Interviews

From Georgia to Your Glass: Ucha Tsiklauri and the Story of Georgian Wines and Spirits

Photo for: From Georgia to Your Glass: Ucha Tsiklauri and the Story of Georgian Wines and Spirits

22/05/2024 Exploring the Heritage, Unique Winemaking Techniques, and Market Expansion of Georgian Wines in the U.S.

Georgian Wines and Spirits is a dedicated importer and distributor of Georgian wines and spirits to the U.S. market. Committed to facilitating the entry of Georgian wine companies into the U.S., the company provides comprehensive services including label design, submission for approval by the COLA, transportation, storage, sales, and distribution across most U.S. states. With a focus on Georgia's rich wine heritage, renowned for its 8,000 vintages and unique winemaking tradition in qvevri, Georgian Wines and Spirits aims to offer U.S. wine lovers the opportunity to experience natural wines crafted with the same methods and grapes used by ancient Georgians 8,000 years ago. 

Ucha Tsiklauri is the Florida-based company founder. He kindly answered some questions about his business, the growing market for wines from Georgia, and his overall outlook on the wine industry. 

Image: Ucha Tsiklauri; source: Georgian Wines and Spirits 

How did you come to live in the US? What events led you to open an importation and distribution business for Georgian wines and spirits? How and what was your experience in the restaurant business? 

I moved to the US in 2004 from the country of Georgia. Initially, I spoke very little English, but I was determined to succeed, so I studied hard and graduated from college in 2013 with a degree in hospitality management. During my time in school, I gained significant experience in the restaurant industry by working as a server and bartender at Stephen Starr's restaurants. My passion for wine led me to become a certified sommelier, which opened the door to a promotion as a beverage manager. I further advanced my career by working as an Assistant General Manager at Terrace Grill and later as a General Manager at Askaneli. 

My deep-rooted connection to Georgia and its rich wine culture fueled my desire to introduce high-quality Georgian wines to the American market. In 2017, I began working on importing Georgian wine, and by 2019, I successfully imported the first batch. This wine was well-received, earning a double gold medal from the Sommeliers Choice Awards and making it to the best 100 on-premise wine list. Since then, our wines have continued to win prestigious awards, including gold medals three years in a row and recognition from Texom and Mundus Vini. 

Please provide a general overview of your business: How long has it existed? Which wines and spirits do you import? Where do you distribute? 

My business (Georgian Wines and Spirits) has been operational since 2019. We specialize in importing and distributing a variety of high-quality Georgian wines. Our wines are highly acclaimed, with many receiving over 90 points from James Suckling. We distribute our wines across major international supermarkets, including Total Wine and Whole Foods in Florida, and we have a presence in nine different states. 

What are the unique features of Georgian wines? What makes them special? 

Georgian wines are unique due to their ancient winemaking traditions, which date back over 8,000 years. The use of qvevri (large clay vessels buried underground) for fermentation and aging is a distinctive feature. This method, along with the country's diverse terroir and indigenous grape varieties, imparts a unique character to Georgian wines. They offer a wide range of flavors and styles, from robust reds to aromatic whites and amber wines. 

What is your experience with the reception of the wines and spirits you import by US consumers? By sommeliers and the on-trade? 

The reception of Georgian wines in the US has been overwhelmingly positive. Consumers appreciate the unique flavors and the rich history behind these wines. Sommeliers and on-trade professionals have also shown great interest, recognizing the high quality and distinctive characteristics of Georgian wines. Our wines' numerous awards and high ratings have further cemented their reputation in the industry. 

What hurdles did you face in starting this importation and distribution business? Has business expansion gone smoothly? Relatedly, how important are wine and spirit competitions? 

Starting the importation and distribution business came with its challenges. The biggest hurdle was COVID-19, we entered the market right before the pandemic, and in a couple of months, everything shut down. However, we teamed up with online stores and spent substantial amounts on marketing.  

Another challenge is increasing competition from various beverages, including beers, ready-to-drink cocktails, and non-alcoholic options. Additionally, global warming has impacted traditional dry farming methods in Georgia, necessitating irrigation last year. 

Despite these challenges, our business expansion has been relatively smooth, thanks in part to the exposure and credibility gained through wine and spirit competitions. These competitions are crucial as they provide valuable exposure and help increase awareness of our wines. 

What do you view as the five top issues facing the global wine and spirits industries today? Do any of these particularly affect Georgian wines and spirits? 

- Increased Competition: There is growing competition from other beverages like beers, ready-to-drink cocktails, and non-alcoholic options.

- Climate Change: Global warming is affecting traditional wine-growing regions, requiring adaptations such as irrigation.

- Market Saturation: More wine is being produced globally, leading to a highly competitive market.

- Quality Expectations: Consumers are becoming more discerning, demanding higher quality wines.

- Geopolitical and Economic Factors: Trade policies, tariffs, and economic fluctuations can impact the wine industry.

These issues particularly affect Georgian wines as they strive to establish a foothold in the competitive US market while adapting to climate change. 

There appears to be increasing interest in wines from Georgia, both in the wine community and by the general public, over the past five years or so. What do you attribute this to? 

The growing interest in Georgian wines over the past five years can be attributed to several factors: 

- Historical Significance: The rich history of Georgian winemaking attracts wine enthusiasts.

- Unique Winemaking Techniques: The use of qvevri and traditional methods sets Georgian wines apart.

- Quality Recognition: High ratings and awards from reputable competitions have boosted the wines' credibility.

- Cultural Curiosity: Increased awareness and curiosity about Georgian culture and its contributions to the wine industry.

- Marketing Efforts: Significant investments by Georgia to promote its wines globally have paid off, increasing visibility and interest.

The combination of these factors has helped Georgian wines gain traction in the US and other international markets. 

In conclusion, Georgian Wines and Spirits exemplifies the fusion of ancient tradition and modern entrepreneurship. Ucha Tsiklauri's journey from Georgia to the U.S. and his passion for wine has driven the company's mission to introduce the rich heritage and unique qualities of Georgian wines to American consumers. Despite facing challenges such as the pandemic and climate change, Georgian Wines and Spirits continues to thrive, gaining recognition through prestigious awards and expanding its distribution network. As interest in Georgian wines grows, Ucha remains committed to sharing the authentic flavors and stories of Georgia's winemaking legacy with a wider audience.

Header Image: Traditional qvevri; source: georgia.wine

The 2024 Sommeliers Choice Awards results are out! View the results here.