A Georgia Divided
American painter, winemaker, restaurateur, and all-round Georgian natural wine impresario John Wurdeman on the Georgian response to the war in Ukraine.
In Georgian natural wine circles, American painter-turned-winemaker-turned-restaurateur John Wurdeman is as ubiquitous as khachapuri - and quite as vital for a splendid experience in the country.
Residing in Georgia since 1996, Wurdeman co-founded Pheasant’s Tears winery in Kakheti with Gela Patalishvili in 2007, and in 2010 founded Tbilisi’s premier natural wine bar, Vino Underground. He is among the founders of the country’s Natural Wine Association, organizers of the annual natural wine fair Zero Compromise. Wurdeman’s other projects include a travel agency (Living Roots), a wine distribution company, a brewery, and several restaurants in Tbilisi and Sighnaghi. Throughout, Wurdeman fulfills a critical ambassadorial role helping to valorize Georgia’s unique natural wine culture worldwide.
I caught up with Wurdeman in Tbilisi and Sighnaghi in early August, as he prepared for harvest, and the simultaneous opening of two new restaurants in Tbilisi. He kindly agreed to offer his perspective on how life in Georgia has evolved since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
JOHN WURDEMAN ON LIFE IN GEORGIA DURING WAR IN UKRAINE
The Ukrainian war in general is very hard for Georgia. Aside from the common empathy for human loss, and all the horror that comes with war, Georgia has not been able to really help, as the government felt that if they took a stronger stance or offered military aid, Russia would retaliate heavily and lash out against Georgia. Georgian people have supported Ukraine through demonstrations and private organization, welcomed refugees, and sent much humanitarian aide, but still we have had to be relatively neutral to avoid risking the war moving to Georgian soil. Georgia could not hold Russia back to the extent the Ukraine has been able to. It is simply not the same size; nor after five wars in thirty years that brought nothing positive to the country, is there the necessary public willpower.
There has been a steady migration of younger Russians in recent years to Georgia, and it has increased dramatically since the war began. Many Russians see Georgia as a world familiar to them: close to home, but more cool and liberal than their increasingly autocratic and repressive homeland. Many coffee houses and bars are opened and managed and staffed by Russians lately. Apartment costs have soared as a result of this influx.
Georgia in general has historically tried to be welcoming to various peoples, if their minds and hearts were in the right place - even if they were sometimes historical enemies. During the current situation, Georgians are quite divided. Economically, Russian patrons have given a boost to the hospitality business, which as been slow to recover post-COVID. But even many non-Russian expats (including myself) have experienced a certain coldness from people in the street, or vendors in shops, after being mistaken for being Russian. Many Georgians feel Russians should be home protesting against the war and against Putin and his cronies, rather than eating khachapuri and starting nightclubs in Tbilisi. Some are sympathetic and say these are the “good” Russians with whom we ought to build ties.
Many restaurants and bars have said they will only permit entry to Russians that recognize Putin as a war criminal - but Ukrainians can eat for free. This is complicated as Russians and Ukrainians are the same stock, look similar, and many Ukrainians speak Russian as their first language, and many are half-Russian. All of this makes the lines blurry. But neighborhoods with a strong presence of Russian-owned venues are being shunned by Georgians and some cafes feel that as the Russian crowd became their main customers, Georgians began avoiding them. Even some Georgian employees are leaving such venues to protest what they see as the owners making things too cozy for “the occupying enemy.”
For their part, some Russians have tried to defame bars and restaurants for having a severe Russian filter, like Tbilisi’s Dedaena Bar, which was the target of coordinated social media attacks and all kinds of mud-slinging when the owners made Russian guests fill out a certain visa form for clear conscience in order to enter. Google wound up having to erase thousands of defamatory comments.
In my own establishments, we have kept an open policy for all guests, as long as they behave respectfully to other guests and to staff. We have always tried to remain apolitical and keep our focus on good wine and food. We hope that by representing, on a daily basis, what makes Georgian culture unique, we make an argument for Georgia’s continued independence - and, likewise, that of its neighbors in Ukraine.
John Wurdeman - September 2022
Based in Georgia since 1996, John Wurdeman is a painter, restaurateur, and wine distributor, in addition to his role as one-half of renowned Kakheti estate Pheasant’s Tears. His Tbsilisi bar Poliphonia re-opens September 10th. His new Tbilisi restaurant, Elegia, opens on the same day.
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