Saturday, October 27, 2007

A Vintner Is Born

The last weekend was like something out of a Peace Corps brochure: An idyllic village setting, young American volunteers learning a tradition going back thousands of years, reaping a harvest of the fertile land, collaborating with the natives on a common goal. It was inspiring. Yep, we made wine.

Last year I missed the harvest and I’d promised myself there was no way I was going to miss this one. For the past month I wandered my host family’s vineyard, checking the grapes’ progress. I continually put off a dentist appointment and badgered my host father incessantly about when we’d make wine. “Maybe tomorrow Ryan... Perhaps next week... Maybe when it stops raining... When the weather is better... Soon, Ryan! Soon!”

I thought maybe there was some ideal time, some date dictated by the moon, tradition or the religious calendar. In truth, it just came down to a bit of sun, because my family does not like working in the rain or mud if they don’t have to. There is a sort of ancient wisdom to that.

Finally the day came and my school had the good sense to cancel classes for a couple days so the teachers and students could harvest the grapes and make wine. For three days my host family and I picked and pressed grapes, and I learned how to make wine. Since then I’ve taken to calling myself a “vintner.” My sentences now begin with, “Before I was a vintner...” or “Now that I’m a vintner...” And Paige just rolls her eyes.

Georgian village wine making methodology is perfect for a beginner like myself. This isn’t the wine making that appears in wine commercials. There is no sophisticated and pretentious Robert Mondavi-type, holding the grapes up to the sun, analyzing the coloring in a snifter, or rhapsodizing about tannins and sugar content and such. It’s more like the cider pressings of my youth. Just throw everything in the press and if the mud and worms and rotten berries get mashed up also, then it’s just a little more flavor and nutrients. In this wine you’ll be hard pressed to detect a hint of oak or cherry undertones. If you’re trying to place that subtle flavor it’s probably just a splash of mashed spider, a dollop of mud, or the trace flavor off the tread of my host niece’s sneakers.

My host father Omari played the role of Mr. Miyagi to my Daniel-son. He did his best to explain the details, allowed me to take part in all aspects of the process, tolerated my frequent photographing, and put up with my repeated inquiries and my note taking. And this wasn’t some academic anthropological study. My curiosity had much purer motives: I just really wanted to learn how to make wine.

At first I don’t think they thought I was serious about it, but after I kept waking up early and working beside them through the day they realized I wasn’t just being polite, but was keenly interested in it. My now tender teacher-hands blistered and became grape-stained. Soon my clothes were a Jackson Pollack painting of splattered juice and grape puree.


At the start of the third day, when it became clear my enthusiasm wasn’t wearing off, Omari told me that he’d let me make a batch of red wine for myself. “Ryan, I don’t like red wine. When I drink, I drink a lot and after a couple liters of red it makes my heart race and my head hurt. I prefer white, but if you want red, this batch is for you. You can drink it all winter.”

So we made a batch for me and when that was done he took notice of Paige’s interest in the process as well. “Follow me,” he instructed us. We walked with him to a little vine-covered archway in a neighbor’s yard. “These are Saperavi grapes. We’ll pick them, press them, combine them with your red the wine we make will be your and Paige’s. Wine from this grape sells for $100 a bottle in Europe.”

Saperavi wine, both red and white, is what comes in actual glass bottles at restaurants in Tbilisi. It is not generally sold in 2 liter Coke bottles like the other stuff. We treated these grapes with reverence. Unlike the others, we left the partly rotten bunches on the vine, picked only the fullest grapes and discarded the stems and smallish grapes. Spiders and worms were searched out and discarded. Then we mashed them and placed them in a large bowl. Later we mixed the two together, about 15 gallons in all. I guess I have my winter cut out for me.

When the work was over my family was relieved, but I wanted to make more, not that the 300+ gallons wasn’t more than enough. Currently the wine is still juice, but if the bubbling in the glass bottles and the sour smell in the storeroom is any indicator, it is rapidly fermenting and turning to wine. I go in a few times a day to check on them, to watch the sediments drop, the bubbles rise and fizz, the chemical changes taking place. You can actually here it when you walk in the room, the low buzz of the fermenting.

And even though the wine making is over, we still have to make tcha-tcha, a homemade and very potent alcohol derived from the boiled refuse of pressed grape. I’m looking forward to watching my host father light a fire and put his big copper still to use. I’m not as excited about having to drink any of that toxic swill.

