TBILISI, Georgia, March 14, 2008 — -- 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.
"After a few glasses of wine life seems much better. It is our Viagra. There wouldn't be that many people in the world if we didn't have wine. When men have some wine, they have more courage to approach women, who after wine are easier to be approached. … So they allow men ..."
Sultanishvili raised his glass and then finished his speech:
"We look at the wine like at the beautiful woman. A good winemaker has to highly appreciate and value women and has to behave in the same way with wine."
But life in Georgia hasn't always been about feasts. The country was often the object of rivalry between Russia, Persia and Turkey because of its location between the Black Sea and Caucasus Mountains, where Europe meets Asia.
The decades of Soviet occupation almost destroyed its wine industry. The most infamous Georgian in the world, Joseph Stalin, loved extremely sweet wine, so his cronies pushed wine production into that one direction.
Georgia declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 but soon after was plunged into a civil war and armed conflicts with breakaway regions of south Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Many of its problems have yet to be resolved.
An American-educated lawyer, Mikheil Saakashvili, was re-elected president this year.
The pro-Western Saakashvili wants to lead the country into the European Union and NATO, and sees the United States as its key ally. But the opposition has accused the president of stealing the election and has staged several protests in Tbilisi.
History aside, Georgia is worth a visit not only because of its fine wine, food and natural beauty but because the Georgian people themselves are the nation's greatest treasure.
The country still has the energy of a young and new republic in which a government minister can be as young as 30.
But the typical warm welcome and never-ending attention can be too tiring for some travellers.
Disgusting toilets, horrible roads, crazy driving and the refusal to wear seat belts in cars can also be a downer.
As the winemaker Sultanishvili said, life in Georgia will always seem better after a few glasses of red or white… Cheers!