27.05.2015. For most Westerners, the states of the former Soviet Union bring to mind something of a culinary wasteland. Blame the Gulag, Cold War-era propaganda, and black and white photos of miles-long bread lines: whatever the source, our associations tend toward "bleak," "frozen," and "scarce." That's why Georgia's rich culinary traditions often come as a surprise to visitors, who tend to expect something more, well, proletarian.
Georgia's government has been working hard to shift foreigners' expectations about the nation's cuisine and to promote it as a "must-taste" destination for food and wine tourists through participation in international tourism and wine fairs, wine tastings, and distribution of plenty of swag. Yet as a small country with a big (and much better-known) bear on its back, it's an uphill battle. The fact that Georgia shares its name with a U.S. state further complicates matters in North America.
Not surprisingly, most international visitors to Georgia come from the neighboring countries of Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Russia, and Ukraine. Georgia's National Tourism Administration (GNTA) has focused its marketing efforts thus far on slightly farther-flung places with which Georgia has direct flight connections, particularly in Europe and Israel. Teona Nanava, chief specialist in the brand development department of the GNTA, told me in a conversation late last year that they hope to expand their presence in the U.S. soon.
The GNTA's culinary marketing aims to capitalize on growing interest in "taste of place" through promotion of Georgia's abundance of locally grown fruits, vegetables, and nuts, diversity of regional dishes, and place-specific products such as wines and cheeses. Georgia's ancient winemaking tradition—at 8,000 years and counting, the longest continuous winemaking tradition in the world—is a natural selling point, rightly touted in national marketing materials.
The fact that not many people outside the former Soviet Union, beyond a small coterie of wine experts, have heard of any of Georgia's more than 500 native grapes makes marketing specific varietals difficult. Saperavi and rkatsiteli are not poised to rocket to international stardom as the "next Malbec." However, the country's collective decision to continue to cultivate and promote native grapes almost exclusively is a wise one. Travelers to off-the-beaten-path destinations like Georgia come seeking what is novel and unique. For them, the mystique attached to a wine whose name they've never heard is reason enough in itself to visit.
Georgian winemakers who produce qvevri wine exhibited their products at the Vini Naturali natural wine fair in Rome in February 2014. "I encouraged the National Wine Agency to send only the producers who are making qvevri wine," says Sarah May Grunwald, a sommelier and professor of wine at the Instituto Lorenzo de' Medici, who helped organize the event. "That's what makes Georgia unique from a wine perspective and what's going to attract Italians, who come from a wine-making culture themselves."
Grunwald visited Georgia for the first time when she was invited to speak at the International Wine Tourism Conference that was held in Tbilisi in 2014. The visit was transformational for her. "I went in with no expectations," she says "and left feeling like I'd found my spiritual homeland." Last summer, she founded Taste Georgia, a company that arranges tours and provides educational and event services focused around Georgian food and wine traditions. 'The table is where you learn the culture of a place," says Grunwald. "It opens up conversations you might not be able to have otherwise."
While food and wine are inexorably linked in Georgian culture, it's important to remember that not all food tourists are also wine tourists. With an average of one-third of international traveler spending going towards food, promotion of culinary traditions in and of themselves should be a critical element of Georgia's tourism promotion strategy.
Thus far, 2015 has been a good year for Georgian food in the U.S. press: Georgia ranked fourth on Thrillist's list of the best cuisines in Europe. The same day, it made the New York Times' list of places to visit in 2015. In early March, the Washington Post asked, "Is Georgian cuisine the next big thing?" in a feature that headlined its food section.
The opening of two Georgian restaurants in Manhattan, a popular Georgian food truck in Portland, Oregon, and growing momentum toward a full-service Georgian restaurant in Washington, DC are building Americans' recognition of Georgia as a place with food worth seeking out. The trick will be to convince potential visitors that the requisite tourism infrastructure and services are in place - particularly in the rural areas where food and wine are produced—to make their stay relaxing and hassle-free.