So this was probably my favorite weekend in Georgia and I didn’t want it to end. I want to go on making wine now that I have the general know-how. So let me announce my intention to continue this back in America. If others are interested, we could buy grapes wholesale in Eastern Washington and use the cider press on Bainbridge to press the grapes. We could form a little co-op of interested folks to go in on the large glass bottles to hold the wine and then store it in my parents’ basement (they’ve already consented). We could produce quite a supply. Pojken? Jesse? Fitz? Luther? Derek and Jennifer? Surely Allison and Luka would want to make wine for their growing supras, right? Anyone interested?

If you are, Paige and I can show you how it’s done. After all, we’ve apprenticed at the feet of the people who invented wine. We’re steeped in a tradition going back thousands of years. We’re vintners now.

Friday, October 12, 2007


I have no classes on Thursdays so I was relaxing in my yard reading an article from a five-year old copy of The New Yorker. Suddenly the afternoon’s calm was broken by loud crackling and popping from somewhere nearby. My host father ran to the road to look. Someone passing by yelled, “Come quick, there’s a barn fire down at the old Kapanadze place,” or something of the sort.

Most everyone in the neighborhood rushed down the road to find a small barn engulfed in flames. With no hose or source of water, we rushed to remove any flammable items near the barn so the fire didn’t spread. We ran to and fro, carrying away heaps of dried corn stalks that had been laid against the fence to dry. Some pulled out the fence posts to make room for the fire truck. Busy as we were, neighbors still stopped to shake hands and greet one another and ask about each other’s families.

The fire department arrived a few minutes later in two fire engines still painted with CCCP on the side. They rushed in and turned the hoses on. Neighbors walked up to the firemen to point out spots they felt the hose should be focused on. Children crawled under the fence to stand beside the firemen as they worked. I jogged home to grab my camera and began taking pictures of their efforts. The villagers found that quite amusing.

My host mother heard from the neighbors that I’d been one of the first to help at the fire and seemed quite pleased. I text-messaged a few other volunteers to tell them about it. One wrote back, “That’s like a story I read about in one of those Peace Corps magazines.”

Actually it wasn’t very dramatic. My efforts were really minor and the danger was nonexistent. But let’s not discount the minor scratches on my arm from the corn stalks or that I’ll have to wash my clothes because they reek of smoke. And I’ll have to wash them by hand. Okay, so maybe it wasn’t a very big deal.

But since I won’t be home for another 9+ months, I have lots of time to dream up dramatic details. Don’t be surprised if the next time you hear this story it includes singed hair and clothes, me rushing into the flames to save a litter of puppies, and the locals carrying me home on their shoulders while singing “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.”

Which nobody can deny.


Last year’s Breast Health Awareness event in Kutaisi was a big success and this year was no different. Hundreds attended, as well as the first lady of Georgia, the US Ambassador and dozens of Peace Corps volunteers. The event is an awareness campaign to encourage Georgian women to get screened for breast cancer. The attendance of the first lady was especially helpful for drawing media attention to the event. The TV news came in force, but she still had time for a brief interview by a Peace Corps volunteer named Ryan Nickum.

Last year my role was to photograph the event. I was informed by the event’s organizers that what they really wanted were good photos of the 1st lady, so I turned into the paparazzi and took as many photos as I could. More than a couple times I caught her looking at me inquisitively, as if asking herself, “Who is this creep?” Either she didn’t remember me from the previous event or else she has incredible patience. She politely accepted my request to interview her and gave all her answers in English. The interview was difficult, as I had to do it while walking backwards since she was at the front of the walk.

In the end I walked away with some really good quotes, which was especially helpful because I’d failed to turn on my audio recorder when I interviewed the US Ambassador and thus didn’t have any quotes from that. My journalism skills are rusty.

Manana is the hardest working woman in Georgia. She was our technical trainer and is also a teacher in a local school in my area. She’s been incredibly helpful when Jeff (my site-mate) and I try to do any secondary projects. In addition to teaching school, she privately tutors dozens of students after school, plans her lessons at home, and maintains a household. She puts our work ethic to total shame.

In Georgia, women do all the cooking, even on their birthdays. Last year Jeff and I promised to cook her dinner the next year on her birthday. Manana and her family were busy with the grape harvest when Jeff and arrived. Her husband and youngest son gave us a tour of the wine making operation and let us taste the various vintages. Fresh grape juice is delicious, as is the 4 day old white and 2 day old red and the year old white...

