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The art of illegal wine production

In economic straits, my Greek hometown turned to Dionysus

 

After giving me just enough time to get used to more worldly places, fate (and my budget) returned me to my small hometown of Trikala, Greece, where on a Sunday morning you can hear the local priest chanting, though he is two kilometers away and doesn’t have a microphone. I tried to use this retreat as an opportunity to make art, but I failed, and now I’m sad and repulsed, bored and disgusted. And so, as is traditional around here, I’ve turned to drinking wine. I’ve never been fond of alcohol, but boredom works in mysterious ways, and drinking until I lose control makes me feel closer to my roots.

The streets here are war-empty, but every single Taverna I pass contains its own festival. It’s warm inside, and there are people of alarmingly different ages shouting at each other. The legal drinking age doesn’t seem to be enforced here. The air is hazy from all the lit cigarettes, but even the few non-smokers don’t seem particularly bothered. I sit next to my friend Marry and light my Marlboro. There are three 2 kg wine jugs on the table, 1 to every 5 people. One is ruby red, the other crimson, one grape yellowish. Marry flips my glass elaborately and fills it generally with some fine ruby red. We cheers together: Viva! She winks at me and downs her glass. They welcome me back to my roots in the suburban jungle. I nod twice and polish my glass off too.

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Being a writer in financially unstable Greece, where more than 80% of people aged 18-35 are unemployed, doesn’t afford you many luxuries, and so, ashamed as I am, I have to ask about the cost of our drinking session. Marry tells me to fear not. She says that all Tavernas are selling locally-produced wine, which is wonderfully cheap. She informs that almost everybody in my hometown is a wine producer, and that this means we are drinking wine of superior quality at an affordable price and everyone is drinking like an alcoholic. She suggests attending a secret winemaking session, which she says I’ll find super-interesting. Not thinking too much of it, I ask her to make it happen.  

*

My mobile vibrates hard against the pale, wooden bed-frame. It is past midnight. I can hear that it’s Marry. She speaks fast and sharp. She seems to be in a crazy hurry. She commands me to wake up fast, get my old sweatpants on, and meet her out on my doorstep immediately. Half asleep, I step out of my door onto the cold pavement. Marry pulls up, with a stranger in the front seat. The window cracks.

“Get in!”

The car door slams.

“Have you lost it? It’s quarter to 1.”

“Listen carefully. Remember how I told you about the winemakers around here?”

“You woke me up to tell me that? I THOUGHT SOMEONE WAS DYING!”

“Relax, we are going to take you to see how wine is made.”

“Ok. Sir, just take me back now please. This woman is a crazy alcoholic!”

All this is illegal, Alex — producing excessive quantities of wine, having the machinery in your house, and distributing it. It’s all highly illegal. We are doing you a favor!”

Stifled by this odd logic, I accept my fate, and a fifteen minute ride later, we are in a village 10km away from town. Everything is pitch black, until I see the outline of a newly constructed villa, with a big, well-tended garden. A strange man confronts us and introduces himself as Konstantinos. He leads us through a narrow alleyway to the back of what he tells us is his family house.  He knocks hard three times on a metal door.

An old guy opens the garage and welcomes us in with a big white smile. He is Konstantinos’ grandfather, roughly sixty years old, and (somewhat confusingly) goes by “Mr. Konstantinos.” There are two more men in the room and an acidic-stench hangs in the air. Traditional records about drinking, smoking weed and life in jail blast out of a radio on its last legs. I count three big round copper-made tanks, which can each hold a half ton of wine. Two of them are already emitting fumes and the two men have no time to introduce themselves as they are manically stirring. If it gets burned and sticks to the inside of the tanks, the expensive (and illegal) copper equipment will be rendered useless. The other is not burning yet. They inform me that they were waiting for me so I could see the whole process.  Clearly, I am important here.

Barrels filled with foot-mashed grapes pile up outside the garage door. We move them in one at a time. The tanks each contain a homemade motor, which has two cable-like soft pipes on each end, one for draining the barrel and one for streaming it into the tank. We start filling them up. Konstantinos says its time to start the fire. The tanks start emitting fumes, which he warns me are hazardous to young lungs (I am 23, not so young anymore).   

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Although I am convinced there is more to the process of winemaking than they are showing me, I get the chance to strike up a conversation with Mr. Konstantinos. His family has been producing wine this way since before he was born sixty years ago. He tells me that I am lucky to see them perform this traditional ritual, which they only do once a year in the presence of their family. The amount they produce is just the sum of their grape fields, he says — everything is homemade!

I ask him if homemade wine production should be illegal, which seems to both irritate and excite him. It shouldn’t be, he says, as everyone is producing it around here this way, and has been for generations.

“We are not making a living out of producing and distributing wine, you know. This is more of a hobby that gives you some pocket money. Even if it didn’t, we would still produce it. We like to know what we are putting in our bodies.”

“But isn’t selling the final product an act of tax evasion?”

“By law, it is. We have a really small network for selling the wine. Everyone does. It never gets outside of the town’s borders. Some Taverns buy it, but mostly we are selling it to people who live in the area. Why buy products of big corporate brands that evade taxes and don’t adhere to quality controls? They have good lawyers and they get away with it. If they find me, I won’t, though.” This makes him thoughtful: “Really we just produce to pass the time. There isn’t much more to do around here than what our parents did.”  

This made me think about the next day, when, again, I had nothing to do — nothing but get wrecked and fall asleep, safe in the knowledge that the slow agent of my destruction was being produced all around me in the highest quality.