Bidzina Ivanishvili — Living by Law of Grapevine
Interview by Oleg Cherne
I will bury a grapeseed in warm soil,
And I will kiss the grapevine, and pluck off the ripe bunches,
And I will invite my friends, and open my heart to love —
What else is there worth living for on this sinful earth?
The conversation with Bidzina Ivanishvili about wine, vines and Georgia felt rather like grape planting. We agreed in advance not to touch upon political issues, which was in fact not necessary, as a comprehensive presentation of the Georgian identity was well embodied by my interviewee. It is an impression of life as a vivid, vibrant and highly organized process, based on respect for the people and space of Georgia.
Each question created associations as if it were not an interview but a journey through the fabric of time, through the fabric of Georgia, and each answer of my interlocutor was imbued with love for his homeland. Georgia and love! An amazing example of well-cared-for principles of human existence and curiosity about human nature have created hidden horizons of exploration and knowledge in Mr Ivanishvili.
— Mr Ivanishvili, the wine history and wine culture of your country, something that cannot be measured in kilometers, but rather should be studied by the millimeter, lead to the realization that Georgia could well be the largest country in the world, as a mere millimeter of Georgian space is rife with such power that Georgia could be compared to a crystal.
— Yes, our country is a special place, and very dear to me. To be a citizen of Georgia means to be immersed in a centuries-old wealth of history, a culture where wine is a consolidating factor. Understanding and knowing Georgia is as easy as it is difficult.
— Alaverdi Monastery taught me a lesson in this regard. Specifically, it taught me that guests are surely welcome, but rules still come first.
— His Grace, Metropolitan David definitely knows how to uphold the law of space!
— I personally think that both the strength and the future of Georgia lie in monastic wines and micro wineries.
— But of course! Those are our traditional wines, the flavor and power of our land. The very fact that you advertise Georgian wines—for that, Georgia is grateful to you!
— Actually, I myself owe it to Georgia for giving me the opportunity to touch upon the deepest-rooted values of Georgian culture and its people, the place where the smallest winery and a huge company like Badagoni, are similar in the way they work, their naturalness and honesty. Georgia is a space of flavor, and there is nothing more important than flavor where the inner nature of man is concerned.
— Every citizen should take care of the Georgian space as well. That alone makes them a special person, and we aren’t talking about any special kind of deference. A special attitude to wine also plays a part. I mean, every Georgian has an attitude to wine. In fact, Georgia is akin to classical dramaturgy.
— I’d like to ask you a question that has just occurred to me. I’ve interviewed many people from the world of wine: in France, Australia, Italy, Argentina. Only when I come to Georgia, I get the impression that wine culture is perceived in a similar way everywhere, and the wines of the world are also more or less similar, following a kind of a pattern, while in Georgia, the wine is really special and surprisingly diverse. Would it be safe to assume there is wine and there is Georgian wine?
— Here’s the way I look at: there are people who drink wine and there are Georgians who drink wine. Now, the attitude to wine… This is where there is a clear difference: how Georgians treat wine and how everyone else treats it around the world. Georgia is currently in the process of restoring and developing our traditional technologies. Only time will tell if it was for the better. But the fact that it is important for our culture and identity couldn’t be disputed.
It’s a historically proven fact that wine itself was invented in our country. We invented wine, but other countries have developed this process further. We stayed where we were. As a person who understands wine, you surely realize that there are subtleties in the cultivation of Georgian wines, just as well as others. You can plant the same Saperavi vine three hundred feet away from an existing vineyard, and it will yield a completely different wine! So much depends on the way the sun looks over the vines, the way the wind blows through the area, the soil quality. It all can and will change the flavor of your wine.
Accordingly, all wines are different, so I would refrain from claiming that today’s Georgian wine is special. Our history, though—yes, that’s what is special! Our attitude to wine, to the way of drinking it—yes, it is indeed special! The way Georgians view all things wine is very interesting. And that’s what I care about the most. Come to think of it: people once invented boats.
— Yes, wooden boats! At all times and in all places, people would make boats, hop inside, and sail somewhere. To reach other lands, or just to run some errands. Georgians also made such boats, called satsnakheli in Georgian. Those are wooden troughs used to press grapes and squeeze the juice.
And even though Georgia is a coastal country, Georgians would never use them to leave! We used satsnakheli to make wine. Looks a lot like a boat, doesn’t it? Naturally, it is but a legend, but it accurately reflects our people’s attitude to their homeland.
— So a boat is a vessel for traveling inside yourself for you?
