The Secret of Badagoni
Interview by Oleg Cherne
Badagoni is one of the leading producers of wine in Georgia. The company was established in 2002 in Kakheti and currently produces 1.5 million bottles annually, with vigorous promotion strategies introducing the global wine market to the traditions of Georgian wine. It is a frequent contributor to trade shows and competitions, and has already amassed a wonderful «bouquet» of international awards.
Badagoni is a joint Georgian-Italian company, thus facilitating a combination of local winemaking methods and cutting-edge Italian technologies.
As of the time of this article, Badagoni is the only Georgian wine producer with an international ISO certificate of quality. Its «Badagoni. Alaverdi Traditions» wine made it into the list of the top 100 wines of the world, according to Decanter magazine. And if that isn’t enough, the company also played a huge role in restoring the winemaking traditions of the Alaverdi monastery.
I came to know about Badagoni wines in a very unusual manner. At the time I was in Ukraine on a visit, where my job was to make a selection of Georgian wines for an event. There I fell back on the most trusted method of them all: purchasing bottles in the store and trying them myself. I went around to all the best stores and bought up all the Georgian wines I could find. I had no idea what Badagoni was and had never even heard of the company, but it ended up being their wine I chose for the event.
In a certain sense, Badagoni is a truly unique producer. Despite large production volumes, their wine still has its own unique soul. Few wineries are able to preserve and express the soul of the land to its fullest extent, but there is no doubt in my mind that Badagoni wine accomplishes this task with aplomb. We sat down with Georgi Salakaya, co-founder of Badagoni, to finally lift the veil on the history of one of Georgia’s most successful wine companies.
— Georgi, what does your company’s name mean?
— Badagoni is the goddess of winemaking and fertility. A statue of hers was recently discovered in the 1980s in Georgia, dating back 8 thousand years! We like the word Badagoni because it encompasses numerous concepts, as badagi can also mean sweet grape juice. To be honest, once we learned this bit of etymology, we adopted the name immediately. The tiny statue discovered is now stored in Georgia’s National Museum, but we have a copy of it at our factory as well.
— So it follows that in Ukraine I actually met with an 8,000-year-old deity. And this deity brings me and a group of other young wine experts to Borispol Airport. People asked me what wine they should buy at the airport, and I told them: «Badagoni, of course.» And then there was Saperavi wine, too. Everybody bought it up so fast that when I finally decided to get some for myself, the store assistant says to me: «We don’t have any left, it’s sold out (read: other young experts snatched it up), but we do have some white Badagoni.» Which had such a strange bottle with the name Alaverdi plastered across it. So I figured, if you came to get Badagoni, get some Badagoni!
They pour me a glass, I sit down and… it was pure aesthetic shock. The wine before me had a kind of special wine, with a pure original fermentation that was truly unique. It was everything people look for in a wine, but it was so much different from anything I had ever tried before! Back then I only committed to memory that it was Alaverdi and Badagoni, and I had just one thought in my head: next time I visit Georgia, I must find out what Alaverdi is. I really couldn’t separate these two words for myself.
So this whole Borispol story eventually brings me to one of the most ancient monasteries, or maybe even the most ancient wine cellars in Georgia, where Badagoni was hard at work restoring the old traditions. It was in this cellar where I discovered the amazing potential of Georgian winemaking, and the special role Badagoni played in it.
— At first we only saw it as a hobby, we never had any intentions of starting a big business because we all had our own jobs at the time. We wanted to link it back to our native winemaking traditions, because wine for a Georgian is about honor, faith, memory and happiness. All of that is in our blood. There is no event without wine, starting from the church and expanding to pretty much any other festive time.
The song of tradition rang out in our hearts, and that is why we started what we did. Naturally, later we started to learn more and study winemaking practices from other countries. Then an idea occurred to us to create a winery that would become nothing less than an icon of winemaking in our country.
