My first introduction to retsina came in the form of Krasosoupia. My grandfather, a hearty mountaineer from the hills above Patras, would occasionally dip older bread into wine and give me a nibble. This form of quick nourishment had been a staple in Greece likely for millennia, often done to make the dried and hardened Paximadia bread more edible. I also remember my father’s booze runs from Utah into Wyoming, where a Greek-owned liquor store had various Greek wines and spirits.
“My pure retsina, my beloved blonde . . .” my father would sing from an old Greek song, and when we would go to Greece, in the summers, a local, infinitely better version of “The Blonde” would appear at our Hydriot table. You know the vision, chilled, often in one of those ubiquitous copper cans and the small glasses. It remained a staple in our house, whether in Utah, in Hydra, or at our home in the Washington, DC suburbs.
Retsina is an acquired taste, and it does not travel well to other culture’s palates. Bulgarians I often found enjoyed it, but beyond this near abroad, it has fewer takers. It is also, in my opinion, quintessentially Athenian. Though the use of resin in wine is thousands of years old, as a means to seal ceramic wine amphorae, and the tradition continued even after the invention of wine barrels. A Byzantine archbishop exiled from Bythinia near Constantinople to Athens lamented the wine local wine, probably retsina, as tasting “as if pressed from the pine rather than the grape.” Not me. I always loved it.
Fast forward to 2006, and a Greek American repatriate to Greece, working as an international banker. I would often take the long way back to our home in Nea Philothei from the bank offices in Kallithea to pick up wine at the small kavas (wine shops) in the dry plain east of Athens known as the Mesogeia, the site of Athens’ airport. To Retsina purists, this is the navel of the retsina world.
In a small village of Kalivia, where the old ladies might still chatter in Arvanitika outside their homes, I would pull up to my preferred kava. I was a curiosity to the owner, dressed in a banker’s uniform—suit and tie, winter or summer, no casual Fridays. Beyond that, there was the misdeclined noun or adjective, the slight American cadences in my accent (grown much heavier now after years of absence from Greece). “People dressed like you here don’t drink this anymore,” he would say, “it’s obvious you are from outside (Diaspora/abroad).”
I would nod and then proceed with a plastic two-liter water bottle and start the filling process. Usually, I would stop at four or five bottles and head home to the Boreia Proastia (the North Suburbs) with my wine in tow. There, after greeting my wife and then-toddler son, probably recently returned from Mary Poppins Nursery School in Philothei, I would get down to business. My business was to decant the retsina into glass bottles, in this case, lovely fluted bottles with my bank’s logo on them, which had an attached rubber stopper. I liberated a few of these from the job and used them to keep and chill my retsina properly. Four bottles from the kava cost the same as a decent store-bought wine.
These wines did not contain sulfites and the other additives that keep wine longer and result in headaches from one drink too many. “The Blonde” was a companion at many meals, and sometimes more sophisticated guests would both comment derisively and then, upon the first chilled glass, inquire with an embarrassed hint of nostalgia, “where in the world did you find this.” It was Hellas of 2007, the bubble economy times, where Johnny Walker counted the Greek market as one of its best.
There is no doubt that in a Greece of austerity, the value of such timeless culinary and cultural assets is being affirmatively reevaluated. For me, retσina has remained a reference point to my grandfather, my father, and my culture. No matter where I went, I sought the cool, comforting reference point of retsina. Today is the Fourth of July, and in addition to a likely salute with an All-American beer plus a barbeque assortment, a Greek salad, and my favorite blonde, well-chilled, will keep me company. Perhaps, I will dip some homemade bread into the wine…