This year was going to be a big one for Oda Family Winery. Since its humble beginning in 2016, the winery and family farm-to-table restaurant in western Georgia’s Samegrelo region had been carefully expanding with the increasing popularity of its outstanding wine and formidable fare. This year, Keto Ninidze and Zaza Gagua calculated 3,000 guests would visit their restaurant, located in the front yard of their family’s oda (a traditional wooden two-storey house) in Martvili, so they emptied their savings and added new washrooms and a storage room for wine equipment, made a larger garden, and advertised for seven more employees to add to their staff of three. Then coronavirus arrived.
“Thank God I didn’t hire any of the applicants and they didn’t leave their jobs,” Keto says.
The plan was to make a separate garden for children and a petting zoo. For this, the two west Georgian gastro-tourism pioneers applied for a loan at the bank. It was early March, before the lockdown and around the time we were all mocking the virus with toasts to our health and eagerly awaiting a busy tourist season.
“The bank sent a credit officer to our house. He took pictures of the property and our assets and we both thought I would get the money soon. This was on a Friday. He preferred to prepare the contract on Monday,” Keto explains. But when Monday came, the bank suddenly had a new policy to restrict loans to restaurants and wineries because the growing pandemic had made such businesses too risky. “My application was rejected,” she adds.
Keto can’t take a personal loan because her income is dependent on the family business. The only way to recoup her losses is to sell wine, but she doesn’t have enough money to buy corks and labels. And even if she did, she would need a place to sell them.
“The wineries that will suffer in the short term are those dependent on tourism,” asserts Irakli Cholobargia, marketing director of the Georgian National Wine Agency. “And small wineries have a major share of the on-trade market and that is vanishing.”
Natural wines are a niche market in Georgia, found in exclusive restaurants, wine bars and cafés, which are in turn largely fueled by tourism. The pandemic has allowed only those establishments that deliver to remain open – and there aren’t that many. No one can predict what business will look like in June when restaurants begin opening.
So far, small wineries have been struggling with issues caused by travel restrictions. Georgia’s only bottle factory went out of business shortly before the pandemic, which occurred during bottling season. Many winemakers reported bottle and cork shortages, while a locked down Tbilisi kept people away from label makers. As restrictions lift, the question remains, “How long will it take for the local market to recover?”
The good news is that wine exports continue to grow despite Covid-19. Georgian artisan wines are gaining traction in countries like Japan, which has seen a 44 percent increase of total imports, the U.S. with 45 percent, and U.K. with a whopping 108 percent, compared to the first four months of 2019.
Oda Family Wine has a small domestic market and sells mostly abroad. Presently, it is safely stored in stainless steel tanks waiting to be bottled for export in September. In the meantime, Keto has been working with a small group of restaurants and wineries to lobby the government for assistance. So far, the state has not offered grants or relief packages to Martvili, which she finds puzzling as it is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Samegrelo.
Restaurants with outdoor seating are slated to reopen on June 8 (the rumor mill says it could be a week earlier) and the country will open for “domestic tourism” on June 15. Like everyone else in the hospitality industry, Keto wonders what kind of regulations the government will impose on restaurants. She wants nothing more than to get back to work.
“Maybe after the lockdown travel will be twice as intensive than normal,” Keto muses. “People have had to suppress their passion to travel – they miss this experience.”
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