Can wines be political? Master of Wine Lisa Granik believes there are opportunities for micro-activism when it comes to choosing a wine. Seriously. Support for a particular wine can help boost the economic growth of a country or empower farmers in a war-torn region. Lisa, therefore, encourages people to keep an open mind when selecting their favourite tipple.
Lisa has a strong sense of purpose. Her choices stem from a conviction to be of value to the world so, in her previous career incarnation, she was a lawyer and law professor. She received her law degree and masters from Yale. She taught law at Moscow State University and the Institute of State and Law in Tbilisi as a Fulbright scholar. Having developed close friendships in Georgia, and armed with expert knowledge of the region, she jumped at the opportunity to return there as a wine expert 20 years later with a USAID program.
The change of career reflected her desire to fulfil her many other interests, as well as pursuing a more social way of life. It was also an intellectual pursuit which culminated with a Master of Wine title in 2006. For her, it was an important step to give her the confidence she needed to ensure that her opinions would be worth listening to.
Over the years, Lisa’s contribution to Georgian wine has been so extensive that a Georgian Minister playfully bestowed on her the unofficial title of ‘Georgian Minister of Wine’. She is the author of Wines of Georgia and is in the process of creating an annual guide to Georgian wine: the country has an 8000-year history of winemaking and more than 430 indigenous grape varieties to boot. A traditional method ferments and ages the wine in large buried clay vessels called Qvevri. This cultural legacy was recognised by UNESCO in 2013 as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Q. Whilst doing what you love for work, can you share both the challenges and the joys that you encountered?
As I continued in my law career, I found myself needing a broader horizon. My focus was getting too narrow with deep expertise in academia. Wine is all-encompassing, so much more than I imagined. It bridges so many topics: history, geography, agriculture, art, politics, commerce. Wine speaks of culture, people and place. I have always been interested in foreign policy and liked languages and I believe wine is capable of building bridges between different cultures.
I also rediscovered myself. I found myself to be more social than I expected. I enjoy meeting people. I now have a wide network whom I can share similar interests with.
I did have a rude awakening when I started working in the industry. I had these romantic notions of wine but I soon had to face the reality of wine as a commercial product. I am not someone who is energised by closing a deal or making a sale so I really had to work hard to focus and find joy in the commercial aspects.
It is a challenge to keep an open mind when tasting wines. We are naturally biased and have preconceptions of what is good and bad. It is too easy to make excuses for great labels that disappoint us — or be dismissive of a great wine which is not our ‘style’.
Passion is not enough. We have to consciously stay objective. When I taste wine professionally, it means deconstructing it, tasting it analytically. The expertise I gained in the MW program gave me the confidence and the language to express my opinions, to explain why I think a wine is ‘good’ or unique. This also helps me in the commercial domain to market or ‘sell’ a wine.
Q. Which wine or type of wine has made you happiest? Can you tell us about this experience?
Definitely a wine with personality. I enjoy a wine that is balanced, with a clear structure; that is vibrant and with fine tannins. Most of all, I like a wine with something to say, which has a point of view. It is akin to meeting someone with a sparkle that captures your attention.
Wine is alive, it evolves. A dynamic wine has different levels of complexity, it changes in the glass. As it opens up, the layers unfold. It becomes evocative, it engages you. A captivating conversation follows. ‘I am not done with you yet’, it says. The wine tells me who it is; it makes me want to think about it, to go back for more. My friends can tell when I find a wine like that. My eyebrows go up like a light bulb has gone off in my head!
Chablis, as an example, always brings me pleasure because it is a clear expression of a place. Whenever I drink it, it reminds me of its origin, of French culture and history. For me, it has a distinctive personality.
I also find immense joy in American Zinfandel. Its exuberance and fruit remind me of an American-type personality. Moreover, it is delicious. I like opening it on American festive occasions, and I sometimes bring it with me when I travel. I find it makes a great ambassador.
Q. If you were to drink this wine again, which five people would you share it with and why?
I would like to share wines I enjoy with two categories of people:
One group would be my Georgian friends who enjoy wine but have not had the opportunity to taste many wines outside the country. I would love for them to discover the diversity, complexity and quality of wines throughout the world. It would also show them the potential of what Georgian wines can be like.
The other ‘group’ would be Jesus and Mohammed. Drinking together creates an environment where people can talk about the hard questions. It creates a relaxed atmosphere where we can talk about things in a more open way. Since wine is a bridge between cultures, I would like to use it to have a conversation with them, to ask them how they feel about everything that has been done in their name. I see it as an opportunity to reach across the divide.
Hero Picture Credit: Sonia Tan