This Wine Guy Is Helping Put Georgian Food on Americans’ Radar
How an American convert to Georgian orthodoxy became an evangelist for the country’s culture
Supra, the first Georgian restaurant in Washington, D.C., has lately been a focus for Noel Brockett’s traditional Georgian feasts, where friends, family, and strangers pay $125 to partake in what, to him, is a sacred act.
“In America,” he says, “you’re always a little bit wary about whether to drink the first toast to God. But in the western part of Georgia, where this wine is from and where my wife’s family is from, you always say, ‘Glory to God, and peace to us.’” So, as he always does, Brockett begins the meal with these words.
The son of a Baptist preacher, the phrase is not unlike ones Brockett would have uttered growing up in the church, though in a context that, admittedly, involved far less wine. Today, Brockett sells wine full-time as the director of sales and operations for a Georgian wine importer, regularly leading feasts for the restaurant that is one of the business’ biggest customers (and it’s going to get bigger, with the opening of a sibling restaurant, Tabla, in late 2019). He sees no contradiction between his work and his beliefs, only symbiosis.
But sit at his table long enough and you’ll sense that the toasts and mini-sermons he weaves into the meal are more than rehearsed rhetoric. They’re a glimpse into the Orthodox Christianity that has shaped these meals over centuries and has been shaping Brockett since he converted from an American evangelical tradition to this one in his early 20s.
For him, the meal is liturgy as rich with meaning as the services he attends on Sundays, with flavors and rhythms remind him of the goodness and nearness of God. They’re also an opportunity to invite others into a Georgian culture so rich with food, wine, and significance that it will whet their appetite for more.
“So may God bless our meeting tonight, and may he always receive the honor and glory,” he says to end his first toast, which was long and deep enough to remind us of his pastoral roots. “But before we go on,” he adds, interrupting himself, “you have to eat something.”
On the table are herby orbs of pkhali that taste only vaguely like the beets that lend them a pinkish-purple hue. Georgian pickles, also piled with herbs, and bread baked in the restaurant’s circular toné oven start the meal, with a glass of crisp rosé from an uncommon tree-climbing varietal called chkhaveri to raise with the toast.
Jonathan Nelms is also at the table, who left a legal career to start this restaurant with his wife Laura after falling for Georgian food during a stint in Russia. Cuisine from the small country the size of West Virginia remains a favorite among both locals and expats from throughout the former Soviet Union.
More than bringing Georgian food to the nation’s capital, Supra’s all-Georgian wine list has also single-handedly bolstered some of the small wineries in a country that has the world’s oldest winemaking tradition (Archaeologists confirmed Georgians’ longtime boast of 8,000 years of vinification in 2017).
Later, after a garlicky chkmeruli chicken arrives with Georgia’s iconic bready cheese vessel, ajaruli khachapuri, and another version stuffed with black beans, a bottle of red wine from an otherworldly grape variety also appears. An example of the far reach of wine drinking, the aladasturi comes from a maker whose label simply states “Dato’s Wine” in Georgian script.
Half of the wine’s production comes from 150-year-old grapevines planted by the maker’s ancestors, Brockett says. (“We have talked to him about doing a bottle just from the 150-year-old vines,” Nelms says.) Offering this wine by the glass on his menu for a few months was easy enough for Nelms and allowed customers to risk trying a new variety without buying the whole bottle. But, for the small winemaker from Western Georgia’s Gurian region, who makes just a few hundred bottles a year, the sales returned enough profits to double his production capacity.
As Brockett and his boss, Mamuka Tsereteli — who, besides running the wine importing business, also lectures on politics in the Caucasus region at American University — tell it, Georgia’s historic wine tradition was nearly wiped out during the era of the Soviet Union, when its hundreds of native grape varieties were uprooted to make room for a handful deemed more desirable. Several hundred varieties survived and are slowly being discovered by American palates as they move beyond the region’s unique skin-contact-style whites, fermented in clay pots, that are often called orange or amber wines, to others.
Brockett could regale us all night with tales of Georgian winemakers, many of whom he’s “discovered” during annual pilgrimages back to the country. But this evening is a holiday on the Orthodox calendar, and he has a different sort of vineyard on his mind.
The feast remembers the Bible’s story of the transfiguration of Christ, witnessed by his three closest disciples, who said his face shone like the sun as he was revealed to them as fully God. In Georgian tradition, the “changing of color” of Christ’s face corresponds to the changing of color that accompanies the late-summer ripening of fruit, which is why the feast is celebrated on August 6.
“One of the things that I loved about Orthodoxy was going back in time and realizing that there already was a way of living that was attuned to the seasons — but also to the life of Christ and to God,” Brockett says.
Converting to Georgian Orthodoxy to marry his wife, Nini, in the church is not uncommon, but Brockett’s conversion ran deeper. He fell as hard for the place, the people, and the culture as he did for the girl. The two met while students at St. John’s College, a small liberal arts school in Annapolis, Maryland. Together, they founded a student group called the Organization for Liberal Education in Georgia that took them to the country for several months to help establish a learning environment like their own at a nascent college there.
An affection for Georgian culture seems to cling to nearly everyone who’s spent time in the enchanting country. (After visiting myself in 2016, I became one of several Georgian groupies based in and around D.C. who occasionally meet over feasts or wine.) But to hear Brockett talk about Georgia is to think the whole country is his beloved childhood home rather than a place he stumbled upon in his college days. After adopting its religion and marrying one of its native daughters, Brockett now spends much of his time carrying Georgia’s stories — whether stories of new winemakers or the oldest sort of stories, passed down through Orthodox Christian tradition for thousands of years — to his corner of the world.
Whitney Pipkin is a staff writer for the Chesapeake Bay Journal and a freelance journalist focused on food, farms & the environment in and around Washington, D.C. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, NPR and The Washington Post. She’s currently working on a mega-report about microplastics.