Here's to Life!: Georgia's Tradition of Toasts Is an Art Worth Practicing

By Susan Able, Photography by Jennifer Chase

 Supra means “feast” in Georgian, but that usage came from the name of traditional Georgian tablecloths, also called “supras” and pictured here. Used for over 300 years, the colorful cloths with graphic patterns are an important part of Georgian tradition and were recognized by UNESCO as a “material monument” in 2017.

Supra means “feast” in Georgian, but that usage came from the name of traditional Georgian tablecloths, also called “supras” and pictured here. Used for over 300 years, the colorful cloths with graphic patterns are an important part of Georgian tradition and were recognized by UNESCO as a “material monument” in 2017.

It’s funny where passion can take you. Consider Jonathan and Laura Nelms: an attorney and environmental scientist who lived in Russia, fell in love with Georgian culture and cuisine and now are the restaurateurs behind Supra, Washington’s first Georgian restaurant.

If you were connecting dots in the chain of events that led to a Georgian restaurant, the first dot would appear in 1989, where Florida high school student Jonathan Nelms meets a Georgian exchange student in his Russian class. The next year Jonathan became one of the first 50 Americans to be a high school exchange student in the Soviet Union, an experience that sparks his enduring interest in this part of the world.

Jonathan, fluent in Russian, builds a legal career with a Washington-based law firm and handles their business in the former Soviet Union, frequently traveling to Russia for business and then living in Moscow for three years with his wife, Laura, and their daughters. In Moscow, they enjoy eating out at Georgian restaurants and start traveling to Georgia on vacations.

 Lobio kotanshi, or red beans stewed with traditional spices, is served with pickled red cabbage and cornbread mchadi.

Lobio kotanshi, or red beans stewed with traditional spices, is served with pickled red cabbage and cornbread mchadi.

“During our time in Moscow, we went to Georgia as often as we could, exploring different parts of the country. It is about the size of West Virginia, and takes about eight hours to cross the county. It was such a contrast from Moscow daily life. The country is so beautiful and the people are so warm. I feel like unique is an overused word for a culture, but that it what it is, unique, it is like no place else I’ve ever been,” Jonathan says.

“Hospitality there is like a religion; they take hosting guests incredibly seriously. Visiting the Georgian wine regions was like being parachuted into Napa Valley 50 years ago. It is rustic and funky and relaxed, with wine dinners that go long into the night. The Georgian people cherish and honor their thousands of years of traditions and rootedness. And I loved that, having grown up in Florida where no one has roots.”

More dots connect. After coming back the States, Jonathan and Laura decided to get serious about bringing Georgian culture to DC, and started planning a restaurant and with Supra opening last fall. And now, Jonathan has left his career as an attorney to be at Supra full time. Laura says, “It’s been exciting. I will say it was definitely Jonathan’s brainchild. Sure, I thought it would be cool—but he followed it through and I knew he would make it a success. I was an environmental scientist; my only restaurant experience was as a waitress when I was young. So, I technically have more restaurant experience than Jonathan.”

 Bostneuli tolma, or grape leaves stuffed with rice, vegetables, and yogurt, make for an excellent opening dish.

Bostneuli tolma, or grape leaves stuffed with rice, vegetables, and yogurt, make for an excellent opening dish.

She laughs and continues, “You can’t underestimate what a huge career change it has been for both of us, but truly it’s been great. Raising two young girls, 6 and 9 years old, is a balancing act with a restaurant to run, but they share our love of Georgian culture.”

The restaurant’s name, supra, originally described traditional Georgian tablecloths, but now has also come to mean feast. Authentic touches are everywhere in the decor, and the local Georgian community has given Supra a very warm reception; the embassy staff are frequent visitors for lunch and dinner. It helps that one of the top chefs from Georgia, Malkhaz Maisashvili, was brought on as executive chef. It is a wonderful place to dive into a culture that you may not know much about: Traditional Georgian dishes abound, including favorites kupati (pork and beef sausages with fried pickles) and many variations on the famous Georgian baked khachapuri. Jonathan’s favorite is pkhlovani, a khachapuri with spinach and cheese. He also recommends cold yogurt soup with radishes and cucumbers and or trying roasted meat with fruit sauces, a Georgian style of preparation.

 Ajaruli, the most popular style of khachapuri served at Supra, features bubbling cheeses and a fried egg.

