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Russia has no taste for Georgia wine

Kremlin says tests showed high levels of pesticides

TSINANDALI, Georgia -- Alexander Chavchavadze must be turning in his grave.

Georgia's most refined 19th-century aristocrat was a general in the czar's army, and a poet to boot. At his summer mansion in Tsinandali he entertained a stream of distinguished Russian visitors with music, wit, and -- above all -- the fine vintages made at his estate winery.

Alexander Pushkin came for a merry sojourn in 1831.

``What would Chavchavadze have thought of Russia banning the wine he gave to his friends?" mused Nino Bitskinashvili, a guide at the estate museum . ``It would have been very taxing for him to digest this reality," she finally said .

In the Kakheti region of eastern Georgia, the former Soviet state that sits below Russia, locals are smarting at Moscow's decision to ban imports of wine from the country.

Wine is Georgia's second-biggest export, and until March 27 -- when Russia announced the embargo and implemented it with immediate effect -- 70 percent of it was sold to its northern neighbor.

The abrupt restriction, on grounds that alcohol imports from Georgia were contaminated with pesticides and impurities, was widely seen as a political swipe by the Kremlin. Georgia's pro-Western president, Mikhail Saakashvili, disparaged the allegation of contamination, saying, ``Georgian wine is being punished because of our freedom and democratic aspirations."

Only now, as the difficulty of finding new buyers hits home, is the ban starting to bite deep in Kakheti , a sweep of shallow green valleys full of vineyards where 80 percent of the workforce is involved in the wine-making industry.

``It was the most unfriendly and serious blow they could inflict on us," said Nuzgar Bachiashvili, mayor of Telavi, the regional capital. Wineries have slowed or halted production, and there are growing fears that the autumn harvest will see major job cuts for seasonal workers.

The blockade began when Russia's chief sanitary doctor, Gennady Onishchenko, requested the customs service stop imports of Georgian alcohol because new tests had shown banned pesticides such as DDT and aldrin in imports of wines and spirits. Onishchenko said that many bottles were of uncertain origin, and that 61 percent of Georgian wine fell below sanitary levels in laboratory checks.

Up to half of the alcohol consumed in Russia is thought to be fake or sold under the counter. Illegal producers use forged labels and custom stamps to imitate respected foreign imports. Counterfeit wine is often made from cheap grapes or alcohol produced with other fruits and dyed with food coloring.

In public, most wine producers in Georgia are putting a brave face on the crisis, saying the government has thrown itself into seeking new markets. The hawkish defense minister, Irakli Okruashvili, a former businessman, has been tasked with sniffing out new buyers abroad; a hint that the search is considered an issue of national concern.

Saakashvili even raised the issue in Beijing during a recent summit with President Hu Jintao of China. That prompted producers to joke that if every Chinese family could be persuaded to drink at least one bottle per year, it would be more than the Georgian market could produce.

In private, however, many in the business are rattled -- and angered -- by Russia's blanket ban.

``When you find a bad carton of milk on the shelf, you don't throw out the whole fridge, do you?" says Gia Kurdovanidze, commercial director of Shumi Wine Company, just beyond the walls of the Chavchavadze estate.

Levan Koberidze, head of sales at of Georgian Wines and Spirits, the country's biggest wine exporter, said the closing of the Russian market is ``a very serious blow."

``For the peasant workers it means that the autumn harvest is under question," he adds. ``A minimum of half of it won't be bought by the bottled wine producers."

Moscow denies any political undercurrent to its actions. Alexei Gordeyev, agriculture minister, told reporters Russia wanted to ``restore order on the market so that people no longer get poisoned and companies stop cashing in on our citizens' health."

But observers say the ban most likely is a politically motivated attack as relations deteriorate between Russia and its former Soviet neighbors.

Vladimir Nuzhny, a toxicologist in Moscow specializing in alcohol, said large quantities of foreign wine had not corresponded to the required quality since the fall of the Soviet Union.

``It never killed anyone, and the Russian leadership used to turn a blind eye, but now that relations are worsening with the Georgian and Moldovan leaders, they don't see a need to ignore it anymore," he said. Moscow also cut off all imports of alcohol from Moldova at the end of March. The Kremlin is angry at Moldova for imposing a recent economic blockade on a pro-Russian separatist territory.

In Georgia, Saakashvili's government has upset Moscow by increasing cooperation with Washington since the ``Rose Revolution" that brought him to power on the back of popular protests in 2003.

After the uprising, US military advisers were drafted quickly to help the Georgian army under the ``train and equip" program, and Saakashvili is propelling the country toward NATO.

There are other bones of contention: Russia supports Georgia's breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and refuses to withdraw Russian peacekeeping troops in the two regions.

Georgia's hints at plans to leave the Commonwealth of Independent States earlier this year irked the Kremlin. ``That may have been the final straw," said a Western diplomat in Moscow. The Commonwealth is a loose affiliation of former Soviet states that Russia has used as a tool to influence its neighbors.

Not all Russians favor the ban. In April, 38 Russian alcohol importers published an open letter to President Vladimir Putin in national newspapers urging him to end the ``catastrophic situation." They estimated Russian businesses could lose $700 million as a result of the embargo.

Georgia is drenched in the tradition of wine, and Kakheti producers take pride in their pedigree. Residues on shards of ancient ceramic storage jars discovered in the south of the country suggest wine-making was underway 8,000 years ago, arguably a first in the world .

Ironically, Shumi Wine Company won prizes for its wine at several recent competitions in Moscow. It also exports to the United States and western Europe. Workers at its factory are nonplussed by Moscow's ban. ``So the Russians think we'll poison them with this," said one, shaking his head as he offered a glass of Kindzmarauli, Stalin's favorite.

In fact, it recently emerged that Kremlin canteens had decided to eke out their last supplies of Georgian wine rather than destroy it. Dry, full-bodied reds like Saperavi and semi-sweet varieties like Kvanchkara have seduced Russian drinkers for centuries.

Wine producers in Kakheti accept there is a large market in fake alcohol. What irks Bachiashvili is that most counterfeit ``Georgian" wines are known to be produced in Russia. ``The hypocrisy is incredible," he says. ``They should fight that first before criticizing us."

Moscow has suggested the ban could be lifted if quality checks prove all imported alcohol is up to scratch, but there seems little hope of a quick solution.

A few miles away from Tsinandali at the award-winning Telavi Wine Cellar, 20 workers have been laid off and construction work halted on a new presentation hall and bottling plant. The company had export orders for 4.3 million bottles this year .

``It's a poor political decision," said Natalie Gigitelashvili, marketing manager. The company hopes to get back on the Russian market, but it could be too late, she said.

``All those empty shelves in Moscow will soon be filled with wine from other countries."

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