Father Epiphanios of Mylopotamos
Father Epiphanios of Mylopotamos. The power of man and vines are in harmony!
Interview by Oleg Cherne
The sin is not in wine, but in drunkenness.
Saint John Chrysostomos
The greatness of Christian asceticism on Holy Mount Athos is measured by the spiritual power that has eternalized the life of the athonites. Chronicles have preserved testimonies of the numerous miracles performed on Mount Athos, along with the names of many saints, with the Virgin Mary heading the list, who allegedly made Athos her fate.
Today, the glory of Athonite monasticism is enhanced even further by the works of one of the most famous Athonite ascetics, Father Epiphanios of Mylopotamos. Father Epiphanios lives in the skete of St. Eustathius, which belongs to the Great Laura of Athos. He toils in the vineyards for the glory of God for hours on end, crafting a wine that has become not only a magnificent creation of Athos, but also the embodiment of the entirety of centuries-old Greek culture. This wine blends within it the divine blessing, the energy of the Greek land, and the mighty power of national traditions from the great era of Homer to modern day.
The Holy Mount Athos
Athos is both the name of the peninsula and the mountain towering over it in the northeast of Greece, Northern Macedonia region. Indeed, the peninsula is named after the legendary Thracian giant Athos. As legend has it, Athos threw an enormous stone at the god Poseidon, and when the stone fell, the mountain was formed.
In ancient times, Athos was home to the sanctuaries of Apollo and Zeus, and the mountain was revered as sacred. According to legend, Christian history had its origins here in the 40’s A.D., when the Virgin Mary first stepped on Mount Athos. But the first monasteries have been known to exist here only since the 4th century. Later on in the 7th century, the Byzantine emperor granted monks self-government, and since then Athos has been officially referred to as the Holy Mount. Athos has the official state status of the Autonomous monastic state of the Holy Mount in present-day Greece.
Today, Athos is the global center of Orthodox monasticism, and is home to more than 20 monasteries and numerous sketes. The largest and oldest of the active monasteries is the Great Lavra. The Mylopotamos skete, where Father Epiphanios works, also belongs to this monastery. Athonite rules define three separate types of monasticism: monks living in monasteries, monks living in sketes, and those known as desert fathers. The latter live the most secluded life, where some do not leave their remote caves nestled in the ancient mountain for decades on end.
The monasteries of the Holy Mount Athos have their own vineyards and wineries. Three brands of well-known Greek wines are produced here: Tsantali, Mylopotamos and Monoxilitis. Monk Athanasius, the founder of Great Lavra, put forth when and how the monks should drink wine back in the 10th century. These rules have changed very little since that time, and are still valid in all the monasteries of Athos: monks are allowed to drink red wine in small quantities four days a week, and do so only during meals.
It should be noted here that based on scientific observations, Athonite monks boast very good health. The University of Aristotle in Thessaloniki recently conducted research here, and in the end learned the impressive results that there are almost no cases of cancer, Alzheimer’s disease or heart attacks at Holy Mount. While researching two monastery cemeteries in 2013, scientists noted that the average age of the buried there was 87 years old at the first, and 89 years old at the second.
— Father Epiphanios, how long have the monks here been consuming wine? I saw somewhere it all started in the 18th century.
— It was much earlier than that! I should say, it’s been since Jesus Christ left us knowledge about bread and wine as his legacy. In those far days, wine was used in the process of eating to accompany the meal. But Jesus Christ blessed these two products for the monks at the Last Supper, as the two things indispensable for any true believer. Therefore, when the liturgy is taking place, we always have bread and wine (or the body and spirit).
All this is reflected in the New Testament, when Christ performed the miracle of blessing water, and thus turning it into wine.
— I know that before Athos only made wine for domestic consumption. Is it true you were the first to enter the foreign market?
— We started producing wine in 1997, and the first vines were planted back in 1993. Of course, at first it was difficult, since not many people really understood our concept. Some considered it a dangerous innovation, or a shift of orientation more towards worldly people. But gradually everything fell into place, and today eleven monasteries now make and sell their own wines.
Of course, we received all the necessary permits and blessings from the Protat (the administration of Athos), from the monastery, as well as from the state after we passed all the chemical tests.
