Sharing the Good news About Wine
Congratulations are in order! Hip-hip-hooray! We proudly present to you a brand new Master of Wine, a true commander: Yiannis Karakasis. We had the pleasure of studying under him at WSPC in Athens this September so it was inevitable to ask him for an interview and introduce him to a wider audience. We definitely recommend that you enjoy this interview over a glass of Vinsanto (you will see why shortly) but if you find yourself short on Vinsanto, do pour yourself a favorite drink and read on!
You had a very different job before you got into wine. What was it?
It was an entirely different world being in the Hellenic Navy for more than 20 years but I enjoyed every minute of it. I specialized as a navy helicopter pilot on an AB212 Helos, having flown close to 2,000 hours as a navy officer in various warships, and being a commanding officer of a minesweeper. I made a lot of nice memories there and this period taught me about discipline, which helped me a lot in becoming a Master of Wine later on. When I left the Navy, I was a commanding officer for a helicopter squadron, so I had a very responsible job with a hundred people and ten-twelve helicopters to take care of. It was very demanding but at the same time I was also pursuing my first diploma here [with WSET], so when I had a little bit of time, I studied.
How did you get into wine?
If you love wine, you always find a way to appreciate, enjoy it and, sometimes, to learn more about it. WSPC here in Greece was the inspiration and Konstantinos Lazarakis was the man. He was my mentor. I got into wine very slowly but I was doing it right; I never rushed things. Now I find myself getting more and more busy, which is something very rewarding.
What does it feel like to become a MW?
I can tell you how it feels for five days now (he laughs): it feels great! It feels like I have climbed a very, very high mountain and I have this amazing view in front of me, I pick up my backpack and I find a bottle of cold Vinsanto, I open it, have a sip and enjoy the view. It is a fantastic moment! I am sure it will open many doors for me. In just a few days I already have some offers to do this or go there. It is a great feeling to be a part of the Masters of Wine team where I met some fantastic people who are open to learn new things every day.
What is next for you and what would you want to focus on the most in your career path?
Getting people to know my partner (the other wine commander) Grigoris Michailos and me better. We have already done some nice things such as promoting Greek wines in Australia and last year we started with the wines of Peloponnese. We try to do things both on regional and national level. Now that I am a MW, I think I want to be on the same track but do more, i.e. consulting, promoting Greek wine, writing for influential magazines and websites like the article we wrote for Jancis Robinson or the articles for Meininger’s Wine Business International – one about Santorini and one for Retsina. Last but not least, I love educating people. To me, this is the essence of getting a MW degree because you need to be a good communicator, spread the word and get more people to believe that they can understand wine better.
How long did it take to get the degree and what was the process like for you?
I was very lucky. I got my diploma here at WSPC (WSET Level 4) and I immediately applied for the Master of Wine program. I had only about 10 days to submit my application and I had to write a specific essay so I wrote about the role of oxygen in winemaking after fermentation, a kind of a classic topic. It took me 4 years after that. The first year I passed the theory, the second year the practical exam and then the research paper. The interesting part is that out of 50 or 60 people that started at the same time (we met in Rust, Austria) only 2 people, myself included, managed to become MWs. Of course, there are a lot more coming. This means that it is a very detailed and demanding program and you need to work very, very hard to be called a Master of Wine.
You are currently teaching at WSPC in Athens. What are the courses like, who can attend and what is next for attendees?
I think we are very lucky to have WSET courses offered here in Greece and it could be very good for the Balkans as a region, especially with the way the courses are structured. They are suitable for people with different levels of knowledge about wine. There are 4 levels: Level 1 to Level 4 or Diploma. There are also some courses as serious as the Court of Master Sommeliers for people who want to become sommeliers. From there on they can develop in many different directions.
How much travelling is involved in becoming a MW (in terms of learning about the different wine regions)?
You never stop travelling. When I left the Navy, I thought that I would travel less but, I think, I ended up travelling more. You just have to travel, visit the vineyards, talk to the owners and get real life examples in order to pass the MW exam. To me it is absolutely essential to visit the classic regions: Rioja, Chianti, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Mozel and possibly go beyond that visiting South Africa, Australia, Napa Valley. It opens a new world to you. Otherwise you would be missing on a lot of information.
What is the role of interaction in the wine industry (with students, mentors, colleagues, professionals)?
This is possibly the best part. Meeting great people, building a fantastic network, sharing and helping each other. I did that a lot during my studies for the practical exam for the MW. I exchanged notes with other students and it helped me a lot. It is also a great feeling to meet some wine legends or go to top producers in Burgundy and talk about wine with them. They are down to earth and have a lovely sense of humor and extensive knowledge on the subject.
Tell us more about WINE COMMANDERS. You are one of the most successful wine-related websites in Greece.
Ι get more and more sensitive with the wine ethics discussion these days and I think it is very hard to find and retain integrity in the wine world. I try to be consistent with my values and try to write about the truth in the glass even if I am writing for a friend.