— Yes. Georgians never went anywhere. They preferred to stay and wait for guests to come. They pressed wine and waited for guests. By the way, there’s something I am also exemplary of: Georgians take living away from their homeland very hard. I myself tried living in the US and in Russia, even stayed in France for six years.
I know many Georgian expats who miss their country dearly. I personally dreamt about Georgia all the time. My land kept calling me back. I never took root anywhere else. And there are a lot of migrants out there, feeling the same way. Their biggest desire is to find a way to support themselves and their family back in Georgia and return!
The traditional Georgian winemaking method involves not only aging wine in qvevris but also a number of old techniques, such as pressing the wine with bare feet in a special-purpose device called a satsnakheli, a long container resembling a boat or a bathtub. Satsnakhelis are made of solid logs or limestone blocks. The squeezed juice then flows into a qvevri through a specially designed opening in the satsnakheli.
I can expand on the attitude of Georgians towards wine forever. The very Georgian character was formed under the influence of wine, thanks to the attitude to this drink. Wine unites us. It brings together the feasting table. Georgian feast is a very interesting phenomenon. Georgian feast is the utmost manifestation of acceptance.
Georgia is a small place where different religions are represented, with as many as four denominations coexisting side by side. As early as in the 10th century, our king would often go to a mosque and pray. The concept of tolerance—something that Europe and America have only just arrived at and begun teaching in schools—runs in our blood and genes. The location of Georgia—between Asia and Europe—has played a role here, and one can come across an extraordinary motley of cultures and religions in our country.
I honestly believe that the biggest invention of modern civilization is the Georgian feast. The most perfect one, even! If we talk about the path of a man, not after his life or into the eternity, a thing which everybody treats differently, but in a more materialistic sense, as something we are all born into and walk on… Then the very idea of perfection, of what people live for, all this is brought about in a Georgian feast with a skilled tamada, with wonderful singing. And it is crucial that not two or three people gather but fifteen or twenty, and that they sing Georgian polyphonic folk songs.
— So you’re trying to say this is a kind of law that forms the Georgian space?
— Exactly. A feast creates a special atmosphere. Dancing! And talking! A good tamada must be able to speak in captivating verse. I believe that the tamada as a concept is a celebration of a human being itself. The very essence of humans and the essence of life. The biggest festivities can be seen at your regular Georgian feast. I tried to keep my description of a Georgian feast short and simple. but it’s really the embodiment of perfection, the very essence of life for my compatriot.
By the way, a Georgian feast is nothing if not a contribution to self-understanding and self-identifying. Even the most frustrated man, someone who can be called a loser, experiences true celebratory feelings when he gets to partake in a Georgian feast. He gets to feel like a decent, worthy person. And the tamada, while preserving his own dignity and abstaining from straightforward adulation, finds just the right words to uncover the wonderful qualities hidden inside this man. He lifts the man’s spirits and elevates him. For Georgians, guests and feasts are everything, the only conceivable way of living!
— I hear feasts also used to be a place of marriage except if there was a church nearby.
— Correct! It’s all connected, all parts of one culture. I’d like to tell you another story: in Georgian hospitals, five years ago they started performing successful coronary bypass surgeries. 15–20 years ago I helped to send many fellow Georgians to Austria and Germany for such procedures. Then I asked Austrians to come to Georgia. In the village where I was born, I set up a very good hospital. There was a need to tune up sophisticated equipment and adjust everything, so I invited four Austrian doctors to help us out for two weeks.
When at my house, they all would tell me as one how they’d operated on people and how after the fifth Georgian they’d worked on they would expect only one question. Once the anesthesia wore off, all the patients wanted to know the same thing. They wouldn’t ask if they would live, or how many years or how they would live. All they wanted to know was when they could start drinking wine. The first question was identical for everyone. That is not to say Georgians should be called drunkards. A lot of jokes exist about peoples who tend to drink a lot. But you’d be hard-pressed to find any stories about Georgians that would make you feel that they are heavy drinkers! In the bad sense of the word, that is.
— How do you feel about the idea that genuine Georgian wine is food?
— Listen, I have a college friend, a little odd, but a very good man. He only subsists on wine. He’s over 60 now, just like me. He lives alone in Kakheti; he likes it there. He makes wine and, and he’ll often live two or three days on red wine only. He won’t eat anything else. He drinks five or six bottles a day, but you’ll never see him inebriated. And he’s in a good mood all the time, too. Again, he only drinks wine, consuming it like food! That’s the first time I’ve ever seen anyone do so. It’s all about the state of our brains, our minds. Since we’re human, we should be able to think. Otherwise, we will only be developing the animalistic traits in ourselves. Everyone wants to be stronger, better than others. That means a person must be different in some way: either in power or in intelligence. But the most important thing is self-improvement, and only then should a person tackle how to be better than others and stand out in the crowd.
