Greece’s economic crisis has been devastating and overwhelming. Understanding its drivers and impacts — whether in that country’s urban environments, its islands, or its rural countryside — is challenging, to say the least.
It helps to focus. For me, getting a handle on Greece’s crisis (and the nuances of its signs of recovery) means looking at the economics of the wine industry.
Here are four angles on the Greek economy that have come into focus for me, by looking through the lens of a wine glass.
Organic Development: “Wine is back”
“At the beginning of the crisis we saw a decrease of our sales,” said Dr. Yannis Voyatzis, Chief Enologist at Boutari Wineries S.A. But there was also an increase in unexpected categories that balanced out that drop.
With less money to spend, and with a sense that local products are both appealing and less expensive, consumers demanded options in the form of “homemade” or pure wine served in carafes at restaurants. They also demanded cheaper, more casual, and smaller-portioned food options as an alternative to the more expensive, bigger meals served in formal restaurants.
This development has resulted, within the past two years, in a sharp increase of wine bars and by-the-glass consumption.
Because drinking wine by the glass encourages experimentation and comparison, the dialogue about wine is also growing, especially among young people who visit wine bars most often.
In addition, taxes on hard alcohol like vodka and whiskey have increased while taxes on wine have stabilized. On-premise establishments like trendy clubs in the cities have started carrying wine, whereas before they carried spirits for cocktails.
The combination of these three factors bodes well for wine’s position within Greece’s social culture. As Voyatzis says: “Wine is back.”
Adjustments: “There is no program on your PC for growing grapes”
Grape cultivation has been part of Greece’s landscape for thousands upon thousands of years. Farming here is far from monocultural, however: complementary crops like olives, fava beans, peaches, tomatoes, and eggplant are integrated into the plantings. It yields a healthy mix of at-hand, sustainable agriculture that is enviable to urban inhabitants who, in the worst cases, struggle to find or afford food to eat.
But trying to break away from the family farm, in search of education and professional opportunities elsewhere, had become the norm for younger generations. “We all grew up thinking we’d work in offices,” said Vivi Papaspirou, enologist at Boutari’s winery in Crete. “It’s an adjustment to think we’d be working with our hands. The people who work the harvest now are still getting used to the idea. There is no program on your PC for growing grapes.”
Wine in the Pipeline
With younger generations returning to the countryside (however unplanned, initially, that move may have been) the number of new producers has increased sharply in recent years. Voyatzis estimates that in the Naoussa region alone, in northern Greece, the number of producers has grown from just a handful to more than 25.
Yet, partly as a lingering sentiment of not expecting to work on the family farm, young people are much more likely to study as enologists rather than as viticulturalists. It is the difference between being a winemaker and being a grape grower, and between working inside the winery and outside of it, in the fields.
Balancing those two trends — a rush of new producers on the one hand, and a shortage of experienced viticulturalists on the other — will be a challenge moving forward.
What Economic Crisis?
Walk the bustling narrow market streets on the island of Santorini, or try to make your way through the crowds arriving at the pier, and you’ll be forgiven for wondering, Crisis? What economic crisis?
Santorini’s tourism industry insulates it to a large extent from the financial difficulties seen elsewhere. Yet at the local level, officials are at a pivot point of deciding what role the wine industry can play within its thriving tourist trade, which has the power and momentum to overshadow the less lucrative wine category.
Within the next one to three years, the local government will make decisions of policy, allowances, and taxation that will shape the nature of the wine industry here. Road signs to stops along the island’s wine route are not just symbolic; busloads of tourists find their way to friendly and hospitable tasting rooms. They are also signs that wine’s symbiotic relationship to tourism here will continue to adapt to the changing climate.
By Cathy Huyghe