Jon Wyand shoots wine, wineries, vintners, vineyards, white churches and the breeze in a study trip diary about the superbly scenic Cyclades island that’s written from a photographer’s angle and perspective.
Monday 17th April. 4 am.
The big day has arrived. Everyone has been telling me how wonderful Santorini is. ‘A photographer’s paradise,’ one winemaker emailed me. I’m to join half a dozen wine writers, most of whom I’ve heard of but never met. I have had visions of a ‘Pilgrimage’ scenario without the religious discussions, the roughing it or, for the others, weighty backpacks.
Previous experience has told me that trying to fulfil an assignment while attached to a group whose priority is wine tasting demands I assert my need for independence. A Fiat Panda is waiting for me on landing at Santorini airport an hour late (BA tactfully not mentioning French air traffic controllers, but I have my suspicions) and two hours ahead of UK time.
At 4 pm, the island from the air looks arid and the air hazy, but while everyone else heads for the hotel, I zoom off in my Panda to investigate Estate Argyros, to where I must make several visits for an extra assignment I was able to drum up. There, the usual misunderstandings around a photographer’s visit are laid to rest and plans made and I make a long-awaited sighting of Kouloura-trained Assyrtiko vines in the volcanic soil. If I want to see Kouloura-trained vines in texture-rich dawn light, I must be up at 3.45 am UK time! Working in vineyards will not be as muddy an experience as elsewhere but pretty painful on the knees.
By 6 pm I’m heading for the hotel just south of Fera, taking the scenic route through the hill village of Pyrgos and out among the vineyards – a patchwork of grey dry stone walls, like boxes with tiny green pills. The last hour before I must be back for dinner has been useful to reconnoitre the locations, the roads and get a feel for how the locals drive.
April seems the perfect time. There’s fresh leaf but not enough to mask the structure of the remarkable training that sits above roots that are up to 200 years old. When the vine ceases to be productive, it is simply decapitated at ground level and a new vine sprouts!
8.00 pm. Dinner is an Assyrtiko-fuelled celebration of marine life, with baklava, among many rapidly delivered delights, but you will get no culinary notes from me I’m afraid. Yannis Paraskevopoulos is our host, with his daughter Leto, and thankfully we are on first name terms immediately. It’ll be first names from now on here. Their Assyrtiko flows freely and conversation is lively, almost as lively as his views on the wine world beyond his beachside winery we will visit tomorrow.
Tuesday 18th April 4.30 a.m.
My plan was to be on the road with my breakfast in a brown paper carrier bag before 6.30, but the adrenalin has arrived early. I step onto the small balcony that overlooks the pool to gauge the weather and which sweater is required, then potter about checking my kit.
Having mastered an idiosyncratic shower, by 5.45 I can wait no longer. Half an hour later I am down on the east side of the island listening to a cockerel and the wind, and enjoying my ham and cheese and 9 vitamin, 7 fruit drink (or was it the other way around?) but regretting the optimism of my sweater selection. By 7 o’clock the sun has cleared the clouded horizon and emerald leaves are glowing against the dark volcanic soil. After a succession of exteriors at Estate Argyros, I am off to the nearby Gaia winery, which is based in a converted tomato-processing plant on the beach, for my 8.00 appointment with Yannis and his daughter, ahead of the group’s arrival for a tasting. Having shot each separately, I am interrupted by the group before I can get them together. Do I wait until the group departs to finish the job? I opt to leave early to reach our next call, Santo Wines, well ahead of the others who will be touring the winery, tasting and having lunch there.
Santo Wines is the island’s cooperative, a large thriving concern fed by the grape farmers across the island. They have a good shop and restaurant which offers a splendid view of Santorini’s caldera. Marketing man Tassos gives me the tour and, having located the winemaker I descend to the curving canyon between the huge steel tanks to shoot Nikos Varvarigos before I am again interrupted. The tasting overruns, lunch is delayed, so I resurrect what remains of breakfast and meet up with two local suppliers to the coop, Babis and brother Adonis, to shoot a few working pictures in an adjacent field. I would have preferred 8 am to 2 pm from the point of view of light, but I’m just grateful they have volunteered. Then back to Gaia for father and daughter Yannis and Leto together. By now the sea no longer has the sun bouncing off it and is a good blue for a background to a glass of Assyrtiko on a whitewashed window sill. Hopefully this is a suitable product shot for a generic brief.
