War in Ukraine has made Republic of Georgia wines rare for Bay Area

One of the most sought-after types of natural wine has been harder to find in Bay Area bars and restaurants lately due to a conflict thousands of miles away: the war in Ukraine.

Bottles from the Republic of Georgia have been extremely scarce in recent months, wine buyers report. These wines are a darling of the local wine scene, especially popular with natural wine enthusiasts, who appreciate the ancient, pre-industrial techniques employed by many small wineries across the country. Imports of Georgian wine into the United States increased by nearly 340% between 2012 and 2021, according to customs data from the Republic of Georgia, surpassing one million bottles last year.

After creating an avid audience for these wines in the Bay Area, distributors and sellers of Georgian wine suddenly found themselves without sufficient inventory — a challenge exacerbated by widespread supply chain lockdowns affecting all corners of the country. global wine industry.

Skin contact white wine, also known as orange, macerated or amber wine – which has been the Georgian specialty for thousands of years – is by far the most popular type of wine at Shuggie’s Trash Pie + Natural Wine in San Francisco. Co-owner Kayla Abe just received a shipment of Georgian wines after a four-month delay. “It’s a miracle that we’re able to get all of this right now,” she said.

Shuggie’s Trash Pie + Natural Wine, a new restaurant in San Francisco, faced delays after ordering wines from Georgia.

Yalonda M. James/The Chronicle

Getting wine from Georgia to the United States is always complicated, said Roni Ginach, a Los Angeles importer who represents 11 Georgian wineries, but it’s gotten “much more difficult” since neighbor Russia invaded the country. Ukraine in February.

To reach the West, bottles of Georgian wine must travel on container ships across the Black Sea and then through the narrow Istanbul Canal. But the outbreak of war caused many container ships to suspend or cancel their voyages, said Julie Peterson, managing director of Marq Wine Group, which helps small Georgian wineries manage consolidated shipping containers to the United States.

In February and March, “the importers didn’t know if the war was going to last, if the Black Sea was going to be stable,” Peterson said. Because of this “perceived fear,” she continued, “there were a lot of delays.”

Containers that normally take two months to arrive were suddenly taking six months, Ginach said. “For a while there was basically a ship going through the Black Sea” carrying wine at one point, Ginach said. “It was really, really hard to get space on that.”

Traditionally made Georgian wines at A Cote restaurant in Oakland.

Traditionally made Georgian wines at A Cote restaurant in Oakland.

Michael Short / Special for The Chronicle 2019

Those delays eased slightly, Peterson said, as Turkey continued to regain control over the Black Sea. “There have always been delays at ports in Georgia, but there hasn’t been a total blockage.”

Beyond these political considerations, Georgian wine producers have recently faced some of the same challenges as their counterparts around the world, such as supply chain disruptions that make it harder to secure crucial supplies like corks, glass bottles and cans. This complicates wine exports not only from Georgia, but also from Italy, France and Austria.

Trucking and shipping bottles of wine takes a lot longer — and costs a lot more — than in the past, said Amy Atwood, California importer and distributor of natural wines. “Imports that previously took four to eight weeks now take four months.”

Georgian wines, seen here at Bevri's restaurant in Palo Alto, have become more popular in recent years.

Georgian wines, seen here at Bevri’s restaurant in Palo Alto, have become more popular in recent years.

Michael Short / Special for The Chronicle 2019

The new schedule forces her to plan further ahead: she has just ordered a container and does not expect it to arrive until November. And that creates cash flow problems, Atwood added, because she still has to pay for the wine when ordering but doesn’t know how soon she’ll be able to sell it.

On top of that, parts of Europe have experienced major weather disruptions in recent growing seasons, reducing their crop yields. Last year was they say the worst wine harvest in France for nearly half a century. Many wineries simply didn’t have much wine to sell – let alone wine to send to the United States.

Many of these problems, including the shortage of glass bottles (and the accompanying price hike), are also affecting American winemakers. A Sonoma County winemaker, Kathleen Inman, told The Chronicle her glass costs nearly doubled in January.

Importers like Ginach and Atwood remain hopeful that their inventory will start arriving faster in the coming year. Meanwhile, Atwood said she was able to find a little silver lining: without even trying, she sold 30% more wine produced in the United States this year than last.

“My domestic natural grower sales just skyrocketed,” she said. “It was definitely accelerated by the supply chain issues.”

Esther Mobley is the principal wine critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. E-mail: [email protected]

Shirley M. Pinder