ne careful step at a time, I gingerly make my way down the steep stone staircase that descends into the bowels of Venetsanos winery. I cannot imagine what it must have been like for the heavily laden workers 65 years ago, when Santorini’s first industrial winery had just opened, an ultra-modern facility at a time when electricity was virtually unknown on the islands. I follow the winery’s director, oenologist Ioanna Vamvakouri, on a journey back in time: the old chemical lab, glass cabinets with black-and-white photographs and old manuscripts, the destemming machine, the continuous wine press, the cool cellars with the barrels... I repeatedly find myself trying to calculate the height (or depth) of this – invisible from the road – fortress at Megalochori, an architectural wonder of the past and present, literally perched above the port of Athinios with an enchanting view of the caldera. Eighteen-and-a-half meters is the answer. And how was it built? Somewhat unconventionally, beginning at the top and progressing to the foundations. The materials were brought up on donkeys and the volcanic ground was dug by hand. Most intriguingly, the ingenious architectural design used gravity to facilitate the movement of goods from the higher to the lower levels, conserving time, effort and energy. The once-celebrated winery that fell into disuse for years has reopened thanks to the efforts of Anastasios-Nikolaos Zorzos and his brother Vaggelis, the present owners and heirs of its creator, George Venetsanos (their mother’s uncle). On the top level there is a charming café serving delicious snacks and refreshments, including wonderfully fragrant homemade lemonade; below, an attractive shop, while the imposing vaulted hall with its 9-meter high ceiling is used for events
1. One of the two areas where the grapes were brought after being picked, on the roof of the winery. 2. The renovated museum, where the story of Venetsanos unfolds through the exhibits.
and tastings. New equipment has been purchased and the wine is again flowing. The Venetsanos family was wealthy when it left Santorini for Cairo in the late 19th century and returned even wealthier thanks to business ventures ranging from a furniture factory to wine exports to Russia. The family first built a mansion, then a small traditional winery, which George, born in 1907 and one of the first graduates of the Athens University Department of Chemistry (majoring in oenology) dreamed about expanding and modernizing. A broadly educated man, he had a keen interest in architecture and the mind of an inventor. He drew the complex plans on rice paper with such accuracy and attention to detail that, according to topographical surveys conducted in 2015, they were inch-perfect. Construction began in 1947 and was completed two years later. Donkeys carried up the grapes and the red varieties – mainly Mandilaria – were poured into the small vat while the island’s three acclaimed white grapes, Assyrtiko, Aidani and Athiri, were placed in the large one. Gravity “pushed” the raw material to the lower levels, for processing. After destemming, the must entered underground tanks and fermented at a constant, low temperature. Three months later, the wine – again with the assistance of gravity – flowed through a pipe down to the port of Athinios and was loaded onto ships. In 1967, George Venetsanos – once again ahead of his time – began to bottle white, rosé and red wine. Vinification continued at the winery until 1979 and during all that time “Kyr Venetsanos,” as he was respectfully and affectionately called by the locals, kept a detailed account of every harvest, precisely recording quantities, production
3. The staircase leading to the second floor, where wine-tasting events are hosted. 4. The area where the wine is matured and oxidized in barrels.
5. The lower steep staircase was designed so that the laden workers would not lose their balance. 6. The stoa in the winery’s lower level, with steady temperatures all year round, will be used for the reductive aging of bottled wines.
© VANGELIS ZAVOS