From the party-animal island of Mykonos comes a surprisingly quiet, gentle story of sustainability. 'My name is Yannis Athanasakopoulos. I am an entrepreneur and farmer running my own farm under the name Yannis Estate, producing extra virgin olive oil. I am also founder and writer in a blog called Wine Vein.com. Currently I work as a sommelier in the Bistrot de Nicolas restaurant, in Mykonos island, Greece. My home town is the city of Kalamata, the capital of the Messenia region. I started my career in the wine industry a few years ago after I concluded successfully the level 3 exams of WSET. Since then I have gained experience in several positions related to the wine. I love to visit and write tributes for wineries and of course to taste wines. This is the first time that I participate in this writing contest and I am very enthusiastic about it. Thank you for this opportunity! I hereby declare that I do not have any commercial relationship with Mykonos Vioma Organic Farm and Vineyard.' Other sustainability-hero stories submitted in our 2020 writing competition and published so far can be found in the guide. As is the case for each submission, this article is published as it came, without editing.
I think that the wine industry has the privilege to host many personalities which influence it positively. And from my point of view, one of them is Ms Jancis Robinson MW. Her noble presence and the outstanding amount of hard work she’s been doing all these years continuously in my eyes is gigantic and worthy of much respect. So, when I read the first email about the writing competition at the beginning of July, I felt I would be honoured to participate. But the daily routine with the work and the summer life in Mykonos island kept me away from this target and only when I received the third notification, did I start feeling the time pressure.
Working in a Greek island presents many difficulties due to the nature of the work; however, one feels blessed for a daily routine filled with sun, the gifts of the sea and everything that characterizes the Greek summer. Especially in a place so particular as Mykonos. When this life is suddenly broken into with the unexpected decision to participate in a writing contest logically the questions burst: ‘And what do I do now? How shall I start?’ So many aspects to cover and ‘is there a winery in Greece that fulfils the requirements?’ Those questions started spinning in my mind for a couple of hours and I was struggling to find the answers. ‘Alright, let’s google the phrase “sustainability in Greek wineries” first to see the results and then I balance the options’ I thought. The truth is that I did not have high hopes for the results, but I was proven wrong. So, here I am sending some emails explaining who I am, what I want to do and asking for help in order to achieve a proper result. But in the back of my mind, I always had the main doubt: ‘can I figure out a warm and true storytelling tribute, without any physical presence and only through web meetings?’
In the meantime, during my day off I visited the only vineyard on the island which can be visited under the name ‘Mykonos Vioma Organic Farm and Vineyard’. Mr Nikos, the owner and wine producer, welcomed me and we sat on a table at the porch, with a view to the vineyards. The classical music at the background playing in just the right volume, was able to relax even the busiest mind. After the first five minutes, one can feel the calm energy of the place balancing your energy in complete contradiction to the crowded and noisy island.
I spent a couple of hours with Mr Nikos, we tasted his wines and talked about the vines and the philosophy he follows. At the same time, I was observing the other guests and they all had the same calm and relaxed expression which I found quite interesting. Leaving the vineyard, I went back to my room and started to stress again about the competition and how good a story would be without physical presence.
And voila!! Mr Nikos is the personification and a great ambassador of sustainability! Why not in Mykonos? I contacted him once more and explained about the competition and what I wanted to do and they agreed on the spot to help me. But Marianna, the daughter of Mr Nikos, had a fair question: ‘We promote sustainability as a way of life but we never conducted research about the impact of our actions. We don’t even have a winery inside the estate, therefore, I am not sure if we cover the requirements of the contest’. I knew that she was right and the reply came: ‘Yes probably you are right but I prefer to write about someone for whom sustainability is a daily habit and wholeheartedly applied, rather than for someone who says sustainability is a paper report on the office shelf’. The next day I was recording Mr Nikos.
‘I was working as an Inspector for the Bank of Greece in Athens for many years. I was also teaching in higher education schools and I had my own consulting firm, for European Structural Funds programs. 28 years ago, the Bank gave me the option to resign and I took it. My family thought that I got mad and they tried to change my mind. I remember my father telling me that it was crazy to leave my career in Athens for cultivating vines in Mykonos. A place without water where the winds never stop. But my decision was conscious. Now, looking back, I can certainly say it is worth it and that it has been a successful venture, since I live the life that I have always desired. I have been true to my values and I have achieved my goals.
‘I started seminars about biodynamic cultivation 25 years ago with Enzo Nastati, an Italian who introduced this cultivation technique to Greek agriculture. I was one of the first in Greece to follow this path. Biodynamic cultivation, apart from sustainability, also offers good quality grapes. Next year, I am going to acquire the Demeter certification since, until a few years ago it was introduced in Greece.
‘Everything in the fields is done by hand with great care and love. I have parked my tractor for 20 years now and I keep it over there just as a memory. Even now so many years later, I do the main work myself, for example spraying the vines with the empowered water. To manage 4 hectares by hand is not an easy job but I choose to do this, because I want the vines to feel my energy. My philosophy is to let the ecosystem find a balance between the vines, the rest of the flora and of the fauna. All creatures in the farm have a role in this. I have the bees for pollination and the goats for eating the grass and leaving their manure for fertilizing the soil. If it is necessary, I do small hand interventions. "No waste" practices are a must since we avoid using non-recycled materials. Even the sofa you are sitting on now is from broken wood pieces. Also, we are not eating the animals but we keep them for their produce and self-sufficiency. The goats, the donkey, the chickens and the bees are significant members of our life cycle. Humans, vines and animals are connected as a chain in order to achieve balance’.
Even though Mykonos does not have the wine tradition as its neighbors, the terroir is quite similar. Rocky granite soils, large windy periods, lack of water and sunshine.
‘The major problem on the island is water scarcity. Some years we had very little rainfall. For this reason, I never irrigate the vines except for the new ones. In the north corner of the estate there are two wells and we use this water for the vegetables and the animals. Also, we keep two paddles full of water for the bees and the rest insects, when they are thirsty. With this management I have water all year round’.
At the vineyard one can enjoy an a-farm-to-table experience where one can harvest and eat the vegetables from the garden accompanied by a glass of wine. They also make their own bread and cheese. Nothing else apart from the wines and the honey is for sale, with the biggest quantity sold directly to their guests. They produce around 15,000 bottles of wine and the production per acre even on a good vintage year is never over 350 litres.
‘I have been cultivating the variety of Malagouzia for 27 years now and I use it in my naturally sweet wine, made from grapes which have been sun-dried for a few days. The other varieties that I cultivate are Assyrtiko, Mandilaria and Athiri which are all traditional Cycladic varieties. All my vines are with their own rootstocks since the island is phylloxera free, like the rest of Cyclades, because of the soil. And as you can hear, the classical music never stops playing at the vineyard. It is an extra treatment for the vines to achieve healthy produce and make the wine better’.
It is worth mentioning here that Mr Nikos looks at least 10 years younger. When I asked him about his secret, he replied: ‘The earth is doing this. Never stop touching the earth’.
And who would have expected that in an island like Mykonos which is out of the wine radar, except for some famous Champagne labels sold at outrageously high prices, a winery with this attitude would exist. If you visit the place you can understand and feel that sustainability is a way of life not only for Mr Nikos but for the whole family. In the end Mr Nikos, a calm person, vine grower, beekeeper, farmer and entrepreneur is trying daily, from his small heritage, to make our world a better place.