Interestingly enough, when we only just had this project in mind, we met the abbot of Alaverdi monastery, His Grace David, where a very interesting event happened: with this project in mind, I paid a visit to the patriarch myself, but back then the monastery was in awful condition, as before 2003 it was left entirely to its own devices. And on this very day (September 26, 2005), no one had made an appointment, and God himself sent me straight in to see His Grace. I had no idea that the holiday of Alaverdoba was celebrated on that day.
So I came in and told him that we were considering plans to build a winery and contribute to the reconstruction of the Alaverdi monastery. He looked at me, grabbed his phone and dialed a number. Then His Grace said: «I wish you the happiest Alaverdoba holiday. God has sent you people, they’re already on their way. Come on, tell me what you need!»
We got in the car and drove off. His Grace was disappointed because of the mess and overall lack of healthiness in the monastery. What can be seen there now is worlds different. During even our first conversation we promised to buy bells for the monastery, but he declined, saying that bells were good, but the wine project was more important. Despite the property’s dilapidated state, the historic cellar appeared to be largely intact.
We went down to look it over, but we couldn’t see anything because every square inch was covered in mud. We needed some serious archaeological work done, which meant lots of money. But I was sure that there were kvevri (large clay vessels) there, so there was no getting around it. At first, we had no idea what or how to do it, but it was almost as if some force was marching us onwards. We didn’t even discuss it, we just said to His Grace: «Let’s get started.»
As a first step we ended up still purchasing bells for the monastery — and in just three months the entire vicinity was enjoying their melody. By the way, the bells happened to be crafted in Sofrino, Russia. After that we started with the more serious archaeological works. We discovered everything just as we had expected, and when we first saw the tops of kvevris I got goosebumps. Then we just kept finding more and more kvevris… but it wasn’t all fun and games, like when we found combustive materials in one of them, meaning it was used to store explosives. Many people were saying we should fix the old kvevris, but some of them were beyond repair. Instead, we sometimes put new kvevris in their place, so what visitors see now is a synthesis of both the old and new. This was His Grace’s idea as well.
So His Grace got what He wanted, and just like that the joint project between Badagoni and the Alaverdi cellar was born. We worked thoroughly and carefully, and always had to take into account lots of tiny details. For instance, there was no nearby source of water, so we had to drill a 250-meter well to carry water to Alaverdi.
When the question arose of what to call our first wine, we had nothing to really go off of, but then the local farmers who worked here started telling us stories about how their grandparents would always talk about how even during the war there was a huge winery here, and that other churches would come here to buy their wine.
This is how we came up with Alaverdi Traditions, our first-ever wine. And it happens all the time… Like with your story in Ukraine, what went on when you arrived and then on a whim tried Alaverdi. It just never stops. This wine, despite its modest production and the fact we are used to producing large volumes, is our business card, and it opens all types of doors for us. The most important thing for us is to educate, explain and tell a story.
— Wine can tell a story without words.
— That’s right, it’s not just our business card, it’s also our driving force. But that comes with great responsibility: we had to come up with a concept for our factory, because we didn’t want to just make wine without any design or style, just a purely industrial product — no, we took a completely different approach. We use our own traditional grape varieties and wines, and have the right people make them the right way. The first big problem we encountered, unfortunately, was that we didn’t know how to produce a «Grand Vin» (great wine). Despite all of its amazing history, development has in large part ceased over the last 70-80 years in this direction.
So we sent two young men to Bordeaux University right away, and two more to Turin. Plus, we also didn’t hesitate to invite our partner Donato Lanati from Italy. We were extremely lucky with him, because this man lives and breathes wine.
— Has he been working in Badagoni since the very start? Tell me a little about him, please.
— Donato Lanati is a scientist, researcher and professor at Turin University, a consultant and one of the most influential personalities on the current Italian enology scene. His laboratory Enosis in Piedmont is a unique center of scientific investigation, where research is conducted in everything, from soils to the final product, to help better control the entire process at the highest level. The lab has its own study center, which is also important.
