I met Fred Weir at the Canadian Embassy Icewine tasting in Moscow in June. Fred is a fellow Canadian who writes about Russia for Indian, Chinese, British and American newspapers, including the Christian Science Monitor. We had just enough time for a friendly chat and connect before I stood up and served enough Icewine to Moscow’s wine elite to drop a diabetic elephant into a deep coma.
A couple of weeks later, I was walking the quiet and calm waterfronts of Sukhumi. Max enjoys pop culture. Over glasses of Abkhazian wine, lavash and great cheeses we talked about his country until the conversation drifted away, and then we shifted to talk of Hunter Thompson and Ralph Steadman or other Rolling Stone issues. Max has an advantage in that while his country is isolated by the world, his work takes him abroad. This and his American education give him a perspective that most Abkhazians would not see. When I left, I gave Max a bottle of Dan Aykroyd Icewine.
Dan Aykroyd’s contribution to pop culture leaves an interesting patchwork. In the Soviet Union, he is well known, but when I mentioned Dan Aykoryd, some would light up and say, “Ghostbusters!” and others would light up and say “Blues Brothers”. This didn’t have so much to do with the age of the person I was talking to and I never did understand what made a Russian remember Ghostbusters over Blues Brothers or the other way around and not both.
I was thrilled about the Dan Aykroyd Icewine. When I shipped the samples to Moscow, it was a great tasting celebrity wine. When I got there three weeks later, it had won Ontario’s “Wine of the Year”. The medal and the recognition didn’t change the wine inside, but it was great to show that the home of Icewine was heaping honours on an Ontario boy and his wines.
A week later the prelude to August war between Abkhazia and their Russian protectors and Georgia started up in the form of car bombs, shootings and kidnappings. A bomb went off in the market where I had so enjoyed looking for local foods to pair with the Icewines. Another blast killed four people at a birthday party near the southern border. Reporters were sent into Abkhazia to cover the war.
“They always want to cover the war,” I recall Max saying about the reporters, “but there is so much more going on here.” But Max’s job was to meet with each of the media and he has presence so they all met him, usually followed by a pleasant but briefer and more formal meeting with Sergey Shamba, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Max’s boss.
For me, a delightful punch line came in an email from Fred shortly after he visited Abkhazia. Here it is in Fred’s own words,
“Yes, it’s a small world. I met at least two people down in Abkhazia who mentioned you. One of them was Max Gunjia, who started talking about ice wine in the midst of a political interview, then your name came up … Interesting place, Abkhazia;”