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'S. Vlassides: The unconventional winemaker explains why he favored Limassol over California!

* NOTE: All the tributes of All About Limassol (as the Official Guide of Limassol) aim to ONLY highlight the special aspects of this wonderful city, so that everyone can be aware of the exceptional options they offer. Under no circumstances do they have any promotional or nominal value, and they do not serve the interests of Companies, Municipalities, Organizations or Individuals.

The route from Limassol to Koilani, one of the most beautiful wine villages of the countryside, takes about half an hour. This is the distance that Sophocles Vlasides travels daily to get to his work, and while some may consider this travel time to be a disadvantage, it is one of his greatest pleasures. The landscape, the tranquility and the leisurely pace of this route are, after all, what brought Sophocles back to his family’s vineyards, after his studies in the UK and the US, where he studied oenology among the vineyards of California.

Of course, he brought back with him as much as he could from all that he learned during his time abroad. And much as he loves the place where he grew up, he also has an affinity for the modern ideas and images he encountered abroad. And so, the man who built one of the most impressive wineries in Cyprus, denies that it actually belongs to him, much in the same way he refuses to own the home in which he lives with his family, being one of the few (if not only) residents who prefer to pay rent rather than build their own home. 

Vlasides Winery, besides being one of the most modern, has also proven to be one of the most rapidly evolving wineries on the island. This is largely due to Sophocles Vlasides’ love for wine, which is not simply the product of his work, but also the way in which he articulates his ideas, his emotions, and his overall aesthetic. Its humble beginning was in 1990, in an old stone building in the village, where the vats of wine were squeezed into a space of just a few square meters.

Sophocles Vlasides became involved in one of the most ancient occupations of the island's residents, and he relied on the knowledge and traditions of his home country. However, he did not hesitate to innovate, even when his ideas were considered to be inapplicable or foreign to Cypriot reality. 

Things were rough at first, and not just because of the cramped space. Sophocles himself had to be in charge of everything, even the distribution of the bottles. However, he soon learned to see solutions instead of problems, and this resulted in a winery that has won awards and accolades internationally, and which has a central role in showcasing the wines of Limassol and Cyprus to the international market.

His grandfather had always produced wine from his vineyards, as did all the inhabitants of the village, for this was a lucrative income-producing endeavor. Sophocles’ father also experimented with his father’s vineyard in the 1960s, during which time he brought in foreign varieties, including cabernet and shiraz. At the time, the wealth accumulated by families as a result of their vineyards was what allowed them to send their children off to study and follow a career path that was preferably within the public sector, allowing them to secure a better future for themselves. The irony, however, was that the very vineyards that allowed for this to take place were later abandoned due to this this outflow of residents to urban areas.

Though he was a good student, Sophocles did not wish to follow the secure path of an office job, nor did his father wish that kind of future for him.

In fact, his father, who was from Rizokarpaso and who married in Limassol, worked for years in the wine industries of KEO and ETKO, and was involved in his father-in-law’s vineyards. This love and passion for wine was subconsciously passed on to young Sophocles. Upon his return from the US in 1998, Sophocles Vlasides began to once again replant the abandoned vineyards, determined to put his love for wine to creative use, and confident that he could find a way to showcase the uniqueness of his country’s wine.

The first building that housed the Vlasides winery in Koilani is a far cry from the image and specifications of the space in which it is housed today. 

From California to Koilani

No one forced you to enter the field of viniculture?
I grew up among these activities, they were something I witnessed my entire life, and so it became a part of me, subconsciously, without having ever specifically discussed it with my father. But even when choosing a field of study, the prospects of oenology or viticulture had never occurred to me.

When I finished school, I went on to study Chemical Engineering. This was not necessarily something that was linked to oenology. If I had been considering oenology from the start, I would have chosen another, more relevant direction. This thought occurred to me when I received my degree. I had not done any preparation during the course of my studies, and so when I returned to Cyprus from England, I did all the necessary preparation to secure a Fullbright scholarship and then left for California, so that I could receive a postgraduate degree in oenology.

“I think the vision was always there, never specific, but always subconsciously guiding me”.

There was always wine on the table. I don’t remember ever drinking anything else alcoholic as a young man. Now that my own children are nearing adolescence, I have begun introducing them to wine tasting, in an effort to pass on to them the pleasure of taste rather than alcohol abuse and drunkenness.

Did you grow up harvesting grapes?
Not especially, because we lived in Limassol and only came to the village in the summers and during holidays. We were always in school at the time when the grapes for wine were being harvested. The harvesting I remember was that of the sultana grape, with which we helped during our summer holidays as teenagers in order to make some pocket money. 