— There has to be a culture of consumption for any drink, right?
— Well, the essence of celebrating a Georgian feast is not simply drinking wine! Not the dry fact of consuming wine. Alcohol doesn’t actually play any major role here.
— This doesn’t even sound like drinking, more like savoring.
— Absolutely. Savoring is a good word for this.
— The wine made in Georgia, and I’m talking about real wine here that cannot be compared to any other in the world. It’s natural, of supreme quality. The body just absorbs it… No one else in the world can make such wine! Everyone else makes it the same way.
— Winemaking has become a matter of snobbery in many countries. Now here, every peasant learns how to make wine as a child already. Still, they’re good at technology abroad. They clean their product well; they’re good salesmen, diligent workers. But all that is good for aged wines. For us, the prime strength lies in young wines.
I’m not going to say I know a lot about technology. I know as much about winemaking as my grandfather did when I used to help him. Since my very childhood, like every Georgian, at the age of three or four, I was already trying to climb into the trough where the grapes were pressed. It all captivated me even as a little boy. That’s why I am no different from any other Georgian in understanding the technology of how to make wine: everyone knows as much as I do.
I tried many French, Italian, Chilean, Argentinean wines… You mentioned them, too. Well, yes, the Kakhetian, or East Georgian, technology is well-known, but it differs a lot from that in the West.
There’s one important thing here: it’s all about the root of the grapevine.
— Correct! It’s like teaching kids how to cook from an early age. Same thing about wine: everyone grows up in the middle of the process of making wine, and everyone can do it. Still, everybody does it differently. Case in point: my uncle never could produce wine as good as my father’s.
— You know the story of Dionysus, right? He was murdered and torn apart. And you know why? He wouldn’t tell anyone where his cellar was. And his cellar, in fact, was the whole of Georgia. He hid all his knowledge about wine, all his achievements—grapes and wines—in Georgia.
— That’s an interesting legend. Georgia also lay disfigured for a while. However, the peasants stuck to their ways; they never changed themselves. And there are so many things to be found in Georgia these days thanks to that. Consider the western region where Odzhaleshi grapes grow. A wealth of different flavors comes out of it. That’s extremely interesting!
— Or else, the Otskhanuri Sapere wine. I tried it at a vineyard that’s a whopping 50 years old. There’s no equal to it anywhere!
— Much depends on the age of the vine, as the older it is, the better it is crystallized.
— Exactly, as the vine absorbs minerals out of the soil. And if the wine is properly aged in a qvevri, it retains them in full. That’s what you should drink! All of Georgia is the Golden Fleece! But here I want to tell you one thing, if somewhat unpleasant: Georgian wines will never be allowed on the western market.
— That I know well. I agree it’s wrong. It’s a business, and that’s where we’re different. For us, wine is a celebration. When a feast lasts three hours, you’re at the peak of your life’s meaning for all of those three hours. And the meaning of life is life itself. That’s where the value and joy of life are best expressed. That’s why I think it’s the zenith, the best discovery of human civilization. As trivial as it may sound… let everybody come here for our wine!
— At the same time, I get upset seeing the prices of Georgian wine in Russian stores. Imagine how much a company like Badagoni has to make. And they are, in my opinion, the face of Georgia. That is, if we talk quality wines from large-scale makers to prove the obvious.
— Georgia is a land of the process. You could even say it’s a way of living. The consumption of wine is a process, too, and the wine’s in trouble where it’s not understood.
— Yes, it’s a way of living. Georgia has preserved its culture, and I would like to stress it’s genuine culture. These days, many people talk about culture and traditions, but shouldn’t they manifest themselves through everyday life and ooze out of everyone’s pores, instead of just being declared as existing? When you come to Georgia, talk about getting into a mystery. Let’s get back to Dionysus for a while. It was an interesting notion. The idea of Dionysus’ mystery is that a person should be living eternally in a state of experiencing wine, just what we can see in a Georgian feast today. The state of people filling up, absorbing it…
— Here it would also be apt to bring up the songs: Georgian folk songs, the polyphony. It’s all connected, isn’t it? And Georgian poetry, too. I speak several languages, and I’m adamant that untranslated Georgian poetry can be compared to that of any prominent country… Even with the poetry of Russia, with Pushkin, Lermontov, and other greats. A person under the influence of this image wants to sing, wants to deliver a flowery speech. Georgian poetry is very rich. And dancing isn’t a coincidence either, I believe. All these things are interwoven and connected to wine for some reason.
— Georgians are so open and hospitable that one is brought to respect this kind of hospitality here.
