Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Fútbol and Death

With little suffering, my paternal grandfather passed away early the morning of the seventh of March. He was ninety-three years old and had a long and rewarding time here on earth. Having spent most of my life outside of Ecuador, I cannot say I was close to the man. He had a disciplinarian streak and was often grumpy. Fussy does not even come close to describing his attitude towards food, a shrimp omelet and white rice his idea—at least in my mind—of a perfect meal. Yet, he was also tender and encouraging, lovingly cupping my cheeks with his frail hand or driving my brothers and me to pick up our favorite pizzas for dinner. One of my fondest childhood memories is of him sitting by my bedside, patting my legs and whispering a lengthy prayer while I tried to sleep and not think about the scary volcanoes looming at a distance or the jets’ rumbling as they made their final approach into Quito’s tricky airport.

As children, my mother and father made sure we traveled to Ecuador once a year to see our grandparents, but as my brothers and I grew older, our own commitment to our studies, professions and families made it harder to visit regularly. I last saw him and my grandmother in 2008 during Christmas. My Cypriot wife and I flew in from Nicosia—our home for now—and spent ten days exchanging stories, laughing and cherishing each other’s unfortunately short company, all the while my better-half courageously using her rudimentary Spanish.

When my mother called that morning about his death, I hardly blinked. My upbringing as somewhat of a nomad who is used to city-hopping and promptly readjusting to change in life certainly helped. I am thirty-four and the longest I’ve been in one place is eight years and that long stint in Bogotá ended nearly a quarter of a century ago. So often I’ve had to say goodbye to new-found friends and family—sometimes temporarily, other times forever—that detaching from all kinds of relationships has come too easily for me. I’m not sure whether there is any value in this personality trait. Perhaps it’s a cover I use to avoid dealing with grief or it simply reveals my true colors as a selfish insensitive human being. Fact is, however, all the moving around has allowed me to handle loss in all of its multifaceted forms.

Little did I know that a strange kind of mourning would creep up on me later that day in the company of nearly twenty three thousand people at GSP Stadium in Nicosia. It was the return leg of the round of sixteen Champions League match-up between APOEL Nicosia, arguably Cyprus’ best team, and Olympique Lyonnais, a French behemoth, and I had a ticket to the east stand.

Minutes before kick-off, the fogged-up sky threatened the crowd with rain. I remember looking up at the GSP stadium’s bright lights. The lampposts drowned in the thin clouds and a ghostly, some would say premonitory, white sheet blanketed the night. The bleachers, however, were electric. On the south end, the hardcore fans, most of them clad in vivid orange or yellow, jumped and sang about how their squad took on Porto, Zenit and Shakhtar. A hooded man, emulating Spider-Man or a typical Argentine football fanatic, clawed his way up the tall fence separating the pitch from the supporters and held up a Greek flag.  A handful of irresponsible fans lit four or five flares, leaving behind a trail of thick smoke and a likely hefty fine for the club from UEFA. Throughout the stadium, cameras and iPhones flashed to capture this historic moment for Cypriot football. Around me, men, women and children were on their toes, giddy in anticipation for the match and hoping their team could revert the 1-0 loss in France.

APOEL’s Serbian coach Ivan Jovanović, who plied his trade as footballer and coach in Greece, moved away from his preferred 4-5-1 counterattacking formation and utilized an aggressive 4-4-2 lineup with Ailton Almeida and Esteban Solari as out-and-out forwards. Wingers Constantinos Charalambides and Gustavo Manduca were set up to feed balls into the area, while Nuno Morais and Helder Sousa were parked in the middle of the pitch to destroy and distribute. Within nine minutes, the coach’s strategic acumen paid off as Charalambides captured a poorly-cleared ball, split a couple of defenders and slid the ball across the box for Manduca to tap into the back of the net. 1-0 APOEL.

Throughout the first half and most of the second, APOEL created a few solid chances with good link-up play between their four attackers. Despite their advantage in possession, most of Lyon’s attacks focused on swinging balls into the area and these were dealt with adroitly by Portugal’s Paulo Jorge and the rest of APOEL’s staunch defense. As players tired and substitutions were made, APOEL switched back to the familiar 4-5-1 line-up and lost some of its incisiveness. In extra-time,  an isolated Ailton, who for some bizarre reason refused to shoot with his left foot, tried to single-handedly take on three French defenders, time and again cutting right and being dispossessed of the ball. After an exhausting two-hour stalemate, Nicosia would bear witness to the most important penalty shootout in Cyprus’ history.

