By MAX SEDDON and MISHA DZHINDZHIKHASHVILI, Associated Press
MOSCOW (AP) — A Russian official said Monday that Moscow may soon resume imports of Georgian wine, mineral water and fruit after a seven-year ban, the first tentative step toward repairing the ruptured ties between the two ex-Soviet neighbors.
Gennady Onishchenko, Russia's top sanitation official, said a first round of talks between delegations from both countries was successful Monday, and that a Russian delegation will visit Georgia this month to discuss issues related to restarting the import of wine and mineral water. He said that could happen by this spring and that fruit imports may follow.
Russia banned such trade in 2006 amid rising political tensions in the run up to a brief war with Georgia in 2008. An election in October made tycoon and philanthropist Bidzina Ivanishvili Georgia's new prime minister, and he pledged to normalize relations with Russia, where he had made his fortune.
The Kremlin, which has staunchly refused to talk to Georgia's pro-Western president, Mikhail Saakashvili, has shown a willingness to improve ties since his party's defeat in the election.
Russia's ban on Georgian products has dealt a painful blow to its economy.
Since the Soviet times, Georgian wine has been a popular tipple in Russia, accounting for about 90 percent of exports before the ban. The nosedive of Russian purchases forced many vineyards to close.
Since then, they have recovered as Georgia expanded sales to other markets, but at 23 million bottles last year the vineyards are still far behind 57 million bottles exported in 2005.
Ukraine, China and Poland have been among important new markets for the Georgian wine, though vintners also have made some inroads into the United States and Canada.
"You can't depend on a single market," Georgian Agriculture Minister David Kirvalidze said. "That was the mistake of producers who didn't look for alternatives."
Many officials believe the Russian import ban also forced them to crack down on bootlegging in Georgia's wine industry. Before 2006, Russian stores were flooded with counterfeit Georgian vintages made in response to their popularity and low price. While exploring new markets, Georgian vintners were forced to meet quality standards higher than those in Russia.
"The Russian embargo has played a positive role," Georgian Wine Association official Tina Kezeli said. "The emphasis has shifted clearly toward quality."
Wine has long been an important source of revenue in Georgia and an essential part of its national identity. The nation claims to be the world's inventor of wine making 8,000 years ago and treats it with sacramental reverence. Its more than 500 grape varieties are used for wines ranging from golden to deep red, dry, and semi-sweet. Some of the tongue-twisting names have become internationally known, including Kindzmarauli, Usakhelauri, and Mukuzani.
Georgian culture centers hold sumptuous feasts during which a tamada, or banquet leader, initiates countless toasts with elaborate etiquette, praising parents, deceased loves ones and the nation itself.
Georgians often claim their wines are better than those produced in countries such as France, Italy, the United States and Australia.
For that reason Gela Gamtkitsulashvili, a proprietor at the Twins Old Cellar winery in the Kakheti region, predicted Russians would soon put aside such wines when they can once again buy Georgian ones.
Georgia hopes to increase annual wine production 50 percent to 40 million bottles by 2015, or even earlier if Russia soon drops its import ban.
Dzhindzhikhashvili reported from Tbilisi, Georgia. Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report.