As they say in Greece, ‘Opa!’
The Fresno Greek Festival returned to St. George Greek Orthodox Church for its 53rd year on Aug. 23-25 and welcomed thousands of people from the Fresno Greek community and neighboring Valley cities for three days of Grecian-inspired food, fun and festivities.
Festival Chairman Peter Vallis, who began organizing the event five years ago, said an estimated 24,000 people packed the festival’s grounds this year. Last year, Vallis said the event drew about 22,000 attendees.
The festival, which Vallis said began as a small bake sale to raise money for the newly-constructed church in 1954, has transformed into a massive event in recent years. It became the home to dozens of food and shopping booths, Greek dancing and live musical performances, and authentic Greek wine tasting.
For the past three years, the Fresno State Viticulture Club has attended the event to pour wine at Vallis’s request. In addition to his duties as chairman, Vallis is also the Executive Director of the San Joaquin Valley Winegrowers Association and represents all the grapes and wine from Bakersfield, Calif. to Stockton, Calif.
“Part of what I do professionally is I deal with wine, and so I thought it would be a great idea for them [the Viticulture Club] to learn about wines that they’re not going to find in Fresno, or experience through Fresno State, just because Greek wines are not sold very often,” Vallis said.
Daniel Price, a member of the Fresno State Viticulture Club, said this was his third year helping out at the festival and his second time pouring wine.
“This is really the only venue we have to pour authentic Greek wine,” Price said. “We’re broadening our horizons as wine makers and wine growers as well as helping the community broaden their horizons.
“Not many people have the opportunity to even drink these wines let alone pour them or explain them to other people, which is the best part of it.”
Price said the festival is a great opportunity for Fresno State students to learn about the Greek culture, have fun, drink Greek wine—if they are of age—and support local ventures.
“If you aren’t knowledgeable, or you don’t know anything about the Greek culture, it’s a good way to learn what they’re about,” Price said. “But also the food—the food is awesome.”
Price said his favorite food at the festival is Greek feta cheese, which he recommended people try with a piece of pita bread or fries.
Erin Palumbo, the sergeant-at-arms of the Viticulture Club, said the best part of the festival is interacting with all the different people who visit the wine stand.
“You meet a lot of interesting people pouring, especially when the night gets later on,” Palumbo laughed.
This was Palumbo’s second year at the Greek Festival pouring wine. All of the wine featured at the festival is authentic Greek wine imported straight from Greece.
Rachel Noia, a senior at Fresno State, said the Greek food was what excited her most about the festival.
“I went to Greece this summer, and I didn’t realize all the food was going to be here [at the festival], so I’m like, ‘Oh my God, Greek food,’ and I’ve been freaking out about wanting everything,” Noia said.
At the festival’s shopping booths, patrons can find a plethora of traditional Greek items along with some non-traditional items such as flower vases, jewelry, purses, T-shirts and even some sports memorabilia.
Sophia Argiris—who traveled from San Jose, Calif. to work at Elaine’s Little “Gems,” a booth that sells a wide variety of items including handcrafted jewelry, candles and lotions—said one of the most popular items sold at the booth is their “to máti” bracelet. The bracelet features a small bead that looks like a human eye.
In Greek, “to máti” means “the eye,” which refers to the evil eye, a talisman of bad luck in many cultures.
“It’s a superstition that a lot of Greek elders believe in,” Argiris said. “One of the key points to it is that if someone with brown eyes gives you a compliment, they could be cursing you forever, so wearing that bracelet can protect you.”
The church also began selling items at its own booth, Yiayia’s Attic, three years ago. All of the money made at the booth goes back to the parish.
“We call it Yiayia’s Attic because “yiayia” in Greek means “grandmother,” and so our theme is like what you would find in your attic in your home,” Cindi Boukidis, a worker at the booth and member of the church, said.
Every item sold at the booth is donated or made by the church’s parishioners.
“One person’s junk is another person’s treasure,” Boukidis said. “It’s amazing what we sell.
“The entire festival money offsets our operating expenses for the church—it’s probably about 50 percent of our annual budget.”
Vallis said the money earned at the festival also helps support several non-profit organizations the church is involved with throughout the year across the east-central Fresno area.
Visitors of the festival were also encouraged to take a self-guided iconography tour inside the church, which features intricate paintings of several well-known Christian prophets and saints.
“As people have come, they keep coming,” Vallis said. “It’s always had a cult following, it just used to be a smaller cult.
“Maybe by the 63rd Greek Fest we will have gone out all around the block as opposed to just the five-and-a-half acres we have here.”