The thing with us is that we have only origianal content with no reproductions. The blog is not about news or translations but about original stories. We publish three stories in Greek and two stories in English every week. We express our opinions freely and we are totally independent. We don’t have any advertisements from wineries. We have a lot of positive feedback and we look forward to the face lifting of Wine Commanders, making it more modern and having more content about wines and ratings, more about wine and food. We are thinking about having a column for guests only. Once per week we will invite a person that we think has something new to say about wine. We would love to have a larger team in the near future with people who become part of the community in specific sectors.
After spending a couple of days with you it is easy to notice that you have a great sense of humor. How important is this along with people skills and the right attitude if you want to grow in the wine industry?
It comes down to being positive. It is OK to have an opinion and it can be a negative one sometimes but, most of the time, it is about spreading the good news. I have said to myself that I will be alright because I try to be positive but I don’t leave things that I have to comment without a comment. So, for example, if a big new wine is released in Greece and it costs 100 Euro, no matter if I like it or not, I have to write something about that. In general, the blog focuses on the good news about Greek wines but we are also saying that we need to get better in certain areas, so this is the constructive part of what we do.
What is happening with Greek wine in Greece right now?
Unfortunately, right now Greek wine suffers on the domestic market because of the political instability and all the small aspects that create problems for the average consumer on a daily basis. Consumers go for very cheap wines most of the time and, of course, we want them to do the opposite. I was just recently in Crete and people just cannot go outside the bag-in-box idea. It is a labyrinth of producers and restaurant owners where restaurant owners accuse producers and vice versa (usually for the high prices) and that’s a dead end. Many local wineries rely mostly on the big markets like Athens and Thessaloniki plus the big spending places like Mikonos, Rhodes and in Crete during the summer. This makes them not so dependent on the domestic market but on tourism as well.
Prices in Santorini have already increased and they will go up again, making it very difficult for local people to buy Santorini wines so these will mostly be exported. If you want to buy a Santorini wine in Greece, you will have to pay 25 Euro. Not a lot of people will be willing to do that. Vinsanto offers fantastic value for money but as a sweet wine it is difficult to sell, and it is expensive.
In your opinion, what is the right way to market Greek wines?
There are some old school wineries which are classics, they are still good and are improving as well. There are many emerging boutique wineries that are doing great things in many different parts of Greece. The truth is that big wineries such as Boutari invested a lot and we all owe much to this winery. In Mantinia and Santorini, they changed the perspective, the way of harvesting and the style of wine. In Naoussa, they went for the Single Vineyard concept while nobody else dared to do that, so I really think that Boutari under leadership of Yiannis Voyatzis (their chief enologist and a fantastic guy) contributed a lot to Greek wine in general and establish the name of Greek wine abroad.
Now, however, Greek wine needs to be marketed differently. It does not need to go in the supermarkets abroad, but in restaurants and specialized wine shops. If you have a wall with 1,000 bottles of wine, how probable is it to choose a Greek wine? Maybe if God takes your hand and puts it there (he laughs). We saw that in Australia with the big Dan Murphy’s stores. The Greek wines were there but nobody knew that. Also, you need to have sufficient production to make a statement abroad. There are ways to do that and some people have already managed that. But if you are producing a total of 5,000 bottles you can’t do much, not even in your own country.
And how are Greek wines doing abroad?
Greek wine is stronger than ever in terms of becoming a buzz word in so many foreign markets. The export in rising in USA and Canada. On the other hand, exports in Europe seem to decrease, so there is a point to address there and think about what needs to be done. I think that Greek wine now has a great momentum. The timing is excellent. It needs to be supported because if we cannot capitalize on that now, the moment will pass and we will start complaining about Restina again. This is the time when we need to get people excited about more regions than just Santorini. It is time to have a real marketing strategy and communicate Greek wine all over the world. Things like the event in Australia where we promoted 25 wineries have to happen much more often. We will see. I don’t know if I am optimistic or pessimistic but I do know that now is the time. Now and for to the next 2 or 3, maximum 5, years. Otherwise we will have to go back to our caves.
Do you like the concept of Balkan wines being marketed together or do you think Greece should be more independent because, in a way, it has the higher ground, it is more famous, easily likeable, related to tourism and recognizable?
There are some pros and cons to each approach. I think that Greek wines may benefit from the Balkan concept even if they are in one of the better positions in the mix but they need to improve. I like that there are so many hidden treasures in these countries, such as Mavrud and Gamza in Bulgaria, Plavac Mali in Croatia and Bogdanuša in the island of Hvar. There are also some amazing Turkish wines coming out. This builds some nice momentum as well but the problem is having people invest in order to bring out the best in these varieties. We need investments in Greece as well and so far we don’t have them.
The Balkans now have one more Master of Wine to be proud of and we are sure there will be great things coming up from and to Yiannis Karakasis in the future. We wish him the best of luck in his career and hope that he continues to spread the good news about wine!