In Vino Veritas

Take a piece of paper and write on one side: “The statement on the other side of this page is untrue.” Then turn the piece of paper over and write the same thing on the other side. Then apply for a tenure-track position in a university philosophy department, where they will tell you that this is called the Cretan Paradox and has been puzzling people ever since the sixth century B.C., when a Cretan called Epimenides said “Cretans, always liars.”
What underlay this reputation for mendacity were the tall tales the people of Crete used to tell in antiquity about the immortal gods. Zeus, Greatest and Best, they claimed, had been born on their island and they had concealed him from his divine father Kronos (who wanted to eat him) by doing war –dances ’round his cradle whenever his infant wailing threatened to betray his whereabouts. As Greek myths go, that was unremarkable. What bothered people was the Cretans’ further claim that Zeus had also died on the island and was buried on snow-capped Mount Ida, in a tomb marked by the inscription ZAN KRONOU—Zeus the son of Kronos. So much for immortality.
Even in more recent times Crete seems an island larger than life. Take the tales about Cretan resistance to the German occupation during World War II told by an older generation of classical scholars, some of whom shared the tough life of the Cretan andartes, sleeping in caves and shepherds’ huts, scragging German soldiers, and breakfasting on ouzo. A fine film from the 1950s tells one such tale. Ill Met by Moonlight relates in atmospheric monochrome how a posse of Cretan partisans and a pair of young British officers kidnapped a German general as he drove home to his headquarters one spring evening in 1944, then led him through the mountains to a motorboat that carried him to Cairo and a lengthy stay as a guest of His Britannic Majesty. (It is good sometimes to see a film that does not suggest that the war was won by the unaided efforts of John Wayne.)
Both of the British officers involved wrote accounts of this operation. One of them, Patrick Leigh Fermor, described how, in a pause on the trek across the island, the general looked up at the peak of Mount Ida and spoke sotto voce lines the Roman poet Horace had written about the distant view of mountains seen from Rome in the days before pollution: “Vides ut alta stet nive candidum Soracte.” (You see how Mount Soracte stands, bright white with deep snow.) One of his captors completed the quotation. “Ach so, Herr Major,” said the general. “For a long moment,” wrote Leigh Fermor, “the war had ceased to exist.”
What put me in mind of all this was a good-hearted red wine from Crete called Kretikos. It is bottled by the well-known Greek firm of Boutari and the 2005 vintage may be had around here for as little as ten dollars. This is one of those pellucid wines that make glass shine from the inside out; its crimson color is not unlike that of Pinot Noir. At first, the center of the taste also recalls the sweetness of Pinot Noir, bracketed here between a fine initial bite and a pleasantly tannic aftertaste. Revisited after a day or two, the sugars have been absorbed, but the wine retains fine muscular strength.
Whatever philosophers say, truth is seldom pure and never simple. The essential truth about this wine is that, like the great red wines of Bordeaux, it is a blend of two varieties of grape. The Mantilaria, widely planted in the isles of Greece (where burning Sappho had her fun) is relatively low in alcohol, high in tannin and a pleasing ruby hue. The Kotsifali grape is more characteristically Cretan; the wine it makes has more sugar and alcohol, and can go a little brown ’round the edges, like aged claret. They make a happy marriage.
This Cretan wine would taste good with all sorts of meat. It happened to be Easter time when the party that kidnapped the general arrived on Crete to make their preparations. The shepherd they were with selected a lamb, and it was expertly roasted on a spit. They drank quantities of wine—drawn from the barrel, not bottled by Boutari—then lined up colored eggs and used them for target practice: “Christ is risen!” Bang … “He is truly risen!”… Bang. Good wine tells no lies.