I thought things looked bleak with Manduca, Charalambides and Solari, three of APOEL’s usual penalty takers, watching from the sideline. After Ailton and Morais scored APOEL’s first two strikes and Bafétimbi Gomis beat APOEL’s goalie Dionisis Chiotis to give Lyon a 3-2 lead, Cypriot winger Nektarios Alexandrou, who had entered the match as a substitute in extra-time and performed quite like a perch out of water, walked confidently towards the spot. Many around me worried the stage would prove too immense for a local player who worked his way up APOEL’s youth ranks and into the first team. Alexandrou, though, as fresh as a watermelon in August, rifled a left-footed strike straight down the gut of Hugo Lloris’ goal and once again evened out the tie.

What followed was hypnotic. Alexandre Lacazette, Lyon’s future star, struck low and to his right but Chiotis timed his lunge perfectly and denied the French squad the lead with a breathtaking save. Macedonian international Ivan Tričkovski scored easily for APOEL and put the Cypriot team up for the first time in the shootout. Then, Chiotis, inspired by the crazed cries of thousands, flung his body left and blocked Michelle Bastos’ poorly-taken penalty. The stadium erupted and the yellow-clad players rushed the field, piling onto the match’s hero.

Later, I would find out that APOEL’s goalkeeping coach had studied each of Lyon’s past penalty-takers and told Chiotis exactly where to dive. Right then and there, though, I hoped my grandfather had had a deft hand in that night’s victory, gifting a bright moment in European football history from beyond his deathbed to his oldest grandson. I don’t recall him ever playing football or even being an avid spectator of the sport, but I will live with the belief that on that particular night he was. The skies now clear, I looked up at the lights and my eyes welled up for a few seconds with the fleeting thought of my grandfather saying goodbye touching my heart. I laughed and clapped and prayed “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named,” who that same day had put five past a haplessly awestruck Bernd Leno in Catalunya, wouldn’t be next.

Keep in mind that I have some serious issues with APOEL. Too many Greek flags and no Cypriot ones fly in their matches. A small and misguided faction of the fan base has embraced ultra-right-wing ideologies and anti-Semitic emblems as their own. Despite all of this, APOEL’s ballsy yet disciplined performance is a victory for an island that has been rocked by a turbulent and violent history and recent economic hardship. Many among APOEL’s local rivals might not feel pride in this team’s achievements, but it’s impossible for me to see what has been accomplished in any other light. I don’t support football teams. I follow the sport itself—as a beautiful brushstroke, as a battlefield where many times will defeats skill, as a cauldron of mixed emotions. I might have rarely experienced the ninety-minute roller-coaster of a ride reserved for the typical football fan, but I have learned to love and stand behind the place—wherever and whenever that may be—I call home.

On the drive back from the stadium, my wife, who’s not a football fan, woke up at around twelve-thirty a.m. startled by the celebratory commotion out on the streets. We live a few blocks from APOEL fan’s headquarters and the honking, football chants and loud hoorays had taken over the night. She sent me a text message wondering whether APOEL had somehow miraculously gone through to the next round. Knowing all too well he probably had nothing to do with the victory, I selfishly replied “Yep. Penalties. A gift from my grandfather to Cyprus.” I guess we all grieve in our own little ways.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Awards! Awards! Awards!

A Friday quick hitter before I waste the weekend away glued to a television screen watching college basketball. It's that time of the year. Finally. Check out Act II if you're oblivious to the greatest sporting event on earth.

Awards have been handed out for the 2012 Thessaloniki International Wine Competition held from March 8th to 10th in Thessaloniki, Greece. As usual, The Rock's wines performed admirably well, bringing home a handful of Gold and Silver medals and, most importantly, the Grand Gold Medal for the 2002 SODAP Saint Barnabas Commandaria. Below you can find a list of The Rock's victorious entries. Click here for a complete list of winners.

Grand Gold

2002 SODAP Saint Barnabas Commandaria


2008 SODAP Stroumpeli Merlot
2007 Hadjiantonas Winery Shiraz-Cabernet Sauvignon
2010 Ayia Mavri Winery Mosxatos
2011 Ayia Mavri Winery Mosxatos
2005 Kolios Winery Shiraz
2011 Hadjiantonas Winery Rose
2008 Hadjiantonas Winery Shiraz


2011 Hadjiantonas Winery Chardonnay

Friday, March 9, 2012

Wine On The Seahorse

After Crete, what's Greece's largest island? Quick, clock's ticking.

