John Wurdeman

John Wurdeman

The American artist, winemaker, cook, and forager John Wurdeman is featured in issue #33 of Apartamento magazine.


Tbilisi: We listened to Patti Smith and Tina Dico while John Wurdeman drove. As we drew closer to Tibaani, the village where he and Gela Patalishvili founded Pheasant’s Tears—arguably the culinary and natural wine destination of the Caucasus—he pressed play on a cassette of Georgian polyphonic recordings, and we stared at the mountains towering over the Alazani Valley, snow-capped and clearer than I had ever seen them.

It was April 2022, shortly after my birthday, and the filmmaker Levan Koguashvili suggested that photographer Holly Gibson and I celebrate with a wine tasting at John’s vineyard. After we arrived, he treated us to multiple bottles of rare wine pulled from his cellar and hosted a generous meal. I had recently purchased a bottle of Pheasant’s Tears wine from P&V in Sydney in a wild ploy to convince Holly to move to Georgia. ‘The strange thing’, I said to John, ‘is that somehow, now, we are all here’. But John didn’t think it was strange. His life had been punctuated by synchronicity. ‘That’s the whole reason we make wine’, he said. ‘To bring people together’.

Apartamento Magazine - John Wurdeman

A talented artist, prodigious winemaker, cook, and forager, John now owns five restaurants, including the renowned Pheasant’s Tears, which was featured in Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, ღVino Underground, the first natural wine bar in Tbilisi, and Poliphonia, which continues to serve some of the most original and exciting food in the capital city. Passionate, humble, and fiercely intelligent, John has followed his intuition and helped bring Georgian wine to the world.

Last year we spent two weeks on the road together, travelling through Kakheti, Adjara, and Tusheti, one of the last strict nature reserves in Europe located at the top of one of the world’s most dangerous roads. Walking through the misty forests, searching for the perfect boletus, I realised, or perhaps had always known—especially after several shots of chacha and a generous serving of refried mushroom khinkali—that John embodies Georgian hospitality. He works tirelessly, through food, wine, and song, to promote Georgia as one of the last bastions of original European culture that still exists today.

John, I remember the first time we met you told us about the history of the Alazani Valley, how when you tasted Georgian wine you were also tasting history. I was wondering if you could tell us a little about your history. You are originally from Santa Fe, New Mexico. What brought you to Georgia?

I was born in New Mexico to a family of artists. My father sculpted with industrial wax and marble, and my mother worked with watercolours and was an art teacher. During my adolescent years in Richmond, Virginia, I met Nina, a half-Georgian, half-Russian Jewish exchange student from Moscow, and she was a harpist. I had been studying the flute, and she told me she needed a flautist. When she heard that my passion was Renaissance and early baroque music, she said, ‘Well, you have to hear the music of my ancestors, Georgian traditional folk songs’, which we also call polyphonic music. I was very impressed with her, and I skateboarded to a second-hand record shop called Plan 9. Back then, most places didn’t have what some call a world music section, but Plan 9 did, and there was a CD titled Georgian Folk Music Today at the front when I arrived. The album had three different ensembles: Mzetamze, Mtiebi, and Soinari. I bought the CD with great excitement and popped it in my stereo when I returned home. Immediately, I felt some sort of kindred spirit with the music. It really shook me to my core, and from that day on I knew I wanted to come to Georgia.

Apartamento Magazine - John Wurdeman

It was a sign.

Yes. I ended up studying at the Surikov Art Institute in Moscow doing graduate work. I was living with Nina’s family, and we had started a partnership. She was studying at the Moscow Conservatory, which probably was, and still is, the most astute conservatorium for music in the former Soviet Union, and the Surikov was hailed as the greatest art school.

I went to Russia for many reasons. There was the connection with Nina, but I also wanted a thorough education as a painter. I didn’t want to imitate the old masters, but I also didn’t want to be mystified when I was looking at art. I wanted to understand how paintings were built, how eyes were used, how anatomy had been studied, how colour was felt. Surikov seemed like the place to go. It also had the hidden advantage that it was close to Georgia, and I knew sooner or later I would be able to go. In 1995, I received the invitation. Nina’s uncle had come to Moscow. I helped him out a little, and he invited me to Tbilisi.

