Friday, October 7, 2011

Timber, I Say

I adore satire. And sardonicism. And pitch-dark humor. The bleaker the joke, the louder the cackle. Maybe not that weak one ricocheting against your throat's walls and trickling out of your unimpressed mouth, but definitely the diabolical version inside my own disturbed head. People warned me not to get too excited about the Limassol Wine Festival—now in its fiftieth year of existence—and assured me it wasn't worth the visit from Nicosia. I ignored them, knowing all too well that my penchant for sarcasm would pave the way and hopefully produce a post microscopically quark-like reminiscent of the late David Foster Wallace's masterpiece, Shipping Out: On the (nearly lethal) comforts of a luxury cruise, on his misadventures aboard a Celebrity Cruises Inc., ship. Obviously, with tasting notes instead of short stories for footnotes.

After a forty-minute drive south with The Wife, Ph.D., My Zolpidem Supplier and Cousin #4 as my mockery-control valves, we arrived at the festival's gates. By the ticket counter, street vendors, mostly Asian immigrants, sold colorful comedic balloons, cheap Chinese trinkets for children, flowers for the romantic couples, and fake designer purses for the stingy posers amongst us. A gigantic fluorescent sign hung from the main archway into the park and blinked in segments, momentarily reconstituting itself into an outdated kitschy logo of sorts (purple grapes, green leaves, pink, white and blue lettering) for the festival. This did not bode well for the event but, unlike The Wife, Ph.D., I have learned not to judge a bottle by its label so I paid the 10 entry fee (included one free bottle of entry-level wine) and treaded in with an open mind.

Four large elevated decks, two on each side and each one sponsored by one of the four wine conglomerates (Sodap, ETKO, KEO and LOEL), served as base for the promotion of their respective wines. These were impressive productions, chock-full of photographs of bottles, vineyards and wineries as backdrops to long bar areas where a handful of employees served customers tastings of their simpler, more affordable selections. Other than the faux oak barrel wine dispenser used by Sodap, these pavilions were rather classy and did a fine job representing the "corporate" side of The Rock's wine industry. Also nearby, several booths handed out brochures on The Rock's wine regions and useful maps of the different wine routes available to wine aficionados. Unfortunately, right in the middle, behind a bizarrely-lit spouting fountain, stood the eight-meter statue. A mustachioed man decked in a vraka (black baggy pants that would make MC Hammer salivate and break out in dance), a white ruffled chemise, dark combat boots and a burgundy vest, like a determined fencer or conquistador upon the discovery of land, one arm pointing towards the sea with a ceramic wine carafe in hand, the other behind him, a bunch of red grapes hanging from its fingertips. At its foot, a grammatically-skewed message to the revelers, "Drink wine for better life," and dozens of tourists smiling and posing for their flashes. "Back to square one," I thought while looking up into the as-humid-as-a-hamam night and scratching my head trying to decipher the statue's aesthetic value. I am certain, though, the figurine has been around since the beginning of time, and on its days off from scaring tourist children at the festival probably poorly decorates a random hotel lobby or traditional tavern.