Everything is planned out so well there. His Grace visited the center and was very impressed. The lab was opened in 2002, so is still relatively new. There they use cutting-edge technologies and have their own vineyards for research purposes. Donato Lanati is behind a variety of original wines in Italy. We invited him here on his first-ever visit to Georgia, where he came straight to Alaverdi, and not first to some other place, which is also remarkable in its own right.
— So you discovered your philosophy in your culture and its traditions, and created your first wine based on the monastery cellar your team recreated. Then you told the world about your achievement, and this divine message spread to send everyone you needed right to you. A story of biblical proportions, wouldn’t you say?
— Yes, everyone we needed came right to us. I forgot to tell you about the construction site next to Alaverdi! This is going to be our Italian man’s house. Despite being a catholic, he arrives at 2:00 and retires straight to the church. I believe that Georgia has benefitted immensely from his actions. Here at Badagoni, he promoted the right approach to winemaking, starting from the vineyards, which we didn’t even have back then because we did everything the old way — manually, with tractors…
We turned everything upside down to maximize what this excellent land bestows on us naturally, which of course left its imprint on the grapes, and in turn on our wine.
— All this despite the fact there was nothing ready before anyone arrived. It’s like you came here on a mission.
— This is indeed a critical issue, as the area used to be part of Georgia’s impoverished outskirts, and a breeding ground for criminals; 7 km from here is the infamous Pankisi Gorge. In other words, there used to be next to nothing here. Today, I’m happy to say that we support 8 villages as part of our vineyards. This is no exaggeration: Badagoni fully supports 8 entire villages, with 400 people employed on our vineyards and at the factory. We built the infrastructure, and a flow of people and tourists came to use it. The houses look different now, they’re stuccoed, etc., which
is extremely important for us, because the people here are so amazing. I’ve never seen anyone like them anywhere in the world. At first, we had no warehouse, and all the supplies we had shipped here over the course of 9 months were just scattered around, but not a single nail went missing because everyone was so dedicated to their job. In the morning, they prayed in Alaverdi, then came here for work and spent the night. And not a single person was ever hurt, despite the unfavorable conditions. Whatever we had planned was always completed the same day. Nobody believed we could ever get done everything we wanted so quickly.
After that we had no choice but to set an extremely high standard both here and on the market. We also caught the attention of some not so good people… all sorts of things happened. We were young, and nobody expected a factory like this to ever open here. The state began to attack us and make certain demands, but nobody realized we were already inseparable from Alaverdi. All their attempts failed, and we just stayed level-headed about things and kept growing.
The biggest blow to us was when someone else produced wine with our labels, which ended up being poured partially in Poland and partially in Ukraine, and sold on our shelves for half the price. We had to fight a 6-month legal battle, it was a nightmare. We survived the courts, but it was a real blow to moral — we were only two years old, rising up, growing and improving quality, and then this happens!
— See, maybe the fact that the Russian market was closed to you had some good to it in the end. Ukraine isn’t a large market, so it’s possible to restore your status there, but it would’ve been harder in Russia.
— We probably got lucky there as well, but at least it showed us we were on the right path. In the end, it only gave us even more strength. Today, we continue to nurture this momentum, and what you see now is just another step in the growth process. We recently started producing sparkling wine. After two years spent researching our grape, we chose the Georgian Mtsevane, which is a unique sort among its variety.
Plus, Alaverdi also has its own plans in store: we currently plan to participate in major competitions to let the two wines we made from the monastery’s cellar shine their brightest. All wines produced in the Alaverdi cellars enjoy our full support, starting from rootstocking. Right now we plan to allot one of the vineyards exclusively to the monastery, because they kept asking us questions like how much Kisi, how much Rkatsiteli? From now on, the monastery is going to own its own vineyards. So we are always developing and improving.
— Not so long ago, the British magazine Decanter highlighted your vineyard, and you made it on the list of the world’s top 100 wines. Was all that with just white wine?
