Craiker’s Corner: Discover the birthplace of wine and a monastery turned winery

Chris Craiker

Napa architect Chris D. Craiker, AIA, NCARB (707-224-5060, chris@craiker.com) believes architecture and wine should reflect the setting. He is a regular commentary contributor to North Bay Business Journal. He loves Art, Architecture and of course, wine. Maybe not in that order.

Read other Craiker’s Corner columns.

The small country of Georgia, north of Turkey, is highly regarded as the birthplace of wine. Evidence of winemaking goes back 8,000 years. Georgia's capital is Tbilisi in the fertile River Valley of Kakheti where the ancient wine making traditions are carried on in the Alaverdi Monastery.

At the foot of the Caucasus Mountains, the monastery looks like a fortress, probably because it was at one time. The monastery is run by a Georgian Orthodox bishop with three monks. They produce 20,000 bottles a year and have the capacity of 50,000. Built in the sixth century and expanded in the 11th century, it was considered one of the four great cathedrals of the Georgian Orthodox world. Founded originally by Assyrian monks, Alaverdi Monastery Cellar makes wine via a process and style dates back to the 11th century.

The monastery is a classic Romanesque style of architecture that developed as the Roman Empire crumbled. The Byzantine Empire evolved out of the Eastern Roman Empire until the 11th century when the Ottoman Turks overran the country.

Once part of the former Soviet Union, Georgia is the birthplace of Josef Stalin, one of the most tyrannical dictators who rivaled Hitler in murdering millions of people. During the Soviet occupation, the Russians, in an attempt to eliminate the Georgian culture and religion, whitewashed the interiors of cathedrals covering up hundreds of years of frescoes and mosaics. But they didn’t stop their winemaking traditions.

Upon a visit to a traditional winery or Marani, you would see the large qvevri earthenware vessels buried in the ground for nine months. Also called churi, these large, egg-shaped clay vessel with narrow bottoms and wide mouths have large ceramic lids at the top. Georgian winemakers for millenniums have buried their churis with only the vessel’s rim visible above ground. Scholars say the word churi comes from kveuri, or “something dug deep in the ground.”

Churis are uniquely Georgian vessels, different in shape and function from the clay amphorae used for centuries throughout the Mediterranean for wine transportation. The Georgian churis are among the world’s earliest examples of winemaking technology, next to ancient slippers found next to wine tubs.

In 2013 UNESCO added the vessels to its list of Humanity’s Intangible Cultural Heritage as a symbol of Georgia’s wine making roots. Interestingly, demand for new vessels is high both locally and internationally as their organic and biodynamic values gain respect for making wine with little or no intervention.

Across Georgia the local Marani is where winemaking happens. It can be an old stone farmhouse, a church, shack or cave. The winemaker presses the grapes, leaves, seeds, skins and maybe a few branches, and allows the wine to ferment in the churis for nine months, although oak barrels and stainless-steel tanks are also available.

The finished wine is typically an amber color. You won't recognize any European or California names or flavors. Typical names are Saperavi, Rkhatsiteli and Mtsvane which don’t roll off your tongue easily. Georgia has over 40 varieties of grapes and exports over 140 million bottles of wine to more than 65 countries. Slowly and steadily, Georgian wines are making progress around the world.

Chris Craiker

Napa architect Chris D. Craiker, AIA, NCARB (707-224-5060, chris@craiker.com) believes architecture and wine should reflect the setting. He is a regular commentary contributor to North Bay Business Journal. He loves Art, Architecture and of course, wine. Maybe not in that order.

Read other Craiker’s Corner columns.

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