- Independent Journalism From Today's Armenia
 April 4, 2003 

Fine Vine: Enthusiast for wine on campaign to renew Armenia's favored fruit

If you take the Old Testament as a history lesson, it is believable that the first wine was made from grapes grown in the Ararat valley.

Genesis 9, 20-21: "Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard.
When he drank some of its wine, he became drunk and lay uncovered inside his tent."

In plain words: After surviving 40 days and nights of flood Noah planted a vineyard and the grapes made such irresistible wine, the man in whom God "found favor" got drunk, and passed out in his tent.

These thousands of years later a Yerevan wine aficionado is on a campaign to renew Armenia's love of the grape.

President of the Union of Winemakers of Armenia Avag Harutyunyan talks about Armenian grapes and wine with special tenderness and love. He professionally represents all the details of Armenian winemakers' work, which have the history of centuries.

"In III century B.C. archeological finds authentically represent a history of Armenian winemaking," Harutyunyan says. "The first records come from Assyrian sources dated XI-X centuries B.C."

And the Biblical myth, Harutyunyan says, confirms Armenia as the country of origin of wnemaking.

Noah's vines extended toward Phoenicia, Egypt, Greece and Europe.

Avag Harutyunyan says the meaning of the vine is in its eternity"During all period of times winemaking and viticulture were obligatory conditions of strengthening and growth of any country," says the president. "Armenian kings had two obligations. They should have built temples and planted vineyards. King Menua of Urartu named the garden of vine he had planted in the name of his daughter Tarira."

Winemaking flourished in Armenia until Soviet times, when it began to diminish, as the world's mythological first wine drinkers were Sovietized by government and intoxicant. "Ori" (vodka) replaced "gini" (wine). Only the "cheapest, rough wines were produced," according to Harutyunyan.

Then, with privatization of land also came difficult times for the grape. Between 1991-1996, winemaking hit a low, Harutyunyan says.

"Our union was created (in 1997) with the purpose of contributing to the development of villages in our field and realization of healthy competition," he says.

As recently as 1995, only cheap wines such as "Blood of the Earth" (less than a dollar a bottle) were typically found on Armenian market shelves. Now, however, several varieties are made for local and export consumption. Still, though, only about one fourth the number of vineyards exist compared to peak years - some 8,000-9,000 hectares now, compared with 36,000 in prime times.

Harutyunyan is calling upon Armenia to return to its national drink. And he's doing so with a weekly television program devoted to the joy of wine.

Since January Harutyunyan has hosted a Public TV show in which he invites notable Armenians, including celebrities, to spend an hour drinking and talking about wine.

"Artists, scientists and ministers talk about wine," Harutyunyan says. "That drink contains so much truth, love and symbolism, that there is no reason to tell people about that. We just give an impulse . . ."

The program is shot in a cellar set up by Karapet Afrikov in 1880. Avag Harytyunyan works in the same cellar, so the title of the program is "At Avag's".

The mood of the cellar brings out philosophical discussion, aided by enough imbibing to prove the Latin slogan: "In vino veritas" (the truth is in wine).

"The wine unshackles them. Natural and true conversation gives birth to interesting thoughts and, the most important, inspires love for wine," Harutyunyan says.

It has become a ritual that at the end of the program the guest pours wine from a barrel, corks it, puts an inscription and leaves it in the cellar.

"The closed bottles won't be opened," Harutyunyan proudly says. "They will remain for history. In the cellar we have 100-year old wines like those."

Armenian history and religion can be followed through winemaking, Harutyunyan says. During pagan times, vines were consecrated on the birthdays of pagan goddesses Anahit and Astghik and the Armenian Apostolic Church still maintains that tradition each August 13. With Christianity came the sacrament of transubstantiation when wine became the blood of Christ.

Harytyunyan says that viticulture in Armenia has been dependent on politics and the whims of invaders. If the land were overtaken by Muslims, vineyards were destroyed as Islam forbids wine.

"God granted wonderful natural environmental conditions to us," says Harutyunyan. "We have permanent sorts of wine cultivated for 5,000-7,000 years. We have Ararat, where Noah descended. We only have investment problems unsolved, and in case they are solved we will keep step with the world.

"The vine itself is undying, it is endlessly fertile. It yields for 100-120 years. Even if it is cut, it starts growing on sides. The meaning of the vine is in its eternity."

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