Last June, Georgian lawmakers invited a Russian legislator to address an international assembly of Christian Orthodox devotees from the Speaker of Parliament’s chair. This, predictably, did not go over well. Thousands poured into the streets and gathered at the Tbilisi parliament building demanding explanations, resignations and reform from a government many believe is much too cozy with the country that invaded Georgia in 2008, occupies some 20 percent of its territory and quietly moves the border whenever it feels like it.
The protests were violently broken up by riot police, who shot rubber bullets into the faces of demonstrators. Russian President Vladimir Putin immediately imposed a ban on all direct flights from Russia to Georgia because Russians, he insisted, were in physical danger in Georgia, which wasn’t the case at all. Shortly after the ban, the BBC reported how welcomed Russian guests felt in Georgia. However, the relationship between the two peoples is rather complicated.
Like the ugly American stereotype, Russians in Georgia have the reputation of being rude and oblivious. One tour operator we know has a Ukrainian and American flag hanging from his rearview mirror to make his political stance clear. Some restaurateurs considered adding a 20 percent occupation tax to Russian diners, while others said they would not serve anyone who did not recognize that Georgia is occupied by Russia.
“Everything bubbled up after the protests. Shop owners who used to speak to me in Russian suddenly refused to. It took a couple weeks for things to calm down,” describes Dina Ramazanova, who, with her partner Sasha Novikov, moved to Tbilisi in 2016 to pursue their dream of opening a wine bar. They named it Dadi.
“It was Sasha’s idea to come. I had nothing holding me back in Moscow, and we felt this was the place we could open a wine bar,” says Dina, a native of the Urals who studied to be a sommelier in Moscow. “In Russia, they only have mass-market wines.”
For Russians, Georgia has always had a special mystique. During Soviet times it was the land of milk and honey, famous for its food, wine, great weather and hospitality. Some 350,000 ethnic Russians lived in Georgia until the fall of the USSR, when war and economic turmoil chased most away. By 2014, that number was a little over 26,000.
Today Russians are drawn by Soviet-era nostalgia and by the freedom Georgia offers. Notwithstanding the June protest that ended tragically with two citizens losing an eye, the government does permit demonstrations. There are free elections, a free press and you can actually establish a business in a matter of hours at the House of Justice. As budding democracies go, Georgia is a positive case-in-point, particularly in this part of the world. A young Russian woman told us recently that in Russia she feels suffocated, but here in Georgia, she can breathe.
“We didn’t know what to expect when we came here, but the wine community was very helpful and welcoming – especially the older people.”
“We didn’t know what to expect when we came here, but the wine community was very helpful and welcoming – especially the older people,” Dina remarks. “They were thankful we were promoting and selling their wine.”
Dadi focuses on small, family-owned natural vintages and offers at least 30 wines from all parts of the country, and from as many grapes as possible. A huge map of Georgia adorns a wall with thumbtacks indicating the villages their wines hail from. “Our only criteria is that the wine we sell is healthy. We don’t just sell our personal favorites,” Dina explains.
In the spirit of a professional sommelier, Sasha likes to select wine for people based on what he thinks they might like, rather that what he prefers. The challenge is choosing wine for Russians who come looking for semi-sweet wine, which they believe is what Georgia is most famous for. “They don’t know about Georgian wine,” he said. Sasha is not a chatterbox by nature, but give him the opportunity and he will spend hours talking wine.
Dadi also dishes up some tasty eats to pair with wine. Dina developed a menu that changes with the seasons, and there are even breakfast items. She likes to add personal touches to Georgian dishes like shkmeruli – she tosses cilantro and parsley into the creamy, garlicky sauce for the chicken. She also Georgianizes Italian dishes like Caprese salad with a fresh milky sulguni that is so damn-near mozzarella, you’ll want to say “grazie” when the server fills your wine glass.
“Home” is a concept many expats and immigrants have trouble defining. For Dina and Sasha, their future is here: The couple plans to open a wine bar in Batumi, and Sasha wants to establish his own winery in Imereti (in western Georgia). Dina talks of Tbilisi’s vibrancy, and how Georgia “attracts interesting people from around the world” who are following their passions, whether they are German or Swiss cheesemakers, French sparkling winemakers, or Indian yoga teachers.
“We have good friends here and we love introducing people to this country,” Dina says. “We feel safe in Georgia.”