Before the tourists discovered Tbilisi, Kote Apkhazi Street was Leselidze Street, an unassuming cobblestone ribbon connecting Old Town’s bath district, Abanotubani, with Freedom Square.
Home to the Georgian Synagogue, the Armenian Holy Church of Nazareth, and Father of The Cross Church, no other street represents the capital’s multi-ethnic and multi-denominational heritage better (close by is also the Jumah Mosque open for both Shia and Sunni Muslims, an old Zoroastrian temple and a Catholic church).
Other than these houses of God, Leselidze hosted several religious shops, a couple of unremarkable restaurants, second-hand clothes shops and mom-and-pop groceries. No one foresaw the flocks of visitors that would invade the Old Town with their selfie sticks, but people understood the location had a future.
The neighborhood began to gentrify around 2004 when Café Kala opened on nearby Erekle II Street becoming the city’s new hip spot with a jazz combo and sidewalk seating. Then Shardeni Street, a vacant alley, exploded with kitschy cafés and upscale restaurants like Tiflis Meidani, with its floor shows that included Georgian national dances, pop combos and a belly dancer.
It was about this time Gia Darsalia opened a bookshop across from Erekle II and found himself with an empty neighboring space his landlord had compelled him to rent. Call it an offer he couldn’t refuse.
After a week of brainstorming with his friend on how to utilize it, he opened up Vinotheca, the first wine shop on Leselidze.
“It was totally ridiculous,” Gia admits. “It was the winter of 2008, just after the war (with Russia). There were no tourists.”
Georgians did not buy bottled wine in 2008. “Serious” wine shops sold tap wine, which is cheaper and has the reputation of being better, “cleaner” and “natural” even if that isn’t the case. And when the custom is to drink two liters or more per person at a sitting, nobody is going to drop twenty lari or more for a bottle of wine, no matter how good it is.
Even Gia admits he wasn’t a “one or two glass wine guy” and that he knew little of wine when he opened the shop.
“Georgians weren’t our clients. We didn’t have clients,” Gia laughs. “We lost money the first couple of years.”
Then the Georgian wine renaissance kicked in as tourist numbers rose. On Leselidze Street, which had been rechristened as Apkhazi, this meant you had to shop for second-hand clothes elsewhere. Souvenir shops, cafés, concept stores and shawarma stands had replaced them. So did wine shops – lots of them.
Vinotheca sets itself apart from all the others by having a friendly staff that loves and knows wine.
“It’s easy to open a wine shop,” explains Gia. “You don’t even need money. The big wine companies will provide you with wine, with everything. All you have to do is sell it.” One guy, he claims, owns several wine shops on Leselidze and approached Gia’s landlord with more money in an effort to push Gia out. “My rent went up,” he contends.
Vinotheca sets itself apart from all the others by having a friendly staff that loves and knows wine. It is also not bound to one specific company and offers a wide range of family as well as larger company wines. There are natural wines, conventionally made wines, some aged in kvevri, others in oak or stainless steel. Their only dogma is that they sell what they like.
“Sometimes people bring us their wine to sell. My staff and I must all taste it and agree. If we don’t like it, we don’t sell it. How can you sell something you don’t like?” Gia poses. “Better they hate us now than when they come back later to see we didn’t sell anything,” he adds.
The shop’s tasting table is a melee of bottles, many we have never seen before. “Red or white?” Levan Busiashvili, who has been running the shop from the beginning, asks. Scratching chins, we reply, “Red,” and he reaches into the menagerie, pulls out a bottle of organic Artevani and pours a very generous glass of Saperavi. It is lush and smoky with a black cherry finish, not bad. “Now try this,” he offers later with another liberal dose of Teliani Valley Saperavi, which lacks all the guts of Artevani. It is safer, more suited to people seeking familiarity in Georgian wine.
While sipping, we talk about some of the wine on the shelves including favorites like Shalauri and Chona’s Marani. “Russian and Ukrainian tourists like these,” Levan says pointing to bottles of semi-sweet Kindzmarauli and Kvanchkara, favorites during Soviet times. “But sometimes they will come in and ask for something different, something dry,” he adds.
Although tourism has transformed Gia’s business, along with the rest of the street (the bookshop dropped literature for gourmet food products; or rather, “edible souvenirs”), Vinotheca was never established to cash in on their presence. It is a wine shop for wine lovers.
“We’re still the best wine shop on Leselidze,” Gia affirms.