“A wine list without Greek wines is incomplete!” – an interview with Kamal Kouiri of Molyvos Restaurant in New York City

“A wine list without Greek wines is incomplete!” – an interview with Kamal Kouiri of Molyvos Restaurant in New York City

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On the website of Molyvos, one of the world’s top Greek cuisine restaurants, based in New York City, I found the best introduction to Kamal Kouiri, so I reproduce it word-for-word:

Curating the largest all-Greek wine list in the U.S. is the challenge and love of Wine Director and General Manager Kamal Kouiri, who has been a part of the Molyvos family since 2001. Kamal is passionate about providing guests with a roadmap to Greek wines, eagerly sharing his expansive insight in approachable ways, from wine pairing recommendations at dinner to guiding guests through their first Ouzo experience.

Traveling to Greece at least once a year, Kamal tours wineries and meets winemakers on both the islands and the mainland to ensure he continues to have the pulse of Greek viticulture. With more than 60 indigenous grape varietals grown throughout Greece to keep track of, Kamal prides himself on continuing to introduce new labels that are exclusively available to diners at Molyvos. This vast, personal knowledge of Greek wine-making is what allows Kamal to showcase boutique and specialty producers from all over Greece, while offering a selection of over 660 labels, including 50 wines by the glass.

Kamal’s dedication to Greek viticulture has been recognized by Wine Enthusiast’s “Award of Unique Distinction” and Wine Spectator’s “Award of Excellence” in 2012 and 2013, as well as “Best of Award of Excellence” from 2014 – 2016. Unsurprisingly, his passion has also helped Molyvos become one of Wine Enthusiast’s “Five Best Wine Bars in New York City” as well as making their “100 Best Wine Restaurants” in 2015 and 2016″.

I met with Kamal during his last visit to Athens and he kindly answered my questions and shared his wisdom and experience with Greek wine in his career so far:

MolyvosExtIMG_6103Can I start by asking what is your connection to Greece and what made you get into Greek wine in the first place?
Being married to Despina since 1997, accessing Greece was easy, so every summer we set off for Greece, to explore the beauty of this amazing country: its history, the people, the food and, of course, the wines. I was intrigued by the wines, sometimes surprised of their quality compare what we had in New York. My first stop was the island of Santorini – raw beauty – where, on a hot summer day I experienced a nice glass of crisp, mineral-driven wine with some fried Barbounia (red mullet). At the time I didn’t know what I was drinking but it was certainly memorable. I fell in love with Greece and its wine and never looked back since; I made it my mission to promote Greek wines and educate people about them. I’ve been returning to Greece regularly during the past 20 years and watch Greek wines improve and become better known and worthy on any wine list. Today a wine list without a Greek label on it is not complete in my humble opinion.

In your 16 years at Molyvos, what has changed/evolved in Greek wine, both in terms of the Greek wine industry but also in the wines themselves?
The change has been impressive! When I first started at Molyvos, in early 2001, our wine list had only 25 Greek labels, most of them from large wine producers. The wines were not consistent – their quality varied from vintage to vintage. Most white wines became oxidized quickly and red wines tended to be over-extracted or over-oaked. You could definitely feel that there was a missing link between wineries, importers and the distribution channels and the lack of promotion from the Greeks certainly didn’t help.
It was hard at first, but every day I saw at first hand tremendous improvement on all aspects of the Greek wine industry: winemaking philosophies and methods, terroir focus, a shift towards creating wines with identity, not to mention the improvement in marketing and logistics. The results are great; guests at Molyvos are no longer scared of asking for Greek wine, and they are no longer traumatized from badly made Retsinas! Now Greek wines can challenge any wine; they are wines of origin, wines that you can enjoy whatever the occasion! The proof is that at Molyvos since 2007 we only carry Greek Wines and we are doing well!