— I know that you have a special preference for Merlot.
— Well, not exclusively. We also use the indigenous Limnio variety. Our wine typically contains around 30 percent Limnio and 70 percent Merlot. But I should note this is a very strong Merlot, making the wine have a 14 percent alcohol content.
— Could you tell us a little more about Limnio?
— This local variety is truly ancient. People have been making wine from it for so long that you can find mentions of it even from the time of King Odysseus. When the Greeks besieged Troy, they fought for an entire ten years! They would drink this wine before battle and just say one simple phrase: «Perhaps not everyone will come back.»
These Greek soldiers were allowed to drink wine until one in the morning, after which they were given four or five hours to sleep and rest. But as soon as the sun rose, the horn blasted out its signal. It would seem they might have gotten up slightly drunk, but not tired, which means the military leaders did not even let them realize what state they were in.
The wine itself was named in honor of the island Lemnos. Wine used to be taken from here by ship and brought directly to the Greeks.
— Where is this island?
— Not far at all, you can even see it from here.
— Is it true that Limnio was Aristotle’s favorite wine?
— Yes, that’s how the legend goes.
— Maybe that was why he was so intelligent?
— Oh of course, he was very bright! He was even the teacher of Alexander the Great!
— But let’s get back to the present. How old are your Limnio vines?
— They’re twenty years old at this point.
— Do you use pithos (clay vessels) for making wine?
— No, we only use wooden containers. From the very beginning, when we just first started our vinification project, we made sure that a certain standard temperature was set that never rises or falls.
— We know from history that the Greeks liked to add various spices and other ingredients to wine. You might say this is its own sort of alchemy. I taste pepper in your wine; it’s very nice to drink without snacks. Is this part of the grape’s own nature, or are you adding something?
— This happens because we leave the seeds and grape skin on, which brings about this unique aftertaste. Now, when the first bitterness fades away, you can immediately pick up on several different flavors in this wine, a special spicy hue. This wine is from the 2012 harvest, so it’s just five years old.
— What is the oldest wine in your cellar?
— One of the first? I have a 2000-harvest wine. But with old wines, it’s sometimes like a lottery because they were the first, almost like trial versions.
— Homer once said: «If you want to make sure whether a wine was good or not, drink it after ten years.»
— In old times, people used to drink old wines aged for more than ten years. Ten to fifteen years, I’d say. Now today, wine professors are here saying they think it’s ideal to drink wine aged just five or six years. Up to ten. Because first its quality starts to improve, and then begins to deteriorate in the barrel.
— As regards this wine, I believe it needs at least ten years to reach its full maturity. It really has a great potential.
— Wines older than ten years are for professionals who understand old wines. For ordinary people it’s meaningless, as they simply don’t grasp the difference. But generally speaking, this isn’t always appropriate. Just take the following example: a woman of twenty is beautiful, at thirty or thirty-five she is still beautiful, but after forty she begins to lose her freshness and beauty.
— That doesn’t really sound like a comparison I’d hear at a monastery.
— Well, an Italian I know shared this with me, it’s not my own. Or you can take a rose as an example: at first it’s closed, then it blossoms a pure, bright and beautiful color, but the aroma is still absent. Then when it opens completely, it becomes succulent, bright and velvety. But after the flowering stage is over, the rose loses everything.
— When I asked lord David in the monastery of Alaverdi how they manage to make such excellent wine, he said that it’s all about their love for wine, prayers, bell ringing and lifestyle. What are your thoughts on that?
— What he said can be expressed in two words: there is Something Greater. Of course, whatever work we do, we should love it. You must give up your entire self to every type of work with love, and not keep track of time. You give up yourself, your soul to it. Love means total devotion. What lord David said about the church and the bells is important: we need to enter this whole process in harmony. When you prune grapes, or grow or harvest them, you must be in harmony. After all, when wine is first created, the personality of the creator reveals itself.
— So are you saying there’s a specific tone that needs to be met?
