When we travel, many of us are captivated by the culture and landscape of foreign countries, and dream about really getting to know these places, in depth, after we have finished full-time work. Perhaps we dream of learning the language, maybe having a second home, or at least staying for a few months, rather than that magical single week.
But what if you could make your job into a living that connected you deeply with another culture? And even be celebrated and welcomed in that other country?
If that dream interests you, then do listen to the latest episode of our podcast, Second Lives, presented by JONATHAN HOLLOW. In the fourth episode of the series, he talks to the remarkable LISA GRANIK, who quit a prestigious career in law to train as a Master of Wine. She is now celebrated in the Caucasian country of Georgia as one of the world’s leading experts on its wines. As you can see from the photo above, Georgia is a stunningly beautiful country. And as you will hear in the podcast, it is full of interest — and influence.
Lisa Granik talks about the joys and challenges of living in both the United States and Georgia, talks about the journey that has taken her to her position of eminence (especially with her book The Wines of Georgia), and she has some striking things to say about sexism in the wine trade in the United States. (She found things to be different in Georgia.)
Above all, she shows how sometimes the earlier parts of our career and training, parts of us we long ago thought we had thrown away, can come back to help us succeed in new ways — to a position of fulfilment, and even unique authority.
TEBI would like to thank the London-based financial planning firm Mulberry Bow for collaborating with us on this series.
As well as Spotify, you’ll find The TEBI Podcast on all the major podcast platforms, including Apple Podcasts, Listen Notes, PlayerFM and Podbean.
The transcript below has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
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Jonathan Hollow: Lisa, I believe you are about to embark soon on one of your twice-yearly trips to update your authoritative ‘Granik’s Guide’ to the wines of Georgia. Do you have a process you follow to keep up to date with such a fast-changing field?
Lisa Granik: It will be Granik’s Guide to Georgian Wines 2024, which will come out in the Fall. I don’t taste all of the wines alone. I have a panel, and so we’re in the process of soliciting CVs for a group of new young Georgians to join me on the panel, as well as collecting the wines. So the four of us, or five of us, are going to meet to start tasting through the wines.
There are also numerous wine festivals. I’m arriving in time for one of them, and so the first three days, I will go and I’ll meet with a lot of people and taste a lot of wines (not tasting blind). Then I travel around and meet with people and have a sense of what’s going on.
I write up all of the committee’s notes and our reviews of the wines when there are questions about the wine.
After the judging has been done, I often write to the producers that I know and do not know. If I have questions about the wine, if I have questions about their vintage experience, or if I don’t know them, about how they got into the wine industry.
Jonathan Hollow: To me, that sounds like a wonderful second life.
Lisa Granik: It’s fun. It’s hard work, but it’s fun.
Jonathan Hollow: You’ve been working in wines for about 20 years now. You are now, I think, a world authority on a subject close to your heart. I’d like to know, was there ever a moment of transition when you suddenly realised that this could happen or had happened?
Lisa Granik: In going back to Georgia a number of times between 2011 and 2015, and as I saw the wine industry in Georgia develop … I realised that any major wine area had a book about it. And I realised that, with my background, I was uniquely situated to write this book.
My life has gone in a curious spiral fashion. I wanted to be an academic in different ways, and then all of a sudden I’m almost a wine academic, in certain ways. And that allowed in so much of my background: my analytical skills; and my research abilities; and my background in the Soviet period (which the Georgians really didn’t want to talk about) and my wine knowledge – all these could come together in my work on this book.
Jonathan Hollow: And what was the beginning of that ‘spiral’?
Lisa Granik: I had finished my doctoral dissertation and I’d gotten my doctorate, and I was turning the first chapter of the dissertation into a book manuscript because Yale Press was interested in the book. And all of a sudden I realised that I just didn’t want to do it anymore.
I pushed myself away from my desk and walked downstairs. I really felt like Anna Karenina in some way. You know, you’re at the station, you can change trains now.
I ran into three acquaintances, and all three of them were successful legal academics – and all of them were miserable. It was very clear how stressed out and or angry they were. One looked like she had developed Tourettes or had just gotten out of Auschwitz, and the other one was just very angry.
I sat there at my desk and I thought: “Are you kidding? Is this where you want to be? Not one of these persons looks happy!”
And that was when I got up from my desk.