WineBottlesIMG_1229In the same period, how have your customers’ Greek wine perceptions and preferences evolved?
It was tough in the beginning; in 2001 we had to have wines from other countries in the wine list to complement our cuisine. NYC crowds started experiencing Greek food of amazing quality at Molyvos and the Mediterranean diet phenomenon was “hot”. Even though Greek wines started being in demand, quality-wise they weren’t there just yet – thankfully, however, they weren’t that far behind. Within 5 years I started feeling more comfortable with Greek Wines, so I moved to a 100% Greek wine list because I saw how my guests started to react to Greek wines. And the wines themselves were more approachable, much cleaner, move diverse and more interesting – well we are in NYC after all – plus much more affordable.

Throughout this time, which wines are the “all time classics”?
Thalassitis by Gaia Wines in Santorini is always a classic in my book, even slightly different these last 3 Vintages. Yiannis [Paraskevopoulos] always delivered great wine with the most important of criteria in a wine: the sense of place.
Naoussa Grande Reserve by Boutari is another one: I’ve been tasting this wine since 2000. It’s made by one of the oldest wineries in Greece and, when it comes to Naoussa, their Grand Reserve has always been a classic.

In your constant travels across Greece, which wine region is your favorite and what is your top holiday destination and why?
I am not sure where to start… I love most of Greece, but my favorite regions are the Peloponnese and Epirus in the mainland; Santorini and Paros in the Aegean Sea; Kefalonia and Corfu in the Ionian Sea and, of course, Crete!
My top holiday destination would be the island of Tinos – for its easy access (just a 2-hour fery ride from Rafina Port), the geography and terroir are amazing, you can enjoy different beaches for swimming and valleys for hiking. There are a lot of diverse villages, a few local eateries that I love, and you can easily catch boat rides to Paros, Mykonos, Andros etc. I find Tinos peaceful, spiritual, I feel at ease there.

What are the advantages and what are the disadvantages of selling Greek wine in a successful NYC restaurant?
The advantages of Greek wine from my point of view: Unique, intriguing, exotic, terroir-driven, versatile, food friendly, affordable
The disadvantages: Not enough education for the average consumer, difficult pronunciation of indigenous grape varieties, busy labels, bad wine service in Greece to tourists from the USA, which makes our job here even tougher. But we prevail at Molyvos.

Kamal87914What is the easiest and what is the toughest Greek wine to sell at Molyvos?
The easiest has to be Xinomavro Hedgehog by Alpha Estate; I think I sell more of this wine than any other Greek wine. American consumers are in love with the style of Hedgehog – Xinomavro with finesse. I should also add that American consumers are not afraid of tannins, it just needs to be the right well-made wine.
The toughest is a wine that I love: Liatiko-Mandilaria, Domaine Economou, Sitia, 1999. Because of its funky character and almost watery texture people think it’s bad. So I’ve trained my staff to handle the situation when guests order it.

How do you choose which wines to serve by the bottle?
I have no secret, by now I know what my guests will enjoy and how much they are willing to spend. Before I make a decision on which wine I will buy to serve by bottle, I like to taste the wine, I need to understand the philosophy behind it, the details about its viticulture and, lastly the price; if all the criteria fit, it’s on board!

Do you have one (or more) personal favorite(s)?
2004 Old Vines Xinomavro by Alpha Estate
2015 Kavalieros Santorini by Domaine Sigalas
2001 Gaia Estate by Gaia Wines
2013 Ovilos White by Biblia Chora
2008 Savatiano by Domaine Papagiannakos
The new 2016 Wild Path Robola by Gentilini

Is there one or more wines (or wine regions) that you haven’t yet included in your wine list(s) but have immediate plans to do so?
During my last visit in Athens, I liked these wines and they will be on my list in May/June 2017:
2016 Muscat of Spina by Karavitakis
2016 Klima white by Karavitakis
2016 Assyrtiko by Domaine Papagiannakos
2016 Malagousia by Theopetra Estate
2015 Thea Mantinia by Semeli
2016 Granatus by Domaine Papagiannakos
2015 Edenia Sparkling by Theopetra Estate
2015 Savatiano Vareli Magnum by Domaine Papagiannakos

Kamal Kouiri, thank you very much indeed!…

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Ted Lelekas
ilovegreekwine.com founder. Read more...

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