The saying “when a woman wants something she knows how to get it” would apply perfectly to Melina Tassou, the winemaker from Rhodope (or Rodopi), who excels both in entrepreneurship and good winemaking craftsmanship by creating a brand name for her world traveling select wines we are bound to stumble across sometime.
The taskmaster of “Domaine Kikones” was more than punctual for our online interview. Cordial from the start, exuding something from the aromas and robustness of the estate’s fine wines, she made it very clear: she is not just another player; she means serious business.
Proud “Kikones” started up and continue relying entirely on their own resources, without any subsidies or government funding, she keenly assured us that the winery, while running a lonely course at times, will definitely make it to the top.
Trained in Bordeaux, Burgundy and Australia, together with her father and her brother, both qualified agronomists, in 2004 they made a vigorous entry into the winemaking world, setting up shop in the old building her father used for drying mint before shipping it to East Germany. And so the journey of “Kikones” begins.
“A fine building does not a fine wine make. I truly believe that. The French make exceptional wines, in plastic wine vats, in run-down buildings, in moldy floors. We are not like that at all, we are spick-and-span clean, but the building is old”, she says.
Coping with the demographic challenges in the area came first. Muslim workers were skeptic about wine production, since drinking alcohol is prohibited by the Quran and some of them backed out while those applying for the job were certain they would be working for a male boss, Melina Tassou explains. The presence of a woman struck them as odd.
Keeping up the effort however, the winery went ahead and in order to overcome the lack of wine analytical laboratory in the area and to avoid transfers to and from Thessaloniki, the owners set up their own winery lab, quite successfully. Melina is really proud about that seeing as measurements in their lab are as accurate as those performed abroad where she sends samples, she emphasizes.
Concentrated on building a brand identity for international markets, Melina Tassou, travels quite often to promote the products of the estate overseas.
“It’s not the name that counts, for the international buyer, it’s the content. It’s about what’s in the bottle and whether the wine is good”, she says in reference to the markets outside Greece. “This is the market we aim at. In Greece, having opened in 2004, we obviously have got a different distance to cover compared to a winery established in 1964. Consumer awareness for wine is relatively low compared to Belgium, France or the United States where the industry is more organized and the public more knowledgeable about wine.”
When asked about the reputation of Greek wines in the global market she was disarming but honest and pragmatic, at the same time:
“They have had a negative reputation. This is the issue that faced the Greek wine. In the export markets, it’s got a bad reputation among those with intermediate wine knowledge. The ones with zero knowledge of Greek wine, blank slate, they are perfect for us. But those who have been to Greece and drunk retsina, who have been served the “fine home wine” of the tavern-keeper, allegedly his own jug wine, where the Greeks in the adjacent table blended it with Coke… The best markets are the markets that don’t know about us. Where there are no Greeks, where these wines will be catered to foreigners.”
Openly in favor of the special excise tax on wine, imposed in lieu of the 23% VAT on private tuition, she believes it not only won’t harm Greek wine but that it will eventually help it find its way to retailers and households. As she is obviously in-the-know, we asked her to illustrate her difference of opinion:
“The volume of wine imports in Greece equals 50% of the total volume of wine production. That should account for something. This otherwise “good” bulk wine served to every tourist on every island, is not even Greek wine; it has been mislabeled as Greek, originating from Italy, Bulgaria, wherever, bottled or in jugs, and has been passed off as Greek, thrown into the market without it being taxed. I am a mother myself, I have a son. Do I want to pay school taxes? No. We will be drinking Greek wine everywhere because importations will eventually cease. The problem of many winemakers was –as they put it- they were unable to produce tax warehouses seeing as they were equally unable to calculate the volume of their wine per hectoliters. So, you got a tank and you don’t know how much wine it contains? Seriously? And what about adding sulfites? Or not adding sulfites. And how can one bottle unless volume is determined? How many bottles will you need? It’s an absolute lie. It’s simply impossible not to know. It’s on the path of becoming legalized as is. It’s the same everywhere in the world, in France, Belgium, they pay taxes –lower, I give you that- but as long as that the whole country is messed up, what can you do? Those who made a lot of wine -actually didn’t make it, just imported it-, are the ones facing the bigger issues now.”
Disproportionality between France and Greece inevitably led the focus on mentality. “The French do everything differently” says Melina Tassou adding that many –if not all- Greek winemakers carry themselves with a borrowed attitude of French snobbism similar to that of their peers in Bordeaux, “without their money and fame alas”.
“Team work is essential. In France each wine region has their own inter-professional council, they make blind tasting sessions of the wines produced in the region and if a wine is entitled to the “Ismaros” appellation, for example, then they use it. If not, they don’t just go on classifying the wines based on legalities like yields per hectare or things like that.”
And as she further analyzes, the classification of varieties in Greece has been drawn up based on legal terms, which is just another impediment for the flow.
“We grow Sangiovese and Malagousia. The Sangiovese we planted it because I got to vinify it in Australia and I liked its bouquet and flavors and I wanted a tannic, fortified wine in our portfolio and the Malagousia we planted it as an indigenous grape whose style I like. The paradox is that both our Sangiovese and our Malagousia cannot get the “Ismaros” PGI (Protected Geographical Indication).Why? Because Sangiovese is simply not permitted in Thrace, despite our wine having been awarded a gold trophy in China and similarly Malagousia, is not an allowable grape variety, again despite having taken a gold medal. It’s just as well because these things have no bearing on sales.”
In search of news in this interview the question was simple and the answer equally strong, without a hint of false humility:
What can we expect from Kikones?
“Kikones have got a great future. Kikones will become the most popular wine brand of Greece, by far the leading name in the international markets. Our goal is when you go to Pakistan in 20 years, at, say, the Hilton and you ask the sommelier there ‘what is the top wine from Greece’, he answers: ‘Domaine Kikones’. That’s our goal. The rest will come.”