March 24, 2011 |

Interview: Wine writer Blake Gray's take on the Israeli Wine Scene

In 2010, wine writer W. Blake Gray visited deep into the Israeli wine world, his first trip back to Israel after having first visited 20 years ago.

Last November, Food & Wine magazine published Blake's report from that trip, and he also wrote about it here.

I met and began interacting with Blake on Twitter and recently he was gracious enough to respond to some questions from me via email. I am always curious to explore how others view Israel and the (re)emerging Israeli wine scene.

What follows is the entire unedited written interview. It's lengthy, and substantive, and (I promise!) will make you think.

Many thanks to Blake!

Soon, Blake and I will invite all of you to a Live Chat where you can ask us your own Israeli wine questions LIVE!

p.s. I'm a regular reader of Blake's The Gray Market Report, and you should be, too!

*******


How did you fall in love with wine and the wine world?
I started drinking wine while doing volunteer work in France. The French government paid our food bill, and of course at the time there was no such thing as a meal without wine. The first wine I really drank a lot of was a vin ordinaire that we filled our own 5 liter jug with every day. Once I showed some interest, the chemist at the local fromagerie made it his business to introduce me to wines from every region nearby. My wine appreciation took off from there.

Why should anyone care about wine from Israel?
Well the obvious answer is that Jewish people from every country should care. I'm sorry if that's not the answer you want, but it's the reality. If you want to support Israel, you should buy its products.

I am not Jewish, and I care about wine from Israel because there are a lot of interesting things going on there. The quality wine revolution is less than 20 years old there and we don't have any idea yet how good the wines can be, but some of them area already quite good.

What are some misunderstandings Americans have of wine from Israel?
Twenty years ago wine from Israel was mostly bad, bad, bad. It tended to be sweet, and wines that were mevushal have a big disadvantage because they're boiled. These days very few of the top wines are mevushal, so people who keep kosher might have to serve themselves, but it's worth it because the wines are so much better.

A lot of Americans connect Manischewitz with Israel. To my knowledge there is no connection. Manischewitz is made in New York and owned by Constellation Brands.

Is Israeli wine Old or New World? What’s the difference anyway?
That's a very good question. Israel is close to Europe and many people in the wine industry have connections in Europe, so there are a lot of people there with European palates: they want restraint, balance, savory flavors rather than big fruit. I think they may be denying Israel's true nature; that the bright sun even at altitude means Israel should be making wines more in the bold American style. That's what Golan Heights Winery is doing, and very effectively, and if you taste Barkan's reserve level wines that's also what they're doing. I think that's probably Israel's future, but even in California this is never a set issue for everyone, because in this state full of blockbuster wines we have plenty of people working in the Old World style.


What surprised you the most during your recent time in Israel, not just wine-related but even beyond the wine scene?
I went to Israel in 1990 and the atmosphere was very tense, especially in Jerusalem. The news headlines from the country haven't changed much, but what surprised me was how calm everything seems. I'm sure that's not the case in Gaza, but I did visit the West Bank and things seemed very calm there too.

In the wine scene, I was surprised by the number of high-end, artisanal wines that are not kosher. They can't be sold in most supermarkets or hotels or restaurants, but they're doing it anyway and making a living.

 

What do you see as the major marketing challenges for the Israeli wine industry as they continue to play in the US wine market?
Price is a concern. I don't think Israeli wines are overpriced but shipping costs makes it just about impossible for them to compete in the under-$15 category.
The kosher aisle is a mixed blessing. There is a captive audience of Jewish people who want to keep kosher, but there is little reason for non-Jewish people to wander into the kosher wine section. For Israeli wines to successfully cross over beyond the Jewish audience, they'll have to be in a section of their own. I'm not sure exactly how that's going to happen. Americans don't buy wines from anywhere around Israel: Greek and Lebanese wines are very minor here. Maybe a clever marketer can get them shelved next to Italian wines.
 


What were several of your favorite wines you tasted there and why?
The five wines I originally chose for Food & Wine magazine I picked because I liked them and they're available here: Tulip Winery White Tulip 2008, Dalton Reserve Upper Galilee Viognier 2008, Golan Heights Winery Yarden Galilee Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Domaine du Castel Grand Vin Judea Hills 2007 (this was my very favorite), Binyamina Chosen Ruby Galilee Syrah 2006.

Here are some wines that didn't make the cut, either because they're not widely available or the winery made something else I liked better:
Tulip Winery Black Tulip 2006, Binyamina Chosen Diamond Cabernet Sauvignon-Syrah-Petit Verdot 2007, Teperberg Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Ella Valley 2007, Galil Mountain Galilee Yiron 2006, Tishbi Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2007. I also want to single out the delicious Yarden Heights Wine 2007, a dessert wine made from Gewurztraminer. If you do want a sweet wine from Israel, it's hard to beat that one.

