Sunday, July 15, 2018

The Judgement of Paros – The Greek Paradox

From this view on the perch, Greek wine should be winning more than it appears to be. The Greek wine importers and government agencies are investing heavily in bringing many in the American wine trade to the vineyards. Greece is a Mediterranean epicenter (très chic these days). The people are great. The food is fresh and healthy. The wines are better than ever. As we say in Rome, Quo Vadis?

I say this as an Italian neighbor, but also as one who has much Greek in his family and in his blood, over the ages. I ache for Greek wine to achieve their place in the pantheon of great wine. Indeed, the culture has already secured their spot in immortality. And wine being hotter than ever, with boat loads of visitors who infiltrate the Greek islands (and mainland) this time of the year, one would think this would bleed over into life after vacation.

My Sicilian (and Calabrian) roots have more than their share of Greco-ness. Our foods, and our wines have evolved from those early influences. And the Greeks haven’t stood still. Maybe they haven’t moved as fast as their French or Italian cousins. For sure, the influence in America of Greek cuisine isn’t felt as fully as from other wine-centric countries, like France once was and as the Italian (and Spanish) is being felt in the present. Italians (and those who present themselves as Italians) who open and run restaurants, have been far ahead of anyone else when it comes to blanketing the US with their food culture. Now one can find pasta in St. Louis as good as anywhere in Italy. And pizza, in places like Phoenix, to rival Naples. So why not Greek food culture and the accompanying wine?

I recently spent an evening in a Greek seafood restaurant in New York. Long Island City to be exact. I could have been in Catania or Crotone. Or Aliki on Paros. The seafood was fresh, the spinach pie was as good as any I’d had in Greece or Italy. The place was bustling with the energy of a people who love to feed people. And people from all corners of the earth flocked to be feed by the Greeks. For a moment, I thought of Anthony Bourdain, and how much he would have loved this place, not 15 minutes from where he once called home. Everything lined up perfectly.

Perfection is a concept born of ancient Mediterranean cultures. We often see perfection as a static place, an endpoint. But the “getting there” part of the process, by which we strive to attain perfection, is an ongoing, and, for us mere mortals, highly unattainable terminus. Perhaps the modern Greek wine movement is climbing a hill right now and it just looks like it is slowing. I see many wine lists in my travels across America, and what I’m seeing of Greek wines on those lists is more subdued than what I saw a couple of years ago.

Many more years ago, Italian restaurateurs emulated a more “Continental” persona, shying away from calling their places “Italian.” Southern Italians, particularly, wanted to be identified at the very least as a Northern Italian restaurant, as if that would convey a greater seriousness, or gravitas. Fortunately, that nonsense is behind us, for the most part. And this isn’t to say the Greek restaurateurs are modeling a “something-otherness” when it comes to the identity of their places (and I’m not taking about diners in NYC and Westchester County). It’s just that they are not as collectively committed as their Italian cousins in this enterprise.

I’m seeing some light, though. Jose Andres recently opened a satellite of his Washington DC spot, Zaytinya, in the far North Dallas suburb of Frisco. There, one can find Greek wine celebrated with food that matches and marries well. Kudos to wine director (and Master Sommelier) Andy Meyers.

And Greece has their own Master of Wine, Konstantinos Lazarakis, an achievement Italy cannot boast of at this time.

How will the tons of drachma the Greek wine industry has spent bringing wine industry leaders and influencers to Greece pay off?

One might ask those in similar positions, from South Africa to Portugal to Germany, and elsewhere, if bringing in a bevy of wine heavyweights from America’s most influential corners equates to greater exposure (and sales) in one of the largest and most diverse wine markets in the world. For every wine-producing country, government and private concerns have influence peddlers reaching out in America to those they deem to be the preeminent trendsetters and market re-adjusters of the wine world, with the hopes that those influencers can provide some needed momentum to their campaigns. Extended excursions to some of the far-flung corners of the earth offer adventure tinged with education, enrichment blended with enchantment, in the hopes that America’s wine whiz-kids will offer a quick start.

It happens in Italy and France too, but these two countries are already so far ahead of the pack in terms of the investment in time in their business. And the Italians have, for better or worse, the legions of Italian-styles eateries to help keep the locks in the wine-way open.

The challenge for the Greeks, in not having as many of their countrymen and women in American acting as ambassadors and relying for support from the tastemakers, is to continue to keep their share of mind, especially when it comes to things like wine lists, by the glass selections, retail placements and special features. And the whole of the wine world is clamoring for that space as well.

It might be that the Greek wine explosion in America is on the edge of that tipping point.

There are scores of influence peddlers queuing up to hand out plane tickets hoping to impress the influencers. And those blue-chip mavens are in high demand.

But where are the everyday Greeks in this resurgence? The cooks, the chefs, the linepersons, the folks who came here in search of a better life, like the Italians did? I know the Greeks came, and I know they came with kitchen skills, because we share kinsfolk. I’ve witnessed it. But it’s going to take a village, a large village, to place Greek wine (and food) in the winner’s circle. And we’re going to need them to step up, come out of the shadows and do for the world with Greek food and wine what the Italians have been so successful with, in their pursuit of presenting the greatness of their food and wine, and embedding it into the American culture, while corralling a piece of the American dream.

Further reading: One of my most popular blog posts of all time was about the Greek Influence on Italian Wine (here: )

wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W

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