Gentilini is likely the best known winery from the Greek island of Cephalonia. I have long been a fan of their wines, especially the white Robola and the red, dry Mavrodaphne. The winery is run by the efficient and enthusiastic husband/wife team of Marianna and Petros. Their head winemaker is Mike Jones, a British national. He is a very interesting and extremely likeable character indeed. In this short interview, Mike talks about living in a tent in an olive grove, playing the bad guy in Robin Hood – Men in Tights, and making wines in Cephalonia.
Please give us a short overview of the Gentilini winery.
Gentilini is a small ’boutique’ winery producing around 50,000 bottles per year. We are driven by producing a quality product for markets locally on the island, nationally via Athens and internationally for the export market, mainly in the United States. The vineyards and winery were set up by Marianna’s father Spiro Kosmetatos in 1978, making the first commercial wine in 1984. We have around 10 ha of organically cultivated vines and also work with dedicated growers that cultivate the local varieties Robola and Tsaoussi.
How did a cool Brit end up making wine in Cephalonia?
I had to source a work experience for the wine studies I was taking at Plumpton College, UK. I worked as an intern at Gentilini for the first time in 2004. I stayed for six weeks in a tent in the olive grove at the back of Petros’ and Marianna’s house. Despite the very hot weather conditions I enjoyed myself working alongside the team. This experience changed my whole outlook on my studies and I subsequently changed from “wine business” to “wine production” after my return to college.
I graduated in 2005 and found myself wanting to get out of the UK again. Naturally I got in touch with Gentilini and managed to visit for seven weeks during the harvest, staying again in a tent during very hot temperatures.
After my return to the UK I managed to source a three month contract working in a Domaine in the south of France before heading out to New Zealand, working for a contract winemaking facility in Gisborne for the vintage of 2006. During my stay there I received an email from Marianna and Petros asking me to return to Gentilini for the harvest of 2006. I was thrilled to accept and so I returned to Cephalonia for another three month period. This time I stayed in an apartment, which was a huge step up from the tent in the olive grove. During this time we agreed that I would move out to work full time as an assistant winemaker for Gentilini the following year. I returned to the UK to work a harvest in Cornwall before heading back to New Zealand for another harvest in Gisborne. I finally moved to Cephalonia in June of 2007.
Your wife is German, is she also involved at Gentilini winery?
My wife Yvonne is a scientist by trade, originally specialising in molecular biology, although she gave that up years ago to go travelling around New Zealand. Whilst away, she realised that working in a winery laboratory was much more interesting. I met Yvonne in New Zealand whilst she was running the lab on the nightshift at GisVin Ltd in 2007. We fell in love instantly. Because I was committed to work for Gentilini, I asked her if she wanted to live on a Greek island. She accepted and we were married at the winery garden in 2010. We have 2 daughters, Elsie and Lotti. Yvonne now works alongside me as a lab assistant analysing and tasting wine. She has a very good palate and I trust her judgement when I need a second opinion. She also works the Cellar Door, giving tours and selling wine during the tourist season.
Do you speak Greek? How do you cope with everyday life?
Petros was brought up in Australia and Marianna went to school in the UK so the two of them have spoken English to me during my time here so far. My Greek is very basic, but I can get by. They do however teach me how to swear Cephalonian style! There is a large ex-pat British community on the island, so we tend to mix with them. I am a member of a theatre group who put on a British style pantomime every year and I enjoy balmy summer evening script reading and drinking wine (mainly). Last year I starred as the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood – Men in Tights. Good fun!
You work with Tsaoussi, Muscat, Sauvignon Blanc, Moschofilero, Agiorgitiko, Syrah, Robola and Mavrodaphne. Which of these varieties is closest to your heart and why?
I have a couple of varieties close to my heart – Robola and Mavrodaphne. In 2008, Petros was keen to give me some fruit to play around with, so I devised a production method for Robola that used barrel fermentation to produce a carefully oaked expression of this variety. The idea was to produce a balanced wine with more structure, more body and more fruit character but not to overpower the aromatics by the use of oak, merely add to the complexity. Thus the Gentilini Robola Cellar Selection was born.
Also that year we started to explore Mavrodaphne of Cephalonia. The general idea was to produce a dry wine although we hadn’t really discussed the ways on how to best achieve this. So it was given to me to devise a production method that revolved around getting maximum fruit character out of the grapes whilst thinking about the maturation period and what type of barrels to use. After achieving the first goal, I decided to go down the road of new oak first. The Gentilini Eclipse was born and subsequent vintages have been undertaken to find a happy balance of fruit and oak to make this wine smooth, approachable and exciting to drink.