— No, with red wine. I should tell you that after researching the subject, we don’t take our white wine to competitions and private tastings. The problem is the same everywhere: if in the preparation process the taster finds out a wine is from a kvevri, that’s it; they won’t even give it a chance.
— So that means your wines demand tasters be specially prepared. Are contemporary tasters just not up to the task?
— Yes, they definitely encounter some difficulties. Yet it’s fine if tasters aren’t ready with their own specific attitudes. The real problem arises when people aren’t ready either, which makes things much more complicated.
— That’s because people were taught to like «perfumed» wine, as I call it, especially when it comes to white wine. That’s where I think the real issue is. I congratulate you and I’m sincerely happy that you’re on the Russian market now too. But we cannot ignore the issue that your wine costs, say, 1,000 RUB. And people say: «Why would I pay 1,000 RUB for a bottle of Georgian wine?»
— But people often pay a lot more for whatever their eyes land on, like some random French wine of often dubious quality. I think it’s normal when a good wine comes on the market and costs 1,000 RUB, of course if we also take into account all the effort and hard work put in to making it. There is very little quality individual, original wine in Russia. Why do people think Georgian wine can’t be better than French? If a person drinks the same kind of wine all the time, it’s very difficult to change their opinion, but efforts nonetheless need to be made if we ever want to gradually shift this attitude.
— Let’s get back to Decanter. So you made it in the top 100?
— Yes, that was in 2012, when our red Alaverdi Traditions made the list of 100 best wines. Of course, that was a big moment for us. The wine got 98 points out of 100, and was selected from more than 11 thousand applicants to have the honor of making it in the top 100 best wines. The tasters were tradition-oriented European tasters, so when it happened, the whole nation of Georgia celebrated. And those were years when our people were in desperate need of such emotional support. These days we do a lot of promoting on the Russian market, which has its own difficulties due to their mentality. We decided to approach this roadblock a bit differently. Badagoni are among the most expensive Georgian wines, yet they still sell in significant quantities. Everyone is always scratching their heads, how is that even possible? It’s all about the wine. Some are more curious about our white offerings, and others the red. How could we ever manage to sell Georgian wine at this price? Well, it’s not hard when it’s so good that when a person buys a bottle of our wine, they always come back for more. The moment someone visits Alaverdi cellars, we can consider them our client.
— So all it takes is a little patience. You couldn’t have chosen a better policy, there’s no need to force things.
— What we do is a very labor-intensive financial process. You got it right: if we wait, we get the best results. The most important thing is that we’re able to sleep at night.
— Do you ever organize any events, meet-ups or tasting parties in Russia?
— Of course. Marketing is what sells your first bottle. We’ve actually achieved a lot thanks to our marketing strategies. Just to create our labels I had to practically live with our designers for 6 months. Simplicity, Alaverdi, history, Badagoni, Georgia… Badagoni has always been associated with Georgia, and Georgia — with Badagoni. There is a little booklet included with every bottle for the client.
— Now a couple of hot-seat questions. What’s your company’s philosophy?
— Truth. Sincerity.
— Out of everything your company does, what do you value most? And which of your wines holds the largest significance for you?
— Its love for traditions. In terms of Alaverdi traditions, Kakheti white wine is its most significant offering.
— What toast or message would you like to send to people in Russia when they open up a bottle of your wine?
— I’d like them to wish happiness to one another. Happiness and health, because this wine definitely has the power to help them achieve both of these things. Everyone needs this wine, you see? It gives something special no matter who’s drinking it.
— So it’s like your clients are uncorking their own private jars of happiness. It feels like many wines of the world — including those in Georgian traditions — are made to accompany food, but in my opinion every serious winery should make their wine to accompany wine only, I mean, make wholly independent wines. And I think Alaverdi is a completely independent wine, because whether you have anything else on the table is irrelevant: it’s both food and drink. Can you say your wine is joy for a person’s soul?
— You’re absolutely right, we make our wine with all our soul special for the souls of other people. That’s our true tradition and philosophy.