Born late-December 2012, In Vino was the first specialist wine bar and shop to open in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan. The cosy interior brims with hand-picked bottles; pungent cured meats and cheeses fill the deli counter; and passionate staff deliver a wealth of knowledge with every glass.
This scene would be familiar to most oenophiles, and is repeated in cities across the globe. So to understand the significance of this particular bar, some wider context about this corner of the Caucasus is needed.
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Armenia claims an enviable history. What are believed to be the oldest known traces of winemaking in the world have been found in the country’s south, at the 6,100-year-old Areni-1 archaeological site. Christianity first blossomed here. Literary, artistic, culinary and musical traditions pre-date many ancient civilisations. But modern times have been defined by struggle.
Ottoman occupation in the early-20th Century turned from oppression to mass killings, decimating the population and significantly shrinking borders in the process. Soviet rule, beginning in 1922, restricted opportunities and options – and independence in 1991 resulted in kleptocratic decisions where industrial assets were stripped with little investment to plug the gaps.
Additionally, territorial disputes became numerous. Borders with neighbouring Turkey and Azerbaijan remain closed, and swathes of land have been annexed. Successive autocratic regimes over the last three decades had given rise to endemic corruption, stunting the economy and limiting social mobility. An enormous diaspora now remains overseas, and on home turf, one third of the population is currently impoverished with 16% unemployed. Those with a job earn an average of £270 per month.
All of which makes Armenia an unlikely candidate for The Economist magazine’s 2018 Country of the Year. That is until you look at the events of spring 2018, when the Velvet Revolution swept through towns and cities after former president Serzh Sargsyan tried to extend his decade in power.
The public, weary after years of administrative criminality, had finally had enough. Young activists mobilised, using social media to organise large-scale protests, bringing major roads and public realms to a standstill. Within weeks, the ruling Republican Party stepped down. Not a single shot was fired.
Elections in December 2018 then saw reformist acting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who was a key figure in the revolution, claim 70.4% of the vote. Many now believe major improvements are possible after seeing barriers between political class and population removed. As a symbolic gesture, the gates to the National Assembly and the prime minister and president’s offices were opened to the public in October to convey new governmental transparency.
However, some Yerevan locals believe the seeds of change were inadvertently sowed in the intimate interiors that define many of Armenia’s new specialist drinking dens that stand on Saryan Street, now dubbed ‘Wine Street’ thanks to the sheer number of establishments that have opened since In Vino arrived. A huge financial risk at that time – with some doubting such a small bar could turn a profit – six years on, In Vino is a firm fixture in the capital's nightlife scene.
The area caters to a new generation of drinkers, who prefer quality wines (domestic and imported), craft beers and spirits with traceable origins over the mass-produced vodka popularised during Soviet times – and a staple of more traditional haunts popular with the now-deposed political class. With the old regime disinterested, establishments such as In Vino became breeding grounds for progressive ideas. Frustrations, resentments and hopes were shared across tables, eventually boiling over into direct action.
“Wine created places where people would come and share ideas without feeling encroached by the presence of the ruling class,” said Vahe Baloulian, one of In Vino’s owners. “[In Vino] became one of those places where similar types of people would gather and exchange ideas. It didn’t happen because they started drinking wine, but wine usually attracts people who are better educated, more forward-looking.”
Wine Street's dominant demographic – largely young, educated and employed but tired of the corruption in parliament – would not only support the revolution, but go on to produce the government of today.
“Right now, a lot of the people who are involved in the parliament are just like us, people who used to come to our wine bar regularly,” said Mariam Saghatelyan, one of Baloulian’s partners at In Vino. “They might not be very experienced in the field, they might not know that much about politics, but at least they have the same interests as me, and if I am against something they want to change, I can voice my opinion. I’m not afraid of them anymore.”
Wine created places where people would come and share ideas without feeling encroached by the presence of the ruling class
While these new wine bars and ideas might be progressive in today’s Armenia, gathering and exchanging thoughts over wine is firmly rooted in the country’s cultural heritage.
“Even if you read stories or historical points about our ancestors – my grandfather, their grandfathers – how they would resolve different issues was always around a table with an alcoholic beverage,” Saghatelyan said.
Just as wine has been brought back to the fore by Armenians keen to see one of the country's oldest traditions thrive, the slow, relaxed atmosphere we associate with drinking reds, whites and roses has restored that tradition of addressing the day’s issues over a fine vintage.
“The whole wine itself is a story – the winemaker, where it was made, the history of the winery. People started to discuss things around the wine, then the next day you could see them coming together as a group,” Saghatelyan said. “A lot of problems were discussed, because wine makes conversations flow.”
Domestic wine production has re-emerged in tandem with these new perspectives. Under the Soviet Union, Armenia was instructed to focus on brandies. Many of the red grape vines used to produce wines were removed to increase capacity for the white varieties brandy requires. Other red vineyards simply fell into disrepair as demand declined.
In the years after Soviet authority ended, however, a thirst to resurrect the lost wine industry grew alongside newfound freedoms promoting the recognition and celebration of Armenia's traditions that had been suppressed under communism. Output of Armenian wine has since exploded, as In Vino’s success demonstrates. When it opened, there were just 10 native varieties on sale; that number now stands at 85, with reds such as Areni and Kakhet and Voskehat whites particularly popular in the shop.
“Armenian winemakers of the recent generations showed that it’s possible to make good wine in Armenia. Because before that people were going for sweet wines which was all sugar and juice or foreign wines,” Baloulian explained. “So a lot of things like this made people believe what they were told was impossible was possible.”
It may sound tenuous to suggest a link between that newfound belief in quality winemaking and the realisation that other forms of positive change could also happen. But there are parallels. Armenia’s new producers approach winemaking with hopes of competing globally. Meanwhile, the revolution began with demands for better prospects from a population tired of an economy that could not function properly on the international stage.
“Winemaking is not a new thing here, but the approach and the philosophy is,” explained Varuzhan Mouradian, who heads up the Van Ardi winery, one of Armenia’s growing number of award-winning, modern vineyards. “I think the consumer should follow and trace the wine back to starting from that bud break. She or he needs to feel that sun, and see how deep the roots went, how they were fighting the stones to collect different minerals.”
“The contrast compared to 15 years ago, or during Soviet times, was that wine was just considered an alcoholic beverage and produced as such,” said his daughter, Ani Mouradian, who explained how the last six years have been crucial to cementing the reputation of Armenian wine on the world circuit as producers started appearing at foreign trade shows. And confidence in the wine industry is growing.
The Van Ardi winery is building accommodation overlooking the vines, scheduled for completion in 2020. Elsewhere, in the most prominent wine region of Vayots Dzor, the country’s first wine route has been established. There’s hope that Armenia could become the next emergent wine destination, like neighbouring Georgia, bolstering a small but economically significant tourism economy in the coming years.
Whether Armenian wine really started the revolution is a matter of opinion, but its impact on a country in the throes of being reborn seems undeniable.
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