About 70 winemakers have set up tables around the perimeter of an old Soviet era sewing factory loft. There are a couple hundred wine lovers, wine freaks and industry professionals packed in here swirling, sniffing and tasting some truly mind-boggling wine. This is the Zero Compromise Natural Wine Fair, a festival celebrating vintages whose grapes were grown organically, with no yeasts or sulfites added in the cellar. This is pure, unadulterated nectar, the way the gods intended wine to be made, and much like Georgians have been doing it for 8,000 years.
The Fair is the brainchild of the Natural Wine Association, a union of ten viticulturists and winemakers who are wholly committed to organic or biodynamic methods. We have been looking forward to this day for 365 days, since our first Zero Compromise experience last year, at Vino Underground.
This year, to accommodate the growing number of guests, the festival is being held at Fabrika, a multi-functional urban space of bars, cafés, restaurants, art boutiques and retro barber shop where you can get your hipster beard trimmed into proper 19th-century contours. The Fair is also a prelude for the New Wine Festival up at Mtatsminda Park, which is the greatest party in Tbilisi, but more on that later.
Right now, we are “tasting wine,” or at least pretending to. It is hard to stay focused on what is rolling over your tongue when the next table is beckoning you to try something new from someone whose earlier vintage raised the peach fuzz on the back of your neck.
Some tables have spit buckets, but when you are brought up to clean your plate and finish your drink, it is hard to waste all the heart, sweat and soul each winemaker has put into making this liquid magic. We drink slowly, but deeply, again and again until we go downstairs for a fortifying ramen lunch, then back up for more.
By this time, we have long given up the idea of tasting. We are drinking and carousing.
To us, natural wine is not a health trend for washing down a gluten- and lactose-free diet. It is absolute communion with the earth. We understand how pretentious that sounds, but consider a huge clay vessel coated in beeswax, buried in the ground, filled with crushed grapes – their juice, stems, seeds and skins being conjured into wine.
These winemakers are not alternative-lifestyle hippie types. They are more like beatniks, mainstream viticulture outcasts, whether their day job is architect, doctor or advertising executive. And they are all united in a common love of honest wine.
Filmmaker Levan Kitia is here, of course. A fellow “gastromaniac,” his advice is never wrong. “Try Papari Valley’s Saperavi,” he insists, but we’re still sticking with whites, pretending to be wise.
We have always been a fan of Samtavisi Marani and their new Chinuri is no disappointment. It would be dishonest, though, to mention its minty aroma and hints of green apple, not because our notebook is illegible and blotched with wine, but because we aren’t sophisticated enough to pick these qualities out on their own after a dozen glasses. We can say honestly it is damn fine wine and aims to get only better as it matures.
At one point we find ourselves face-to-face with a tall American named Caleb Leisure whose head mop reminds us of Tom Waits. Last year he shipped 10 kvevri from Imereti and buried them in northern California. “Levan!” we shout over the heads of dozens of people. “Over here!” Some might smirk at this Californian’s eccentric venture, but his Sparkling Viognier made with Georgian technology is seriously wonderful wine, and it has made Levan’s eyes bulge with appreciation.
Next to him is Portugal’s contribution to the fair (France, Spain, Sicily and Italy also participated). Catarina Vieira and Pedro Ribeiro didn’t import Georgian kvevri, instead using local clay to build their own amphora vessels, which the Romans introduced to Portugal for winemaking some 2,000 years ago. They use a blend of indigenous local grapes for their blends of red and white, which had been drained by the time we got to their table. But their red is the most exceptional wine we have tried so far today.
By this time, we have long given up the idea of tasting. We are drinking and carousing, catching up with old friends and making new ones. Imeretian winemaker Ramaz Nikoladze, one of the Association’s founders, is bouncing all over the room with an indelible toothy beam; it is clear he didn’t start with coffee this morning. Meanwhile, Kakhetian vinter Irakli Bluishvili is as cool, calm and collected as his Saperavi.
We are happy to literally bump into one of the leading authorities of natural wines, Alice Feiring, whose book For The Love of Wine, a love letter to Georgia, is on our coffee table and is more wine-stained than our notebook. She is in her element and will tell us later how impressed she was with the remarkable enthusiasm of this young event and the remarkable collection of wines, adding that this is “the only way to taste the spectrum of what is happening in Georgia.”
As the crowd starts to dissolve, a mitosis occurs; one group leaves for a feast in Mtskheta while another agrees to meet at Zura Natroshvili’s marani in the sky, Bina 37. We join the latter group on the eighth floor terrace of a relatively new apartment building in the Vedzisi neighborhood, where a most bountiful spread greets us with carafes of both Zura’s and natural wine guru Zaza Jakeli’s Rkatsiteli. Good wine brings out the best in good people, yet after eight hours of drinking, we decide to call a taxi and bid farewell to this deliciously affectionate gathering. Tomorrow is a big day.