Marketing An 8,000 Year-Old Wine Story By The Black Sea

Food & Drink

Georgia (the country) has produced wine almost since the birth of civilization. Archeologists have dated Georgian winemaking to the 6th millennium, B.C. (over 8,000 years ago). In many cases, wine produced in Georgia today follows ancient tradition; for instance, large earthenware vessels known as Qvevri (or Kvevri) have been used over myriad centuries to ferment, store and age wine underground, and they are still being used. The egg-shaped vessels that have lately been seen at many European and North American wineries are a testament to the practice. The taste of such Georgian wine suggests clay minerals.

Another feature of the Georgian wine story is its grape varieties, some of which have been traced to at least 5,000 years ago. Out of an estimated 80 varieties, the red Saperavi and the white Rkatsiteli are probably the most known in the U.S.– they are the two I first tasted when I moved to the Finger Lakes region in the early 1980s. When Konstantin Frank’s son, Willy presented me with Rkatsiteli, he kidded it was a great Italian wine—it was great, but of course it wasn’t Italian. Konstantin Frank had planted the grapes in the 1950s-60s. 

Georgia certainly has a wine story to tell, and that’s why Paulina Rytkönen, Lars Vigerland, and Erik Borg of the Department of Business Studies, School of Social Sciences, Södertörn University, Sweden followed four Georgian vineyards to show how good storytelling is used to promote the local wine industry. Their work is recounted in the American Association of Wine Economists (AAWE) Working Paper No. 240.  

According to the abstract, the Georgian ancient winemaking traditions have been augmented by European traditions established in the 18th and 19th centuries, which gives the country a powerful reason to use its wine stories as a marketing tool. The paper’s authors set out to determine, “Which are the main components in the story telling of the Georgian wine industry? How is storytelling used to meet the market goals of the industry’s and individual companies? How is storytelling molded in various communication channels, such as bottle labels, home pages and films?”

The answers came to them via winery and vineyard visits, in conversations with winery owners, winery employees and agricultural officials. The wine companies visited were: Chateau Mukhrani, circa 1878, owned by the Bagrationi family, one of the oldest royal families in Europe. Chateau Mukhrani attracts busloads of tourists who get to hear the history of the Bagrationi family and traditional as well as modern winemaking; Badagoni winehouse, newer wine producer kicked off in the Kakheti region by investors in 2006; the Prince Alexander Chavchavadze Tsinandali Estate, where the first bottled wines were produced in Georgia; and the Corporation Georgian Wine, established in Eastern Georgia in 1999 with access to markets in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, China, Japan and Russia.

We know humans have been telling stories since our beginning. Interest in business story-telling is not new either, and modern content marketing has made it a focus when going after a target market. Citing Johansson, A. W. 2004 and others, the abstract’s authors claim that “Marketing, trademarks, brands, geographical indications and storytelling are all entrepreneurial tools used in the wine industry to achieve differentiation in the market.” They further tell us that wine stories mostly refer to passions, territories and traditions.

The abstract concludes that the most essential story in the Georgian presentation of its wine culture is its 8000 year-old wine history, and its insistence on promoting that the country is the cradle of wine production. With archeology to back it up, the Georgian wine industry claims to have invented winemaking at the Black Sea’s eastern shore. Today, the country boasts two major wine regions: west and east, with Kvevri winemaking in both regions. Generally, much of the wines in the Western region are semi-sweet or sweet, and they go to Russia; the East is generally where dryer Saperavi and Rkatsiteli hold court. An interesting feature of its wine story is that after having claimed more than 500 indigenous grape varieties, Georgia also claims to be the “Noah’s ark of viticulture.” The authors say that message is being heard loud and clear, even though Armenia and Azerbaijan can rightly make the same claim.

The Georgian wine story appears to take on a religious cloak too. The authors quote: “When clay vessels are sealed ‘what happens in the Qvevri is a secret between the vessel and god’. Monks, priests and believers pray for the success of the fermentation process…” and that “Vines are also connected to the cross of Christianity in Georgia. According to the legend Saint Nino, the first preacher of Christianity in Georgia who according to the legend created her cross from grapevine stems and entwined the stems with her own hair.”

The abstract concludes, “Telling the story about how the wine is made and its role in the long history of winemaking is a compelling way of marketing wine. We have discovered how this works in Georgia.”

That’s also how it works in the U.S., where wine production now spans five centuries and 50 states. Old as it is, story-telling is alive and well.

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