‘Birthplace of wine’: Local importer to bring taste of Georgia’s ancient wine culture to Indiana and Columbus

Mike Wolanin | The Republic A view of the different Georgian wines being distributed by Parsons Fine Imports in Columbus, Ind., Friday, Feb. 10, 2023. Kirk Parsons will import and distribute Georgian fine wines through the business he founded called Parsons Fine Imports. He developed his love of Georgian wines while working as a military contractor in Georgia in 2014. His first shipment of wines is expected to arrive in March.

One local resident has Georgia on his mind.

It’s not the same Georgia that Hoagy Carmichael sang about, but rather the country of Georgia — a small nation nestled in the Caucuses with an ancient wine culture that a Columbus resident is hoping that Hoosiers will embrace.

Kirk Parsons, 48, who has been in the Marine Corp. reserves for nearly 27 years, has started his own company importing and wholesaling a range of wines from the nation of Georgia after falling in love with the country, culture and wine during numerous trips there as a military contractor.

The company, Columbus-based Parsons Fine Imports, is expecting its first shipment from Georgia by mid-March — some 14,000 bottles of wine weighing upwards of 43,000 pounds, Parsons said.

Parsons said his company doesn’t plan to sell wine directly to consumers and will instead focus on distributors, stores and restaurants to “get it stocked here in various places in Columbus and the surrounding area,” as well as in Indianapolis.

“We’re just excited to finally get it here and to get going, (and) hopefully, get some places who have interest in it,” Parsons said. “…Once this first shipment comes in, we’re going to have a big push to get around to some who have expressed interest to do tastings.”

Trip to Georgia

Parsons first encountered Georgian wine in 2014 when he travelled to the country for the first time to plan exercises for United States Marine Forces Europe and Africa, a U.S. Marine Corps. component of the U.S. European Command and U.S. Africa Command.

When Parsons arrived, he attended a planning conference near Tbilisi, the country’s capital city, he said. At the end of the conference, Parsons was invited to a “supra,” a traditional Georgian feast that he described as a “Thanksgiving dinner on steroids” that included Georgian wine.

The first wine Parsons said he tried was made from the leading variety of red grape in Georgia, known as the saperavi grape, which has red flesh and red skin, with “aromas and flavors of dark berries, licorice, grilled meat, tobacco, chocolate and spices,” according to Wines Georgia, the U.S. office of Georgia’s National Wine Agency.

“It was a smooth, dry red wine that just got my attention,” Parsons said. “…I just really liked the uniqueness of it and the taste and then just how it’s a part of the culture.”

Parsons would continue to travel to Georgia in subsequent years, sometimes about five to six times per year. On one trip, Parsons decided to stop by a wine shop near his hotel and wound up striking up a friendship with its owner, Misha Akubardia.

“We would share some wine, share some food, sit around and talk … I joked with him one time, I was like, ‘You know, more Americans need to be drinking Georgian wine, and one day, hopefully we can work together to make that happen,’” Parsons said. “We sort of joked about it and toasted about it, but a couple of years ago … (we) started really thinking about it seriously.”

And in 2021, when Parsons decided to “get things going,” he contacted Akubardia, who helped set up meetings with wineries and handle “everything on the Georgia end” to help the Columbus-based company export the wine to Indiana, Parsons said.

‘Birthplace of wine’

Georgia’s winemaking roots stretch back some 8,000 years, with the country currently believed to be the birthplace of wine.

An international team of researchers found wine residue on pottery at two archaeological sites in southeastern Georgia that date back to 6,000 B.C. in what is considered the earliest known evidence of winemaking, according to a study published in 2017 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

To put that in perspective, Georgia’s winemaking heritage is 5,900 years older than Roman Emperor Julius Caesar and 2,600 years older than sumarian script, the earliest known writing system.

The country, which is located along the eastern shores of the Black Sea, is slightly smaller in land area than Maine and is home to more than 500 varieties of indigenous grapes, including about 40 types that are currently in commercial production, according to Wine Georgia.

One of hallmarks of traditional winemaking in Georgia involves a handmade, egg-shaped clay vessel called “qvevri,” which Georgians have used for eight millennia to make red and white wines.

The vessels, which can often hold more than 1,000 liters, are buried underground to keep temperatures constant during fermentation and aging.

One traditional winemaking method in Georgia involves fermenting the skin and juice of grape together, which turns what would ordinarily be a white wine into an amber wine.

Qvevri are still used to make wine in Georgia today, including several of the wines that Parsons is importing.

But as Parsons awaits his first shipment, he remains hopeful that distributors, store and restaurants — and ultimately consumers — will embrace the uniqueness of Georgian wine.

“I think just the fact that a lot of people don’t know (Georgia) is the birth birthplace of wine,” Parsons said. “They’ve been doing it for 8,000 years, and they still do a lot of it with the traditional methods that they’ve been doing it with for 8,000 years.”