— The boat… remember when I told you about the boat? Everything’s in it: they never left—they were waiting for guests to come all the time. They were waiting here. Try telling that to the French or the English—they get offended. They claim they’re just as hospitable as the others. Of course, every nation is to a certain extent. But I wanted to highlight the peculiarities of Georgians, and so I told you about the boat. Here’s a memory I’ve borne since when I was a kid: a man can be working, but the instant a guest comes in, he quits everything. The most important things will be set aside to welcome a guest. Even in places that did not have wine… such regions would also begin planting vineyards! See, where I was born, it’s a very difficult place for grapes to grow.
— I remembered being told that you’d revived 52 grape varietals.
— I believe I’ve created a very righteous place there. Now, where I was born and where my parents lived, that was no place to grow grapes. 800 meters above sea level, and as low as 20 degrees below zero in winter. Still, people would plant grapes! A Georgian simply can’t help but grow grapes. And he can’t help but make his own wine. Otherwise, what will he do when guests stop by?
When a guest comes, a Georgian is obligated to put wine on the table! And where’s a peasant to get it? He is thus obligated to grow grapes and make wine. It took a lot of work, and the peasant life was already toilsome enough. They would plant corn and wheat, but 90 percent of the effort was spent on vineyards. And they didn’t even produce any yields worth talking about. They just weren’t worth it! Still, the peasants had no other way. They had no money to buy ripe grapes grown somewhere like in Kakheti. But they would make wine anyway—there simply was no other option left for them. You’ve got a guest coming over, and you don’t have any wine? You’re as good as done for!
— Mind if we add one more thing here? I once met a French winemaker. He showed up to our meeting and said: «I’m fifty years old, and it’s only now that I’m starting to really feel the soil on which grapes grow. And you know what? I’m happy!» Isn’t that—I mean, planting a vineyard—the true love for the land?
— The movie «Father of the Soldier» captures it just right. Do you remember that one? The amount of love expressed in it, and not the make-believe kind of love. It’s an integral part of that movie. The way a peasant treats his wine and grapes… The way he treats the soil, scoops it up, the way it smells… This is the process you talked about.
Even if his guest takes his time to arrive, the Georgian will still love his land and soil. During the perestroika, families were the uniting power behind Georgians. People were growing poor, with not much even to eat. They would grow tangerines and tea, but no one would buy them. I mean, they hadn’t been particularly rich even before that, and things got even worse.
And here’s a story that has by now almost become a popular joke, yet it depicts quite well the essence of our man. There was a Georgian in one region who lived in great poverty. One evening he was so hungry, he decided to just go to bed. He thought, «Maybe it’ll get easier if I fall asleep.» In the middle of the night, somebody bangs on his door rudely. He asks, «Who’s there?» And the answer is, «We’re robbers! Come on, do the sensible thing and open up!» «Oof,» says the Georgian, greatly relieved. «Thank God! I thought you were guests…»
I don’t think you can call these people poor. In fact, they’re very rich, if you ask me.
— They are! Wealth isn’t about money. I know many wealthy families, including in Russia. And I’m sorry about them. They’re actually poor, miserable people. It’s as though they aren’t living their lives! You don’t envy those. Back in the day, while still living in Russia, I would say to some people: here, you’ve got it all. And you did it not the way I did. In Russia, no one can say my talk is cheap. I never let anyone down or deceived anyone. No one ever checked my signature on any contracts. And I never broke the law.
I only ever granted one interview that did not involve politics, just talking about life. One can see from it how I lived in Russia and what kind of an attitude I had. A journalist from Vedomosti came to Paris, and instead of two scheduled hours, she spent three days with me. She was digging for some kind of a mob story all the time, and I said to her, «I’ve lived my whole life true to my conscience.» She shuddered, got red with anger, and muttered, «How dare you speak to me like that?» As if to a little girl or something. And I went, «Don’t you get rude with me, too! It’s just like I’m telling you! I’ve lived my whole life true to my conscience.» Then there was an occasion when I told Forbes that too much money was akin to being overweight. And they didn’t publish it. How come? It’s just like too much wine. Sure, one should take care of one’s money, but if it’s all one ever does… Why even live like that? It’s way easier to just have a good qualification, a good job and, most importantly, to save up only as much as one can use. What’s extra wealth for?
And all that while living in a stable country, knowing one won’t starve to death, with a guaranteed retirement plan, free to switch jobs at will, and not even owing anyone anything. So I once told one well-off man, «Sasha, you’ve been stealing for so long. Is there an end to that in sight? You’ll get caught one day. You have so much right now. You could at least change your way of earning money. It’ll get more interesting to make it that way. Why would you want to keep doing that? There’s nothing more precious than life! Where’s your limit? Where are you going to stop?»