Why did you choose to focus on viticulture at a time when the industry was in decline?
During that time, around the end of the ‘80s and the beginning of the 90s, the wine industry was indeed in decline. On the flipside, however, due to the influx of imported wines, there was an increase in demand from consumers, which created a window of opportunity for developing the local wine industry.

The public has learned, by now, to appreciate wine. Businesses have responsibility in this, and Cypriot winemakers have never invested in properly highlighting our product and its identity; rather, we wait for the consumer to discover it himself.

One of the main reasons why vineyards had begun to decline in previous years was the fact that many cultivators resorted to the easy solution of chemical fertilizers, which are not helpful seeing as vines have deep roots, while fertilizers only penetrate superficially.

Everyone seeks ways to make their life easier with modern conveniences, in the same way that we no longer use animals to plow, but rather machines. In the case of wine, however, there are two schools of thought. One has to do with producing wine quickly and easily, harvesting grapes from large expanses of land using machines, turning them into wine without having once being touched by a human hand. The other dictates that wine must have its own character, which requires a smaller production size and attention to every detail.

"The issue is not so much which of the two schools to follow, but rather how to best utilize the materials before you and develop them".

Creating the identity of Cypriot wine

Did the fact that the vineyards in Cyprus are smaller in size than those in the US affect you?
Personally, it was easier for me, as it meant I could manage them better. Of course, this means that our vineyards are not suitable for mass production. Even if we wanted to, we would not be able to have low cost industrial wine production. In an effort to create an identity for Cypriot wine, all of us wine producers have come to realize that our output is not cheap, industrial wine, but rather, wine with a rich flavor and aroma, a unique character, and a somewhat higher price. After all, even things like the water scarcity we experience on the island is something that greatly affects not on the quantity, but also the taste of the product.

Is a small production a disadvantage or an advantage then after all?
Even if something is considered to be a disadvantage, you can always reverse it and use it to your advantage. I prefer to see the positive side of things. By highlighting the character of the wine, you can create your own identity in the market, one that will make people seek out your wine for that precise reason. You will need to communicate this to the public, of course, as we did with our Xynisteri variety, for example, by demonstrating the uniqueness of its flavor.

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Following his studies in Economics, Panos decided to become involved with wine, following his family’s tradition. Since 2016, he has been working with Sophocles, with whom he shares the same passion. “The year I arrived, there was a great hailstorm which caused great destruction,” recalls Panos, “but I was terribly impressed with how calmly Sophocles dealt with the situation.”

Is it easy for a young person to become involved in winemaking in Limassol?
It takes a special kind of love, devotion and passion to do this. If you don’t love it to the utmost, you will not be able to make the necessary sacrifices this work requires, or devote the necessary hours. During harvesting season, for example, you do not have the time or the headspace to deal with anything other than the vineyard – be it spending time with your family, or going out to dinner.

You do not have the freedom to delay the harvest, not even by a little bit, and it requires continuous monitoring of the weather conditions to ensure the right result. I remember one year we had high temperatures that lasted a whole week, which meant we had to speed up the harvest process. Due to the intensity of our work and the entire process, we did not notice that the plants had begun to shrivel, and the grapes had withered, and we were late picking them. This was a mistake that cost us dearly, and we learned a valuable lesson about the need to constantly be alert. 

If you do like this work, it’s like turning your hobby into a profession. Winemaking is very creative, because you are creating something new each year, looking for new varieties, new combinations, trying out new things and waiting for years to see the result. All of this keeps you alive.

This all sounds very stressful, and yet you describe it so calmly!
In this line of work, you learn to accept that there are things you cannot change nor control. In such cases, you realize that there is no reason to stress, even if your livelihood depends on it. Hail, for example, is one of the most common destructive forces for production. If something like this happens, there is nothing you can do to avoid the damage. This is disappointing, of course, but you’ll need to get over it quickly and move on, otherwise your work will never progress.

Doesn’t the financial damage trouble you?
It’s a given that there will be financial losses. This is why, when the price of a bottle of wine is calculated, you always take care to include in that price the amount necessary to pay all employees and collaborators of the winery, every year – from the years that suffer damages, to the ones that roll by smoothly.

It is your responsibility to create your product in such a way as to ensure that even if your entire production is destroyed, you are able to purchase grapes from elsewhere so that your production process can continue to run as normal. 

Can you make money from viticulture?
A 15-acre plot can bring you an income of approximately €2,500 - €2,500 in grapes. Beyond that, provided that the grapes will be used to make wine, you will need to achieve a quality that will allow the wine to be sold at a price that will allow you some sort of profit. Of course, the way you promote your wine also has a lot to do with this, as we mentioned earlier.