I was lucky. I was still on a fellowship, so I was able to take the time and rethink what I really might want to do in life. And I stepped back and I thought about my skill sets in languages, and I thought, “You know, what if I stepped back to my late teens and didn’t think about what my parents wanted me to do, didn’t think of what I should do, didn’t think of what I had to do … and tried to think of a career that somehow touched a lot of my interests and would be more than a job?”
And really one day I was sitting on the subway. It was within a few weeks of saying, “I’m going to read poetry, I’m going to read history, I’m going to read all the other things I wanted to read that I wasn’t able to do, because I was so focused on my legal career.”
I’d always collected wine, not in a super serious way, but because I was a student of Western European history and that was part of Western European culture. So that’s how that happened. And I spent some time and thought about it before I finally made the plunge.
Jonathan Hollow: You and I know Georgia, but many of our listeners won’t. It’s a country at the far end of the Black Sea between Turkey and Russia. Can you try to capture why it has such a grip on your imagination?
Lisa Granik: Well, I first went to Georgia as a young adult, and I didn’t realise – and this is something that’s become more apparent with the current war in Ukraine – the degree to which our understanding of the Soviet Union (and in particular these different republics) – that they were really such different places. And I was really a student of Soviet studies and Russian studies. We learned the Russian propaganda, Soviet propaganda of the ‘friendship of the peoples’, but I had no idea how truly distinct the Georgians were, and that was really eye-opening for me.
It’s a much warmer place relative to Russia in every single way.
I developed some very deep friendships there, which has carried through my interest and care for that country ever since that time.
Jonathan Hollow: And what about the food and the landscapes? Those are things that a lot of people talk about in relation to Georgia.
Lisa Granik: Well, of course, the Georgians think they live in the most beautiful place on earth! I mean, it’s a country 85% of which is mountainous. So there are many dramatic views.
The people themselves are really so filled with life, and they reflect that warmer Mediterranean culture – whether you go from Persia down into Greece, there is this warmth and expansiveness, vibrancy and, honestly – a love of partying – and a love of drinking, that really enlivens and characterises who and what they are.
Jonathan Hollow: Let’s turn to the wines. A lot of people, when they think about wine, will think about it revolving around – I don’t know – France, Italy, the United States. If they’re aware of Georgian wines at all, they’ll probably think they’re quite incidental to it. Are you able, in some way, to try and capture in words what makes these wines special to you?
Lisa Granik: There are different styles of wine in Georgia. There are ones made in stainless steel and maybe some oak treatment that are in the European style, and then there are some that are made in the ‘qvevri’ – the so-called ‘amber’ wines.
These orange wines, they have amber colour tones and they’re made with an extended period of skin contact that is a taste sensation, as you’ve never had one before.
And I usually say: if you’ve never had umami – or when you think back to the first time you ever had beer, or something like a sea urchin – it is something very strange in your mouth, and you have to taste it a couple of times to wrap your mind around it.
Jonathan Hollow: This ‘qvevri-style’ wine, which is made in a big clay amphora buried in the ground, it’s a glimpse into the past, isn’t it?
Lisa Granik: You know, people say that drinking wine is fantastic because it’s ‘travel in a glass’ — you can go to a foreign place.
Well, Georgian wines are history in a glass!
You can go back, not to a foreign place, but to a very distant time.
Nobody really thought much about wine before France made its mark, and its own brand, as creating the greatest wines in the world. So those wines we thought were central to European culture.
And because Georgia was part of the Soviet Union, we didn’t have access, we didn’t travel there.
But if you go back in time, history really starts with … where you start! Georgia is a window into what wines were like when when the grapevine was first domesticated. That look backwards to a pre-corporate, pre-industrial era brings Georgia to the fore.
But it was only apparent with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Georgian attempt to revive its wine culture, and promote tourism to that area. Not so much back to the future, but back to the past.
People looking into the origins of winemaking have found the archeological evidence that Georgia has, which takes its winemaking back 8,000 years.
There’s evidence in Armenia that is 6,000 years old.
And then the most recent genetic evidence has the domestication of the grapevine going back 11,000 years.
One domestication happened in the Levant. These vines are primarily the precursors to western European vines.
But what occurred in the Transcaucasus – namely Georgia, Armenia, Eastern Turkey – because that area was so geographically isolated, those vines stayed where they were.
Jonathan Hollow: You had two big encounters with Georgia over the course of your life, and one of them was all the way back in 1990 – so can you describe how that happened and what you made of it?
