“I am happy to have been able to pass you some old stories of the island. Because too often we forget to look back! I believe that we live on a blessed island and we are very lucky to comfortably live in this place, as my grandfather lived". That was Giannis Akyalas’ response to my thank-you note for the insightful and inspiring morning I spent with him visiting the vineyards of Gaia Wines on Santorini. It is hard to imagine such a grounded, soulful life exists amidst the frenzy of tourists rushing on their motorbikes from beach to beach. But it does, and has for generations.
Giannis is the viticulturist for Gaia Wines, one of the best producers of the autochthonous variety Assyrtiko and other traditional Santorini wines like Vin Santo. Giannis did not grow up on Santorini. He was not even born until after the volcanic eruption that forced his father to move to Athens to find work. His father was a gifted woodworker and treasured his Santorini heritage but never caught the viticultural bug. However, Giannis grew up spending happy summers working in the vineyards alongside his grandfather. The lessons he learned were so naturally transmitted that today they feel like something he always knew.
When Giannis recalls those days, he smiles. He remembers how he and his grandfather would gather all the dead wood from the vine pruning, load it on the donkey and take it to the bakery to exchange for bread. They used donkeys to till the soil in the vineyards, but it is too expensive and labor intensive today. Tilling was good for holding more rainwater in the soil. Now, instead, growers manage the weed growth by other means to ensure the vines have all the available water.
Giannis went to college to learn to be an electrician, but he could not leave his ties to the vines behind. He returned to Santorini and worked for Boutari, one of the oldest wineries in Greece. He also looked after his family’s 20 stremma of vineyards (2 hectares), planted some new ones and sold the grapes to various producers, but three years ago he began working with Gaia and now all his grapes go to them. And he sources fruit from other vineyards using the inside eyes his grandfather gave him to recognize when a vineyard is well cared for or not. He believes that if he respects the vines, they will reward him with the best fruit to make the wines he loves.
We went to visit his grandfather’s vineyard, named Analipsi (“ascension” in Greek) after the little church in the nearby village. Indeed there was something divine about it. I imagined generations walking on these ancient volcanic soils, spending the day bent over the same old vines, feeling the heat of the sun yet refreshed by cool winds from the north. This experience of life has formed a heritage that makes it easy to understand why the wines of Santorini are so unique.
Along the way we stopped to say hello to Giannis’ friend Stimos. He was working his way through his vineyard, stooping over his three-year-old vines, checking on each one—literally back-bending work. Stimos told us that his children have no interest in working in the vineyards, but for him, after a lifetime with the vines, being with them is almost as natural as breathing.
As we looked out to the tranquility of an endless sea, it was hard to imagine that only 30 minutes away the classic white-washed buildings and shop-lined streets were teeming with cruise ship passengers. Yet here we stood, hearing nothing but our voices and the sound of the air. Giannis’ father may not have his own connection with the vineyards, but he is very proud that his son does. When he saw a new vineyard Giannis had planted, he cried. This kind of sentimental attachment to the land, to family heritage, is a true example of the life within wine. Even in a renowned place like Santorini, historical traditions are still alive and you can taste them!