I remember I was taken from the airport to a private supra, or feast, at a restaurant. Copious amounts of amber wine were poured, toast after toast was made, and the table was set with glorious vegetarian food. All of a sudden, after those dark days in Russia where the least interesting vegetables were cooked in the worst way possible, there were vibrant wild mushrooms and beautiful, almost shakshuka-like eggs, which they call summer eggs, with tomatoes and herbs and aubergines and fermented vegetables and vegetables stuffed with walnuts. At a certain point, musicians were summoned, and I took a second look at them and thought I remembered their pictures from the CD I had bought when I was 16 years old.

You have to remember that in Soviet times there were Greeks, Jews, Armenians, Azeris, plenty of Russians, and Ukrainians living in Georgia, which meant the common language was Russian. Nobody expected that a foreigner would speak the Georgian language, but by then, I had learnt a little. I called out in Georgian and said, ‘Eldar, is that you?’ He looked very surprised and said, ‘Yes, I am Eldar, but who are you?’ I said, ‘I think I am your greatest fan from the United States’. He said, ‘Well, it is not possible for me to have a fan from the United States’. I said, ‘No, it is. I know all of your songs by heart’. And he said, ‘We only toured once in Berlin and sold 300 CDs’. I imagined or knew from all these signs, at least in my romantic mind, that my relationship with Georgia was not going to be a simple or superficial one.

Apartamento Magazine - John Wurdeman

Incredible. Could you talk about your decision to study in Moscow? This was shortly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and surely not a common path for a young American at that time?

It was not terribly common, no, but I had been working in the library at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and they had a catalogue of drawings from students who had tried to apply to the Surikov. I realised that these students’ work was far superior in terms of anatomy, space, and draftsmanship. I learnt a little bit of Russian and made a phone call to the international admissions department at the Surikov, and the man on the other end of the line said, ‘Your impudence is impressive that you could possibly fathom that an American in this day and age could be prepared for our academy’. So, I went to Russia.

You were accepted?

Well, no, actually, I was blown off, but I went to Russia and painted all summer long. On the day the students returned, I went to the foreign admissions department and knocked on the door and was greeted by the same guy who had hung up on me. I recognised his voice. He said, ‘You’re lucky. The painting teachers are having a meeting upstairs’. He randomly grabbed a couple of my paintings and told me to follow. The room looked like a 19th-century photograph. There were men in three-piece suits and spectacles smoking pipes, and my first reaction was that my eyes hurt from the amount of smoke in the room. Then a man stood up—his name was Vyacheslav Nikolayevich Zabelin—and he said, ‘You can’t draw worth a dime, but how could you if no one ever taught you properly? But you can feel colour, and the feeling of colour is a God-given gift that a master can discipline and develop within you. I am taking you for your feeling of colour. Classes start tomorrow morning at 9’.

What was the atmosphere like in the school?

Deadly serious. Students competed for recognition from the masters, and there was very much a sense of self-sacrifice. Instead of eating, we took turns posing for one another during lunch so the rest could paint.

Apartamento Magazine - John Wurdeman

But you loved it

I did, very much. The master of our studio, Zabelin, who became a mentor to me, had studied with a man named Tsyplakov, who had studied with Gerasimov, one of the most important painters in Russia at the beginning of the 20th century. He had studied with Korovin, who was even more important, who studied with Savrasov, who had studied with Chistyakov. This is all to say that the Surikov had the kind of culture that taught students how to see.

There is a painting of mine at Pheasant’s Tears, a girl sitting on a cloth with a couple of textiles behind her. I remember working for two months on that painting, and Zabelin, who used to call me old man, or starik, said, ‘Starik, you’re really struggling with that cloth she’s sitting on, aren’t you?’ The paint had really built up around the cloth, and I had tried to scrape it down many times so I could paint it again, but the cloth was haunting me. Then Zabelin said, ‘Look at the two corners of the room at the same time, and out of the corner of your eye just feel the presence of the cloth. What is the colour?’ And I said, ‘It is kind of a warm, golden grey’. He hit me on the back of the head and said, ‘Well, why did you paint it the colour of slate?’ So that was probably the biggest lesson for me: how to feel colour and how to really use your eyes.

