Aris Soultanos and I have known each other since 2012. That year, I received a portfolio of wines (as samples) from his fledgling company, Eklektikon, a United States business that imports organic, biodynamic, and natural Greek wines. I was more than impressed with each wine’s unique palate profile and artistically provocative labels reflecting Greek culture. To be honest, that was my first experience savoring Greek wines from unfamiliar regions (to me, at least) and from small producers whose wines are rarely, if ever, tasted outside of their homeland.
Under Aris Soultanos’ leadership as Development Manager, I’ve watched Eklektikon grow from a small startup to a company with a growing presence in the wine industry. It has been a privilege to know Aris not only as a wine industry colleague, but as a friend. I marvel at how he blends a modern, vibrant outlook and lifestyle with the tradition and authenticity of his Greek heritage in both personal and business endeavors. Aris Soultanos (in my opinion, a young man with an old soul) was born and raised in Kavala, a city in northern Greece. There, he received his undergraduate degree in marketing and moved to Los Angeles where he received his MBA from Pepperdine University. Shortly thereafter, he started Eklektikon, based in New York City, in 2011.
Not only are the wines of Eklektikon notable, Aris Soultanos is, too. Explore the fascinating world of distinctive Greek wine, the stories behind the wines from under-the-radar regions, and so much more as you delve into this inspirational Q&A with Aris Soultanos.
The decision to start Eklektikon, was based on the passion for Greek wine and authentic Greek tradition, and the realization that Greek wine was poorly represented in the US. Our aim is to raise awareness and make high quality Greek wine widely available in the US. Greek wine provides unique richness in terms of tradition and history, as well as variety of grapes and terroir. The country has one of the most dramatic topographies, and perhaps the second largest number of indigenous grapes (over 300). We have a very distinct portfolio and overall presence and we value our uniqueness highly. Aris Soultanos, Development Manager, Eklektikon LLC
GE: Who are your target consumers?
AS: Our target end-consumers are highly educated, well-traveled, and culturally curious wine drinkers. They’ve developed a curiosity for more esoteric grapes and wine regions off the beaten path and seem to be wine drinkers who seek to explore the unexplored and the origins of European wine. Wine drinkers who have been exposed and are interested in history and culture are naturally interested in Greek wine as well.
GE: How is Eklektikon a reflection of you?
AS: Eklektikon is very much an extension of myself, as a personality and as a professional. Although it is a collaborative effort among myself and my coworkers, I believe we all share the same passion for Greece, creative energy, and attention to detail, all of which are evident in the many expressions of Eklektikon. Examples include some of the labels and packaging that we developed in-house, the way we approach everyday business activities, and our commitment to customer service. Naturally, our passion to explore the roots of Greek winemaking and to source impressive and unique Greek wines is extremely important.
GE: What elements of the job contribute to your satisfaction in being a Greek wine importer?
AS: The trust that we slowly build with the growers who we work with. They and their families expect a lot from us and they organize their whole operations and lives around our plans and our advice. This is moving and means a lot to us. It gives us the strength to carry on, because this is not an easy job, and certainly not one that is very lucrative. We need to work as one to keep moving forward.
GE: What is the process of vetting the wines you import?
AS: Our ultimate goal is to make the rich history and tradition of Greece available in the US, in the form of handcrafted, artisanal wines, made by growers in the most traditional ways. We believe in organic and biodynamic viticulture and hands-off vinification as much as possible. Not only is wine made this way healthy and nutritious, but it maintains the ancient DNA of indigenous Greek grapes. For these reasons, we want to make sure we work with growers who grow their own grapes and have a vertical production, so that they can control all aspects of the winemaking process. We also make sure our partners are kind people with strong values. We believe this kindness carries over to the wine they make, while it allows us to forge strong long-lasting relationships which are necessary to withstand the difficulties of representing wine from unknown regions.
It is very important that it all starts with a healthy, vigorous fruit, and is not heavily manipulated into something that’s not authentic. We also try to find wines with “deep roots” (metaphorically and literally), such as those coming from historical winemaking regions with strong traditions. One such example is the “retsina” wine of the ancient AWca region around the capital of Athens; it has ties to the ancient Greek technique of sealing amphoras with fresh, local pine resin. We found the best expression of this tradition in the form of a zero-sulphates, biodynamic and unfiltered retsina, with a week of skin contact, by the small Georgas Family of Spata. Another example is the Limnio grape, the oldest referenced grape in the world, mentioned by philosophers like Aristotle and Homer, sourced from the organic grower Garalis of Lemnos, the volcanic island where it has been growing for thousands of years.
