It is 9 p.m. and we are packing our bags for a red-eye flight to Poland when I realize we have no chacha, Georgia’s otherworldly elixir of distilled fermented grape pulp. We never, ever travel without chacha, and there is no way we’re going to buy over-the-counter, factory-produced product – and not because it’s over-priced. Chacha is a potion brewed by the hands of masters over wood fires in hammer-battered stills sealed in a paste of dirt and ash. Without the human touch – the artistry – chacha is just a soulless, liver-grinding liquor. I make the call.
Andria deals in wine, chacha and religion from a devilish little cellar in Tbilisi’s old neighborhood of Sololaki. Like him, we have our sources from the wine region of Kakheti, but it can take days for us to get restocked, so when our well runs dry at home, we call Andria.
“I was born 62 years ago, up there,” Andria says, pointing to the ceiling of the cramped, dank cellar. “I came in a hurry. They didn’t have time to take my mother to the hospital.” He breaks into a wide grin and boasts that nobody is more of a Sololakeli than he is, for he was literally born in the ‘hood.
The red brick walls are covered in Georgian Orthodox Christian calendars, icons and pictures of the Patriarch, His Holiness Ilia II. There is a rack with religious books, cards and knickknacks he sells and stacks of newspapers, little plastic bags stuffed with more plastic bags and big plastic bags stuffed with used glass and plastic bottles are crammed all over the place. Nothing goes to waste here, even if it should. When his little black and white TV set is on, it is tuned only to the Patriarch’s religious channel. A long, low shelf along one wall holds glass jugs of amber-hued white wine and dark red Saparavi – all labeled in flowery Georgian script. Up along the back wall are shelves stacked with assorted chachas: walnut-infused, clear, old and young “cognacs” and bottles of something he calls “Georgian whiskey,” which is pretty good, but it’s not whiskey.
Georgians don’t buy a couple of bottles of wine for dinner, they buy a few five-liter plastic bottles – at the very minimum. Shops like Andria’s are in every neighborhood for people without a personal source in wine country, or for those of us who are in a pinch and need a quick fix. Some sell decent wine, others bad. Unfortunately, Andria often lets his wine oxidize in the big glass flagons and two-liter plastic bottles – but then his real trade is Georgian Christianity.
“I was born Anzor Naneishvili, but that’s not a Christian name. My priest gave me the name Andria,” he says, sitting on a child-sized stool he claims is 150 years old. He is an engineer/contractor by profession, but as the social system began to crumble around him in the early 1990s, Andria found himself in the midst of an existential crisis. Life had no meaning, he couldn’t even find sense in the nationalism of Georgia’s first post-communist president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, he says. Civil war in Tbilisi and the hard times that followed compounded Andria’s troubles, which peaked at the death of his mother. “I realized then that if I didn’t turn to the Church, I would never understand anything,” he confesses. Feeling the standards of his well-paying job were too unethical to endure, he walked out and began selling devotional items on the street.
Inebriants entered Andria’s professional life in 2003, when a former colleague who made wine in the Kakhetian village of Kardenahki asked if he could help sell his wine. Andrei agreed under the condition that the man honestly sell only “natural wine, like a Christian,” and he opened up the cellar under his apartment.
“I didn’t know anything about wine, but I learned,” Andria says. His partner’s idea of righteousness, however, was to stretch the wine with water and spirit. He told Andria that it’s not cheating when everybody does it and assured him, “nobody will ever know,” but Andria would have none of that. Shortly after kicking him out of the shop, Andria was approached by two brothers also from Kardenahki, who said they heard what he had done to that fraudster and offered their wine and chacha, guaranteeing their quality. He continues to sell their products today.
We have better local sources for wine, but not a more reliable neighborhood dealer of hooch. There are philistine chacha makers who place strength before palatability and barbarians who put who knows what into their concoctions. A good chacha should have the taste of the grape it came from, and it should be sippable, like a good tequila, another earthy spirit. Buying chacha in an old Sprite bottle is a leap of faith. All the better that Andria Naneishvili loves Jesus, and if his shop happens to be closed, his phone number is posted on the door.
Editor’s note: This is the inaugural post of our new “Behind Bars” feature, which celebrates drinking establishments and especially the people who pour the drinks there. It’s also Bar Week here at CB, and we’re partnering with Roads & Kingdoms, where these reviews will also appear.