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My Big Fat Greek Wine List

Jeffery Lindenmuth / March 2003

Be where Greeks are bearing gifts because the increasing quality and affordability of their wines can jump-start a been-there, drank-that program.

John Pardalis, wine director at Manhattan’s modern Greek restaurant Molyvos since its opening in 1997, is one of the world’s most ardent and sincere evangelists on behalf of Greek wine. Un­fortunately, it sometimes seems even the choir isn’t listening. “I recall once pouring Greek wines at an informal tasting with colleagues, where we just got together to try wine, and actually had a very prominent Manhattan wine director refuse to even taste it,” says Pardalis. “I offered a glass several times, and he politely declined; he just continued drinking water.”

Such has been the hard-line prejudice against Greek wine. But not all of Pardalis’ peers or the dining public are so recalcitrant. Greek wine is increasingly turning up on mainstream wine lists, where it complements more than just mezedes.

Like a fashion forecaster predicting the “new black,” Beth von Benz, beverage director at Judson Grill in Midtown Manhattan, declares, “Greece is the new Portugal.” In wine-insider speak, that’s a good thing. Von Benz, no doubt, came to appreciate Greek wine during her stint at Estiatorio Milos, a Greek restaurant just around the corner from Molyvos. At any time, several Hellenic offerings appear on Judson Grill’s dynamic list of 300 wines, poised to accompany executive chef Bill Telepan’s contemporary American cuisine.

Von Benz finds Telepan’s tasting menu a useful tool for introducing lesser known wine regions like Greece. Recently, the first course—a choice of either house cured mackerel with marinated cucumbers and herb oil or asparagus salad—was accompanied by Gentilini Classico 2000 from Cephalonia, Greece. The wine has a distinctive honeyed nose with some lemon zest and melon aromas, lively and bright acidity, and a dry finish.

“People who’ve been there generally have good memories of Greece, so they might order a wine out of romantic attachment at first,” notes von Benz. “They’re frequently surprised that the wine is actually drinkable.” She also features Santorini Argyros Estate 2000 on her list of value whites at $35 and occasionally offers a red from Domaine Mercouri in the Peloponnese.

Restaurateur Dewey Dufresne opened the critically lauded 71 Clinton Fresh Food in Manhattan’s Lower East Side in October 1999 with a number of Greek wines. He explains that the key to introducing the unusual sounding wines was a user-friendly list. “I presented the list with an explanation of the characteristics of the grapes and suggested several food accompaniments.”

Since Dufresne’s departure from 71 Clinton, his Greek signature has faded somewhat under new wine director Glen Goodwin, but a few dessert wines such as the exceptional, Sherry-like Commandaria St. John from Cyprus remain.

But his next project, WD-50 across the street, where his son, Wylie Dufresne, is chef/owner, with Jean-Georges Von­ge­rich­ten and Phil Suarez as partners, features a return of Greek wines to the neighborhood.

Greece has more than 300 documented indigenous grapes, about 45 of which are capable of producing contemporary style wine and few of which are easy to pronounce. (Go ahead: say Moschofilero 10 times fast.) Red wine represents less than 15 percent of production; white wine around 80 percent, with the rest rosé. The tongue-twisting names can be a serious challenge, admits Dufresne, posing a problem for the servers as well as patrons. “I think it’s important for the staff to get it right. The names have a real charm when done properly.”

Vivian Levine, wine specialist and general manager at Arun’s Thai Restaurant, an upscale Thai destination in the Albany Park section of Chicago, recently added several Greek wines to her list. Alsatian, German, and Austrian wines were naturals with the authentic, often fiery, Thai cuisine of chef/owner Arun Sam­panthavivat, and Levine found that Greek whites rounded out the list nicely.

“I’m noticing these white wines have some sea salt and nice minerality, some wet stone that does very well with our appetizers,” says Levine. With a house specialty like Mussaman beef—beef tenderloin with lemongrass, galangal, shallots, chiles, cinnamon, star anise, coriander, and nutmeg—she finds the medium body and level of fruit in many Greek reds to be perfect.

At Chez Panisse and the Café at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, wine director Jonathan Waters has occasionally offered by-the-glass Greek whites from Santorini, a region he feels offers the most promise right now. “I like interesting wines and wines that I don’t necessarily know,” says Waters. He found the wines were well received when offered at $5 or $6 per glass—certainly among the more inexpensive on the list.

Andrea Englisis, who considers herself part of “a new generation of Greeks,” operates the Hempstead, New York–based Athenee Importers, the largest importer of wines from Greece and Cyprus, with her mother. “There’s a real stigma to overcome, mostly due to retsina, which really became pervasive in the 1980s,” says Englisis, referring to the distinctive pine resin flavored wine unique to Greece and downright offensive to many wine drinkers. The other greatest misconception, according to Englisis, is that the wines will be very sweet. Englisis says she has the most success selling to a non-Greek restaurant if she offers a blind tasting and lets the wine speak for itself. She points out that in most wine education, including her own, Greek wine is reduced to “a sentence, or maybe a paragraph, with Croatia lumped in.”

Amerikus, which will import an exclusively Greek portfolio of more than 50 wines and several spirits, including unusual fruit flavored ouzos, is scheduled to start distribution in Washington, D.C., Maryland, New York, New Jersey, Boston, and Chicago early this year. While Konstantine Drougos, the CEO, doesn’t see Aghiorghitiko usurping Merlot, he does feel Greek varietals can attract drinkers to go out on a new limb, particularly in restaurants. Drougos calls Greek dessert wine his Trojan Horse, and no doubt the excellent St. Nicholas Commandaria from Cyprus, priced under $10, will open a few doors. But, unlike many Greek wine enthusiasts, he makes no apologies for pouring a traditional retsina. “I’m not saying you should give this 100 points,” he proclaims, “but why not try it? We’ll say it is what it is.”

Pardalis says the level of Greek wine really escalated in the 1990s with the move toward quality over quantity, generally the first step to becoming an international wine-exporting nation. “We’re now seeing a lot of young, aggressive kids coming out of the University of California at Davis and other top schools returning to Greece and making great wine,” he says. “I think the indigenous varietals are very palate-friendly and can succeed anywhere. It’s going to be a matter of educating the educators.”

Pardalis, who grew up in Greece, offers about 160 wines at Molyvos, one-third of which are Greek, accounting for 75 percent of his sales. He speaks with eloquence and infectious passion for his motherland and opportunities for the future. "We have an international stage with the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. The talk has to be Greece! We have our first restaurant with a Michelin star {Varoulko in Athens}, an award-winning olive oil industry, and these wonderful wines." says Pardalis.

The incredible affordability of Greek wine offers almost irresistible opportunity for even a skeptical wine director. According to Englisis, wholesale prices start around $90 per case, with excellent wines available for $120 per case. For the moment, it's nearly impossible to spend more than $200.

But numbers also make it clear Greece will never be the wine world's next Italy. The entire country produces only about 4 million hectoliters of wine annually, considerably less than the Bordeaux region of France alone.

Although it somewhat diminishes the uniqueness of his list, Pardalis seems delighted at the prospect of Greek wines going mainstream. He believes that a growing appreciation for these wines from the birthplace of winemaking—indeed,the birthplace of Western civilization—will come to pass over the next five years.