In 1996, you returned to Georgia to conduct research for a painting that would become one of your final pieces for your diploma at the Surikov. What was that project, and what happened next?

The task I had to solve visually was: Does tradition facilitate creativity or stifle it? I wanted to show how, during the grape harvest in Kakheti, Georgia, the whole family worked together to collect and stomp grapes to make wine. Some women and neighbouring families crushed walnuts for days. Afterwards there was this ritual-like feast that occurred, where everyone sat down at the table to celebrate the harvest and eat and drink and sing complex polyphonic songs. The feast mandated that people remain creative while observing traditions that kept family and friends tightly interwoven. It was during the research for that painting that I went to Sighnaghi for the first time.

Apartamento Magazine - John Wurdeman
Apartamento Magazine - John Wurdeman

The very same village that would soon become your new home.

Exactly. I had been helping Vano Iantebelidze, a newly made friend, in Telavi with his harvest, and I was doing lots of sketches and drawings. He put me on a bus and said, ‘If you’re an artist, and you’re interested in tradition, then you have to see Sighnaghi because it is a very poetic and beautiful place’. So I went to Sighnaghi. Back then it took five and a half hours to reach the town on an old Soviet bus that stopped in many villages along the way. Two elderly women across the seat from me kept looking over and giggling and talking to one another. When we finally arrived in Sighnaghi, they told me they taught English and that they had come from Gurjaani, which was then a two-and-a-half-hour journey, because the food market was cheaper. They had bought some pomegranates and pickles and cheese and cucumbers and bread. They asked if they could speak to me in English because they had never met a native English speaker. Even though I protested, they gave me all of their food and kept saying how honoured they were to meet me. I was very moved.

That night I went to the only hotel in town. The next morning, when I woke up, I went out on the balcony and saw this mediaeval little town, with a layer of clouds that covered the valley below. Above the cloud cover, I saw purple mountains that were covered in snow. I’m sure you can imagine my artistic heart beating very quickly. I had my paints with me, and I started with my easel right away. I thought this would be a good place for an artist to live.

I can imagine.

That afternoon, I went downstairs and asked the concierge for a cab driver. He grabbed his son, Sergo Varsimashvili, who ended up becoming a good friend of mine, and I asked him to take me to the house where the artist Niko Pirosmani lived. On the way back, we were hungry, and I asked if there was somewhere to eat. There were no proper restaurants, but if you were local you knew that behind the place for changing tires there was someone who could fry up some potatoes and meat for you. We sat down to a pitcher of wine and some fried aubergines with garlic and sheep’s cheese and hot bread and potatoes with plum sauce. It was all I needed. I started making some toasts in Georgian, and Sergo was surprised that I spoke the language and that I knew about the toasting tradition. He said, ‘What can I do to pay you back this respect?’ I said, ‘Find me a house in Sighnaghi. I will come back in two weeks’. And he said, ‘What kind of house?’ And I said, ‘A good one for an artist’.

I gathered whatever funds I could raise from friends and family and mustered up about $2,400, hoping that I could find something in Sighnaghi at that price. Of course, now you can’t even buy a toilet for that amount, but I was able to buy a small house that had one bedroom and a kitchen overlooking the Alazani Valley, a donkey stall, a stone oven, and a little balcony, complete with a couple of grape vines and a small fruit orchard. It was a dream come true to be able to own a property with no mortgage when I was 21 and hadn’t even finished art school yet. I thought I had made the best decision of my life.

Apartamento Magazine - John Wurdeman

I would agree!

Nina, who had become my wife, didn’t think so. She was a virtuoso playing with the top musicians from around the world, and the idea of living in a place with no running water or gas or electricity kind of horrified her. I finished my studies in Moscow in 1998. Nina and I separated, and I moved to Sighnaghi to live pretty much permanently. From 1998 to 2006, I divided my time between making paintings and helping Ketevan Mindorashvili, my second wife, who is from Sighnaghi. She was a specialist in folk songs and chants, and she and I spent quite a lot of time travelling across the country collecting Georgian polyphonic music and doing field recordings. It was through Ketevan that I met Gela Patalishvili, who would become my business partner and who founded Pheasant’s Tears with me.

