A few years ago, Vahe Keushguerian, one of the pioneers of modern Armenian winemaking, had a daring idea – one that involved smuggling native grapes from Iran, making wine in Armenia and presenting it to the world as wine from exile.
Despite all the incompatibility, wine always creates a simple but unbreakable connection between people and land. Keushguerian faced not only the incompatibility of nature and man, but also the incompatibility of history and politics between land and man.
His quest to save long-suppressed winemaking traditions in Iran, a country where alcohol has been banned since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, became a reality when filmmaker Jason Wise decided to turn his documentary lens on Keushguerian’s dream project.
“It’s the most dangerous wine in the world,” says Dustin Wilson, master sommelier and co-founder of Verve Wine, in the film “SOMM: Cup of Salvation,” the latest in a series of films that began with Wise’s 2012 documentary “SOMM.” , which followed aspiring Master Sommeliers as they attempted to pass the notoriously difficult wine exam.
Before the 1979 revolution, there were more than 300 wineries in Iran, along with thriving businesses involving many Armenians who were forcibly relocated there during the rule of Shah Abbas in the 16th century. In fact, Iran is considered one of the birthplaces of viticulture, along with Armenia, Georgia and other areas of the Caucasus.
Keushguerian chose Sardasht County, near the 44-kilometer border between Iran and Armenia, to source the grapes for his project. In 2021, after some research, he found a small isolated vineyard with the native Rasheh grape variety. He was able to transport enough grapes to Armenia to produce 14,000 bottles of wine at his WineWorks winery with winemaker Arman Manoukian. The wine was named Mòläna, in honor of the 13th-century Persian poet and scholar Rumi, who was often referred to as Moulana. Aged in stainless steel tanks, the ruby red wine with notes of raspberry and cherry and hints of winter spices showcases the native terroir with fertile volcanic soil and high altitude.
“The goal is to show how unfortunate it is that Iran does not allow such a product to be manufactured in Iran,” says Keushguerian. “I’m not saying that when they taste the product they’ll say, ‘Maybe we should make a wine.’ Just note. But at some point they should.”
This year, through his contacts, Keushguerian was able to transport another load of Rasheh grapes for 8,000 more bottles of Mòläna. Because of the danger, he believes this will be the final phase of his project.
In an early scene in the film, we see concern on the face of Keushguerian’s wine producer daughter Aimee as she asks her father if he thinks there will be trouble when the trucks full of grapes cross the border from Iran into Armenia.
“I’ll call you from prison,” he says, only half-joking.
“Cup of Salvation” has toured cities across the United States, including Los Angeles, and will debut on the wine and food streaming service SOMM TV in early 2024. But if you’re curious about what Iranian wine tastes like in exile, you can find the fruits of Keushguerian’s project here in Southern California.
The first release of wine made from Rasheh grapes from Iran was recently tasted by California winemakers of Iranian origin at Momed in Atwater Village. Working closely with sommelier Ehsan Mackani, chef Vartan Abgaryan has created a special pairing menu highlighting traditional Iranian dishes. Grilled veal tongue with smoked labneh served with fresh chickpea salad, braised beans and green harissa seemed to pair perfectly with this wine.
“As I took a sip of Mòläna and took a breath, I immediately remembered that I had a new date,” says Abgaryan. “This fresh date has a sweetness but is not sugary. The same goes for this wine – it is a balanced and structured wine.”
Mòläna is currently on Momed’s menu by the bottle. It is imported by Storica Wine (which offers a SOMM four-pack of other wines featured in the film as well as limited bottles of Mòläna) and sold at local stores such as Remedy Liquor and Mission Wine & Spirits.
In “Cup of Salvation,” the Iranian winemaking project is only part of the story. Through the journey of the Keushguerians, the documentary captures the struggles and dedication of Armenians in fruit picking and winemaking during the conflict that erupted between Artsakh and Azerbaijan in 2020.
Despite the risk of being killed by snipers, father and daughter decided to continue this year’s harvest in their vineyard in the village of Khachik on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border. They wore bulletproof vests and, together with the other harvest workers, ensured that they completed their work quickly.
“This film shows what terroir is about not only from the perspective of the soil in which the grapes are grown,” says Wise, “but also how important it is to the actual vine.” These vines have been around for generations grown in the same place, namely Armenia, and in the end the people and the vine somehow become the same and cannot exist without each other.”