Michael Psilakis, 38, is the co-owner of two Greek restaurants, Anthos and Kefi, both in Manhattan. A Long Island native from a family with a strong Greek heritage, Psilakis has attempted, successfully, to expand diners' understanding of the wine and cuisine of Greece, in which Retsina and spanikopita are only very small parts of a much larger story. Just before a hectic lunch service at Anthos one recent morning, Psilakis talked to WineSpectator.com about the new generation of Greek winemakers and his approach to pairing the food and wine of his family's native land.
Wine Spectator: How did you first become interested in wine?
Michael Psilakis: I had a trattoria-type restaurant on Long Island called Café Angelica … I renovated and made it into a very formal Italian restaurant called Ecco, and we needed help with the wine list. … I met Mauricio de Rosa, who was in charge of the Italian wine portfolio at [wholesaler] Charmer [Industries] at the time. He was the first person I ever met that was really passionate about food and wine at the same level that I was. … We started a weekly trip into Manhattan, to have these unbelievable, elaborate meals and we'd drink old [vintages] of Barolo. Before then, I couldn't understand what made this wine so incredible to people, but with Mauricio's help I really started to understand that it's one of those wines that needs time in a bottle. … I tell people today, "If you're not drinking older Barolo, then you're not really understanding what Barolo is."
WS: Was there a specific point where you began to focus on Greek wines?
MP: My family is Greek, and I've known Greek wine since I was a child, but Greek wine wasn't all that good up until probably about 10 years ago. The quality has really jumped tremendously over the last five years. When I first opened up Onera [now Kefi], we had an all-Greek wine list … all the sommeliers would come to eat, but they'd bring their own wine. We'd open their wine for them, but also offer a Greek wine. They'd say, "Well, OK," and once we started tasting the Greek wine, they'd take their wines and put them to the side, which was extremely gratifying to see.
WS: Why do you think Greek wines have improved in the last few years?
MP: The second generation, the sons and daughters of these Greek winemakers, started going to France. They'd come back to Greece and apply classic French wine techniques to indigenous Greek varietals that you can't find in the rest of the world, that hadn't been transplanted anywhere else, because there was never any great wine coming out of Greece to create an incentive. Then all of a sudden they start producing wines that mimic the great Bordeaux of France, for a tenth of the price.
WS: Tell us about the wine programs at Anthos and Kefi.
MP: Kefi has a 100 percent Greek wine list, because we're doing traditional Greek food with slight twists, and I really wanted people to be able to experience the food and wine together. … The list represents all the different regions of Greece, the different varietals, and we try to keep it at a price point that encourages people to take a chance on a wine they've never heard of. At Anthos, we've tried to move Greek food to a much higher level. When I started thinking about the wine program here, I realized it would be unfair for me to have only Greek wines, because there are a lot of other fantastic wines out there that would work really well with this type of food.
WS: Apart from Greek wines, what wines work well with the food at Anthos?
MP: French, Spanish and Italian wines go very well with Greek food. The difference between French wines and Greek wines is that French wines are often made to age. I have a customer that's still drinking '97 white Burgundies, and they're still beautiful at 10 years old. Greek white wines are really not meant to sit. … Greek reds, especially some of the better-made ones, tend to need a little more time in the bottle. They're very tannic, and they need to mellow out. Like Skouras, for example—it's a fantastic wine, but it needs bottle time. The bottle can be open for two days and it's still so freaking tannic, it's amazing, but once it mellows and the fruit starts coming out it becomes interesting and complex.
WS: How does your food work with some of the dominant Greek varietals?
MP: The dominant white wine coming out of Greece is Assyrtiko, from Santorini. It's kind of Sauvignon Blanc-ish. Assyrtiko is a good food wine, especially with grilled fish or raw fish. It has a mineralized flavor, because it's grown on a volcanic island, but it has a lot of fruit and is very aromatic, and it picks up the char of a fish coming off the grill. It works really well with lemon, which is so important in Greek food. On the red side, Xinomavro has just the right amount of spice to go with the types of meats that we serve in Greek restaurants, which are not heavily sauced. It also works with the char of the grill, which is such an important part of the Greek kitchen. I always look for a wine that's going to stand up to that smokiness, that char, and that almost burnt, caramelized flavor from the skin when the natural sugars start to sear on the hot grill. Lamb, being so common in Greek cuisine, works perfectly with Xinomavro.
WS: Do you have a wine collection, and what's in it?
MP: When I closed my restaurant on Long Island, we had a huge cellar there, about 1,500 bottles, the majority of it highly rated Italian wines, a lot of '97 reds. Instead of bringing it into the city, I keep it in a cellar in my house. It's really nice to go downstairs and grab a '97 [Tenuta dell'Ornellaia Toscana] Masseto.
WS: What are some of your favorite wine memories?
MP: A guest came in to my restaurant on Long Island and he brought in a '47 Haut-Brion, and a couple of other really special wines. I cooked for them, and every time they opened a bottle, they'd send a glass back to the kitchen. I went out to the table after they ate, and the gentleman told me that he'd visited Château Haut-Brion, and saw that they were missing some of the vintages that he had in his personal cellar, wines that had basically been stolen from the château by the Germans during World War II. … That's the type of stuff that gets me really excited about wine, the stories and the history.
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