Cheers from the Birthplace of Wine!

In the Republic of Georgia, legend has it that when God was dividing the world into different nations, he kept a piece of land for himself.

When God realized that he'd left nothing for the Georgians, he gave them his land on one condition -- every guest who knocked on their door had to be welcomed with open arms and a table full of food and wine. God said he himself might come and check on the Georgians under the guise of a king or beggar.

Folk tale or not, Georgians to this day remain probably one of the most welcoming people in the world. Food and wine, even more so, are national obsessions.

Almost every family I visited offered me some of its homemade wine. People even have grapes growing on their balconies in the Soviet-style tower blocks in the capital Tbilisi.

Georgians believe their country is the cradle of winemaking, with traditions going back 8,000 years. The English word "wine" and the French word "vin" are thought to originate from the Georgian word "gvino."

Archaeological findings such as 8,000-year-old ceramic storage jugs have been discovered in southern Georgia, suggesting that people in the region had begun to make wine earlier than nations in Western Europe.

The Georgian wine-drinking rituals are also linked to the spread of Christianity -- Georgia was the second nation in the world to embrace the Christian faith as state religion in the fourth century, following its neighbors, the Armenians.

St. Nino, who evangelized the Georgians, had a grapevine cross that, according to legend, she'd received from St Mary. It is said that St. Nino bound the cross together with her own hair and came with it on her mission to Georgia.

"Wine is everything for us," said Sulhan Gornadze, a winemaker from the Racha region. "It is the soul of Georgia.

"All traditions in Georgia are connected with wine. When the baby is born, we celebrate and say toasts. We also see people off to the afterlife with wine and toasts. We are drinking wine all our lives, sometimes even two to three liters a day."

Not a single glass of wine in Georgia can touch the lips without one of its famous toasts. The designated toastmaster, or "tamada," usually sits at the top of the table and makes long, improvised toasts.

He (a woman is almost never a tamada) usually starts with wishing the guests good health and drinks to the fate that brought everyone together. Then he toasts to peace, to Georgia, to ancestors, to you, to us and so on. The more wine everyone drinks, the longer, more complicated and less comprehensible the toasts become.

Such a typical Georgian feast is called "supra," which literally means a tablecloth. A good supra lasts for hours, and staggering amounts of food are placed on the table. When more plates arrive than there is space, the hosts start putting them on top of one another, and such towers sometimes reach quite high.

Most hosts require guests to down the first glass of wine at once, though women can sometimes be excused. And, of course, one of the most popular Georgian toasts is for women and mothers.

Guram Sultanishvili, a chief winemaker at Ambrolauri winery, offered one of the cheekiest toasts I've heard during my 10-day visit to Georgia.

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