— Yes, you need to create the harmony yourself. And of course, it’s a lot of work. Cleanliness. Any mother out there wants her child to be clean: she tidies up after them, cleans, feeds, holds her baby in her hands, and sings to them. Wine is alive! You have to watch over it, you need a lot of care not to miss anything.
— Do you communicate with wine? What do you like to tell your wine?
— Absolutely! When a sweet drink is turned into an alcoholic one, it’s considered a spiritual process. Then comes the next stage of a spiritual conversation. So first, we purify the wine and observe how the sediment settles. Then when the drink is already poured into wooden barrels, sometimes you walk around with a candle at night and can hear the bubbles playing inside. You just walk and listen.
— What wine tone most closely matches your tastes?
— I wait for the tone of wine that makes my soul start to play and merge with its essence. And of course, I wait for its grace. You must seek out resonance, and you won’t be satisfied until you find it.
— It’s interesting that wine for Athonite monks is consumed as part of meals. But when listening to you, I just want to go on listening, tasting this wine without any pairing. What’s your take on that?
— Eating with it is essential! If I don’t listen to wine, if I don’t make it well, it won’t go on the table in the refectory. When a student scores ten or eleven out of twenty, don’t expect any better results from them. The same is true about wine!
— Do you asperse wine with holy water?
— Not the wine, but we do asperse the vineyard when we prune the grapes on February 1, or St. Tryphon’s day. And the grapes are also aspersed and sanctified before the harvest. We also have special prayers against locusts and worms.
— Is there a patron saint of wine on Athos?
— We mostly honor Saint Tryphon. But there are also two more names related to wine, St. Sergius and Bacchus. Although followers of Orthodoxy try not to consider the latter, since in Ancient Greece he was the god of wine (his pagan name was Dionysus). He wasn’t just the god of wine, but also of pleasure, so we try not to mention him here.
— What’s your personal attitude towards Bacchus?
— I don’t have one. All that’s done here, even wine, is made by God’s hands, so everything should have a happy medium. Without drunkenness or inebriation. Of course, I can drink an entire bottle of wine, but it’s totally different when you have friends, say three or four or five friends in a group. You sit down and drink wine with them. Why? Because man is an animal of life, of our mundane life. When friends meet, they say to each other: «Let’s go drink a little wine.» Not vodka or whiskey, most people mention wine in particular. Wine is very different from whiskey. For example, when alone most people drink whiskey, vodka or other strong drinks. But when people drink wine, they crave companionship to feel the taste of wine change over the course of the discussion or conversation. This is its own type of pleasure, without any other parallel.
— Now, when the wine has been open for about forty minutes, some hues have cropped up that I can’t put my finger on. Would you say there’s an aroma of the Holy Mount in it?
— If a man finds everything, he’ll make this wine himself.
— The proximity of the sea here gives an iodic taste, you can really feel the iodine.
— On Greek islands where grass grows, the vegetation is supplemented with sea salt, iodine and the sea itself. For example, goat meat from these places is so tasty it is specially purchased for holidays from these islands. The very taste is fundamentally different.
— This wine is quite interesting for studying taste, as it has quite a unique one itself.
— Yes, to make wine truly delicious and beautiful, you have to put your soul into it. All that you have on the inside, spanning all your love, soul and sublime feelings. If you do everything with your heart, then the wine turns out incredible.
— I think I finally got the aroma! It’s incense!
— That’s not it, because we have about three thousand gustatory receptors on our tongue, each one registering its own specific taste. It’s hard to specifically define what it is exactly.
— True, but only truly good wine produces such richness.
— Good wine always depends on the vine. Also, you need to take into account the climate of the area. Here the sun rises and immediately shines on the vine, so the grapes bloom and ripen twenty days earlier. Due to the specifics of the terrain, there is also a special airflow here where there is no wind, evaporations come from the sea, and cold air descending from the mountain.
The creator must live in the same place where such a microclimate is created and the vines grow. What is the role of the winemaker, or the person who ultimately creates wine? You get up in the morning and you see the bud: how it starts to grow, bloom and rise up. In other words, you carefully track it every day. This participation is what creates a sort of information exchange.
— Do you have an oenologist?
