This summer, we had an amazing visit at Manousakis Winery, run by Greek-American Alexandra Manousakis. Learn about her, the winery, and more.
If you’ve been following my travelogues, you know my family and I had an incredible trip to Crete this summer. We told you about our awesome day with Chania Wine Tours, which included a visited to Manousakis Winery in Vatolakkos, near Chania. We love Crete and like other parts of Greece, it has its own special magic. We had an amazing visit at Manousakis, learning about their wines, their story, and of course, meeting the wonderful family behind it. Greek-American Alexandra Manousakis and her husband, sommelier Afshin Molavi, run the winery her father, Ted Manousakis, started 25 years ago. It was a pleasure to meet them, as well as their adorable daughter, Adriana, and their super cute dogs – both of which garnered an A++++ rating from our daughters.
The winery’s – and in particular, Alexandra’s story – is fascinating and inspiring, and we wanted to share it with you. Born with a love for Greece and good business sense in her genes, she is poised for even greater success. She is a bright light not only in Greece, but in the wine industry. Read on to learn more about Alexandra, as she tells us about moving to Greece, the winery, giving back, and more.
Alexandra Manousakis of Manousakis Winery. IMAGE: MAVROGENIS HARIS
Q&A with Alexandra Manousakis
Maria A. Karamitsos: You were born and raised in the States.
Alexandra Manousakis: I was born and raised in Washington, DC proper. My dad, Theodore “Ted”Manousakis, is an entrepreneur. He’s had several successful businesses in his lifetime, including a security company, which he had for more than 25 years. Incidentally, it was one of his guards that broke the Watergate scandal. My late mother, Adriana, isn’t Greek, but she owned and operated a Greek restaurant. Growing up, I didn’t have a very Greek experience (beyond Greek school every Saturday), until college. I attended NYU, where I studied Business, Art, and Hellenic Studies – and not necessarily in that order. I became very active in the Hellenic Heritage Association, in which along with my studies, fueled by an amazing teacher, my interest grew.
MAK: What did you do after graduation?
AM: I stayed in Manhattan. For a short time, I worked at the Onassis Foundation, and then I got a job in real estate marketing. This was a great opportunity for a 21-year-old — my boss went on maternity leave and I inherited all of her projects. I learned a lot, but really, it was soul-sucking. I felt like I lived in a world of beige, sitting in a cubicle all day. I thought, if I feel like this at 23, what will it be like at 33? 43? 53? That’s when I decided to move to Crete. I wanted to do real estate development there, study architecture and nurture my creative side, maybe get into interior design. My parents were against it, but I was determined to go. I needed to do this.
MAK: What happened next?
AM: My dad finally accepted it but told me it was difficult to build in Greece. He told me to go there and oversee the construction of the winery. At the time, we were just getting started, producing 25,000-35,000 bottles per year. The old building near the tasting area was the original winery, and there was no office. Dad appointed me to lead the project, and if I liked it I could do my own thing. I agreed.
MAK: When did you move to Crete?
AM: 2007. I was 23 years old. This was just before the big real estate market crash in the U.S., so I likely would have lost my job anyway.
MAK: Tell us about your transition.
AM: There were a lot of challenges. I had no internet for 9 months. Really, I was learning everything from scratch. It was intense, difficult. Imagine, I came from Manhattan, and worked in an all-woman office. I had to adjust to the “Greek way”. It was so different, a culture shock. The economic crisis happened soon after. With all of that, I was trying to learn things, and be “one” with culture. My Greek wasn’t very good then. I had to learn to speak Greek in business terms and about wine, something I hadn’t done before.
I was supposed to be here only 1 or 2 years, but I stayed. In the beginning, it was because I’m stubborn and I didn’t want to return and say I gave up. So, I kept going. Ultimately, I stayed because there’s something truly amazing about this place and I love my job.
MAK: When was Manousakis Winery founded?
AM: In 1993, when my dad planted the first vineyards.
MAK: Why did your dad want to start a winery?
AM: Dad was always doing different projects. He had this idea in the 1980s. I remember coming to Greece every summer and seeing some of harvest. It was cool. I loved drinking wine. As a kid, I’d just play and think, yeah, it’s cool.
Dad loves wine. He had several businesses and had restaurants as hobbies. He always admired the winemaking lifestyle. He thought that over wine, people don’t get mad and they enjoy each other’s company. He wanted his kids to have that kind of lifestyle.
The winery is his baby; it’s close to his heart, especially that it’s in his village. He left when he was 11. He called the wine Nostos because he always had this nostalgia to return his homeland. He built the winery next to his family home. He also wanted to create work for the villagers; to put Vatolakkos on the map, for it to be a place for people to come to and enjoy, and also to make a wonderful product from that village.
MAK: How did the villagers feel about it?
AM: We have good relations with the people around us. They’re our neighbors, family, and friends. In general, agriculture is respected in Greece. Winemaking is an old tradition here. The villagers are proud and excited that a high-quality, well-known wine is produced here. They see life here, tourists. People have built businesses around the fact that people are coming to the village. We love that.
MAK: So a Greek-American, with no experience in the wine industry, decides to start a winery. How did he do it?
AM: He called some really crucial people in the wine industry and got them involved. The team consisted of — and still does — some of the most respected people in the wine industry. Laurence Feraud is one. She’s among the top 10 winemakers in the world. There’s Yves Herody, a wine geologist whose focus is on vines and how soil affects them. He consults all over the world. They are powerhouses of knowledge. They are a big reason why are our wine is of such high quality. The entire team, including Kostis Galanis, Ioannis Galanis, Bruce Zoecklein, Pascal Marchland, and Lucie Morton, is among the best in the business.
