Keto Ninidze, 34, Martvili

“It might sound a bit unbelievable but I’ve always wanted to live in a rural area. Boys that I’ve fallen in love with were either wanderers or born and raised in a rural region. I recently realized that my professional interests also revolved around these themes – romanticism in literature, sentimental novels, pastoral poetry, wine journalism, etc.”

I’m from Tbilisi. My ancestors moved to the capital in the 40s (some of them even earlier) to get an education and they continued their professional activities here, mainly in academia.

Nevertheless, I’ve never had a feeling that I was a “true” Tbilisian. I haven’t been a part of that “relationship”, the main value of which is social belongingness rather than personal virtues. Neither my grandparents nor my parents were ever trying to make this social membrane – the “relationship” and “patronage” – my main immune system. Maybe that’s why I didn’t find it hard to decide to move to Martvili when it was needed.

My husband had a wonderful Mingrelian Oda house in Martvili that was built by his great-grandparents in the 1930s. Every summer we spent a couple of weeks there and were dreaming about living there. This wish remained a dream until the Agency of Protected Areas created an administrative group of the Martvili Canyon and offered its leading position to Zaza – my husband.

It didn’t take us long to decide. We had a great passion for getting to know and creating a new environment. We also thought that living in a rural region would be better for our children – a big yard, less technology, clean air, and healthy food. The quality of education in schools of municipal centers – Ozurgeti, Martvili, Senaki, Kutaisi, Telavi, and others – does not even compare to Tbilisi’s general education institutions which is also reflected in the national entry exam results. As a rule, the children from these regions get the highest points.

Generally, there’s nothing strange and heroic about a person or a family living in different cities at different stages of life. This is very common in many European countries, including Germany, where lands have different authorities, have independent laws, and very different cultural and social environment. When a teenager moves from Saxony to Bavaria, he/she faces a completely different national curriculum, subject standards, and guidelines. Imagine how difficult this is. Nevertheless, people are moving for new job offers, business initiatives, and other opportunities. On the one hand, changing the environment helps the individual overcome social and cultural sterility and helps them be flexible to various challenges. On the other hand, it benefits the state by exchanging ideas among the country’s regions and the inflow of new resources.

This is how it was done in Georgia at the end of 19th century and at the beginning of 20th. Cultural processes in Tbilisi were driven by the regions. On the other hand, agriculture was taken care of by educated agriculture professionals.

It’s not easy to live in a new environment. It is always accompanied by a creative mood and great enthusiasm. On the other hand, you’re leaving behind a symbolic capital. That’s what happened in my case as well. In the professional circles of Tbilisi, the name of the somewhat established young scientist, literary critic, got replaced by the status of being a wife. Being a wife of such a noble and dignified person as my husband is an honorable status, but not the only one. On top of this, I was working from home and often, due to the family responsibilities, my work became secondary. I didn’t have my parents, childhood friends, or relatives around. I didn’t speak Megrelian and wasn’t familiar with the environment. My husband – my only friend around – often had to come home really late because of the requirements of his job. There were times when I felt like these circumstances would eat me up unless I empowered myself to do something important and useful.

My friends were surprised by my decision. Many thought that I moved away too fast. The thing is that in addition to moving to Martvili, I had to leave the Institute of Literature, where I was working for 10 years. At the same time, I had been offered a very interesting job with one of the international programs. Nevertheless, I didn’t even think about changing my decision. I was deeply convinced that this “project” would work out really well.

I started making wine before living Tbilisi in 2015. And that is where the history of the family cellar – “Oda” – begins. I built a vineyard in 2016 and since we settled in Martvili, we couldn’t stop thinking about wine tourism.

In the first year, I was denied funding for the program “Produce for Georgia” even though I expected the state to encourage young people living in rural areas. I commented on this fact on the social media. My status was seen by organic winemaking supporters – owners of one of the best bars in Tbilisi – and they offered help. We were so motivated that we kindly accepted the support of these amazing people. Thanks to them, the family restaurant “Oda” still exists today and it has already introduced Mingrelian winemaking and the local gastronomic culture to a lot of guests.

Thanks to our friends, a lot of people heard about us, both inside and outside of Georgia. It has only been 3 month since we opened for business and we have already accommodated more than 300 guests. This is a huge number a family restaurant for its first season. Many professionals have visited “Oda” as well – sommeliers, wine makers, wine marketing experts. It’s impossible not to be proud when experienced people like this publish photos of our vineyards and write that this is the future of Georgia’s winemaking and that white Ojaleshi is in top three of their favorite wines, a dinner at “Oda” – their favourite meal in Georgia.

However, this feeling of pride is nothing compared to the feeling of seeing a ray of joy in the eyes of your visitor, when you both realize: the organic wine, the vineyard, the “Oda” – built by a great-grandfather over a century ago, the river, which ends with the waterfall at the end of the yard – the barefoot walks on the dewy grass, the heart-felt and carefree conversations have turned you into friends.

I consider it my honor to present my country and the Georgian wine to guests who are dazzled by the kitsch of plastic Khinkalis, sparkling daggers and men with moustaches on bottles.

Family winery

I took on a difficult task – to lead the family wine business. I can’t say that I saw all the possible challenges. Both winemaking and family are firmly built into the patriarchal value structure and no matter how hard we women try to shatter these stereotypes, no matter how hard we try to take care of the vine as if it was our own child, there will still be angry-faced men who’ll say that they only need our name for exotic branding, and that the men are doing the real work.
Perhaps that’s why every time we are building a new vineyard or getting leaves off the grape, I have to explain to our clerk that I can easily do the work with them. I’m not lazy or too proud to do it. And they are surprised that a girl who’s a book worm, an only child, and raised in Tbilisi would engage in physical labor and each time they expect me to give up at some point. Two cellars in one family – a husband’s and a wife’s – is surprising for many. Indeed, we have two unique stories, experiences, and production policy. Zaza started his work in 2012 with his friends, whereas I started just 2 years ago. Without a doubt it’s a very confusing story – a wife builds a cellar in her husband’s ancestors’ house and leads the winemaking. It is enough reason for our foreign guests to assume that every other husband in Georgia makes such risky decisions.

My cellar produces a limited amount of experimental and organic wine from rare grape species. The first two harvests produced 200-250 bottles of wine. Suddenly, I received orders from two export markets – US and Poland. Due to my small scale production, I was only able to satisfy only one third of their demand. So, this year “Oda’s” pink Orbelian Ojaleshi will appear in a number of boutique wine bars in San Francisco. For the 2017 harvest I’m planning to expand my production not only in volume but also in terms of the variety of species.
My main interests still lie in the Mingrelian and the Abkhazian forgotten vines. I have already planted one of the rare Mingrelian varieties – Chvitiluri – in the vineyard last year. Next year I will display a small collection of vines and add some old varieties – Koloshi, Dudghushi, Lakaizhita, and Ashugazhi. I received the seeds of these varieties as a gift from the Agricultural Research Center this year.

I think that everyone should give their ideas a chance to strive – the ideas that will bring them happiness. This is how I understand the story of talents in the New Testament – when faced with disappointments after waiting for a desired job or work position, we shouldn’t allow ourselves to lose the ability to act. We need to create the opportunities, the environment and our work ourselves.

Author: Nino Gamisonia
Photo: Nino Baidauri
Translation: Keke Kaikhosroshvili