— Yes, we have three. One comes from France five times a year to set the overall course for us. The second lives in Thessaloniki, and we are in a constant contact with him. The third one is the famous Luca Maroni from Italy. He offers his advice when it’s time to blend the wines.
— You came to Moscow, and I think Russians probably liked your wine quite a bit. It’s close to the Russian spirit in its character.
— When you make good wine, you want it to be drunk by people who understand wine. I’ve never liked it when three drinking buddies get together, grab six bottles and get drunk. What I prefer is when one person drinks a single bottle over the span of a week. And when they set the table, it goes right in the middle. Ideally, I wish my customers can come to respect and love this wine as much as I do.
— That’s a very lofty vision. I’ve seen this approach in Georgia before, where winemakers strive to «pay forward» their own special relationship to what they make.
— Absolutely. That means wine I make comes with a price as well. Some people come here and say nineteen euros is too expensive. But other visitors come and order larger lot, which makes it easy to arrange for something closer to fifteen euros. But then that makes some of them say «You’re selling it too cheap!» But no, I just choose the price my wine is worth, only enough to pay off its expenses and allow us to maintain our lives here.
— Do you have any thoughts on the «Kormilitsa» wine from the Athos monastery of St. Panteleimon?
— People know it as a factory wine, yes. A commercial product, mainly. It is mainly produced to attract businessmen who sell wine, so even though it’s sold at high prices, it isn’t worth what people buy it for. Every wine, and every product in general must have its price to cover its production costs. When wine costs twenty euros you can already make good money, but when it’s sold at eighty, or one hundred and twenty euros, they just call it «business.»
— Yes, that’s a pretty big problem here. There are only 10–15% of wines out there like yours, because there is a lot of technical wine being made right now. But you need to educate people before they start to understand drinks like yours. Even sommeliers don’t always understand wines of this type.
— I was born into a family of peasants. My father had five acres of vineyards, and when it started ripening we would go and taste it. I was just three or four years old the first time I remember. We would taste different berries here and there, searching out and finding the sweetest vines.
We would tread on the grapes with our feet like in ancient times. And then drink the first grape juice. Is it possible for a child to grow up in a village, in the heart of all this, and not love his job?
— When were the first vines planted here?
— The Mylopotamos skete was built by St. Athanasius together with the Great Lavra monastery. He was the first person to plant vines and olives here. In 973, more than a thousand years ago, the first seeds were planted.
— Is this the oldest area around here?
— Yes, the church and tower were built back in those years as well. But in the nineties, when I first came here, everything was in ruins. In 1944, almost all vineyards in Europe were killed. The fault here can be traced back to the Americans, who brought in boxes with ammunition, which ended up having a microbe in them.
— What would you recommend to pay attention to most for anyone drinking your wine?
— Not to drink wine without company, and to only drink wine with people you really love.
— But I would love to drink this wine alone, perhaps when writing a book.
— When a person is writing, he is already connected to the people who will read it afterwards. He is mentally connected with those other people. Dostoevsky, when he was writing, already knew he had a connection with his reader. And he drank wine as well.
— Have I got it right, that if you drink this wine alone, when you’re not writing a book or enjoying it with friends, you should at least be reading either Aristotle or Homer?
— You can listen to Beethoven or old folk songs. If the sky is clear in the evening or at night and you can see stars, you can sit there, drink and look up at them. So everyone can have it their own way.
— You can see it again, there’s this peppery note in the taste of the wine…
— Once there was a barrel of wine in a certain monastery in Italy. And at that time there was this one old monk who lived there. He used to go to this wine every day and try it. The wine started to gradually unfold and different tastes appeared. But he always felt some mystical taste hiding deep inside: «I can’t understand it, it reminds me of leather, boots»… But one day the clerk who watched over this wine had lost his keys. So they go on drinking this wine together for three months, and eventually they finish the barrel. Then when they go to wash it, they find the lost keys with a tag made of leather! So as it turns out, the wine-taster had actually guessed this piece of leather correctly!
— Thank you for this wine! There isn’t much wine of this scale in the world today.
— It’s a great joy for me that you’ve enjoyed it so much. Your words are an important piece of support to help keep my work going. They’re the wind beneath my wings, so that I can make this wine much better.