The attempt by one of Armenia’s biggest producers to clamp down on the use of the word ‘karas’ by other wineries has sparked a bitter dispute in the Caucasian country, with smaller producers claiming the name of the ancient clay vessels isn’t for one company to monopolise.
12th February, 2018 by Rupert Millar
The clash between Tierras de Armenia and Zorah – both relatively new projects founded by diasporan Armenians – came about when Tierras de Armenia reportedly told Zorah it was no longer allowed to use the word ‘karasì’ (meaning ‘from amphora’) on its labels, claiming it had exclusive rights to the word for its main wine range ‘Karas’ – despite not using the ancient clay vessels to make any of its wines.
Karasses are large clay amphorae; very similar to the ‘qvevri’ used in neighbouring Georgia and which have an equally ancient history.
Under the Soviet Union, Armenia was designated a brandy producing country and production was weighted towards distillation.
The use of karasses faded almost into non-existence as did the skill in making them but a new wave of investment in the country’s wine industry is leading to a revival.
Two prominent figures in the rebirth of the Armenian wine industry are Eduardo Eurnekian and Zorik Gharibian the respective founders of Tierras de Armenia and Zorah.
Eurnekian was born in Argentina and is one of the wealthiest men in that country (the second richest in 2013) and he also owns two wineries there: Bodega del Fin del Mundo and Bodega NQN, both in Patagonia.
Eurnekian has invested hugely in Armenia in recent years and his company even runs the country’s main international airport, where he has invested US$50 million building a new terminal.
Speaking to the drinks business, Gharibian claimed that he had been the first to register the name ‘Karasì’ for one of his wines in 2011 but was told (“correctly,” he added) that he could not have exclusive rights to the word.
Karas Wines registered its name a little later but was apparently given exclusive rights yet is only now, five years later, demanding that Gharibian stop using any reference to the pots on his labels.
He said: “The absurdity lies in the fact that they don’t even ferment or age one single drop of their production in the karas and pretend to forbid Armenian winemakers, who choose to work with the karas, the right to use the word on their wine labels to express what is an ancient and authentic Armenian wine-making method.”
Having gathered around 15 smaller winemakers who also use karasses into a “united front”, Gharibian has been fighting the demand since late last year and the matter has gone before the court of appeal which is due to deliver its verdict this week (Tuesday 13 February).
Karas Wines has been approached for comment by the drinks business but, at the time of publication, had not received any. Eurnekian’s niece who runs the winery, Juliana Del Aguila Eurnekian, was however interviewed by an English-language Armenian paper where she rejected the notion that her uncle was trying to monopolise the word karas and its derivatives and was purely trying to ensure there was no “confusion” between the Karas and Zorah wines. She said the claims that Tierras de Armenia was trying to monopolise the word was a bid to “get more attention”.
However, Tierras de Armenia is also reportedly chasing another Armenian winery, Voskevaz Wine Factory, through the courts on a similar charge relating to the use of the word karas.
When asked why it had taken so long for Karas to challenge Zorah over the name, Eurnekian said it had only recently come to their attention that there may be confusion between the two brands on the part of consumers, especially in export markets.
The real point though, says Gharibian, is not the tussle over a trademark but its wider effect on Armenia reclaiming its viticultural past.
He continued: “We’re also working to revive the karas making traditions of Armenia (my wife is actually a potter). We’ve been searching for potters who were willing to experiment and try and make these huge pots. It’s been very difficult but finally we have found two potters who are now working on trying to build large karasses. We’ve also talked with our local village school where these potters, financed by us, are teaching the young students pottery with the aim of raising a new generation of karas makers.
“In addition we are studying the different clay mines of our region analysing our endemic clays and creating blends from different batches to see which will be best suited for karas making. Not only that, we plan to start collaborating with the head archaeologist of the Areni 1 cave to see what kind of clays and mixtures they were using to make the pots in which they were fermenting wine 3,000-6,000 years ago and also the development of the actual shape of these wine making vessels during the course of history.
“Finally, we are also trying to research our endemic wood fired kilns, non of which survive today, and rebuild them. We plan in the near future to bring all this research together and create a school on our vineyards.
“So, going back to the trademark issue, you can understand that in this is a matter of principal and something that goes far beyond the battle for a name. How a huge corporation who is not interested in working with the karas, nor with Armenia’s endemic varieties for that matter, can pretend to randomly name its brand karas and arrogantly claim exclusive brand usage of the word is pure ignorance and a lack of respect in [sic] our history.”
In an open letter to Eurnekian that was published in the Armenian press, Gharibian said: “The Georgians have elevated their equivalent of ‘karas’ the ‘qvevri‘ to UNESCO Intangible Heritage of Humanity status. The Portuguese have created a DOP for the production of their wines in ‘thala’, while countries like Italy are now investing heavily in the rebirth of amphorae made wines, their heritage from Roman times.
“Armenian winemakers of today and tomorrow, on the other hand, will have to stand on international and domestic platforms and talk of Armenia’s 6,000 year winemaking history using words such as amphora, qvevri or thala and explain that our endemic word ‘karas’ was sold to the highest bidder, a powerful corporation, for personal promotion and brand usage.
“The karas are part of the cultural legacy of this country and belongs to all its people. This is a senseless endeavour. Development and prosperity in Armenia’s winemaking can ONLY come with unity, farsightedness, collective cooperation and most importantly knowledge and respect for one’s heritage. What Karas Wines will achieve with this self-centred action is only division and discord, with the only great loser being the future development of Armenia’s wine industry itself.”