Lisa Granik: At the time, I was practising law and I wanted to make the leap into academia. I received a Fulbright Scholarship to teach law and do some research in the Soviet Union. This was just before the Soviet Union fell apart, and I was supposed to be at Moscow University, but you needed – you still need – to go to Russia, an official invitation, and the Ministry of Education needed to issue the invitation.
And I couldn’t get one.
I had a friend who did some research and found out – she said, “It’s not coming. Basically, the Ministry of Education is necrotic. But if you can get yourself to the Soviet Union, we can get you to Moscow.”
So there had been a number of Georgian lawyers that I had worked with a few years prior and on some very early exchanges of Soviets to the United States, and I contacted a few of them and I said, “Ramaz, I’ve gotten this fellowship. Can you get me an invitation?”
“Sure, why not!” And in typical Georgian fashion, they waited until there was an election so then things were safe. And then as soon as the election happened – because the Soviet Union was literally falling apart – I got my invitation.
I was able to book my ticket, and I left within a very short order. I don’t remember whether it was a week, two weeks. I arrived in Tbilisi and was greeted in the middle of the night by three close friends – some of whom I’m still close with today.
I had been to the Soviet Union before, so the Soviet part was not unusual to me. But the Georgian part was completely foreign. People did not speak Russian everywhere, and I did not speak Georgian. There was a question of what am I going to do there? I started to learn about Georgian, learn about that culture, and you know, I met with the lawyers there to see what sort of topic I could lecture on that might be of use for them, but they really weren’t very interested in hearing what I had to speak about! They were much more interested in having me as a ‘fellow traveller’, and understand what Georgia was about, and why it should be a free and independent country.
Jonathan Hollow: Was it obvious to you at that point that Georgia was deeply distinctive, or has that sense of distinctiveness grown as you got to know it better over the years?
Lisa Granik: I began to understand how distinctive it was at the time I met some of my Georgian friends in the United States.
I grew up with Armenians – not a lot, but a good number – and I lived near an Armenian church and I saw the script and I knew the Georgian script, and I thought they were similar. They’re neighbouring countries. I made the mistake of saying, “Oh, the languages are similar.” Well, I ever made that mistake again!
And that was when the Georgians started to teach me one of the original alphabets – theirs, that is. And over the course of time, the depth of the distinction of the culture has only grown.
And actually, since I’ve been going back and forth to Armenia, the distinction between these two countries has – and my understanding of those distinctions – has grown more. When you grew up and studied Russia, the Soviet Union (and Ukraine), we learned about this area through a Russian lens, because either it was Russians who wrote the histories, or even emigrés who lived in Russia, or other parts of the Soviet Union. And they all ‘bought’ the way in which Russia recreated its own history, and understanding of its sphere of influence, basically from the time of Peter the Great.
The Caucasian peoples are a completely different set of people. They look different. Arguably they act different, and they certainly have their own ethos and that’s something that is very nuanced. It’s something that I continue to learn about every time I go back.
Jonathan Hollow: So this first encounter with Georgia was before you turned away from your career as a legal academic.
Lisa Granik: That’s right.
Jonathan Hollow: But you did make that turn, and I believe you began by wine waiting. I’m interested in the reactions of your family and friends to that turn.
Lisa Granik: My first job in the wine business was actually as a wine rep. I was working for a distributor, an importer and distributor, and I started to do it part-time because I was still involved in a number of academic projects. My family was stunned.
I’m not going to say they were not supportive. They were stunned. And of course my mother said, “Oh my God, you’re going to throw away all of that education,” of course, some of which they had funded, some of which I had funded.
But I basically said I wasn’t happy and I wasn’t fully committed, and I wanted to see where it would lead me.
My father ultimately found that it was amusing. He liked wine himself, and my father was basically proud of whatever I did … but it took some time for them to wrap their head around it. I’m not sure that they ever fully did. They certainly were very proud when I became an MW, though they didn’t necessarily understand what that was.
Jonathan Hollow: So MW is Master of Wine?
Lisa Granik: Correct.
Jonathan Hollow: And for listeners who don’t know it, it’s an extraordinarily demanding and rare qualification. Can you tell me a little bit about the process of studying for it and how long that took?
Lisa Granik: Well, when I started in the wine business, having left my legal career, I’m not the sort of person that would instantly say, “Oh, I collect wine. I love wine, and I’m going to tell you all about it.” I would have suffered from real imposter syndrome, and I felt like I needed some education to have some authority to tell people which wine I thought they should buy or drink.
