Living in Crete
Wine Making, Village Style
The day started early in our little village in northeastern Crete. From soon after 6.00AM, when an orange sun made its first rather timid appearance over the dusty mountains that ring Sitia Bay, the street had been full of activity, villagers bustling backwards and forwards, talking, laughing, loading pickup trucks, three-wheelers and donkeys with the galvanized steel buckets, wicker baskets and coarse black netting that they’d need for the harvesting of the grapes. It’s very much a family affair, with grandmothers, children, friends from Sitia, even relatives as far away as Heraklion and Athens, all coming together in the village to help pick the family grapes.
I sat on our terrace and watched through binoculars as the figures spread out through the vine-filled fields that ran from the road below the village as far as the ancient Minoan cemetery that had recently been excavated next to the beach. I saw an old donkey crop placidly on some dried grass half hidden by vines. The aged grandfather who owned the animal lay under a tree close-by with his feet up on a stump, watching the younger members of his family unload the buckets and set up the tubs and planks and trestles.
There were two different types of grape grown in our village. One was a sweet seedless green with a skin as soft and delicate as a flower petal. When picked straight from the vine, still warm from the sun, they burst in your mouth like honey. These were eating grapes but most would be spread out to dry in the sun until dark brown, sweet and crunchy, the delicious raisins for which Sitia is justly famous.
The other grape was colored a purple so dark it verged on black, its glossy skin matted with a dusty bloom of yeast to ferment the crimson juice into a delicate local red wine. The wine that was pressed in the open concrete cisterns dotted around the village would never be corked or labeled but appeared in cafeneions, or in the great wicker-covered bottles that stood beside the fireplace of a village kitchen, holding throughout the year the sweet soft flavor of a Cretan summer.
After we’d rented our village house 6 months before, we’d discovered we were also responsible for a five acre ‘garden’ that lay just outside the village boundary. This garden contained more than an acre of vines, bursting with the dark wine grapes. Our next door neighbors, coming home from a morning of harvesting their grapes, were horrified to learn we’d done nothing about picking our grapes and making our wine. Galvanized steel buckets were quickly produced, knives pocketed, and five minutes later we were off to the garden, escorted by the entire family and a dozen other villagers who were anxious to join the fun.
It took just half-an-hour to harvest our acre. The family moved through the vines like a swarm of locusts and the buckets grew heavier with their purple cargo. There was a mounting feeling of excitement and anticipation as the piles of fruit grew and the knowledgeable villagers made bets on how many kilos of finished wine were likely to be produced. Accompanied by laughing children, we returned to the village, passing two tourist girls out walking. Tourists seldom visited our village since it was off the main road. To them we must have looked like any other villagers returning with their loads of harvested grapes. They left without seeing the thing that might have made their day, never noticing the concrete trough just off the main street where the grapes were always pressed. The press itself was a concrete cistern, about two meters square, with concrete walls and a sloping floor that allowed the liquid to run out through a spout into the street. Everyone emptied the grapes onto the sloping concrete and, encouraged by our village friends, I took off my shoes and stepped onto the juicy mass.
How can I describe pressing grapes in such a traditional way? They’re squishy and soft and slippery and it’s a wonderful comforting feeling, like a small child’s delight at jumping in puddles. It’s like walking barefoot through thick mud at the bottom of a stream bed; deliciously cool as juice squirts up between your toes and covers the bottom of your legs. The scent of grape-juice and sugar and summer is overpowering. And there’s the magic moment when the juice begins to flow, purple-scarlet like blood, running down the spout through the muslin screen and an old colander my wife held in place to keep out seeds and skin, quickly filling the yellow plastic washing-up bucket a neighbor had provided to collect the precious fluid.
A large pythos was produced, a tall earthenware jar standing about four feet high. While I tromped the grapes, the children ran happily backwards and forwards, carrying buckets of the purple juice from the press to our house where the pythos had been installed. Treading grapes is hard work. The constant up-and-down movement, like jogging on the spot with a tricky little twist of the feet on the down step, quickly makes for sore muscles. Half-an-hour later a traveling merchant arrived and parked his truck outside the cafeneion, his loudspeaker blasting out lyra music distorted almost beyond recognition. For a while the wine ran to this typically Cretan beat.
The first part was easy, getting the grapes pulped, but after that it got more difficult. The juice tends to hang around, the pulpy mass unwilling to let it go. Certainly we had no lack of help and advice. Eager hands reached forward to open up rivers through the pulp. Our friend Manoli showed me how to tread the pulp up towards the far wall, pressing it between the wall and the floor to extract the maximum amount of juice. It’s a difficult maneuver and the inexperienced presser is just as likely to end up flat on his face in the slippery pulp. I did, several times, to the raucous laughter of young and old alike. Eventually we attacked the pressings with our hands, wringing out the last drops and covering ourselves from head to foot with grape-juice in the process.
And then it was done. The last trickle of juice had run into the yellow bucket. The children had licked the pulp off their fingers for the last time and the remains of the pressings had been dumped with pressings from the rest of the village to create raki, the fiery Cretan spirit that makes drinking in village cafeneons such a memorable delight. A half-full pythos stood quietly bubbling in a dark corner of our house, containing more than 35 kilos—15 gallons—of fermenting village wine and covered with an old green cloth to keep out the flies.
Two months later we sat on our terrace in the twilight, drinking the first glasses of our own wine, clean and clear and full of the flavor of a Cretan summer. And when winter came again to our island, the village taught us how to make our own raki from the pressings. But that’s another story.
Leo Eaton and his wife Jeri lived in Agia Fotia, a small village on the northeastern coast of Crete for three years between 1977 and 1979.