But how can you talk about limits with those people? Miserable, aren’t they? You’ve got to live by the process! The process is everything, starting with the family.
— Well, that was quite the sharp turn. So how would you define the process of living in a family?
— I’m trying to do it the way it was when I myself was growing up, the way it was when I was a kid. I’m trying to teach my children the same ways. Unfortunately, it’s not quite working. I consider my childhood to have been better than what my children have got. Both at that time and today, you could say I was born into a very poor family. I walked barefoot until I was seven. There just wasn’t any money to buy shoes. I was the youngest son. Things the eldest son grew out of would be mended, and I’d go on to wear those hand-me-downs. Still, I had a better childhood than what my kids have because I was in the process of it all. I felt the earth, I walked the earth, watched everything grow, waited for spring, waited for our crops to ripen. And now, even in winter, I can get cherries from Argentina. Of course, my kids couldn’t have most of that, and it’s only natural. But it’s important to remember all that and write your own history.
— During our conversation, you reminded me of… If I’m allowed to characterize… You reminded me of a grapevine. You grow up, then you grow your roots deep in the ground, up again, and back in the ground.
— And the wind tries to sweep the vine away, only making it stronger…
— Yes! It’s the first time I’ve had such an impression when interviewing anyone. An impression of a grapevine.
— Thank you, that’s a good characterization. I love life. I feel life. At 40, I started counting and evaluating every day. For me, a day is lost if I haven’t been out in the open. I get my energy from nature. When I get home, however late, I have to feel the trees, the soil… I just can’t live in the city.
— The problem is that people today are unable to focus, concentrate, stay disciplined, and, therefore, to size things up accurately.
— And do you know what’s the reason? Do you know why some people can do it, while others can’t? I told you I’ve been studying humans for 40 years. It’s been a long journey, starting with Freud, Otto Weininger, and other psychoanalysts and psychologists, then Fromm… and it all led me to a simple thought. First of all, a child should grow up by his mother’s side. Mother’s attention is vital until the age of five or, at the very least, three. If a child gets it in abundance, his brain will be set up right.
Just as you said, all is well then, the cycle is correct, and everything is distributed as it should be. All feelings are natural and by nature. Just think of taking a child away from their mother, something that happens often these days in Europe and America: the emancipation, the approach to an upbringing by way of taking a newborn away and immediately putting them into another room. The very idea that they could cry as much as they wanted but they’d get used to it in due time… Sure, they’ll get used to it, but it’ll make them a different person.
Hence the reason. Was I any better than my brothers and sisters? See, I was born the fifth child in the family. But I was the youngest, and therefore the best. I could absorb my mother’s attention with my skin. For a while, I was simply fixated on it, assessing just how much attention a mother pays to a child under three to five years old. It doesn’t matter that much later on. There’s biological birth, and then there’s mental birth. A child is fully identified with their mother at birth, as well as the child’s body up to three years of age or, at the latest, up to five. Now, if the mother doesn’t take effort to bring them up right, they’ll still be a mommy’s boy or girl aged 60.
And if this process takes place the proper way, if the child gradually leaves their biological birth behind, and the mother does everything correctly so that the child wouldn’t have any fears, they begin to self-identify, stepping away from the mother into independence. This thread is gradually stretching, and finally, they are parted from their mother. At five, a person already realizes they’ve got their own body. And if it is so, they’re going to be all right. My mother didn’t have to go anywhere, only to work in the garden. I was with her at all times, and I got more than enough attention. That’s why I understand life, why I can feel and love everything. I love other people, and I understand their pain because I understand mine. I love my children, and I understand all children. People who were torn away can’t feel that. They lose their basic human qualities. Even their animalistic traits, they lose them, too. You can’t even compare them to beasts. They don’t know love; they don’t know how to love. Even animals love their own, so they don’t compare. That’s what this is all about. That’s the short story… I could make it long if you want. It’s my favorite subject I can rant about for hours.
The biggest thing is to give examples of how to do things the right way. And one more thing: if the children are born less than three years apart—five or six is much better!—that is to say, if a mother gives birth to another child too soon, the first one is lost. They just won’t get enough attention. In that regard, Georgians have a favorite toast: for a brother and sister to love each other. The first competition one ever engages in is for mother’s love. It’s very difficult. That’s the extent of my philosophy.
— Your words remind me of the song ‘Grapeseed’ by Okudzhava. And this is probably a good place to end our conversation, with Okudzhava’s verse. That’s how I perceived your last remark, and really, the entire interview.
— Thank you.
— Thank you.