Greece is a goldmine of such “living traditions”. Our goal is to organize a portfolio that shows the Greek vineyard in its entirety, through original wines with such deep historical roots, made as naturally as possible. Our sourcing process starts with identifying organic or biodynamic growers of promising indigenous grapes in regions with old traditions and go on from there. Sometimes, if vinification is not as natural as we would like it to be, we guide the growers into making wine more naturally, many times with unexpectedly impressive results.
GE: I was so impressed with the recent event at Chicago’s Avec that supported the charity, Refugee One. How did the concept come about?
AS: We were approached by the One Off Hospitality Group regarding their idea to co-organize a charity event for refugees and focus on the immigration crisis of the Middle East and Greece. Many, mainly Syrian, refugees are still trying to cross the Greek-Turkish border to enter the European Union, on small boats, resulting in many deaths. Greece does not have the capacity to deal with this problem, so it is up to a few brave citizens to help those in need and literally save people from drowning and dying.
The event raised a lot of awareness and funds for this noble cause, as it paired organic wines from small wineries from the islands that received a lot of refugees, with Syrian recipes. We visited those islands a few months before the event to find those wines, and went through many hardships and personal expenses to make them available on time for the Refugee One dinner. But it was more than worth it.
GE: The process of getting the wines for the Refugee One dinner was astounding and is another example of the passion you have for Greek wines. Please share the story.
AS: We visited the islands of Lipsi (an island of only 200 people), Chios, Lesbos, and Lemnos. We had done research and had focused on a few growers we were able to find, but we also asked around while we were there. We met with some of them and explained the project. Those that were a good fit for what we do (growers of organic grapes), and who seemed to be moved by the purpose of the event, were the ones we partnered with.
It is important to mention that the wineries donated a big part of those wines. Those wineries are Lipsi winery of Lipsi islands, Methymnaeos of Lesbos, and Garalis of Lemnos. We then had to work very fast to get their labels prepared and approved by the US authorities, print updated labels, and have everything shipped by air to Chicago. Lipsi winery, having no print shop on the island, asked us to print the labels ourselves. Our partner in Athens arranged the printing, received the quantity of wine in her house, relabeled all the bottles one by one, and took the wine to the airport on the shipping day in her small car! That was quite a feat of coordination and hard work.
GE: Do you think Greek wines are, for the most part, underserved to consumers?
AS: Many times, when we tell people that we import Greek wines, they are shocked that Greece even produces wine. This is sad for the country with the longest recorded winemaking history in the world and the birthplace of European wine. This is why we are on a mission to source authentic Greek wine and raise awareness about it. We see Greece as a sleeping giant, and it is only a matter of time for it to wake up.
GE: What are your most challenging moments with Eklektikon?
AS: The everyday effort of convincing buyers to invest in Greek wines is incredibly challenging. It is not easy to do this with establishments that lack highly trained staff or a more structured wine program. But things are moving in the right direction as restaurants, wine bars and wine stores are coming to the realization that they would be better off providing new opportunities for their clientele who may want to experience authentic wines from around the world, not just two or three regions with which they are familiar. We are also focusing on restaurants where there is more passion to stage the appropriate experience for Greek wines.
GE: What are future goals for Eklektikon?
AS: In the short term, we keep building our portfolio and bringing in some exciting natural Greek wines. Our activity has attracted attention from distributors around the United States. We are currently focused on building our national distribution channel with careful partnerships that we hope will go a long way to provide a more thorough representation of Greek wine around the US.
Things are moving very fast so it is hard to predict long term goals. Certainly, we would like to gain recognition and become the point of reference with regards to Greek tradition and authenticity, whatever form that might turn out to be.
GE: Aris, if a winelover has just one takeaway from this article about you or Eklektikon, what would it be?
AS: Greece is a country with rich gastronomy and oenological history, worth exploring and discovering its depth and high quality.
Yamas! ~ Cindy