He was very interested in doing with wine what we had been doing with music: returning to the ways wine had been made before it became a kind of Soviet commodity and trying to champion some of the lesser-known grape varieties from lesser-known regions, as well as the use of qvevri, which had been very much marginalised. We wanted to make unapologetically Georgian wines, and wines that Georgians loved to drink, not the kind of wine Georgians thought foreigners liked to drink, because there was a whole submarket of sweet wines high in alcohol that were geared towards Russian neighbours.

I thought my life was going to continue quite peacefully as an artist and as a song catcher and that I could help Gela out in his mission to bring back some ethnic colour to the Georgian wine scene. It really all started for me as ethnography. But when the story of the American artist and Georgian farmer on a crusade to save these ancient grape varieties spread, it quickly attracted the attention of media around the world.

Apartamento Magazine - John Wurdeman

What did saving these ancient grape varieties look like in practice?

There was theoretical work, reading about grapes and ampelography. There was a large book published in the ‘60s that contained research done at the beginning of the 20th century on grapes that were no longer commercially available, but you could still return to the villages they were from and find people who were growing them in their backyards or in small family vineyards. Basically, if you were willing to go by horse or foot or SUV and travel to these villages, then you could taste quite a large spectrum of grape varieties. On the way, we ate with families and sang songs, and we collected a lot of what we call sélection massale, or root stock, and started propagating. Later, there were nurseries where we could give them some material, and they could propagate it for us. It was a long, slow, but enjoyable process.

We knew there was a whole range of shyer, geekier, off-the-beaten path varieties that maybe had more asymmetry, maybe had more surprise, were maybe more complicated—these jewels that were sleeping and were only celebrated in remote regions by, in some cases, only one or two families, or in other cases, that might not be grown at all. I was enamoured by the Georgian grape varieties and did everything I could to learn about their growing and vinification methods. I felt like I was on a mission to shed light on some of these beautiful and rare aspects of culture. They deserved love, and I feared if they were ignored any longer, they might go extinct.

Apartamento Magazine - John Wurdeman
Apartamento Magazine - John Wurdeman

What I love about your story is that you have unapologetically and curiously followed your passions, and your life is wilder and richer for it. How did you come upon the name Pheasant’s Tears?

In Sighnaghi, there were a couple of old men sitting in a garden playing backgammon, and one said to the other, ‘Hey Gaios, that wine we had at Erekle’s house last night was extraordinary’. And the other guy said, ‘That wasn’t wine. That was pheasant’s tears’. I quickly called Gela and said, ‘What do pheasant’s tears have to do with wine making?’ And he said, ‘John, that’s just a silly saying that only old people know, and only in this part of Kakheti. They don’t say it anywhere else in Georgia. But the old men here say only the best of wines can compel a pheasant to cry tears of joy when sipping it’. I told Gela we had found our name.

You are largely known as the man who brought Georgian wine to the world. With that comes a certain amount of responsibility. What is your relationship to Georgian wine, and how does Georgian wine culture differ from other wine cultures around the world?

Growing up, I never went to parties. I didn’t drink or smoke weed or do anything recreational. I liked to play mediaeval music and make paintings. So it wasn’t the drinking aspect that attracted me to Georgian wine. It was more that wine could be used as a medium to bring people closer together, to open the heart and mind to a certain freedom that maybe we don’t have when we feel more inhibited. In Georgia, I loved the idea that families were tight, that friends made sacrifices for one another, that words had a real commitment behind them. That falling deeply in love with someone or something had conviction, that it was OK to laugh all your laughs and cry your tears, and that being an island of self-sufficiency was not the goal. The goal was to have open emotional connections with people. All of these things really attracted me to Georgian culture, and the way it manifested aesthetically was in the songs, and, although I didn’t know until I arrived here, through the wine.

Apartamento Magazine - John Wurdeman
Apartamento Magazine - John Wurdeman
Apartamento Magazine - John Wurdeman


But Georgian wine culture is very interesting. Many years ago, my French friend, Eric, who was our first important importer—he owned a couple of very nice restaurants and brought our wines to London—came to Georgia, and he asked me to plan a trip for him. He had heard stories of Georgian hospitality and wanted to go to several vineyards. We travelled to these rural parts of Georgia, and every time we were about to leave someone would bring out a fresh stack of khachapuri and a recently slain chicken and say, ‘Join us, please, respect our family’. What’s interesting is that we would taste multiple different wines in the cellar, but during the meal we only ever drank one wine. This happened again and again.