So I started through some friends. I found out about the Wine and Spirit Education Trust and I started to pursue that, and so I went through that programme through the diploma, which takes about four years. And after the diploma, I thought initially that was all I was going to do, but my sister’s brother-in-law is a Master of Wine – Nick Adams, based in the UK.
So that was how I heard about the MW; and then I started the MW in 2002, and became an MW in 2006. So it was about three-and-a-half, four years.
Jonathan Hollow: Master of Wine is a very international qualification. You certainly could have used it to work in France or Italy, and you are a great lover of Western European culture. But you said to me that you felt that by working on the wines of Georgia, you could ‘move the needle’ more. Can you just explain what you mean by that?
Lisa Granik: This goes back to being a citizen of the world.
I went to a Jesuit university, and there was this notion of doing something beyond yourself in your life. A lot of people I know in the wine industry sometimes wonder what they’re doing, because – yes, they’re having fun – but they’re … moving boxes.
I felt that I had an opportunity. When you look at Georgia, it’s a poor country. It’s an agricultural country that was denied its self-determination for a great period of time. It’s not like Italy with lots of pasta, or cheeses, or car industries. I mean, you name a powerhouse that drives various economies – Georgia doesn’t have that. And as Georgia wants to become outside of the Russian yoke, and wants to be an integral part of the western European economy, developing a viable wine business and a wine tourism business is a key part of allowing Georgia to come into the modern world, and be less dependent on a very big bearish neighbour. I think it was Kym Anderson, an economist from Australia, who noted that an economy is based on three different sectors: agriculture, manufacturing, and services. And wine covers all of these.
So when you support the wine industry, you’re really promoting all of these aspects of a national economy; and so I think I can slightly move the needle a little bit. Georgians are a very proud people and I can help them think about ways in which to make their wines compete with other wines of the world.
Jonathan Hollow: The Master of Wine qualification is both practical and scholarly. I’m interested in your views about scholarship and wine. When you wrote The Wines of Georgia, which is a very substantial book, you had to not just interpret the wines of Georgia for Western readers, but get behind some myths and understand the influences of the Soviet Union on Georgian history. And I think you found this a troubled topic – even a taboo topic – in some places.
Lisa Granik: Insofar as Georgia is concerned, people don’t like to talk about the Soviet period.
And in the wine category, they certainly blame Stalin and the Soviet economy for destroying the biodiversity of their hundreds of different grapes and creating factory wines rather than a niche wine industry. I had to demonstrate to them that there’s evidence that, if not for Stalin, Georgia’s winemaking industry might have been like Moldova’s and largely ceded over to European grape varieties, or, like in Armenia, developing varieties that were for brandy.
But because Stalin liked wine and, strongly Georgian, liked specific Georgian wines, decisions were taken to privilege – first of all – wine in Georgia during the Soviet period, and Georgian grape varieties during the Soviet period. That’s a thesis I have in my book.
It’s one that Georgians listen to, and they’re a little uncomfortable with it. But they don’t say, absolutely not. They say, “Hmm – maybe, it could be!”
Jonathan Hollow: The world of wine is changing, but it has had lots of men working in it and running it. What’s your experience been like, of that, in the United States and in Georgia?
Lisa Granik: Terrible!
It’s been problematic from the beginning. I’m not going to mince words about it. Yes, I had men who certainly assisted me at different points in time and even mentored me to a certain extent. But there is no question that there were jobs I did not get, there were buyers who would not buy wine from me, because I did not sleep with them.
There were things that were said about me because I was a woman of a certain stripe, and it continues. I was bullied. I’m not going to say it was easy.
Jonathan Hollow: What signs have you noticed of change? In Georgia, for example, I know there are some really great wineries run by women.
Lisa Granik: Being a woman has not been so problematic in Georgia. There have been more women now that are running their own wineries and there’s a bit of a … I’ll say, a sisterhood … about that, and they are successful.
I think the Georgians embrace me because they know that I have been involved in their country, and in encouraging the best for their country, for well over 30 years. And even now, I’m somewhat mythic in Georgia, because I lived there during very dark times.
Many of the leaders now weren’t even alive when I was there! I was there when the Soviet Union was falling apart and there was no electricity, there was no heating … for the first time, a country that could always feed itself didn’t have food. And I was there — and I came back.