It’s 3 pm and I’m 10 minutes up the road back at Argyros, still well ahead of the pack who are enjoying ‘free time’ until 5 pm. Yiota, the photographer-friendly marketing lady, has found me the owner Matthew Argyros, who is extremely patient and obliging. I get the feeling he finds our session less boring than expected, perhaps comforted and reassured by Yiota’s presence. We visit their old Canava building to shoot, surrounded by the barrels of Vin Santo, thence to profit from the estate’s architecture as a backdrop, and go out into the old vines as the sun drops towards the hills to the west. Matthew eventually escapes, having had enough attention for the day and leaves hospitality manager Demitrios to instruct and entertain the arriving tasters.
At 6 pm, Yiota tells me to sit down with a glass of, yes, Assyrtiko, and a plate of nibbles. I’m already a fan of this wine. As a tasting note I can only repeat what everyone says, but rest assured, I’m a convert. That evening another beachside restaurant follows with more fish and the frequent sound of corks meeting their ultimate fate. This time, I’m not only driving back to the hotel but I’m a chauffeur, too. Nervous passengers watch as aspiring rally drivers emerge at speed from the darkness, music blaring and headlights dazzling.
Wednesday 19th April 6.03 am
The view from my balcony above the floodlit, azure pool and white boxlike buildings this morning shows a promising, intense salmon glow beneath a line of silhouetted small clouds, low in a dark blue sky. A promising morning awaits as I collect my brown paper picnic breakfast from reception. Sadly, my Panda confounds me with an indicated range of 0000 kilometres. I make it to the EKO station at Pyrgos, opt for discretion rather than valour and pull in to wait for it to open. Sustained by the coffee shop next door I watch, frustrated as the sun rises. Still I’m early for the vineyards and yapping dogs that greet me below Pyrgos before setting off north around the capital Fira towards Domaine Sigalas at the other end of the island.
I can see why two million people might visit Santorini every year, but in driving north past Fera, I also see the result. Santorini is well known for its white churches, but I see rather too many grey skeletal signs of the expanding tourist industry. Soon enough the patchwork plain emerges below to the east as the roadside clutter of accommodation, clubs, bars and restaurants peters out. Skirting the volcanic mass on your left with its weird frozen fluid rock formations, the name Oia appears on the blue road signs and the island of Anafi rises in the haze to my right. Suddenly a small sign for Domaine Sigalas points downhill to the right and soon a small huddle of white buildings carries the same sign.
I had hoped to be there by 8.00 but it’s now 8.30 and there’s little sign of life, so I sit down in the shade of a pergola at one of the several tables that look out over vines, and pull out my usual breakfast. Soon enough figures appear, the tasting room opens and I’m offered a coffee while I wait for Stellios Boutaris, the owner since he was sold a majority share by Paris Sigalas, who himself moved along the coast to start his 20,000-bottle-a-year Oeno P estate. By the time the large figure of Stellios appears, with a grin and firm handshake, I have already selected the stage I need him to perform on and usher him away from his preferred venue in the vines under a bright sun. Stellios has plans to update the winery but is still happy to show me around and introduce winemaker Sara Takovidou. It’s a thoroughly relaxed and jolly place.
Before long, the group arrives and the jovial Stellios departs to entertain and inform them. Lunch is again delayed by the tasting, so once more I depart early to return to Argyros to continue my shoot there for a French magazine, before meeting up again with the tasters at the Anhydros winery, after they’ve had a little more free time.
Anhydros sits on the corner of a busy main road around Fera and I arrive to find the rest already ensconced in the cellar at a long table, attentive to the words of the winemaker. It’s a compact set up there with little for me to shoot, but I’ll settle for a descent portrait of the owners Apostolos and Lenga.
We are again hosted for dinner, wrapped up against a cool evening, but the food is worth it and the chef is roundly applauded. I had developed a sore throat during the afternoon but one glass of ‘you know what’ sipped judiciously was all the treatment necessary.
Thursday 20th April 5.30 a.m.
By 6.30 am, I am packed, checked out and heading up to Santorini’s highest point, Profitis Ilias, for a dawn view and then down through Pyrgos’s vineyards to Akrotiri to explore the landscape there and whatever serendipity sends my way.
It’s 9.30 and the group gathers at the excavations of old Akrotiri, which was once smothered by the volcanic eruption of 1600 BC. It’s already the hottest day so far and the sun cream is handed around. It’s a whistle-stop visit for me as I need to get ahead of everyone again at the Artemis Karamolegos winery to shoot camera-shy Artemis before a final tasting and lunch, followed by the airport.
En route I discover, sadly with little time to spare, the roadside shop of a local farmer and winemaker. The exterior, more off-putting than inviting, is an immediate eye-catcher of eccentric charm but it’s apparently sadly missed by the rest of the group on their return journey.
A reluctant Artemis greets me with his daughter, another Artemis, one of his six children, who was keen to observe the goings on. She turned out to be the secret to getting her father to relax.
Everyone has their button to press. Santorini might not have pressed mine but Assyrtiko has come very close.