A popular natural wine fair went ahead last Sunday in Berlin against all the odds. But a group of 12 Georgian growers were almost left stranded with no wine to pour for their customers. Georgian press and social media outlets have been quick to condemn the Georgian National Wine Agency who were responsible for shipping the bottles to Germany. But what really happened?
Isabelle Legeron and her team at Raw Wine pulled off a near-impossible feat on 28th November. They ran the busy natural wine fair just as Germany and its neighbouring nations tightened regulations and braced themselves for a winter surge in Covid infections and the Omicron variant. The security staff had a thankless task trying to ensure exhibitors and participants complied with the mask-wearing regulations in force, but the event was well attended and heaved with life and energy.
The Morning Claret talked with local importer Zoltán Kovács, owner of Naturwein Georgien, on the morning of the fair. Kovács confirmed that the entire Georgian shipment of around 150 bottles of wine was still snarled up in German customs, and that the only wines growers had on their stands were bottles they’d brought in their suitcases. Giorgi Natenadze says he was informed just six hours before he was due to board his flight that the wines had not arrived in Berlin.
Although the situation looked bleak at 9:30am, shortly after the fair opened virtually all the Georgian producers had at least something to pour. Kovács provided bottles from his own stock for two of the growers he imports – Baia’s wine and Giorgi Natenadze. Most other growers or their friends had flown in sufficient wine to be able to present a reasonable selection on their stands.
Giving a lie to the Mtavari TV headline “The wine festival without Georgian wine”, the growers were able to keep pouring tasting samples during at least the first eight hours of the event (from 10:00 – 18:00). Most had run out by 18:30. The fair ended at 20:00. Gvanca Abuladze, from the winery Baia’s Wine, later posted enthusiastically on her Instagram feed with a line up of her wines and wrote “Raw wine Berlin – Amazing day with amazing people”.
Natenadze was similarly enthusiastic about the day, posting on facebook with the message “Especially due to the difficulties with wine supply, I would like to tell you that the RAW WINE BERLIN exhibition was very successful for me. Many professionals and interesting importers attended the exhibition. Hopefully new countries will soon be added to our export list: Austria, Finland, Canada, Poland.”
TMC personally tasted a number of excellent Georgian wines on the day, including Natenadze’s amber wine made from wild grapes, typically elegant Imeretian wines from Baia’s wine and from Gvanca’s uncle’s own label, plus some new discoveries: a text-book Kakhetian amber Rkatsiteli from Matiashvili’s Marani and a wine from the rare grape variety Buera, from Tedo’s Marani. Also to be seen pouring, amongst others, were Beka Gotsa and Anapea wines.
So who was to blame for the non-arrival of the Georgian wine shipment? Natenadze and others told TMC that they hold the Georgian Wine Agency responsible. The wines were shipped far too late, and according to an industry insider “The German customs did not do anything unusual”. TMC has also learned of problems with unlabelled bottles which attracted the attention of customs officers, who then scheduled a more thorough inspection of the shipment. The shipment was initially processed in Frankfurt-am-Mein on Friday 26th November. Customs officers scheduled the detailed inspection for the next working day, Monday 29th November – too late, of course, for the fair.
The National Wine Agency’s chairman Levan Mekhuzla provided the following statement to TMC:
The National Wine Agency had completed the collection of samples and delivery to Tbilisi airport on November 18. After sorting procedures at Tbilisi airport and shipping, cargo was in Frankfurt on November 24. Delivery notice to the German forwarder was received on November 26. After submitting all the documents for customs clearance, German customs office rejected clearance and requested cargo inspection instead, which is still underway.
Advisor to the chairman Irakli Cholobargia told TMC that everything was done as normal. In his opinion, the delay was caused by German customs and not by the National Wine Agency. As of today, the shipment has still not been released.
Despite the difficult and stressful situation, Kovács points out that many Georgian winemakers are grateful for the support of the National Wine Agency, which covers some of the costs for shipping their wine to fairs such as RAW Berlin. Rather than focusing on blame, he wants to ensure that lessons are learned and that wines are shipped much earlier in the future.
Accusations of corruption and misuse of public funds have subsequently been levelled against the National Wine Agency in the Georgian press and social media. These claims seem to be without evidence, but may relate to the country’s tense political climate. Ultimately, the agency was doing its best to help the producers attending RAW Berlin. It should not be forgotten that hundreds of visitors to RAW got to meet a range of Georgian growers and to taste some great examples of the country’s wines.
In the current pandemic climate, that is no mean feat.