Winemaking in Wartime

The century-old vineyards of Khachik, Armenia serve as a military border.

Keush started purchasing grapes from this border village of the southwestern Vayots Dzor province in 2013. Many farmers had previously abandoned the vineyards due to the absence of a market for grapes. Farmers have since returned to harvest grapes for wine on land that now sits between Armenian and Azerbaijani military bases.

The 44-day war launched against Armenia by Azerbaijan in the fall of 2020 and the ongoing hostilities since then have created security challenges for the winemakers working along Armenia’s borders. Aimee Keushguerian, managing director at Keush, says that in recent months she has had to obtain security clearance to visit the vineyards in Khachik while accompanied by military personnel. During the war, farmers harvested grapes at nighttime in small groups to avoid generating attention.

“It’s always in the back of your mind,” Keushguerian told the Armenian Weekly of the security risks of working as a winemaker in Armenia. “You learn to try to still grow your business in times of war.”

Geopolitics has long prevented the growth of the wine industry in Armenia, despite the country’s 6,000-year-old winemaking heritage. In 2011, archeologists discovered one of the oldest wine presses in the world in the Areni-1 cave in Vayots Dzor, the same province where Keush harvests grapes for wine today.

Under Soviet rule, while Western European countries exported wine globally, a wine produced in Armenia stayed within national or Soviet borders, Keushguerian said. Yet over the past decade, as international winemakers and investment projects have entered Armenia, the rate of growth of the industry has been exponential, resulting in what Keushguerian calls a “modern-day Renaissance in the wine industry.”

Keushguerian is the daughter of Vahe Keushguerian, the entrepreneur responsible for many of the breakthroughs in Armenia’s wine industry. In addition to founding Keush, Vahe launched WineWorks in 2013, a custom fresh winery incubator that produces wine for different brands.

Keushguerian grew up in her family’s vineyard in Tuscany, Italy. She was repatriated to Armenia in 2015, six years after her father, to participate in her first wine harvest. She soon started managing Keush on her own, and in 2017, at the age of 23, she founded her wine brand, Zulal.

Zulal, which means “pure” in Armenian, experiments with producing single varietal wines from grapes indigenous to Armenia. Keushguerian hopes to highlight the tastes of rare indigenous grapes like Chilar, Tozot, and Nazeli that she says have been lost, forgotten, or combined with other grape varieties to produce blended wine.

“I take all the grapes individually, and I say, this is what Chilar tastes like. This is what Nazeli tastes like,” Keushguerian said.

Armenia boasts hundreds of indigenous grape varieties, unique due to the volcanic soil and high elevation of Armenia’s vineyards. The vineyards of Khachik are approximately 1,750 meters above sea level, the highest elevation vineyards in the northern hemisphere to produce the traditional method of champagne.

Keushguerian said that producing wine with Armenian grapes is not only a matter of taste but also a philosophical question.

“We’re not just growing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. We’re growing Areni and Voskehat,” Keushguerian explained. “You can make Chardonnay in Armenia and say, look everyone, we can make good wine with a French grape variety, or look, we have an Armenian grape, and we can make great wine with Armenian grapes.”

Keushguerian founded Zulal not only to experiment with indigenous Armenian grapes but also to distinguish herself from her father as a visionary entrepreneur. She has had to earn the respect of her male colleagues in the face of daily microaggressions. Yet she feels fortunate that the industry is changing as many winemakers in the new generation are women.

“We set the tone very early on that yes, women are going to work in wine and yes, we’re going to be winemakers and yes, we’re going to hold upper-level management positions,” Keushguerian said.

The culture around drinking wine has also evolved to include women. Keushguerian attributed much of the rise of wine culture in the capital city of Yerevan to the women who would avoid going out in the evenings without their husbands and now freely frequent wine bars and restaurants.

“We’ve seen a cultural shift going from Armenians drinking vodka and brandy and smoking cigars. Now we see women going out and drinking comfortably at wine bars,” Keushguerian said. “Now you see men drinking rosé.”

Despite the geopolitical risks of running a business in Armenia, Keushguerian believes the rewards of supporting Armenia’s economy by growing industry and entering the international stage make her business pursuits worthwhile. Armenian wine is entering Western markets through companies like Storica Wines, an Armenian wine import company in the United States that has introduced wine brands like Zulal to 20 states.

“I feel very special that I get to talk in terms of industry growth, that I get to talk in terms of building a country. There aren’t many places in the world that you can move to and feel that what you do is so impactful,” Keushguerian said.

Keushguerian also believes in the potential of Armenian wine. Her latest project is Origins, an online Armenian wine, and food magazine that will serve as a resource about Armenian grapes, regional guides, and new Armenian chefs and winemakers around the world.

While violence in Armenia’s borderlands threatens the country’s vineyards, Keushguerian “keeps her head down and keeps moving forward.”

“You just have faith that at some point the war’s going to be over, and then we have to move forward. You have that balancing act of continuing to build while there’s still geopolitics going around you that are out of your control, but what you can control is the growth of your business and the growth of your products,” Keushguerian said.

by Lillian Avedian

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