Do you see the seahorsey?
If you answered Evia, the seahorse of a rock separated from mainland Greece by the Euripus Strait, then, congrats, you get a well-earned smiley face (or pat on the butt) on this impromptu quiz. At its narrowest, the strait is only thirty-eight meters. So unless you are Greek, a geography or history buff or some sort of mutant with superhuman vision, it's practically impossible to tell it's an island from just looking at a map. I live on this side of the world and I had no clue up until about a week ago that what I thought was a strip of land north of Athens was no other than a bewildering wine-producing rock. I guess this "discovery" could've only occurred thanks to my quasi-obsessive-compulsive need to walk up and down the wine aisle at our local supermarket studying labels instead of picking vegetables for her highness, The Wife, Ph.D.

Anyhow, I've spent the past twenty minutes trying to disinter information on Evia (or Euboea) and its wines and, unfortunately, I've come up (almost) as empty-handed as Olympique Lyonnais the crisp night of March 7th. Here's a brief excerpt on Central Greece from Greekwinemakers.com:
"Central Greece is the traditional stronghold of retsina and plantings are dominated by the Savatianó variety, from which retsina has been most commonly vinified. Savatiano accounts for most of the production in Attika (roughly 90%), a majority in Evia (around 75%) and half of production in Voetia. The Savatianó, historically, was never the exclusive basis for retsina, and until phyloxera arrived in central Greece between the first and second World Wars, was just one of a number of white varieties grown in the region. Today, the Savatianó owes its dominance less to historical preeminance [sic] than to the need to replenish vineyards with a highly productive variety suitable to the climate. Although the grape is characterized by low acidity, it at least has had the advantage of displaying some varietal character when resinated. Low yield farming and modern vinification have resulted in quality un-resinated mono-varietal versions of Savatianó that display the best attributes of the grape."
More specific to the actual island, New Wines of Greece, a portal designed to market indigenous Greek varieties in the US, notes that:
2009 Vriniotis Winery IAMA
"...[u]p until 10 years ago, all that was known of winegrowing [sic] activities in Evia regarded the traditional production methods in the central and southern part of the island. Nevertheless, the particularly successful entrance of northern Evia in the game through cultivation of numerous Greek and international varieties as well as through production of many new wines, created the need for the establishment of a PGI Evia zone. The presence of the native varieties of Vrathiano and Karabraimis is noteworthy as is the Aegean influence (Aidani White, Athiri, Assyrtiko, Liatiko and Mandilaria) due to Evia’s geographical position. At present there are only four area wineries producing PGI Evia wines but their numbers are expected to increase."
"Discovery" made, I updated the blog's approved list of rocks and celebrated accordingly.

2009 Vriniotis Winery IAMA (Syrah and Vradiano blend) - Nice bouquet marked by red fruit, dark chocolate, vanilla and a hint of oak. Raspberries on the palate with great length, firm tannins and a fantastic tart fruit finish. Its awesome acidity had The Wife, Ph.D., and I puckering our lips like babies sucking on lime wedges. 90/100.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Where's All The Si-Silliness Gone?

Allow me to be serious for once in my life. All I hope is that this very brief overview of Nero d'Avola, Sicily's premier red indigenous grape, is not overbearingly pedantic. Or taken over by one hefty paragraph lifted from a revered wine publication since I have never set foot on what I assume is a lovely Italian rock occasionally run asunder by slick-haired mobsters and tempestuous old ladies swinging ratty brooms at immature miscreants for stealing over-sized undergarments that have been hung out to dry.

According to Decanter's March 2012 issue and its sponsored guide on Sicily (pages 70 through 84),
2008 Zisola "Doppiozeta"
"It's the [island's] reds...that have captured the interest of an international market. Nero d'Avola became fashionable in the 1990s, and for good reason. Its bright cherry and plum fruit can be delightful, and more serious, oak-aged versions can have an appealing savoury intensity and lush texture...The heartland of Nero d'Avola is the region north of the coastal town of Agrigento, although Noto in the southeast is often thought to produce the finest and best quality."
The two excellent Sicilian wines I tasted along with The Wife, Ph.D., and My Zolpidem Supplier came from the Zisola Mazzei Estate located in Noto and can be purchased at Cava Inon Pnevmata in Nicosia.

2009 Zisola Mazzei Sicilia IGT (Nero D'Avola) - Nose recalls cherries, raspberries, powdered chocolate, pepper and some greenness. A meaty wine of medium length with juicy tannins and black cherry undertones. 87/100.

2008 Zisola "Doppiozeta" Noto Rosso DOC (60% Nero D'Avola, 30% Syrah and 10% Cabernet Franc) - Leathery, smoked meats, red fruit, vegetables and loads of spice come together in a powerful nose. Some chocolate and vanilla and fantastic meatiness through the mid-palate. Sweet, caramel-like finish. I have another bottle which I will age for a year or two or three and see what's up then. 90/100.