When growing up in Northern California you become quite familiar with a few famous industries that dominate the majority of the state. Marijuana cultivation, gourmet taco and food trucks, and the wine industry. The wine industry in Northern California, most famously centered around the Napa Valley region and surrounding areas, has become familiar turf to me and my family, mostly due to my father’s profound love and connoisseurism for the ancient drink. After spending the majority of my childhood driving up to Mendocino county, an area quite close to Napa, on long weekends and holidays to go camping in the tall redwoods of northern cali, and accompanying my parents on countless wine tasting trips (although at that time I never partook) vineyards and the winemaking process became a kind of second home and a point of familiarity for me. My childhood home always had a nice bottle on the dinner table and a basement full of carefully collected bottles that my father treasured and maintained with the utmost pride. After many years of consuming and collecting wine my father and stepmother decided to purchase a parcel of land in the Mendocino area on which grew a small yet very well established and cultivated vineyard of pinot noir. Although the vineyard only produced around 50-75 cases a year, my father and stepmother were thrilled to get some real wine making experience and to start producing their own bottles in collaboration with a talented local winemaker. Growing up in this family of wine enthusiasts I of course became a bit of a wine snob myself, often seeking out vineyards in places around the world that offered unique wine tastings and always spending a little extra time in my day to find a proper wine store to pick out a nice bottle for the occasional special evening. While traveling and tasting different wines from around the globe I not only got to experience new tastes and flavors but also got the opportunity to witness how different cultures used and viewed wine.
In California, and most of America for that matter, wine is considered to be a luxury product that comes in an elegant glass bottle at an arguably high cost. You can of course purchase the cheaper and lower quality box wines at the average supermarket but these are not nearly as tasty nor popular as the bottled wines that one can find at specialty stores as well as your basic Safeway. This was my view on wine based on my upbringing, keep in mind that the area in which I grew up is quite a social and economic bubble in and of itself and is not in anyway the best representation of the U.S. as a whole, and I was expecting to find a similar mentality around wine during my travels. However, as one often is when arriving in another country with specific expectation, I was proven wrong. In Greece, one of the wine capitals of the world, wine is not only more common than beer but it is typically cheaper. While there are of course the more renowned and fancy bottles that one can buy in stores around the country, many people simply go to local producers, of which there are many, and purchase a large plastic bottle filled with the intoxicating beverage. This took me by surprise when one day I took a visit to a local delicatessen and asked for a local wine recommendation and was handed a plastic bottle, resembling the large plastic bottles of water you’d purchase at a gas station, and was told that this was one of the best bottles they had. The package of the product of course has little to do with the quality of the commodity inside, however this casual representation of this high quality product truly reveals how the beverage is seen and accepted within the greater community, in this case in Greece specifically the island of Crete.
Crete is one of the oldest wine growing regions in the world and produces one fifth of the wines that are made in Greece. Grape vines have been growing in Crete for over 4,000 years and have been systematically cultivated on the island for the duration of that time! The history of wine and vinification in Crete starts with the finding of wild grape vine seeds in caves across Crete that were once inhabited by prehistoric nomadic tribes. While theres no evidence that these ancient people attempted to produce wine, there has been evidence that they actively cultivated grape vines and consumed grapes. Ancient Greeks were the next people to occupy Crete and with their help wine production was greatly improved and the industry heavily developed. However, the Greeks were not the first to come up with the process. It is believed that the Greeks were taught viticulture and wine production by the Phoenicians and Ancient Egyptians. The Bronze Age Minoan people who inhabited Crete during 2700 to 1100 B.C built vast underground wine storages, remnants of which are still visible today, as well as large industrial wine presses, the oldest of which dates back to 3,500 years ago, the oldest wine press found in Europe to this day. During the Roman occupation of Crete the island was largely cultivated into vineyards to meet the incredibly high Roman demand for wine. Romans were the first to introduce Cretan wine to the rest of the world for they brought the beverage in large quantities on their ships for trade as well as consumption. Due to the high quality and unique taste of Cretan wine the commodity naturally gained in popularity and became renowned across the world. Cretan wine production continued to increase in size and popularity throughout the Venetian rule of the island. During that time, in 1415 to be exact, annual exports of Cretan wine exceeded 20,000 barrels, one and a half centuries later that number increased to 60,000 barrels. Even though the demand was high the industry was still able to maintain its traditional production practices and keep the production small scale and family based. This kind of production matched with the incredibly high demand for Cretan wine meant that almost everyone on the island was getting involved. Each family owned a parcel of land the majority of which grew grape vines, olive trees, or cereals such as wheat and oats, and each family produced their own house wine. This system of domestic vinification has lead to the unique varieties and flavors that we now recognize as traditional Cretan wines.
