Director turns lens on vineyards and winemakers of Santorini

Santorini is known to millions around the world for its caldera and some of the most spectacular views to be found on the planet. There is another side to the Cycladic island, however, that of its viticulture, a side which remains off the radar of most travelers. This is the subject of award-winning documentary “Pelican’s Watch.” Away from the island’s signature sights, the film focuses on farmers plowing the land using mules and barrel makers preparing for the new vintage.

From February to September for two years, Greek-Danish director Lea Binzer followed two Santorini winegrowers, 52-year-old Nikos Pelekanos and 83-year-old Christos Dalmiras, and acclaimed 63-year-old winemaker Paris Sigalas as they worked. The island’s vineyard is unique due to its volcanic soil and dry climate.

“Our vines come either in the form of large bread rolls, a little bit like wreaths, or small bread rolls, and sometimes, in order to distinguish between the two, people refer to the small ones as ‘earrings,’” said Pelekanos, a third-generation winegrower. “The harvest takes place in August, before we move on to the ‘koutsomitisma’ process, also known as ‘pastrema,’ when we remove hungry bugs and prune the vines.”

“I love my job,” Pelekanos said, adding that he often feels he goes beyond the call of duty. The 52-year-old winegrower is frequently asked to reveal some of the secrets of his trade.

“I get young people, especially women, who ask me about this and that as they would like to grow their own vines,” he said. “I also get foreign visitors who come to take a look, especially from countries with a winegrowing tradition like France.”

The procedure was also physically demanding for Binzer, who learnt how to prune a vine but maintains that holding a camera is an easier task. According to the director, each of the film’s lead subjects approaches his work in his own way: Pelekanos is a modern professional, Dalmiras represents the old guard of winegrowers, while Sigalas’s personal vision lies somewhere between the two. What they do share, however, are common enemies and allies. “All three have developed an existential relationship with their work, while the idea of the ‘spiritual’ plays an integral part in their daily work routines,” said Binzer. “God is omnipresent, either in order to believe in him or in order to doubt him. He is responsible for the weather and other peculiar things.”

“All three face unfavorable conditions which are not solely due to the current financial situation, but also from pressure exerted by their own microcosm,” noted Binzer, who has lived on the island. “The film presents various issues without taking on an accusatory tone: Pelekanos is against the amateurism displayed by several of the island’s winegrowers who treat their vineyards like a part-time job; Dalmiras is fighting his own war against tradesmen, politicians and God Almighty armed with his sense of humor; while Sigalas, the most introvert of the three, says the need for a rescue plan for traditional vineyards is needed today more than ever. Meanwhile, all three share the same nightmare: the threat of a gradual demise of the ancient and native vineyard for the sake of tourism development.

Co-produced by wine critic Nico Manessis, “Pelican’s Watch” was awarded the top prize at the 20th edition of the Carcassonne OenoVideo Festival in France earlier this year. The documentary’s original score was penned by Laoura Gini, while Lena Kitsopoulou wrote the lyrics for the songs interpreted by Irini Tsirakidou.

Despite the fact that the production has already received several distinctions at prominent festivals, including the Thessaloniki International Film Festival, was chosen to open the Los Angeles Greek Film Festival and featured in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ Festival of Films from Greece, it is facing distribution issues, especially in its home country. So far, it has only been screened once on Santorini, although some say it might be screened again at the island’s schools.

“Following the screening, a local restaurant owner came up to me,” said Switzerland-based Manessis. “‘I have gone through so many bottles of wine over the years,’ he said, ‘but I had no idea how much work goes into winemaking.’”

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