We each bought an inscribed tumbler (2.50) for the free tastings and went off in search of quality. Besides the four bigs, we came across smaller booths for Erimoudes, Agia Mavri, Linos and Fikardos wineries. Business card in hand, I introduced myself to Mr. Theodoros Fikardos, owner and winemaker of the latter, a Pafos-based operation renowned for favoring experimentation and releasing at least a dozen different wines ranging from dry to fit for a honey bee. After dropping a few names to make myself appear more important than in reality, I grilled him for ten minutes on his wines and invited myself over to his winery for a tour following completion of the 2011 harvest. Generally, most of my questions veer towards Maratheftiko, the difficult to grow yet versatile and most interesting red indigenous grape of Cyprus. Mr. Fikardos definitely "believes in Maratheftiko" despite having to deal with its problematic growth; some years, he said, Cypriot wineries have nearly 250 tons of the grape to work with whereas during others that figure is cut in half. Not that he needs those extra grapes given his love for playing the mad oenologist, coming up with distinct blends and making wines from grapes that other winemakers would deem unsuited for The Rock's terroir. For instance, he likes to "experiment with little-known indigenous varieties like Spourtiko," sometimes producing between four-to-five thousand bottles for people to taste and provide him with comments. According to Mr. Fikardos, only through experimentation can one "see what works in Cyprus" and learn. When pressed to list the wines he's proudest of, his two rosés—Iocasti (dry) and Valentina (medium)—were at the forefront, both too longtime favorites of his diverse clientele. I still remember thoroughly enjoying a bottle of Iocasti with Asian food and The Wife, Ph.D., on one of our battery-recharging retreats to Aphrodite Hills Resort. At the end of the day, Mr. Fikardos told me, he "works for his clients and not himself." 

As the number of tourists piled up next to the counter, I shook his hand goodbye, still feeling the remnants of the five wines I tasted tingling inside my mouth. In retrospect, stepping aside was the wisest decision; sweat trickled down my face and spine and The Wife, Ph.D.'s felt obliged to repeatedly pat me dry with a bundle of rough toilet paper and lavender-scented baby-butt wipes. Worst of all, in a misguided effort to refresh myself, I tried jumping into the small grape-stomping vat set up for the children's amusement but several mothers eyed me suspiciously. I just shrugged and then skipped back down the stairs. Damn beard.

This being Cyprus, tons of food stands busied the festival's gardens. Medium-sized box trailers had been retooled à la MacGyver (or A-Team if you're even older) into grills that spun kilos of lamb and pork over burning coal. Handwritten signs, many of them with embarrassing spelling mistakes, announced the sale of salted herrings and roast chicken. Twine sacks loaded with all kinds of nuts and dried fruit were scooped up into bags and served as snacks, while local sweets, too gooey and luscious in my opinion to match most wines, had people frantically looking for water. Loud machines whirled colorful clouds of sugary threads and pots with bubbling oil fried golf-sized balls of dough that were then sent for another swim in honey. The Wife, Ph.D., overtly sensitive to ovine meat, sniffed out a shack that sold resi, a wheat and lamb pilaf previously unknown to me and of much popularity at communal village weddings. If I hadn't made reservations for sushi at Roku, I would have probably tried it and washed it down with the 2010 Sodap Kamanterena Lefkada Rosé I bought at the Sodap pavilion since it's an awarded vintage that I have been hard-pressed to find in the capital.

An hour later, we left the grounds, lugging several bottles of cheap Xynisteri, our pimp festival-themed glasses, stacks of informational wine brochures and our dignity intact. I admit the festival needs work. The logos are old fashioned and somewhat tacky. The best boutique wineries (Zambartas, Vlassides et al) were not present. A copy editor has to be hired for the sake of consistency and the "goodest" usage of the English language. An air-conditioned bubble must be erected over the municipal park to avoid salty secretions and unwanted bodily odors from interfering with one's olfactory sense when properly tasting wine. There's plenty of room for another wooden vat in which women in skimpy farm-girl outfits representing different Cypriot wine villages wrestle for their town's honor (Koilani vs. Omodos!) over a bed of de-stemmed Mavro grapes while bored men place their bets either in cash or in-kind (piglets, bags of field cucumbers, trays of homemade pastichio, their mother-in-law, etc.) In all seriousness, however, the festival was quite entertaining. Being among people—mainly tourists—of so many different nationalities, talking to winemakers in a festive environment, and casually drinking wine without thinking about tannins, alcohol levels, acidity or aroma provided us with a much-needed change of pace from our daily lives in Nicosia. One thing's for sure: I will be back next year, loaded with business cards, an empty stomach, a jovial disposition and a powerful chainsaw to bring down MC Mustachio. Don't want him spooking my kids in the future. Timber, I say.

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