Sunday, June 5, 2011

Wine culture

Who doesn't love a glass of great wine? For me it doesn't get much better than a glass of white wine (in the summer) or red wine (anytime) that compliments a lovely meal. Full-bodied, complex, earthy, fruity, with notes of chocolate, mushroom, cherry, or citrus -- of course, not all in the same wine -- but any glass of a well-balanced combination can make any occasion feel like a special one.

Georgia claims to be the birthplace of wine. (So do Turkey, Armenia, Cyprus, and a few other places.) Whoever was first, I don't know, but archaeologists have dated the wine-making industry in Georgia to over 8,000 years ago. And for all of those 8,000 years, wine has been an important part of the culture.

There are many legends that have arisen throughout Georgia's history dealing with various aspects of Georgia. One of my favorites that includes the Georgians' love affair with wine has to do with how Georgia came to be located where it is. The story goes something like this...

On the day that God parceled out land to the peoples of the earth, the Georgians were, of course, late. By the time they arrived, all the land had been divided up and given away. God told the Georgians that all of the land was spoken for and then asked them why they were so late. They responded that they had been at a suphra, toasting with wine to Peace and to God. But they had toasted so much and so heartily, they arrived at God's meeting late. God was so moved by the Georgian's devotion to Him, that He decided to give them the small slice of exquisitely beautiful land that He had reserved for Himself, and He moved up to Heaven instead of living on Earth.

Is it any wonder that this country holds wine and wine-making as a central part of its culture? Of course, the legend is not factual, but it does say something about how the country views wine if they feel that God Himself places importance on it.

Even though I know how important wine is to them, as an outsider, I still find it a bit odd to drink with students. It's legal, but weird.

A senior giving a toast to the teachers while his proud father looks on
I mentioned in my post a couple of days ago, that the graduation suphra included all the traditional toasts, with some additional ones thrown in to honor the graduates and teachers. Through the first half of the event, the boys who gave toasts (most girls don't give them), took only sips from their wine glass instead of drinking the whole glass. But as the night wore on, they started downing half the glass, and by the end of the night, they were drinking to the bottom ("dalie bolomde"). Needless to say, they were pretty drunk by the time we wrapped things up and called it a night.

Had this party taken place in the United States, every teacher there would have lost their job, and probably been arrested. The principal, too. The parents would have been in trouble - fines at the very least. Maybe some prison time. But the Georgian culture dictates that it is not only okay for us to gather and celebrate with wine, but necessary. A toast cannot be given with anything other than wine or tcha-tcha (homemade vodka/cognac-nastiness). Raising a glass of anything else is disrespectful. So although I prefer to drink wine "European-style" (sipping it slowly), when I toasted the seniors and their future, I drank the whole glass of wine. For them, there is no greater show of respect and meaningfulness.

Do I think it is okay for young people to drink? Yes. But responsible adults need to model for them how to drink in moderation. Do I think that there is a major problem of drunkenness in Georgia? Yes. My friend James has written a couple of great posts about the issue (Drinking Village with a Georgian Problem and Toastmaster) and has explored the issue more extensively (and with hilarity) than I will here. I will say that drinking in moderation is not normal in this culture. People either don't drink at all or drink in excess. Maybe in the city, things are changing. There are bars and restaurants where people go out to have a drink or two. But here in the village, drinking only happens with toasting. And once toasting starts, the full round of toasts has to be given. By the end, anywhere from 8 to 15 glasses of wine will have been consumed by each person toasting. Do I think this kind of drinking is okay? No.

A senior and the computer teacher drinking "Vaktanguli" --
linking arms and drinking their glass to the bottom.
So, here in Georgia, I will drink when I must. But, thankfully, as a woman, I can refuse to drink and not be hounded too annoyingly. (Men drink much more than women.... the women are always running around serving the men.) But I will never get used to seeing teachers, parents, and students standing in a circle, some more drunk than others, downing glass after glass of wine.

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