When we first began production, we sold our wine below cost price, until it acquired the necessary image in the market that would justify its true price.

What is the biggest challenge you face as an entrepreneur in the wine industry?
The challenges are similar to those faced by most small and medium sized companies. The problem is that you are in charge of all the decisions for all aspects of the job, from the financial management to product marketing. I don’t do all the work in each of these departments, but I need to have the knowledge to guide the relevant professionals, oversee the process, and give the final approval. A business of this size cannot have individual departments for each aspect, and so the general manager also ultimately assumes responsibility for everything.

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Vlasides Winery was completed in 2012. It was designed by architect Heracles Papachristou with simple, modern lines, so that its modern features could remain in harmony with the environment, resembling the form of the terraces in the vineyard. The building’s large openings offer unobstructed views, thus connecting the outside space with the inside. Vlasides Winery was selected to represent Cyprus at the European Contemporary Architecture Award, and was awarded the Mies van der Rohe Award 2015.

Are you always so calm and collected?
Yes, I strive to be. I wake up joyful each morning and annoy my daughters who can’t possibly understand how I have so much energy while taking them to school.

Panos: Sophocles is confident because he knows well what he is doing. Even when things go wrong, thanks to his knowledge, he is able to find the solution. I have the impression, however, that he himself cannot admit that he has this ability.

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“There is plenty of information and knowledge that one can gain from books and studies, but the vineyard will teach you real lessons over the years,” says Sophocles. From month to month, season to season, and harvest to harvest, the vineyard becomes a space for exploration and experimentation. And so, the lives of those who are involved with wine must adapt to the cycle of the vineyard.

Do you not have any flaws then?
It might be best for my colleagues to answer this (signals to Panos with a smile). I can say that one flaw might be my workaholic tendencies. Of course, when my children were at an age where they needed me, the conditions of my work were different, and I played a major role in their upbringing, from changing diapers to playing with them. Now, the children themselves are starting to come into their own, and don’t need us so much anymore.

One habit of mine that can be bothersome in the workplace, of course, is my need for things to be done in a very specific way, and I cannot handle anyone disrupting this. This doesn’t mean I will fire someone who does things differently, but it will definitely make me unhappy. I do accept change, it just usually takes time.

The pruned branches from the vines, and even the remains from the grapes after juicing, become fertilizer for the soil which nourishes the vineyards. Their circle of life is thus completed, leaving behind fewer waste materials.

Panos: I think a flaw of his is how easily he trusts people, which is something that can turn against him. For example, I came here from Greece, gave him a resume, and, without even knowing me, he hired me. This was a risk, and a risk can always end badly.

Sophocles: Panos came into this line of work at age 30, so entered the wine industry with a sense of consciousness. He appeared to have the same passion for wine that he could detect in me. Of course, the selection of collaborators and partners is always a risk, just like everything is a risk when you run a business. But there are certain indicators that allow you to feel confident in your decisions.

"I am too much of a Limassolian to want to live elsewhere..."

A creative nature, inventiveness and an inherent inclination towards business activities are all characteristics that Sophocles shares with many Limassolians, the actions of whom have turned the city into an important financial center for the island. He admits himself, however, that he appears to be missing some of the main unique characteristics shared by Limassolians. 

 «Μου αρέσει η θέα της, αλλά δεν κολυμπώ, ποτέ δεν κολυμπούσα, ακόμα και ως παιδί έμενα στην ακτή, πιθανόν γιατί ο πατέρας μου είχε κάποιες φοβίες σε σχέση με τη θάλασσα, τις οποίες που κληροδότησε», εξηγεί.

Besides his admission that he only admires the sea from afar, being one of the few people who avoid swimming, he also admits that he is missing that distinct craziness which strongly manifests during the Limassol Carnival.

Do you not like the Carnival then?
The Carnival has changed quite a lot, it has become very superficial, and this is not something that I identify with. The Carnival was quite different in the past. I enjoyed it when we were younger, when we would dress up in funny disguises to prank our friends or scare each other. I don’t particularly enjoy going to parties dressed up, though my wife does take me to a few carnival parties during this period. When the environment is intimate and friendly, I enjoy these parties. Even the parade has lost its purpose, the entire event has become a business. My daughters participated this year and the whole ordeal, with so many thousands of people, was just a hassle.

His desire to always create something new and interesting, as well as his entrepreneurial zeal, which appears to be inherent within Sophocles, have led him to try out some bold experiments crossing grape varieties (local and imported). This is one of the main reasons that his enthusiasm is reminiscent of a child opening presents on Christmas morning, and it has remained unchanged all these years.