Ajaruli, the most popular style of khachapuri served at Supra, features bubbling cheeses and a fried egg.

And then there is the wine. Supra’s wine list is one of the best showcases for Georgian wine in the U.S. It doesn’t hurt that the top importer of Georgian wines is here in Washington, DC: Georgian Wine House. For wine geeks, Georgian wine has long been on the radar. The country is known for still producing wine in ancient way using qvevri, large clay jugs. Even though about only 3% of Georgian wine is produced in this traditional way that goes back 8,000 years, the country makes wines that are considered very fine. Jonathan loves seeing the wine industry grow and mature in Georgia and enjoys providing a home for small vintners on his wine list. He tells me about helping make wine at a family workshop in Akura in 2015, and now he has their wine, Blui’s Wine, at their restaurant.

Dots connected.

Supra, 1205 11th Street NW, Washington, DC (supradc.com)

 Georgian wine is famous for its traditional method of preparation, using qvevri, or large clay jugs.

Georgian wine is famous for its traditional method of preparation, using qvevri, or large clay jugs.

 

Georgian Wine & Toasting

“You can’t overstate the importance of wine in Georgian culture,” Noel Brockett of DC’s Georgian Wine House tells me. “It’s what every Georgian wants to be known for in the world. And there is a good reason for it. Georgia is recognized as the birthplace of wine, with 8,000 years of history in winemaking. The country has over 500 varietals of vinifera grapes. It has all the microclimates of the U.S.—the ocean, the mountains, the desert. The Black Sea with its humid and tropical air, the central Likhi mountain range and the very arid eastern region.”

Brockett is here to talk about the art of Georgian toasting and Georgian wine. In the Republic of Georgia, there is no time busier for toasting than the holidays. Georgia religion is Georgian Orthodox, and feasting happens constantly from December 25 to January 14, when people celebrate Georgian Christmas, the New Year and the old calendar New Year by gathering with friends and family.

No Georgian feast, or supra, is complete without a toastmaster, or tamada. The tamada’s role is to give unity to a feast by leading a series of toasts, always with wine. A tamada is almost always a man, usually an extroverted individual, a quick thinker with quick wit. They learn their role through practice and study. The tamada gives each supra structure—after always starting with three scripted toasts (the first is always to God), the tamada then goes on to full-on speeches. The tamada also opens topics and guides the conversation; a typical toast is on friendship. Then a discussion ensues on that topic by the guests and the tamada pays attention, closing the discussion and opening another one with expert flair.

A wedding may have 30 to 40 toasts; a family meal might have six to eight. By design, a typical Georgian feast brings together people who know each other and those who don’t, and it is also common to have guests come and go from the table, going from one supra to another supra.

 Noel Brockett of Georgian Wine House in Washington, D.C.

Noel Brockett of Georgian Wine House in Washington, D.C.

Noel Brockett knows the art of toasting intimately. He is married to a woman from Georgia and is a partner in Georgian Wine House with Dr. Mamuka Tsereteli, a lecturer at Johns Hopkins and president of the America Georgia Business Council, who founded the business with a group of friends who saw the possibilities of importing and promoting Georgian wine in the U.S. With the political changes in 2004, Georgian wine was no longer embargoed by Russia.

Brockett sees the opening of Supra as a great chance to educate people on Georgian wine culture; there are around 50 wines on the list at a time. Orange wine or amber wine production is the oldest way to preserve wine or make white wines. Amber wines from Georgia have become very popular. Sebastian Zutant of Primrose and Red Hen was an early adopter, and they are on the menu at Compass Rose and Maydan and, of course, at Supra.

How does one approach learning and tasting your way through a wine region that you do not know? Brockett suggests starting with a Telanvi Valley Wine Saperavi, which for a $10 price point will give you a young, fresh, red, medium-bodied, good everyday wine. For an amber wines, Orgo Dila-o Saperavi (which means morning in Georgia and is also a popular song), usually retails for about $15 a bottle. You can drink it with everything because, he explains, “After all it is a white wine made like a red, with tannins and dryness.”

“What’s really great is that because the vineyards are so small, they are very personal with so many stories and history. Importing wine has given a real tangible economic impact to Georgian agriculture. Small growers are reinvesting in expanding their operations. It’s also a place that is rediscovering itself. People are re-learning lost techniques and knowledge of the past.”

georgianwinehouse.com