We had just opened Pheasant’s Tears, and I had tried to create this fancy tasting menu, similar to what they do in Italy or France, but I was curious to know what Eric thought of Georgia’s food and wine pairing traditions. The last place we went before he flew out was the Alaverdi Monastery. We were running late, and I called the bishop and said, ‘Your eminence, we’re not going to have time to do both the cellar and the feast’. He said, ‘Well, the food is already cooked, so come to the meal and we can do the tasting there’. We dined with the bishop and several monks, and the bishop made toast after toast, but only with one kind of wine: a Rkatsiteli 2011, which is an orange wine. 

The bishop made a toast to God and to family and to nature, and I said, ‘You know, bishop, this is one of the most important tasters in the world, and we should be sharing some of the other wines’. The bishop looked at me and said, ‘No’. I thought that maybe I had not articulated myself clearly, so a little while later I broached the subject again. I said, ‘You know, we don’t have too much time. Could we possibly show another wine? Eric is such a famous taster’. But again, the bishop said, ‘No’. Eventually I said, ‘Look, Bishop Davit, you know we have to leave, and it’s a shame because I would have loved to show Eric your wines. Perhaps you could give us a couple of bottles and he can taste them on the way back to the airport?’ The bishop looked at me and said, ‘If he is such an important taster then he will understand why I only gave him the Rkatsiteli’. Eventually we left, and back in the car Eric said, ‘I think the Georgians’ idea of food and wine pairing is extremely sophisticated’. I thought Eric was making fun of me, but he said, ‘No, really, at each meal there was one orange wine and 22 flavours on the table, and all these different foods brought out a different side of the wine. Instead of shifting the wine, we had an intimate encounter. It’s like knowing a friend in all his different seasons, or a lifelong lover. You know if they’re happy or sad or when they’re experiencing pain or rapture. The French tasting system is like a stream of one-night stands, and it could be exciting or interesting, but in the end it doesn’t give you anything, and probably takes something away’.

Apartamento Magazine - John Wurdeman
Apartamento Magazine - John Wurdeman

You seem to have a wonderful relationship with creativity, or a wonderful relationship with failure, or the many failures required to make something interesting. Would you say that in both painting and wine making, you are trying to lose yourself in something larger?

Absolutely, and I also think those two practices share a hugely similar connection, which is a relationship to nature. One of my closest friends, the French winemaker Thierry Puzelat, recently said, ‘The whole point of natural wine is to stay as close to nature as possible’. So every decision we make, from when we pick and how we crush, whether we rack and at what temperatures, whether we add sulphur, is weighed against the idea of remaining in proximity to the vineyard. He said you could make a comparison between making wine and raising children. You might have one child who runs around barefoot, and their immune system gets stronger, and you might have another child who has chronic bronchitis and who should not run around but be taken care of. Of course, this does not mean that one child is better than the other, but like discerning parents, we need to be discerning with our wines. If we don’t add sulphur, and our wine develops vinegar qualities or mushroom taints or volatile acidity, which causes a varnish smell, then the wine moves very far from the beauty of the vineyard or the grapes. In some cases, he said, it is more judicious to add something in order to stay close to its natural form.

I like that.

Now that’s different from changing the colour or the aroma or adding aromatic yeast to a wine. When you consider a bottom shelf supermarket wine, basically made in a laboratory, the results are entirely predictable.

I think part of the rapture we feel when we encounter natural wine, and by extension nature, are the inevitable surprises we face again and again. My painting teacher once said that he loved walking through old monasteries because of the asymmetry of the archways from where the buildings have sunk. It’s a more comfortable state for humans, and when we’re in a place of perfect symmetry, it’s actually uncomfortable for us. It’s an interesting idea. I mean, how many times do we go for a walk through a forest we have seen hundreds of times before and still find ourselves taken aback by its grandeur? What is that inexplicable wow? Perhaps I am trying to have a little of that in each painting, in each glass.

Apartamento Magazine - John Wurdeman
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