Limassol is changing as a whole, and quite rapidly at that. How do you feel about these changes?
The fact that we have the entire beachfront at our disposal, with a park and footpaths to walk and relax in, is quite a major change. We grew up without this and it makes me happy to see it now.

Do you like the fact that the city is growing?
Yes, I think it’s a good thing that Limassol is growing and becoming more modern. I’m even fond of the fact that some impressive new buildings are going up. I like this modern design and I feel it adds to the city, provided of course that this development takes place under the correct framework and the necessary infrastructure. After all, the greatest damage to the city took place many years ago, when the old buildings of the seafront were demolished and these indifferent apartment blocks were erected in their place.

The tall buildings that are being designed now have a unique style, and they certainly aren’t coming to take the place of anything better.

And because I always like to look on the bright side, I also believe that as long as the process of hydrocarbon extraction goes well, those who will be involved in that industry will be able to inhabit these buildings, and the city will develop a whole new character. And since we can’t have the old Limassol back, this prospect of something new and modern is one I can get on board with.

There is the historical city center, of course.
And it should continue to exist, because it has been preserved in such a beautiful way that it is certainly worth visiting.

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The area of the winery, at an altitude of 750 meters, has today expanded to 200 hectares, while the initial plot belonging to grandpa was just 6. Its image changes each season, and these changes are the reason the vineyard requires careful monitoring and care throughout the year.

You have lived in both England and America. Would you live there forever, if you had the chance?
I am too much of a Limassolian to want to live elsewhere, I think. There may be many negatives here too, such as the basic orderliness that is missing from large parts of our daily lives, but it is in our hands to change all this. One thing is for certain, we don’t suffer from the pressures of that fast-paced way of life found in big cities abroad, or the long hours wasted on daily commutes.

Are you not bothered by the bad image caused by the lack of cleanliness in various parts of Limassol?
Obviously, I would rather not see such conditions. Dirty sidewalks are not a pleasant sight, neither are walls spray-painted with graffiti, nor the bags of garbage thrown in the streets or the forest. Wherever I can do something to change this, I do. For instance, every so often, a group of us gather together to pick up cans and other garbage that certain thoughtless people leave in the streets near the winery.

In the cases where I cannot change a negative situation, however, I try not to focus on it too much and fret about it, because that won’t solve any problems.

This doesn’t mean that you must compromise with bad situations, be they in politics, the economy, or in society. But sinking into despair doesn’t allow you to change a thing.

In my mind, I have chosen to see things in a positive light. For me, the glass is always half full, because this point of view helps things work much better. In this way, you can also find solutions that may eventually eradicate problems and challenges.

The oak wine tank, used for the first time in Cyprus, was installed at the winery of experiments for the creation of new flavors.

14 years ago, when we were still at the winery’s former premises, we had a serious accident. As the space was very cramped, a wooden ladder fell and opened the valve of a 5-ton tank. During the night, approximately half of the tank’s contents were lost. In order to compensate for the damage, I added to the remaining quantity whatever was left of my best shiraz, which did not need as much time in the barrel.

This resulted in the creation of a new label, which was then sold for 1 pound more per bottle, and which ended up winning a gold medal at a competition in Brussels.

Until recently, all who bought it would still talk about its flavor. If, at the time, I had simply sat their despairing over my lost wine, none of this would have happened. I always have faith that things will go well.

What places do you tend to visit in the city?
There are plenty of places which I frequent, due to my work. Usually, I choose the places I visit based on the people I meet there. For example, I visit Charcoal Grill because the host makes us feel comfortable there each time we visit. For that same reason, I consider Fat Fish to be the best restaurant for fish, because not only does it offer good food and good wine, I also find people there who make me feel good. There are other such restaurants in our city, of course. 

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“In our line of work, you can make wine all your life, but the product is limited. I remember a winemaker from California who had been in the winemaking business for 33 years, and had only made wine 33 times. This is how it is, production comes only once a year, and the rest of the time you are collecting experiences that you should then pass on.”

Has the hospitality sector in Limassol improved?
I believe that it is moving in the right direction. The further we move away from the notion that whoever has the capital can open up any business they want, whether or not they have the relevant experience, knowledge and love for the product, the better things will get.

In recent years, one of the venues that I enjoy more and more is Dionysus Mansion. It took me a while to get used to the concept, which combines dancing and entertainment with gastronomy. But the menu evolves each year, and its products just keep getting better.

Panos: This aspect is directly to our own work as well. As culinary trends evolve, so too do peoples’ tastes for wine.

