Arts, Culture & Media

Amidst Europe's Economic Woes, One German Stands Up for Greek Wine

On a windy plain 20 miles outside of Athens, grape vines vie for space with suburban sprawl. Dimitrios Georgas shows me that his vines are about to bear fruit.

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"They are ready. If we have some sun for two or three days — then pop," he said.

Georgas' family has been growing wine here for generations. His winery produces only about 50,000 bottles worth a year – reds, whites, and retsina – a Greek wine with pine resin added.

All of Georgas' products are certified organic. He said his wines, and Greek wines in general, are special, kind of like the Greeks themselves.

"We are different because we think in a way, we act in a way, we drink in a way, we dance in a way. As long as we're not afraid to communicate this quality to the outside world, to be authentic, we've got advantages."

It's been a hard time for Greeks and for the Greek economy. The European Union continues to wrangle over the final details of a second bailout for Greece. The country needs more money, not to mention some forgiveness from private banks, if it hopes to keep from defaulting. Greece has already agreed to strict austerity measures. The crisis generated a lot of resentment between Greece and its richer euro-zone partners – especially Germany.

But not all Germans are down on Greece. One German named Markus Stolz is making a living here. Stolz spent years in London as a derivatives trader, but his passion was wine. Stolz's wife is Greek, and they always dreamed of moving back to Greece.

Eight years ago, they did. Stolz said he started sampling Greek wines and he liked what he tasted.

"I also saw that with Greek wines, the quality was getting better and better year after year, and I wanted to do something professionally with wines, but didn't know what to do," he said. "I began to look at the export figures for Greek wines, and I thought there is something very, very wrong here."

Stolz found that the vast majority of Greek wine was consumed in Greece. So three years ago, just before the Greek economic crisis hit, Stolz decided to give up high finance and set up shop as a Greek wine exporter.

He started by contacting wine merchants in his native Germany, and in Britain, where he had lived.

"I wrote about 100 letters, introducing myself, saying I will help you come together with Greek wineries, and the interest I received back was literally less than zero."

Stolz persisted. He started a blog on Greek wine, and he used Facebook and Twitter to spread the word. Stolz even got invited to the US to be on Internet wine critic Gary Vaynerchuk's web show.

Soon the Germans, among others, started to listen. So Stolz organized tastings in Germany. But last year, attitudes started to change, as Greeks and Germans began blaming each other for the euro zone debt troubles.

"I'll give you an example," said Stolz. "I had been working on a German wine merchant for one-and-a-half years, trying to get an appointment for Greek wines. I finally met him in November. We sat down, we tried the wines, he loved the wines. But before we broke off he said – OK, Markus, you just have to tell me – how can I sell a Greek wine to a German now?"

The current bad blood between Germans and Greeks started to play out online, Stolz said.

"There had been lots of calls by Greeks who would send me emails or call me up and say Markus, you have to make a political stance on your blog and tell the Germans off. At the same time, the same day sometimes, I'd get calls or emails from Germans saying Markus, you have to tell the Greeks off."

Stolz said tries not to get too depressed about it; and from a business point of view, the American market is more promising anyway.

He said he thinks Greek wine-makers, and the government, should be marketing Greek wine in a big way right now, not to mention olive oil and cheese – two other fantastic products Greece could find more markets for.

And he's trying to get more winemakers here to think about exporting, especially now that the Greek domestic market has been squeezed hard by the debt crisis.