There he was – the man I’d been looking for. Not in the sense of ‘all my life’, just since my grapes started ripening on the vine (and that isn’t a euphemism). I wanted to see if I could learn how to make very basic wine, and I’d heard Yiannis was a good man to talk to about it.
An unassuming man of medium stature, he was standing by his rickety old scooter. We’d last had a conversation early in the summer when he’d been encouraging me to pick mulberries from a tree on the road out of the village. A retired seaman who lives with his wife in Megalo Horio, he’s often out and about tending his beehives or fishing off the beach.
I’d gone to his house the previous day but although the scooter was there and the gate open, and although it wasn’t yet siesta time and I’d shouted hello in my usual hesitant way, there was no sign of life and I couldn’t get up the nerve to stride in. But now I’d spotted him on the road as I was driving to the post office, and I pulled in swiftly to the school car park.
‘I hear you make wine,’ I said, ‘and I want to learn.’
He smiled cautiously.
From late July to late August is grape and fig season, and I'd been told the grapes needed another couple of weeks on the vine, but one day, sick of having hornets buzzing around, I cut down most of them.
I’d done the same a couple of weeks before with the smaller, seedless grapes from a different vine and was drying them into raisins in flat dishes using 15 denier ladies’ hosiery to keep the flies and ants off while allowing enough sun to get in. The bigger vine in the front of the house gives good shade and the grapes are delicious. My old pal Antonis had asked if they were for eating or for wine. I had no idea.
The fridge was already brimming with old wine bottles filled with grape juice, and old tahini jars filled with fig compote as well as caper leaves preserved from earlier in the year. Because I go easy with salt and sugar, I daren’t keep much out of the fridge, especially when the daytime temperatures in August were rising over forty Celsius and dropping at night to a mere thirty.
I’d been so excited about having my own vines and fig trees when I got this garden. And really, I am. Everything is getting healthier now after a few years of neglect and being attacked by goats. But it does demand quite a bit of time and attention over the summer. I’ve got more advanced this year with the produce, baking the fig compote and fresh raisins into cereal bars with oats and seeds. I’ve roasted lamb chops with grapes, figs, tomato and onion. I’ve made pizza with two kinds of local goat’s cheese, ripe figs and rocket from the garden. And I've regularly had icy fruit smoothies for breakfast.
So now I’d been stuffing masses of fat, juicy grapes into the fridge and hopefully thought I’d try again at winemaking. I’d really meant to go to Embona on Atavyros Mountain on Rhodes, talk to the experts and get the right equipment, but somehow it never happened, so here I was at the last minute asking Yianni.
He had already squeezed his grapes and started his wine, he said, having experienced the same problem with hornets. Some people leave the bits of skin in during the first days, but he removed them and used only juice. He mentioned a piestirio, a press; I’d been using my hands.
‘So you leave it for three days,’ he said, and although I didn’t understand what he said happened for those three days, from my Wiki research last year I know it’s when the stuff starts fermenting. I’d actually already tried a batch and the kitchen smelled like a bakery when I walked in. ‘You put it in an open container,’ he continued.
‘Covered with a cloth?’ I asked.
‘Yes, a cloth with holes, like the stuff they use for bonbonieras.’ Something gauzy, like the stuff they wrap baptism gifts in, to let the air in and out.
‘So what do you do after the three days?’ I asked, thinking I’d missed something.
‘Nothing,’ he said, leaving me puzzled. ‘After, you leave it for forty days. In the house. Then you try it. Ama yinei,’ he said, pausing – then he made a fist and brought it towards his mouth, the thumb sticking out like a spout heading for his lips, and tipped his head back.
When it's ready – if it works – you drink it.
I smiled, asked a few more questions, and thanked him. I could give it a try, I supposed, though I wasn’t entirely surprised when he added that a neighbour had lost his whole batch of wine for three years running. Maybe Yiannis was cannily keeping the real tricks to himself. I got back in the car and drove down to Livadia. As so often happens, a quick trip to the post office was about to take three hours. Picking up my post took a mere ten minutes – the rest was impromptu chatting, coffee, and a swim off the rocks.
Now the wild, soaring temperatures of summer, with biting flies and wind that feels like a hot hairdryer, are waning, and some evenings here at the north of the island can feel soothingly cool and damp. On Eristos beach, the first sign that the busy days of summer are over are the miraculous sea daffodils poking up out of the sand. And the tents are thinning out, with campers heading back to the cities.
For a couple of months, Lisa has refused to leave home before late afternoon unless we're going in the car, but now we're beginning to walk again in the afternoon and it feels great. Yesterday we briefly had Skafi beach to ourselves, and when I went snorkelling I saw shoals of miniature versions of mullet and bream. I'd never thought much before about when fish had their babies but it's been fun watching the little ones grow. The damselfish start out bright blue when tiny, in July.
In my last blog post, I confessed I had no idea how posts would be delivered to your inbox in future after the demise of Feedburner. But the extremely helpful people at follow.it have solved the problem. You may have received this thanks to their tiny postal workers slipping it into your email inbox, but if you didn’t and you’d like to in future, you can sign up using the little box that should appear somewhere top left of the page. Apparently there are additional features, though I can’t imagine what they’re for. The helpful people even offered to give me inspiration about what I could write, or pictures I could use. Maybe they can just produce the whole blog post in future, leaving me more time to walk to a beach.
In fact, thinking about it, maybe they know how to make wine…