Supra co-owners Jonathan and Laura Nelms designed their debut restaurant to share the rich history of Georgian wine with D.C. diners, a long-term goal that only months-in is already gaining ground thanks to a balance of tradition and innovation — along with selections so rare they’re unavailable in their homeland.
While wines from this part of the world have appeared on menus at adventurous establishments such as Rammy Award-winning Compass Rose and Michelin Bib Gourmand pick Red Hen, the decision to fill glasses at Supra exclusively with pours from native producers struck some hospitality professionals as so far fetched that management had a hard time locking in senior staff. Jonathan Nelms notes that multiple people who applied for the general manager post simply turned away upon hearing the plan, convinced it would never work.
The burgeoning crowds washing down khachapuri with glasses of Georgian wine on any given night, however, would seem to suggest otherwise.
“Georgian wine is great and it pairs naturally with Georgian food, because they evolved together,” explains Jonathan Nelms. “It makes the story we’re trying to tell about Georgia, the Supra culture, food and wine more coherent.”
What is the Supra culture, exactly? The restaurant describes its historic namesake as “a Georgian feast featuring an abundance of food, wine, and toasts (sometimes poetic, often lengthy, occasionally punctuated by song).” Today it’s an important and deeply rooted aspect of both culinary and social traditions in Georgia, a country with 8.000 years of wine-making experience beneath its belt — enough for some historians to have branded it the “birthplace of wine.” Sharing that ongoing story remains a work in progress, as Supra, and others, continue exploring the most effective ways to shine a light on Georgia’s dining and drinking culture.
In this case, that mission has been greatly advanced by an early partnership with Georgian Wine House, a Washington D.C.-based wholesaler and importer. Noel Brockett, director of sales and operations at Georgian Wine House, worked closely with Nelms and the Supra staff to craft a comprehensive wine list for the restaurant, striking the delicate balance between traditionally made options and budding innovators.
“You have ancient techniques, modern techniques, old-world techniques, everything in Georgian wine-making, because it’s been around for so long,” explains Brockett. “That’s what’s cool at Supra. It’s the first time we have a menu that reflects that wide tradition. It’s a unique opportunity that I haven’t seen at any other restaurant across the country — or any restaurant period.”
Saperavi wine, made from Georgia’s signature Saperavi grapes, boasts deep red colors and often a full body. It’s the most popular option for both newcomers and lifelong fans of Georgian wine. Supra’s menu features two options: Pheasant’s Tears ($12 per glass) and Orgo ($16 per glass). Nelms notes they’re the two single best-selling wines at the restaurant, and “they’re both fantastic.”
Those more familiar with Georgian wines, or perhaps just feeling adventurous, could be drawn to the Orgo Mtsvane Blanc de Blanc ($100 per bottle); a sparkling wine made in the traditional qvevri method — stored, fermented and aged underground in large clay pots. The experimental wine is in its first-ever year of production, but is already featured on Supra’s wine list.
“It’s something that’s made with an extremely Georgian style, but with this nod to the Western champagne tradition,” explains Nelms. “It’s one of our higher-end wines, but it’s really paid off in a way that everyone — us, the winemakers — are really excited about. It’s a very successful first year.”
The triple-digit price tag of the blanc de blanc is seemingly an exception to the norm, an apparent splurge on Supra’s wine list. “One thing to know about Georgian wines is that they’re not very expensive,” says Nelms.
While the Georgian wine market is now maturing and expanding, geopolitical dynamics of the past few decades resulted in very little in the way of exports. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, producers had few options.
“Georgian winemakers weren’t cellaring. They were selling everything they could because they needed the money,” explains Nelms. “We’ve said to winemakers, ‘Hey, look, we have this 2008 of yours’ and the winemakers would have tears in their eyes and say, ‘Oh I haven’t seen that since 2009.’ We have some wines at Supra that you actually can not get in the country of Georgia.”
In recent years, the rise of Georgian wine in the United States found a catalyst in the industry’s shift toward more natural, organic options. Due to the agricultural structure of Georgia and the cultural wine-making process, many Georgian wines are naturally organic, even if they’re not necessarily certified.
In some ways, this movement perfectly coincided with D.C. coming into its own as a dining destination.
“Here’s this 8,000 year old wine culture that’s just coming to people’s attention just now,” says Brockett. “It’s very exciting to see. I think we can safely say the D.C. area is one of the strongest markets for Georgian wine in the entire country.”