MAK: Manousakis sold its first wines in 1997.
AM: Yes. Dad showed an importer some wine and he bought all the barrels. Up until 2003, we exported 100% of our wine. Then we opened the Greek market. Today we export 15%; the rest is sold in Greece – 50% of that in Crete. We sell a lot from the tasting area.
MAK: There are many nods to your family’s history.
AM: Our logo has much significance. It’s 3 narcissus flowers — called ‘Manousakia’, like our name. And there are 3 flowers to represent the three daughters. My sisters Tina and Taty are not involved with the winery. Taty is severely handicapped and lives in the States. Tina is a teacher and lives in Holland.
My father is all about telling stories. He sees things through a romantic lens. There’s the whole story of the immigrant – always something missing. Think about it, we all live this Greek-American story, growing up in the States but with strong ties to our culture and homeland.
MAK: – You have wines called Nostos, and some called 2Mazi.
AM: We produce 15 different wines. Nostos is our main label, what we started with — the premium brand. 2Mazi is a line we make in collaboration with Lyrarakis Winery in Herakleio. The wines are 50/50 Manousakis/Lyrarakis. We produce a red, white, and rosé. Proceeds benefit a local school for children with special needs. It’s so nice, because we give back, but we also show how two wineries can come together. I love to collaborate. I believe every company with the slightest recognition can and should lead by example. If we show we can collaborate and that businesses are friendly and thrive together, people see its possible. This can benefit everyone. Greece has so much to offer. The wines are 50/50 Manousakis/Lyrarakis.
Terroir by Alexandra Manousakis. IMAGE: MANOUSAKIS WINERY
MAK: Tell us about ‘Terroir by Alexandra Manousakis’.
AM: It’s a line of products all created here, with packaging, etc. all sourced locally. Terroir comes from the word, terra, which in the context of wine, is how the physical environment, geography, and people affect the wine. The idea was born in the middle of the economic crisis when things were bad, with no real hope around. We needed something to get people out of the funk, to get excited about. I wanted to make a product that could support local artisans, a beautiful quality product. I thought, what are major products that affect our wines – the sea (salt) trees (olive oil).
A local ceramicist makes the jar. All except the cork (not grown in Greece), are sourced locally. The proceeds from the sales of these projects go to the same school for children with special needs. I like to mix in a philanthropic element because it’s important to give back to the community.
MAK: Crete’s national spirit is Tsikoudia. You’re now producing it.
AM: I wanted to bottle it because it’s an important tradition here. Essentially, it’s the same as grappa, but it’s not as well-known, not seen in same light. It’s thought to have medicinal qualities, it has a great history, and I want to make it known to people outside of Crete.
MAK: Are Manousakis wines available in the States?
AM: We distribute through Dionysos Imports.
Related: You’ll Fall in Love with Crete, Too!
MAK: What’s your typical day?
AM: In the winter, I spend my days at the winery and in meetings. Our job shifts to sales — getting ready to sell the wine that’s in production. In the summer, it’s intense. The tasting area is open, and in peak season, we average 200-300 guests/day. Many tours and tastings take place. We turn into hosts while we’re doing everything else. We make sure the tasting area and restaurant are at their best. We host many weddings and events. We just had 11 events in the last several weeks. During 2 months in the summer, we begin picking grapes, too, and everything is happening at once. We also manage the production facility. And there’s our most important, high priority job — caring for the vineyards.
MAK: The Greek wine industry is evolving.
AM: It’s an amazing time for Greek wine. Greece has strong wine culture and tradition. Winemaking has evolved; it took some time for the wine industry to get where it is today. There are now more than 700 commercial wineries in Greece — all producing good wines.
MAK: What is Wines of Crete?
AM: Founded in 2008, it’s a network of wineries in Crete. We market ourselves together as the Region of Crete. It’s been successful. Together, we’re stronger and have greater reach. When one is successful, we’re all successful.
Pink, a rosé from Manousakis Winery. IMAGE: MANOUSAKIS WINERY
MAK: Tell us about Salis.
AM: My husband, Afshin, opened a restaurant at the Venetian Port in Chania with his partner, Stelios. It’s called Salis. We cross promote the restaurant and winery. Salis has the most extensive wine list in Crete, the 2nd in Greece. We offer contemporary local dishes. Think farm to table as we grow all of our own vegetables.
MAK: Add filmmaker to your impressive resume.
AM: Inspired by my sister, Taty, we do a lot of work with handicapped individuals. It’s a cause near and dear to my heart. Taty is in a wheelchair. When she came for our wedding, I was shocked at how bad the streets were, how people park, etc. People with wheelchairs and mobility issues are not considered. With Indigo View, a film production company based in Chania, we made a short film. We want to spread the word and get people to help make life easier for our fellow citizens that are disabled. I fundraised for 1-1/2 years. We haven’t released it yet because it’s been sent to festivals. Once completed there, we’ll release it online, and hopefully start an awareness program at schools. Then maybe the next generation won’t park on the sidewalk.
MAK: Anything else we should know about you?
AM: I’m still working on my art. I love expressing my creative side. I created the “Pink” label and painted a mural at Salis. My goal is to someday take my art a step further.
Thank you, Alexandra!
Alexandra is a dynamic woman, with unbridled creative energy, and many plans. We know she will achieve it all. When you visit Crete, do plan a stop at Manousakis Winery. And if you have the opportunity, taste their wonderful wines. Then you’ll literally have just a little bit of magical Crete inside you.
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