Where would you take someone who wanted to see something representative of Limassol?
This depends on each person’s age and preferences. Younger people will certainly prefer the venues of Saripolou Square. For older people or families, the Castle Square is a good option for a stroll or for dinner.

Beyond that, there is the countryside with its villages. Unfortunately, not all of them are an attractive destination, for in order for a village visit to be satisfactory, there needs to be liveliness. The picturesque streets, the traditional homes, and nature are all nice to see, but there needs to be a human presence.

After all, without people, a village has no soul, as it is the people who look after their homes and keep them well preserved, and make sure that the streets are clean, and there are services available for visitors.

All the wine villages in the area here are beautiful, but when someone visits the winery I usually send them to Omodos, because its residents have done much to showcase it. A characteristic example is Kalopanayiotis, in which Mr. Papadouris began to invest with his own developments, and as a result, attracted more people, thus turning the village into the top destination it is today.

Relevant

Would you like your children to continue your work in the winery? 
I wouldn't force them into it. If my son decides to follow the wine business, I think I will be very strict with him, because he will need to prove that he is indeed passionate about it, that he wants it so much that he will dedicate himself to his work, regardless of the challenges. Otherwise he will have a hard time.

Do you not feel the need then to bequeath what you have created to your children?
I am of the opinion that nothing in this life belongs to me, because I will not take any of it with me with me when I leave. I don’t even own my own home in Limassol, nor do I wish to own one. I live in a house that I rent, and I was fortunate enough to set this up early, before rents blew up.

Pluto, the winery’s resident dog, is unable to hide his excitement upon seeing his master. And while dogs usually play with sticks and balls thrown by their owners, this one shows a particular affinity for stones, of which he finds plenty in the field.

I therefore don’t feel the need to pass down the family business to my son. Nor do I want him to feel that he can come here, and no one will have demands from him, simply because I am the owner. I want the winery to function properly, whether this is with the contribution of my son, or someone else, such as Panos, for example, whom I have seen shares the same love of wine as I do. For the time being, it appears my son has other interests. If there really is no inclination towards wine, I won’t bring him into the winery simply so he can carry on the name.

Is it possible that his father’s perfectionism is preventing him from joining, perhaps out of fear of comparison?
This could possibly be the case. This could be one of my flaws.

Panos: Of course, Fanis joins his father on many occasions to help with various important tasks. He is just as smart and capable as his father.

“We winemakers are often our own worst critics when discussing a certain wine. We will easily say, for instance, that the Vlasides’ Shiraz was not very successful on such and such a year, and we often forget that wine is affected by so many external factors (water, sunshine, temperatures) and it is not like a can of Coke, which is made in a factory with chemicals.”

Where would you like to see the winery in 20 years?
To this day, our aim was to set up a winery that is beautiful and makes good wine. Now, our aim is to produce some of the ‘big’ and ‘strong’ wines. This development will not be visible, and people will not be able to immediately detect the difference, but our wines will rise in quality. In fact, when this is achieved, the price of certain wines will also rise, so that consumers will be convinced that the quality has, indeed, risen, because there are many who underestimate Cypriot wine simply because it is generally affordable. This is something that I want to see come out from our own winery, as well as other wineries, because we can truly achieve this, even though we may not have believed it until recently.

“My best man, Costas Tsiakkas, also a winemaker, had told me when I reach his age (he is 13 years older than me), I would begin to slow down. This is not quite what happened, and I don’t think it will anytime in the future, because my father was also steady well into his old age. My father is 82 today, and when he comes to the vineyard he stays from 6 in the morning until late. He simply can’t just sit idly by. This is how I see myself in a few years.”

Had he not become an oenologist, Sophocles Vlasides could have easily been a mathematician. His mind is so impressively orderly that, even after an unexpected upset, he can easily put things back neatly to where they were. This, however, does not make him stern nor ill tempered. On the contrary, every encounter with Sophocles leaves you with the feeling of euphoria one gets when surrounded by cheerful people who emit positive energy to all those around them.

His vision to make Cypriot wine popular on an international level was dismissed as fantasy just a few decades ago. Today, not only have there been significant steps in this direction, but more and more local wine producers have been convinced of this necessity. What is most impressive is that despite the negative climate in Cypriot viticulture during the ‘90s, and the difficulties faced when trying to change this, Sophocles himself can’t recall any particularly bad moments throughout his journey. He admits that he’s not sure if this is the image he created in his own mind, or if things really did go so well. There is no doubt, however, that his journey bears witness to the belief that if you want to see results, you must first believe in them. And if there is anything worth taking away from such a tribute by All About Limassol (the Official City Guide of Limassol), it is that faith and certainty about an idea are the first important step in achieving something that will truly stand out. 


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