker, but I’m happy either way.
What grapes go into your wines, and how would you describe them?
BA: We grow four grapes, all native to this region, Imereti. They’re higher in acid than grapes from Kakheti, Georgia’s main wine region, because it’s cooler and more humid here. For whites, we have tsitska, which is citrusy and good for sparkling wine; tsolikouri, which smells like pears and white flowers; and krakhuna, which gives a honeyed fullness and amber color. Depending on the harvest, we blend and also produce some monovarietal wines. We make one red from otskhanuri sapere. Think red plums and cherries. This grape is a real challenge to grow because it’s so low-yielding and isn’t harvested until November. And it’s sweet, which the birds love.
You’re a proponent of minimal-intervention winemaking. What does that mean to you?
BA: Letting nature do most of the work—and working with nature, not against it. So for instance, we fertilize with manure and leftover grape skins. We collect rainwater for irrigation. If it’s a full moon, we don’t harvest, since the moon’s gravity is pulling the moisture from the soil into the grapes. If you press them at that point, your wine will be watery and cloudy.
A lot of biodynamic winemakers say the same thing about the moon. Do you read books on biodynamic viticulture, or is this Georgian wisdom?
BA: Most of my wine knowledge comes from my parents, who learned from their parents. I know my grandfather never harvested grapes when the moon was full. But I’ve also learned a lot from online videos, books on biodynamic viticulture, and friends in the industry. Of course, When you grow up in the village, you learn everything from planting corn to milking cows to cleaning qvevri. You learn how a grape tastes when it’s ready to be picked. Not all the children were paying attention, but I was.
What are your favorite Georgian wines right now?
BA: I'll tell you with the caveat that I don’t drink much Kakhetian wine. Those long-skin-contact ambers are just too harsh for me. Lagvinari is my favorite producer, hands down—Eko [Glonti] is a magician when it comes to tsitska and krakhuna. I also love the wines coming out of Ruispiri, a biodynamic vineyard north of Telavi. Keep your eye on them.
What’s next for Baia’s Wine?
BA: We’re a young winery in every sense of the word, and we’re still figuring things out. We want to experiment more with qvevri maturation for our whites, which are mostly being fermented in stainless steel right now. This year we’d like to increase production from 3,500 bottles to 5,000. We’re also looking to buy another plot or two of land, which will hopefully get us up to 10 hectares.
What about Georgian wine in general?
BA: I think you’ll see smaller regions rediscovering their wine traditions and, because of that, a wider breadth of grape varieties and styles. The industry will become less Kakheti-centric.
Are your wines available for purchase in the U.S.?
BA: Yes! Georgian Wine House is our importer, so your best bet would be to contact them.