Wine production and vine cultivation have been long standing traditions on the island of Crete, and while those traditions were not going anywhere anytime soon, the face of the wine industry has more recently come up against a new adverse industry: Tourism. A little after the mid 1970’s a rise of tourism hit the island hard. While this new development was seen as good for many of the Cretan people for it brought much needed cash flow to the island, the agricultural industry, specifically the wine industry, began to suffer. This rise of tourism which led to openings with better pay in hotel positions and restaurant management drew people away from the agricultural sector (which offered menial manual labor jobs) and towards the more luxurious hospitality industry. Furthermore, the peak of the Cretan tourist season, May to September, occurs precisely when the vine-harvesting and wine production season begins. During the 1980’s Crete saw the closure of many of the traditional small scale family vineyards that had been operating on the island for generations due to lack of manual labor available for the harvest and production season. Along with this struggle to find workers, wineries were having to contend with the new desires and prefered tastes of visiting tourists who often wanted wines similar to those produced in their own country, or wines matching international standards and expectations. This new found market created by tourists’ demands left little room for the unique and traditional flavors of Cretan wines that were often thought to be too sweet or young to the average foreign wine drinker. These large shifts within the wine industry, as well as the Cretan economy as a whole, led to the decline of traditional Cretan household wine production and instead wine production was passed on to the larger and more organized wineries.
Due to the decrease in wineries operating in Crete over the last few decades, the wineries left have been forced to focus on mass production to feed the large demand for wine by tourists, and not on the organic or sustainable production of the beverage. However, much work is being done to bring back the traditional production of Cretan wines and to produce these wines in an organic and sustainable fashion. Groups such as the TUI Care Foundation have started projects aimed to teach local wine producers to grow organically and sustainably in order to preserve the unique Cretan grape species as well as increase sustainable tourism throughout Crete. The idea is to link sustainable winegrowers in Crete with the local tourism industry instead of having the large industrial wineries dominate the field. However, TUI isn’t the only one addressing this issue. Winegrowers on a local level are also slowly coming together to improve their cultivation methods and preserve local grape varieties. There are even long standing traditional family wineries, like those that were once forced to close down, that are slowly rising up in the industry. One of these family owned wineries is the Domaine Paterianakis Winery, the first 100% organic and sustainable winery to open in Crete, and you may be surprised to hear its been open for quite some time.
Domaine Paterianakis Winery is located near Melesses village in the municipality of Nikos Kazantzakis found in the greater Heraklion area in the larger region of Peza, an area particularly famous for its historical and high quality wine production. This third generation family company was the first in Crete to introduce and implement organic grape cultivation. Why organic? The Paterianakis family sees organic farming as not only a healthier and greener way of farming, but also as the only way in which to ensure that the best natural tastes and quality of wine is produced from their grapes. Their vineyard has been cultivated since 1988 and it resides in a biologically sensitive and protected area, ensuring the wines purity and organic branding. The Paterianakis goal is to produce 100% organic wines in a traditional and sustainable manner that highlights the organic and natural characteristics derived from the vineyard and local climate conditions. They hope to bring to light the traditional, sweet and dry tastes of Cretan wines in a modern wine market in which classic Cretan wine styles have largely been forgotten.
The winery has implemented many unique and new sustainable farming techniques in their vineyard to further the organic production of their grapes. Domaine Paterianakis is one of the very few wineries in all of Greece that has implemented vertical farming into their vineyard. Along with their modern use of sustainable farming techniques they have also built their winery completely sustainably using only natural materials, for example rocks found on or around the vineyard itself. The winery is also built into multiple stacked levels in order to use gravity within the production process and to avoid the use of artificial pressure that could damage or alter the quality of the finished wine. Within the winery you will find the Paterianakis Production station, bottling and storage rooms, underground cellar, and a fully equipped chemical analysis lab. Within each of these areas of the facility the family has tried to implement fully sustainable methods which they use to produce their wines. Along with the their gravity fed stum transfer line, or grape juice transfer line, they have managed to dig their underground maturing cellars deep enough so that no maintenance is needed to keep the right temperature in the room for the temperature is already naturally stable and perfect for the storage and bottling process. Due to their application of biologically sensitive production methods the Paterianakis family is able to produce high quality wine that has a very low heavy alcohol content and a clean, healthy taste.
On their vineyard the Paterianakis produce three families of wines;
- “Domain” V.Q.P.R.D. (Grapes and wines traditional and originating in the Peza area) These are all red wines.
- Melissinos which comes in red, rose, and white wine.
- Melissokipos which comes in red and white wine
The winery cultivates six unique, indigenous grapes and five first class international varieties. The rarest of these indigenous varieties are Kotsifali, Thrapsathiri, and Mandilari. The family has worked hard to preserve all the indigenous and rare grape varieties of the area as well as add new world renowned varieties to their vineyard.
Throughout Crete wine producers (along with many farmers and olive oil producers) are working hard to change their farming and cultivating methods to fit an international sustainable and organic standard. One that will help preserve their island as well as the crops themselves. This new modernized view on farming which works to feed the people of today as well as preserve the land for the generations of the future is one that we all must adopt on a global scale. The fame and prestige in which Cretan wines were once held is now an idea of the past, but there is a reason why Crete remained a wine capital throughout human history, and slowly with the help of vineyards and wineries such as Domaine Paterianakis, the Cretan wine industry is slowly regaining its rightful place and recognition as a high quality and unique wine production center.