Muses Estate: A Family Affair

Stelios, of the Muses Estate winery, I have known for a couple of years, as I happened to run into him at tastings or the WSET gatherings. I always thought of him as very polite, with excellent manners, and a nobility that doesn’t arise from birth rights, but from the essence of the person. During this last year, as I was setting up my business, I have gotten to know him a little better and I’ve been impressed by his ethos.

When I’d asked him to tell me the story of the family, he somehow kept coming back to: “You need to meet our father, Thanassis. He is the driving force behind the winery and the man who made it what it is today. I studied economics and marketing and when I was in the second year of university, I asked him if he would give me 2500 euros to brand our product. All he asked me was whether I believed in what I had in mind, and when I said yes, he handed me the money. He never questioned me further. If I believed in it, that was sufficient for him. He is a very gifted man. He manages to perceive ‘good’ in everybody and he has an amazing commercial instinct.”

The Muses Estate is located in the Muses Valley, in Askri of Boeotia, which was apparently the birthplace of the great poet Hesiod. As we get closer, I am struck by the serenity of the environment. A small village, which only had a primary school, and this was closed down this year, because the children are too few. Most of the people in this area are farmers, and as Stelios had said laughingly: “We run a ‘Social Responsibility Company’,” meaning, that they continue to buy grapes from all the producers they have worked with for many years, to help support the families, even if they then go on to sell most of this must to other wineries.

As we arrive at the winery we are met by Thanassis. A small man, in his seventy’s, with eyes that have the sparkle of a twenty year old. The business was started by his father, in 1946, when after the war he put together a truck, from what was left over by the Germans, and started selling must. He would go all the way to Volos and Lamia. In 1960 he bought land and in 1965 he started the winery. Thanassis continues: “Our home had two bedrooms and during the harvest, we, the children, slept in the living room, because our bedroom would transform into the wine press. There were six of us. My siblings all studied. I was the only lucky one who stayed behind. After 12th grade I said to my father that I was done with schooling. The following morning he woke me up at 4:00 am and told me that since I was done with schooling, I might as well start working. He sent me to help a neighbour take wine to Chalkida.”

When he got back from his army service, he and his father bought their first press. In 1982 he built the new winery and in 1989 added his initial bottling system. “You know, it’s funny. I lived through the era when people used heat to help fermentation, and the wine was fermented in barrels on the old lees, and now I’m living through the era of cold soaks, cooled tanks, and getting rid of the old lees. In the olden days people would actually drink the wine left in the bottom of the barrel. Some liked that a lot. That was called ‘kamoutsi’ and it had a heavy, vinegary taste.”

As we continue to talk, we are joined by Nikos, the eldest son and winemaker, and Stelios. Nikos is constantly looking for ways to improve their wines and when he’s not vinifying, he tries to go to seminars in France and other places. The three of them sit together, in a row, and I get a feeling of respect and comradery. The youngest brother, Panagiotis, is doing his army service and is expected to join forces when back. As I look at the three of them together, I think of the James Brown song ‘This is a Man’s World’. I make a comment and Thanassis answers teasingly: “I will never do a single thing without asking my wife, but I will still do what I want to do. I’m old fashioned.” He then goes on, “here in the winery the decisions are now made by the boys.”

They export their wines to 13 countries, among which are the USA, Canada, Germany, China, the UK, Japan, etc. They have 15 labels of wine, some of which are exclusively made for the USA and they have a distillery, in the neighbouring bigger town of Aliartos, the ‘Lost Lake Distillery’, which makes ‘tsipouro’(grappa) and a distillate made of Mouhtaro. Mouhtaro is an indigenous variety that the family saved from extinction. It gives a beautiful red wine, with aromas reminiscent of sour cherries, plum, figs, some herbal notes, discreet barrel aromas, and freshness. I ask if people in the area support the winery and Thanassis tells us: “I started giving my bottled wine at lower prices so that people could afford it and could slowly grasp the difference in quality between bulk and bottled wine.”

In the winery they have an Hesiodian plough, an old carved press made of 300yr old plane wood, a 200yr old barrel and a couple of old metal vessels that were used as measures for wine (collines). He tells us a funny story that depending on who got to use the measure first, the merchant or the producer, he would hit the bottom so as to make a little more space (merchant) or a little less space (producer) to cheat each other out of an extra glass of wine.  

We had to pull ourselves away, as it was obvious Thanassis needed to get some rest. So, quite a few hours and a hearty meal later, it was time to drive back to Athens. I was left with a taste of warmth and buoyancy.