January 1, 2005
Visiting Israeli wineriesBy Sidney Retsky
My wife, Batya, and I have been wine lovers for over 40 years. I was also an amateur wine maker for about five of those years. My own wine was not very good, primarily because I could never get good grapes living where I do, but it was still fun making it. So it was a natural reaction, after reading an article about the many new wineries that have sprung up in Israel, that we felt we had to go and see what was happening.
We were especially interested in seeing some of the very small wineries which were reported to be producing some truly fine wines. We hoped to be able to talk to the winemakers themselves, and learn about them and their techniques. We expected winemakers to be very interesting people, and we were right.
The first thing we did after we arrived was to visit a good wine store. We were amazed at the number of new labels on the shelves. We wanted to taste them all but first we decided to buy a book and learn more. We bought Rogov's Guide to Israeli Wines which was written in English by Daniel Rogov, Israel's foremost wine critic, and published by Toby Press. This was our bible during the trip.
Rogov classifies the 103 Israeli wineries by size: there are five large wineries, 12 medium wineries and 86 small wineries. He also rates them by the quality of their wines, from one to five stars. Five stars is "world class, regularly producing excellent wines." Four stars indicates "consistently producing high quality wines." Only five wineries received five stars and only 17 wineries received four stars.
Only one large winery, Golan Heights, received five stars. The others received three stars or less. Among the medium size wineries only Castel received five stars. Five of the medium size wineries: Chateau Golan, Ella Valley, Galil Mountain, Recanati and Tzora received four stars. The others received three stars or less. Clearly, it seems that most of the five and four stars are being awarded to the small wineries. This is an indication of where the highest quality wines are being produced.
With Rogov's book and a good map we managed to visit 16 wineries in two weeks. We saw all five of the five star wineries, we saw seven of the four star wineries, three of the three star wineries and even a two star winery. It was a very enjoyable and educational experience.
We were pleasantly surprised by the cordial reception we received from most of the wineries, even when we dropped in unannounced. Most of them were small size family run operations but a number had grown larger, with annual production of 8000 cases or more — not exactly big by American standards, but economically viable. We were also surprised by the high quality of their wines, which were mostly cabernet sauvignons and merlots.
We were also delighted by the natural beauty of the surroundings. They were mainly in the Sharon and the Jerusalem Hills. Most of them were located on moshavim cooperative agricultural settlements, or on land rented from kibbutzim collectives. One was on a ranch. Only one was sctually owned by a kibbutz
Some had their own vineyards but most bought their grapes from vineyards in the hills of the Galil or the Golan. That's because vineyards in hilly country often produce higher quality grapes. Hot days and cold nights make for more intensely flavored grapes, and good drainage is essential.
What kind of hospitality can one expect to receive at these wineries? First of all you will be given a tour of the winery. The proprietor/winemaker will explain his own technique for making wine. Everyone seemed to have a little different technique than the others. He will also be happy to tell you how and why he got into this business and what he wishes to accomplish.
Afterwards you will be asked if you wish to taste some of the wines. If you do, they will normally give you about three wines to taste. You will start with the lowest quality and work up to the best. If you wish to buy any of them be prepared to pay anywhere from $15 to $35 per bottle. Some can arrange for shipping if you buy a large enough quantity. We found the wines to be very fairly priced.
Some winemakers do this for love of wine alone, others want to be financially successful. Some are continuing a family tradition, which is very important in this part of the world.
Yoram Shalom has named his four star winery "Alexander" and his best wines are called "Alexander the Great", after his father, Alexander. The family began making wine in Tunisia and then went to Italy and eventually Israel. One senses Yoram's satisfaction at being able to honor his father by making such fine wine in his father's name.
If you talk to other winemakers you will hear similar stories. Avi Feldstein, who is the winemaker for Barkan's Segal winery learned to make wine from his father, who was the chief winemaker for Carmel Winery. Avi has never had any formal training in winemaking and yet we found him to be one of the most knowledgeable persons we met on our tour. He is one of the top winemakers of Barkan, which is the highest state of the art winery in Israel, with 750,000 cases per year of production. Highly automated, it has only 13 people working in production.
One of the top five star wineries is Margalit. It is owned by Yair Margalit and his son Assaf. Yair is a professor of chemistry. Assaf studied winemaking in Israel and California. With their combined skills they manage to produce some of the best wines in Israel. Their wines receive the highest ratings from Rogov. Their 2002 Cabernet received a rating of 94. It sells for $50 a bottle in Israel
We were particularly fortunate to visit their winery just as they were about to conduct their monthly tasting. They taste all their wines and make decisions about blending, barrel ageing, bottling and when to release their wines to the public.
They invited us to participate in the tasting, which was a real privilege for us. We learned a great deal and my wife discovered that she has a very good palate. She was able to taste all the delicate flavors like cherry, cinnamon, vanilla and others that the experts use to describe a wine. She could even tell the difference in taste of a French oak and American oak barrel. This was certainly one of the highlights of our trip. Imagine, we were actually tasting and spitting out a $50 wine.
Another five star winery we were able to visit was Flam, which is presently located on Moshav Ginaton, but is about to move to larger facilities in the Jerusalem Hills. The Flam brothers make great Cabernets, Merlot and a blend called Classico, which is very popular in Israel. They plan to issue 2,500 cases this year. They also explained how difficult it is to make a profit in this business. Break even point is always around the corner and more equipment is always needed in order to reach that point. Barrels cost more than $700 each and only last four years. Gil Flam is hoping this latest move to increase capacity will give them the ability to reach profitability.
