We dined on the threshold of a moonlit night, our table straddling the open-air frontage of the restaurant and its softly lit interior. A hundred yards away, sailboats rocked to and fro in the harbor.
Oğuz Özer, the owner of Yengeç restaurant, cradled colorful bowls of meze to our table, one after another. These Turkish appetizers included garlic steeped in a sticky-sweet pomegranate syrup and the country’s traditional creamy eggplant dip.
I struggled to order modestly from the 100 (yes, really) options displayed in glass near the back of the seaside eatery in Urla. In addition to meze, Özer turned out superlative seafood plucked daily from the Aegean Sea. Flame-kissed shrimp and grilled fish, slicked with olive oil and lemon, appeared next. The convivial founder of nearby winery Urla Şarapçılık, Can Ortabaş, joined me, toting several of his wines.
As we sampled, sipped and ate, Ortabaş outlined ambitious plans to revive the region’s lost wine culture. Nearly 15 years ago on his farm a few kilometers inland, he discovered 1,000-year-old terraces and clay amphorae.
“My research revealed that this area had once been covered with vineyards for wine…and viticulture had been an important part of the economy,” he said.
Ortabaş then planted endemic and international wine grapes, and invested in research and development to search for varieties once believed extinct. He built a small, sophisticated winery and a chic two-room inn to help attract wine lovers and tourists.
“One day, I hope to see 100 wineries on this peninsula,” he said.
Turkey’s wine heritage goes back nearly 7,000 years, to the age of the Hittites, but the Ottoman Empire virtually wiped out the country’s wine industry.
Only in the last decade have ambitious Turks, proudly embracing native grapes, set about reviving this legacy.
Recently, however, the ruling AKP (Justice and Development) Party instituted Islam-influenced alcohol reforms—curbing advertising, Web sites and limiting tasting—stalling Turkey’s once-promising wine revival.
Talking over a glass of Urla’s local red, with a dish of smoky, charred octopus, hardly felt like a criminal act, yet the country hovers on the precipice of prohibition. Could the freedom to capture life’s elemental pleasures in a glass be lost again in Turkey?
Wine, like sharing meze, provides a bridge between foreign cultures. Indigenous grapes link us to a rapidly vanishing past, one we exchange for an increasingly homogenized future.
I hope Ortabaş’s infectious optimism is prophetic, rather than quixotic, and the country will bolster, rather than burn, its bridges to its rich wine past.