And they couldn’t believe that I did this – so they recognise that I have a history of love and care. And for that reason, I’ve been told that I’m a friend of Georgia and that has eased my way. Not least, I have close friends outside of the wine industry, so I have insight into the country outside of the wine business.
In the United States, the large expanse of the wine business is still overwhelmingly run by men.
Certainly there are lots of women’s organisations in the wine business. I’m sustained by these because I mentor a lot of women.
I actually had a woman ask me – she’s suffering from certain issues right now, and she asked me, “Does it get better?” She was hoping I would say, “Oh no, by the time you’re, I don’t know, 40 or something, it’s fine,” and she said, “Wow, okay. I need to adjust my expectations.”
Jonathan Hollow: You’ve got many close friends in Georgia and you’ve got a considerable attachment to it in all sorts of ways. You live on the East Coast of the United States. So I’m interested in what it’s like to have those threads connecting you to somewhere that is relatively far away, and relatively demanding to get to.
Lisa Granik: It’s very far away, and quite a challenge to get to!
It’s a wholly different experience now, through ( I hate to say it) Facebook and WhatsApp. Because there are people that I communicate with on a semi-regular basis and, whether we see each other on a screen or we’re texting back and forth, there’s that level of continuity. And some of us know what’s going on in each other’s lives.
On the other hand … this is the peculiar thing, I go back to Georgia for about a month at a time, twice a year, and each time I go back, I’m living with people that I was very close with for 30 years and I still live in the same neighbourhood. I leave my family in the United States behind, but I’m going back – and this is one of those spirals again – back as a young adult, in a place that I first went to when I was alone as a young adult, because there was no internet. Even to have a phone call, you had to go to the main post office to make an international phone call.
Walking the streets in Georgia, I’m back in the headspace of my young adulthood, and that’s a very comfortable place to be.
I’m in the same place — I’m in a different place. I have changed — I have not changed. It’s a comfortable place to be. I see my youth, and I see my middle age.
Jonathan Hollow: You don’t end up feeling too much nostalgia for things that have been lost in Georgia since you first went there?
Lisa Granik: Well, there are absolutely some things that are lost, but the Soviet system had more bad things than good things, and so I’m not nostalgic for most of it.
One of the greatest things of the Soviet times was what was called the kitchen culture.
There was nowhere to go and you were afraid of whether your room was bugged and people sat in their kitchens and talked, whether it was over tea – or in Georgia, it was over wine.
And Georgia still has a kitchen culture. You still get together at table and you eat and you drink. People aren’t necessarily outside singing from the balconies the way they used to, but the kitchen culture still is there. So that human element that was there in the Soviet period is still there in Georgia, and that’s a testament more to the Georgian character.
Jonathan Hollow: Do you feel that all this contact with Georgia has changed you and changed your values, or do you think you are attracted to Georgia – have ended up close to Georgia – because there’s something there that was already in line with your values?
Lisa Granik: There’s more a counterpoint, not so much a similarity. There’s a wild abandon in the Georgian character; I’m more controlled, so I envy that. But I think that there is still an old-school commitment to family and relationships.
And the other deepest thing about it, I think, has to do with the fact that I’m Jewish. I see two ancient cultures living in hostile worlds, or in hostile places in the world – and very tiny cultures. And each culture feels that they have contributed something to the world in their own different way. Two different cultures that, at root, each feel that their culture matters.
I’d hate for the whole world to be entirely homogeneous and I respect the Georgians’ attempt to fight and maintain their own sense of self. In the same way I come from a culture that I believe matters, and has contributed a great deal to humanity.
Jonathan Hollow: Beautifully expressed. Lisa, will you just finish by telling us about The Wines of Georgia and what people can expect if they buy it and read it?
Lisa Granik: It’s an attempt to understand the culture, the history, and the individual terroirs where most of the grapes are grown, as well as the personalities. I really focus on different kinds of producers, whether they are very large or very small. Some of the tiny producers are of a certain style or wedded to a particular terroir that they’re trying to understand.
Jonathan Hollow: I enjoyed it very much. It’s a book I highly recommend, not just about the wines of Georgia, but actually about Georgia more generally, because you draw so many dimensions of it in.
Lisa Granik: Thanks so much for having me. I appreciate your support from cheering far away when I was in Georgia, or when I’ve been here in New York. Or here in New Jersey, where I actually am at the moment. Wherever it is, your support is greatly appreciated. Thank you.
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