Then we started cooking. We don’t know how to make Georgian food so we made scalloped potatoes, garlic cheese bread, tomato and cucumber salad, and chicken in a mushroom cream sauce. We were quite proud of our culinary achievement and Manana was very pleased.

However, most Georgians do not like different food. They’ve developed a cuisine over the years that they are quite fond of and feel no need to supplement it. I once gave my host sister a piece of cheddar cheese and she spit it out in the yard. So our dinner wasn’t exactly scarfed down, but everyone was polite. I hope Manana likes leftovers.

Last year I tried to start a couple of English clubs after school. The plan was to show movies, read magazine articles and have conversations in English about it. It’s been successful at many other schools, but I had no luck. Students did not attend.

This year I tried again. I asked a number of older students if they’d be interested in such a club. They were enthusiastic and promised to come. So at 2:30 on Wednesday I hosted the club in the English classroom. The picture below shows the level of attendance and my success.


Getting through to the many young boys in my classroom continues to prove extremely difficult. They’re easily distracted, restless, endlessly doodling, and prone to making wisecracks. They make my days at school incredibly difficult.

However, I’m not exactly one to talk. Even at 31 years of age I’m much the same as these boys when forced to sit through a long lecture. At a recent conference of volunteers I was exactly the same. Listening to presentations by Peace Corps my mind wandered, my feet bounced under the table, I made wisecracks, and found myself doodling endlessly. Maturity seems to come slowly. So I’m sympathetic. Still, there must be some way to harness this restless energy...

So let me announce the Comic Book Project.

My plan is to gather together comic books from the America and any I can find in Georgia. Following that I will make a short how-to book showing how to draw a comic, examples of popular comics, and a brief history of the genre. The book will include plenty of blank pages so students can draw their own. The kids can do this at home or in an after-school club.

I tried to have students draw comics during a camp for kids in my training village last summer, but the kids didn’t understand the concept. On the fly, I quickly drew a three-panel comic, detailing the untimely death of a goat at the hands of a bear, the first thing I could think of. I think the text read: “Bear meets goat. Bear fights goat. Goat dies.”

The little light bulb above their heads turned on and they quickly settled down with pens and paper and detailed numerous unfortunate demises of various animals. An eagle killing a rabbit, a cow dying, two dogs fighting and numerous other violent comics that ended in a grisly death. Not what I was intending, but the drawings were good and despite their morbid theme, kind of funny. I will try for less violent themes this time.

Before coming to Georgia, I’d volunteered with 826 Seattle, a center offering instruction and encouragement in creative writing, after-school tutoring, and various workshops for school groups on how-to write short stories. The center is one of a handful throughout the country, originally created by David Eggars, author of “Heartbreaking Work of a Staggering Genius” and head of the publishing firm McSweeney’s. It’s an awesome organization and if you have cash burning a hole in your pocket I suggest you donate to them. To attract kids the front of the center is a space travel supply store. In another city it’s a pirate supply store.

One of the programs 826 Seattle offers is a comic book workshop. I contacted them and they agreed to send me materials so I could do it with my class. These materials never made it, probably because the mail was waylaid in Russia and thanks to their sudden embargo of Georgia the material never arrived. It could still show up, as others have suddenly received packages and mail a year after they were sent. Paige actually received a birthday card from her grandmother that was sent a year ago, arriving coincidently exactly on her birthday this year.

But don’t let the anarchy of the mail system frighten you away from sending comics, pens, or anything that might be useful to this project. Things have been arriving a lot more regularly of late. I have to do a bunch of paperwork with Peace Corps before I can accept donations, but it isn’t too soon to start collecting them. My hope is to make this bigger than just my individual school. I want to make it available to other schools in Georgia as well.

There is no one-way to reach students and I think one that targets the restless and creative youngsters is necessary. Drawing comics is a great way for them to develop focus and express themselves creatively. You might be surprised with what these kids come up with. And once they turn in some finished product I hope to put it on the Internet and you could see just what they developed. So if you’ve got some old comics laying around, or if you happen to be a generous soul who wouldn’t mind purchasing some, or if you’re a creative sort who likes to draw your own, please start collecting them and I’ll soon let you know how to send them to me. Thanks!

And somebody tell Matt Wright because that ludite has abandoned his email account.