 

Which wineries are ones Americans should keep an eye on?
Golan Heights Winery is the obvious choice because they have an American winemaker and they're very focused on this market. Plus, they're good at what they do. I'd buy all the Domaine du Castel Grand Vin you can get.

How is the QPR (Quality to Price Ratio) of Israeli wine overall?
The QPR gets better for Israeli wines as they get more expensive. I don't think Israeli wines are good value below $15; you get better wines domestically because of the shipping costs, or from Europe. But the best wines from Israeli rarely top $75 or so, which isn't really that much for the best wine from a country. I think Golan Heights Winery is going to test that upper limit so that might change the equation.

 

What grapes "work" well in Israel? where? any grapes not being used you think ought to be? or grapes being planted in places you think they ought not to be?
I liked Carignane and Petite Sirah wherever I saw it. Cabernet Sauvignon was up and down, but there were some good ones. Also Syrah, which can grow anywhere. I also liked the Viogniers, which doesn't seem to make sense with the climate, but they were fine.

I don't think Israeli Chardonnays are particularly good, nor did I like most of the Sauvignon Blancs I tried.

If you were designing a marketing roadmap for the (re)emerging Israeli wine industry, what would be key tasks and milestones?
I know what the long-term goal is, but I don't have any suggestions for how to get there. The long-term goal is to get non-Jewish people to try the wines and to think of Israel as a wine region, not a political country.
At the same time, with an entirely different crew, Israeli marketers need to work the Jewish market hard and convince people to buy Israeli wines instead of kosher French and Spanish wines. I know they're already doing that, but they can't stop. You make more money selling products to people who already like them then by chasing people who don't know them.

We know that kosher winemaking doesn't result in wines that are worse (or better) than non-kosher wines and we know that not all wine from Israel is kosher BUT has "kosher" as a marketing category been limiting for the broader acceptance of Israeli wine in the US?
Yes, and it's strange because "kosher" is a huge plus for food items. I know plenty of non-Jewish people who only eat kosher hot dogs, for example.
By the way, I'm sorry to say this in this forum, but I'm going to because I'm not Jewish: being kosher is a handicap for wineries. It won't show up as a negative in most wines, but the winemaking world is normally very international -- you see South Africans working in France, Australians working in Portugal, etc. You don't get quite as much of that in Israel, and the kosher restrictions on what winemakers can do are one reason.
After all the nice things I've said, I can imagine various readers' shoulders drawing together as they read this. But one thing I noticed in Israeli wineries was this scene, repeated often: a passionate non-orthodox winemaker, who has to have everything executed by a bored-looking guy with a long beard. Apparently there's a big shortage of Sabbath-observant workers, which gives those who qualify an arrogance that you don't see at wineries anywhere else in the world. That has to be a management problem for the wineries. Obviously many have found ways to make great wine despite it, but I'd be lying if I didn't say the attitude of the only people allowed to touch the tanks is a hurdle no other wineries in the world face.

What’s the state of wine tourism in Israel in your opinion?
Not very good, from what I could see. Some wineries have tasting rooms, but most of them are no-frills industrial-looking places. This would seem to be a big growth area. American tourists love to visit wine regions and with all the Americans who visit Israel, I think there's big business to be earned by having some more California-style tasting rooms.

Do you have plans to return to Israel again someday?
I'd sure like to, and I don't want to have wait 20 more years. Israel is one of the most interesting countries I've visited. This time after doing my wine touring I finally took a dip in the Dead Sea. I also had some very emotional moments in Jerusalem. I'm not a very religious person, but seeing the various sites where Jesus spent his last moments and the rock where his body was laid out, I found it all moving in a way I didn't expect.
I also got over to Jordan and had a blast there: saw Petra, spent two nights in the Wadi Rum desert and did some diving out of Aqaba. I don't think most Americans realize how easy and safe it is to visit Jordan from Israel, and how much there is to see. For political reasons you never see Israel/Jordan talked about as a single trip, but they're so different and very complementary for tourism. (The food's better in Israel, I must say.)
Jerusalem is the heart. As I mentioned above, it's very moving there for people of all religions, whether you expect it or not. The city has an energy and a serious soul that I can't describe. The air seems more important there.
 

Comments

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@ Jan 29, 2013 at 10:45 PM
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I agree that Jewish people from every city and continent should care. I'm sorry if that's not the response you seek, but it's the fact. If you want to support Israel, "you should buy its products" then.

John Lin's Gravatar
 
John Lin
@ Nov 9, 2013 at 3:27 AM
I agree that "Jewish people from every country should care. I'm sorry if that's not the answer you want, but it's the reality. If you want to support Israel, you should buy its products."

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