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Georgian wine

In the Georgian countryside, wine is identity and sanctuary for people with special needs

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KAKHETI, Georgia (CIRCA) - We showed up to the winery and about 10 or so residents shuffled around in front of our cameras, most of them shy but curious about the two American journalists, with cases of shiny gear and cameras in tow, here to disrupt their cadence of everyday life.

Everyone was watching, waiting for something to happen. But there was a language barrier and we weren’t sure how we’d start filming -- we just knew we had to get the show on the road. Then, one of the residents started singing, her clear voice puncturing the silence of the countryside. All the murmuring around us died down. It was a call-and-answer kind of song and within a few seconds, all the residents started singing.

Bingo. Cameras rolling.

This is Temi, a traditional winery in the country of Georgia that also serves as a home for people living with special needs. The residents make their wine in the ancient method, using clay pots buried in the ground. It creates a wine unlike any from other regions in the world, and is the reason why wine tourism is growing leaps and bounds in Georgia. If you haven’t heard "Georgia" whispered on the lips of your local sommelier, you probably will now.

Whenever visitors arrive at Temi for wine tasting, the residents gather in front of their modest building, in the dirt driveway, to sing and welcome them to the property.

"The treatment of socially vulnerable people under Soviet rule -- it was strikingly inhuman."

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That’s according to Nika Kvashali, the president of Temi. "Socially vulnerable" is the term they use to refer to the residents here -- people living with mental and physical handicaps. It’s their effort to be sensitive when talking about a delicate issue. Georgia was part of the Soviet Republic for decades, until it won independence in 1991 after an extremely bloody war. Kvashali wouldn’t elaborate on how people with special needs were treated back then and he hesitated even to say that much.

“Our community is not idealized. It's just for people to live and work, to benefit socially vulnerable people and to be a society to each other."
Nika Kvashali, Temi president

There’s still a stigma in Georgia surrounding special needs, which makes it hard for those with them to live in general society. Without this place -- without the wine -- many of the residents would have nowhere else to go. The staff and residents at Temi have quilted together a unique community, built on the backbone of Georgian identity through wine.

“We have some severely handicapped people who come from children's homes, who [live there] until they are 16, 17 years old. After this, it's ended, and then they have to find a place,” said Susanna Reinhard, the resident social therapist at Temi.

“If they have no family, they end up in the street.”

Kvashali, though proud of the work that’s done here at Temi, isn’t especially sentimental about it. To him, it’s work that simply has to get done.

“Our community is not idealized," he said. "It's just for people to live and work, to benefit socially vulnerable people and to be a society to each other."

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“Like family, we run through some challenges, live without money … but we know about shortage of food and nutritional food ...” Here, Kvashali started to trail off. He comes from the Soviet era and when recounting this part to us, it seemed he was remembering some ghosts.

What he’s getting at is the difficulty of taking care of a community -- staff and residents -- of 60 people. The place is modest, at best. The residents live in a simple building on the property, one food hall serving as the hearth. The property is dotted with vegetable patches, from which the Temi staff prepare dinner for everyone.

In the years since separating from Russia in 1991, the Georgian economy has struggled, sometimes greatly, and especially so in the countryside. It takes a lot of money to keep this operation running (how much, we aren’t clear. We couldn’t get a straight answer when we inquired), and only a few of Temi's residents receive subsidies from the government, while others receive no financial help at all -- not even from family.

Enter the wine.

Before we get into the wine specifically at Temi, we need to set the backdrop of how wine fits into larger Georgian society. It’s a significant link that can’t be glossed over, and it explains why a social home like Temi is inside a winery, of all things.

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Most would probably guess Western European heavy hitters, like France, would hold the title, but archaeological evidence points to the country of Georgia as the birthplace of winemaking, dating back more than 8,000 years. And the heart of winemaking in Georgia is a region called Kakheti, where Temi is. So, that makes this tiny, sleepy countryside land the pulsing lifeblood of all of the world’s wine.

" ... you have to be very cautious about hygiene. Even the smallest pollution can lead to spoiling the wine.”
Zura Luarsabishvili, resident winemaker at Temi

Georgian identity runs so deeply with wine that everyone grows up learning how to make it, not just the kids from winemaking families. Everyone -- even the children of accountants. Even monks in Georgian Kvashaliodox monasteries make wine. We visited Alaverdi monastery in Kakheti and the head monk told us they have been making wine in the same cellars since the 11th century.

Our translator explained that most Georgian people can’t pinpoint when or where they learned to make wine, they just know it from some obscure childhood moment when it was taught to them -- like riding a bike.

We got unplugged in Kazbegi, Georgia, the jewel of the Caucasus mountains

So, at Temi, when faced with how to generate an income, the staff turned to wine.

Zura Luarsabishvili has been the resident winemaker at Temi for 14 years. He makes it in traditional clay pots, called kveveri, that are buried underground and left, untouched, for months and years. It’s the same ancient method of winemaking Georgia's ancestors used, and it produces a wine that enthusiasts laud as the next big star in the vintner world.

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“Making wine in kveveri is easy and, at the same time, difficult," Luarsabishvili explained. "Because temperature is naturally protected, you don’t have to be worried to change temperature.”

“But then, you have to be very cautious about hygiene. Even the smallest pollution can lead to spoiling the wine.”

Bottles of Temi wine can be purchased at the winery or from a few stores in Tbilisi, the capital city, about two hours away. Temi needs funding, but as Kvashali put it, the winery doesn't want to ask for it. The staff would rather use the wine to make an honest living.

“Of course we fundraise, of course we receive donations from both legal persons and physical persons, but as I said, we do not approach physical persons for these donations," Kvashali said. "It was inevitable for us to be a social enterprise from our very first day of our existence.”

What’s most striking about Temi is that it’s not just a winery that honors Georgian cultural heritage. To be honest, there are literally hundreds of wineries around Georgia that do the same thing, with the kveveri in the ground. But unlike the others, the wine at Temi is only a means to an end. The real point here is to provide sanctuary and community for some of Georgia’s most vulnerable people.

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