I don’t drink beer. I drink wine. When I go out for dinner or meet up with friends I enjoy a glass or two of red wine. Most of my friends drink wine. I know a lot of people who drink wine. But I don’t know many wine drinkers who have picked the grapes that make the wine.
I was scarcely above legal drinking age when I had my first grape picking encounter. It was 1974 in France in the Bordeaux region around St. Emilion. A new program invited foreign students to stay with a local family and help them during the vendage, as the wine harvest is called in French. I lived for two weeks with the Rivière family, along with another American, Candy from South Dakota.
Picking grapes is hard work. You squat so that you are eye level with the vine and snap the fruit off with a pair of clippers. Eight hours a day squatting in the fields. My thighs were ridiculously sore. But it was hilariously fun. Everyone constantly drank wine at all meals and breaks. At breakfast they sipped café au lait from a small bowl held in both hands and after the last gulp they poured wine in the bowl and drank it, too. During the vendage, the electric lights were turned off in St. Emilion, a medieval village with cobblestones and a moat. The town twinkled in the abundant glow of candlelight like a fairy tale setting.
Decades later in the early weeks of my romance with my partner Yiannis, he used to court me with bottles of luscious Greek olive oil. On the third or fourth date, he brought wine for the first time. I had not yet told him about my vendage experience. I was shocked when he presented a bottle of St. Emilion 1974. Spooked! Needless to say, I followed that guy home to Greece.
It’s August of 2008 and we’re on Thirasia, the least touristy of the several islands composing Santorini. We have friends there, Petro and Adonia, true blue Santorinians – their parents and grandparents on both sides were born and raised in Santorini. Everyone calls Adonia’s father Pappou which is Greek for “grandpa.” He’s in his late seventies and still harvests his own grapes.
Pappou is a character. I don’t know that from extended conversations with him because I understand little he says — he talks fast and speaks no English. I have never heard him say one word of English, like “thank you” or “hello,” phrases that most any Greek will test on you. I know he is a character just by watching him. He seems to be always grinning about something and he is pure old school. Yiannis tells me Pappou used to be a boxer, and I see truth in that claim because his nose is seriously bent.
At 7:00 am the old man fetches Yiannis and me and we follow him to his fields about a 20 minute walk away. Pappou travels by donkey. He uses straw baskets to gather the grapes, dumps them into milk carton crates and ties the crates on to the donkey’s wooden pack saddle with a rope. He doesn’t even use bungee cords. He delivers the grapes to the local co-op consisting of some thirty wine growers who share the cost of pressing the grapes into wine. On this Sunday morning, Pappou is the only harvester I see transporting his grapes by donkey instead of something motorized. As I said, old school.
Santorini resulted from a violent volcanic eruption millennia ago. Consequently, the earth is gray or black volcanic ash. You look at the ground and wonder how anything can grow in what appears to be dead soil. But, the ashen lava is the secret ingredient of Santorini’s wine success. Another unusual feature is the fact that Santorini grapes are not cultivated horizontally like in France and every single other place else I’ve seen grape vines, from California to the Côte d’Ivoire. Rather, the Cycladic vine is circular and looks just like a wreath. It lies in a depression in the ground to protect it from the strong Aegean winds. New shoots are woven around the stump in the shape of a basket or wreath, a clever technique allowing water, a scarce item on Santorini, to collect from nocturnal fogs.
The Santorini trigos (grape harvest in Greek) strikes me as harder work than what I recalled from France’s vendage because you have to bend closer to the ground to cut the grapes. Additionally, you have to look for the grapes as if the harvest were an Easter egg hunt. The fruit isn’t just dangling before you; some bunches are lying on the ground under leaves while others hide behind clumps of thick vines. I did my clippings and moved on to the next cluster only to watch Pappou trace my steps and readily find one or two furtive bunches.
Pappou harvests white and purple grapes. We were picking the purple ones, known informally as mavro (black in Greek) and technically as Vinsanto. The juice looks like dark blood on your skin. The white grapes are sweet and known as niktera since they are picked only at night (nikta in Greek).
Whatever season it is, Pappou always has a stash of his home brew to share with us. He stores his wine in a cave carved from the pumice walls of Santorini’s famed white cliffs. Until only a few generations ago islanders used to live in such cave homes and they were usually mammoth enough to house a stable for the animals, too.
Pappou drinks wine daily. I suspect it accounts for his sprightly longevity.
My grandfather, Oreste Spadafora of Sicilian stock, also used to make his own wine from a modest grape vine in his back yard. In a peculiar version of the French breakfast, he had a habit of putting wine in his black coffee and drinking the two together. Grandpa drank wine daily and he lived to be over 100 years old.
The ancient Greeks honored the Old World profession of wine making. They gave us Dionysus, the great Olympian god of wine, pleasure and festivity. Pappou and my grandpa, Mediterranean men to the core, are not gods but I say they come close to immortality by harvesting hearty vineyards whose resulting wine assuredly contributed to their robust health in their elder years. In the end, isn’t that what any reasonable mortal should hope for?