Some wineries are very formal and meticulously run. They are so neat that you could eat off the floor. Such a place is Castel, a five star winery in the Jerusalem Hills. Castel was started by Eli Ben Zaken in 1998. He owned one of the best Italian restaurants in Jerusalem and started Castel as a hobby. His wine was quickly noticed by one of the executives of Sothebys who encouraged him to expand. He now produces over 8000 cases per year and is very successful. His wines, beginning in 2003, are kosher. There are only two kosher five star Israeli wineries, Castel and Golan Heights
Near Castel are two more kosher wineries. Kibbutz Tzorah and Ellah Valley are four star medium size wineries. Both have very nice visitors' centers and produce some very good wines. You can easily see all three of them in one day from Jerusalem.
Another great time we had was visiting the Saslove Winery. Barry Saslove stops work every Friday at 11 A.M. and spends the rest of the day talking to visitors. We were fortunate to be the only ones there during our visit and we spent about an hour and a half chatting with Barry.
He was very anxious to show us some of the unusual wines he was making. He is also very charming and, like most of the people in this industry, likes to drink wine. So do we. The result was that before we left I had volunteered to come back in September to help with the harvest and the pressing. I'm sure that will be an interesting experience.
The most beautiful five star winery we visited was Amphorae. It is located on a ranch in the foothills of Mount Carmel. Gil Shatzberg is a former kibutznik who decided he wanted to be a winemaker as a young boy. He got his education at the Universiity of California, Davis, one of the finest winemaking schools in the world. When you first see the Amphorae winery you know instantly that Gil is a perfectionist. His winery is a perfect copy of a classic Italian winery.
When you enter the winery you see that everything is immaculate. Every piece of equipment is brand new and polished. All the barrels are stored in a deep basement warehouse where they are kept at a very low temperature. This slows down the maturation process and improves the wine. When the winery is completed in a few months he will have one of the nicest visitors' centers in Israel, complete with four bedrooms for hosting special guests and a gourmet kitchen for feeding them. Amphorae is the only Israeli wine served by Charley Trotter's nationally famous restaurant in Chicago. I'm sure Charley Trotter will be very comfortable if he ever visits Amphorae.
We suggest that you should not limit your visits to only the top—rated wineries. It's also fun to visit the small "hobbyist" wineries. Itamar Salamon and his son grow grapes and pomegranates on Moshav Amikam, near Zichron Yaakov. They make less than 200 cases of wine a year, in a small room behind their house. It's enough for their own use and to sell to local people. Their wine is quite good and their pomegranates are the biggest and sweetest we have ever tasted. They are happy doing what they do and plan on growing slowly. They proudly showed us their vineyards and said they will add three more dunams next year.
Why do wineries offer these tours? There are several reasons. First, these wineries need publicity in order to increase their sales. This is a good way of getting it. It also exposes them to tourists from the foreign markets they need to penetrate in order to expand their sales. If you like their wines you may tell your favorite wine store about it and that store may try to stock the wine.
It also gives them a chance to test—market their wines. Tell them honestly what you think about their wines. If you have impressed them with your knowledge of wines they will pay attention to what you have to say.
Last, if you like their wines, buy some. The wineries like to sell direct. They don't have to pay the middle man and this is a good and welcome source of income to them.
What about kashrut? Most of the large and medium wineries have kosher certification. The small ones don't. They either can't afford it or aren't able to meet the requirements. First of all, they would have to hire observant Jews to do all the work at the winery. If a non—shabat—observant Jew even touches a barrel, the entire barrel must be discarded.
These winemakers want to be actively involved with the making of their wine. It would be unthinkable for them to turn the job over to someone else. Also, a certified mashgiach must be hired to supervise the winemaking. These costs are too much for a small winery to absorb. The only ones who can afford it are the larger wineries, or the few small ones which are owned and operated by observant Jews. The result is that three of the five star wineries do not produce kosher wines.
What to do and not to do at a winery? First of all, you should know enough about wines to show that you are a serious wine lover. Read up on wines so that you will not ask foolish questions such as, is cabernet sauvignon a white or red wine? Or, you will not tell the winemaker that you prefer sweet wines with meals. He will know you are not serious and he will be wasting his valuable time by showing you his winery. You can learn a great deal about wines and about each Israeli winery by reading Daniel Rogov's book.
When planning your tour, try to select wineries that are close to each other so that you can see two or three in one day. Try to see different size wineries. Call in advance and get directions. Some of them are hard to find. Be prepared to knock on a neighbor's door to ask where the winery is.
Should you do this on your own? First of all, there are no tours of small wineries being operated. Most of them do not get many visitors and they will welcome your interest in their winery. You may have some of the same type of fascinating visitations that we did. Second, most of the really fine wines are being produced by these small wineries, not the larger ones, who are primarily interested in the mass markets. You will have an opportunity to taste many wines of a quality that is not widely available except in the finest wine growing areas around the world. And last, this is Israel. You will be helping this new industry develop and you will have a special pleasure from doing so.
If you need some further information for planning your tour, please visit the website I have established: www.finewinesofisrael.com