Materials can be sent to me at:
Ryan Nickum, PCV
C/O Peace Corps Georgia
PO Box 66,
Tbilisi 1094
Republic of Georgia


Recently my friends Allison and Luka Dvaladze visited from Bainbridge Island. Allison (formerly Allison Ekberg) lived in Georgia for a number of years, where she met her Georgian husband Luka. Both gave me a lot of good advice before coming here.

Even before I’d applied to Peace Corps, every time I would spot Allison I’d always corner her to hear about her latest adventures from some strange land called Georgia.

Luka and Allison even took me to a Georgian supra in Seattle a few weeks before I left. It still is the best Georgian food I’ve ever had.

About a month ago they were both in Georgia and they invited me out for Allison’s birthday at a restaurant near Tbilisi. The night was very unlike the supras I experience in the village. The conversation was multilingual (Russian, English, Georgian). Those in attendance were mostly Georgian artists, the drinking was moderate, and the toasting was casual, sincere and unforced. The restaurant was spectacular. It was built into a ravine, with cozy little tables separated from one another by narrow stone paths, running along a small creek. The trees were wrapped in Christmas lights, there was a view a large lake, and the service was actually really good.

Living in a village provides one view of Georgia, but this dinner provided an insight into a more educated and cosmopolitan side of Georgia. The Tbilisi crowd is a totally different set and I’ll remember the evening fondly for a long time to come.

Some of the artists in attendance gave Allison a couple of paintings and I was really impressed. Some of them have showings in the U.S. and England. One artist couple gave me a catalogue of their work and I’ve since cut pages out and decorated my wall with them. I’m not in the income bracket to purchase their work, but I’ve included links to their websites below. Some are probably affordable, but others cost thousands of dollars. I won’t get any commission if you buy some.


Recently Paige and I went to one of the top tourist attractions in Georgia, the famed Mt. Kazbegi. It’s about 15,000 feet high and according to legend it’s the mountain Prometheus was chained to as punishment for giving fire to man.

We shared a rickety cab from Tbilisi with some Israeli tourists, traveling along a rutted gravel road for most of the way. The drive looked a lot like Eastern Washington, but the mountain was unlike anything I’d seen before. We didn’t make it to the summit, but we did hike up to the church that rests in its shadow.

The soviets had built a cable car up to the church, but the Georgians took offense to this and tore it down. So we hiked. Cows ambled along steep hillsides, grasshoppers shot across the path and caterpillars grazed amidst the grass and shrubs. The view was spectacular and it was nice to finally get some exercise without being menaced by stray dogs. Jogging is simply impossible in my village unless I want to be eaten.

Georgians include pagan traditions in their orthodox Christianity so there are plenty of remnants from sheep sacrifices around the church. People will hike a sheep up to the church, march it around three times and then slit its throat. The meat is boiled and then served at a feast. Paige and I didn’t slaughter any sheep on our hike, but we saw plenty of evidence that others had: a severed sheep head, bits of fur and hoof strewn about a pit and various other grisly evidence of slaughter.

Many people probably think this is gruesome, but for me I keep coming back to the fact that they boil the meat. That is no way to eat lamb. Prior to coming to Georgia I made lamb kebabs from a Georgian cookbook I found (The Georgian Feast). I marinated the meat in pomegranate juice, garlic, thyme, olive oil, salt and pepper. It was delicious. I’ve never had anything of the sort since coming here. This is a tragedy. In fact, almost everything I found in that book has never shown up on a table I’ve sat at. Who the hell wrote that book and just where did the author visit? Are their two Georgias? Seriously, where are the marinated lamb kebabs?

But Kazbegi was beautiful.

About an hour up the road from my village is Sairme, renowned throughout Georgia and the former Soviet Union for its medicinal water and beautiful nature. I think “Sairme” means wild goat or sheep or something. I lose a lot in translation. When I order rabbit kebabs in a restaurant I still make little bunny hears with my hands and hop about so the waitress understands.

Paige and my host family hopped in my host brother-in-law’s car and bounced along the rutted roads, pausing occasionally at my host father’s insistence so I could photograph various vistas. We eventually stopped beside the road to have a little picnic. I spent a good amount of time photographing my host sister’s kids.

Because we drank wine at the picnic we couldn’t drink the medicinal waters of Sairme, which tastes something like dipping a cup into a sulfur bath. That didn’t stop them from bottling it up and trying to force it on me in the days since. I keep coming up with excuses not to drink it, but I know that soon I’ll have to get into that awful stuff. It’s like a cold cup of fart, but it’s very good for kidneys and liver.