Your behind-the-scenes look into Israeli Wine Direct and the re-emerging Israeli wine scene!
I recall the hot summer of 2007 sitting around a long wood table inside Pelter winery in the Golan Heights with Israeli winemaker Tal Pelter, his brother Nir and father Sam, sampling Tal's wines after espresso.
What struck me then - and still does - was the freshness of the wines, their liveliness, the unoaked naked fruit + stoniness of the whites, the soft oak integration and Mediterranean spice of the reds.
I love how Pelter is a true family winery, each member contributing a unique role to the enterprise inside Israel and abroad.
At the time I first met them, the winery was only a few years old and yet already on its way to rock-stardom in the re-emerging Israeli wine scene.
Fortunately for us, after studying winemaking and working in Western Australia, winemaker Tal Pelter returned home to Israel and began making wine in the Golan Heights. The Golan Region in the north of Israel is characterized by: cold dry climate, day/night temperature differentials, basalt soil, high altitude, and high levels of sun radiation.
Recently, leading Israeli food and wine critic Daniel Rogov completed one of his regular reviews of Pelter wines in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
Here's what he said about the wines:
Pelter, Sauvignon Blanc, 2010: Light straw in color with green and orange reflections, this unoaked, medium-bodied wine opens with notes of navel oranges and red grapefruit, which make way for tropical fruits, stony minerals and a tantalizing hint of freshly mown grass. Crisp acidity makes the wine simultaneously complex and easy to drink. Drink now through 2012. Score 90.
Pelter, Chardonnay, 2010: As it is every year, this is a medium-bodied, unoaked white, damp golden straw in color, opening to show an appealing array of citrus, tropical fruits and white peaches on a background of flinty minerals. All this comes together as a refreshing and elegant whole. Drink now through 2013. Score 90.
Pelter, Trio, 2008: Dark cherry red to garnet, this is a medium- to full-bodied blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Reflects its oak-aging with notes of sweet and spicy wood, showing soft tannins and lively acidity. Opens to show aromas and flavors of currants, red and black berries, and on the long finish, dried herbs. Drink now through 2013. Score 90
It's finally (somewhat) warm and sunny here in Chicago...which means I am wildly breaking out the Rose!
A new shipment of wine I import just arrived from Israel and it contains a tiny order of 240 bottles of the first Rose I have ever imported from one of Israel's newest wineries, Shvo Vineyards.
French-trained winemaker Gaby Sadan is one of the most talented winemakers in Israel. His winery is the only natural winery there, relying on all-natural yeasts and limited human intervention all the way round. He received his formal winemaking training at The University of Dijon in France and after returning to Israel worked on the winemaking team at the Golan Heights Winery.
I met Gaby (and his 11-year old dog and his truck) last summer. We spent the day traipsing through his vineyards, located at high elevation in the far north of the country facing Lebanon. Much of his vineyards rely on a bush-vine system (versus draping vines across metal wires) common in some other parts of the world but unique in Israel. As we walked and talked I could see he had a personal relationship with nearly each vine, showing me how grapes from nearby areas could nevertheless taste significantly different, explaining how the precise combinations of wind, slope and sky come together into taste associated with a particular place, what the French call terroir.
We stood in the old former apple-packing warehouse he's transformed into Shvo Vineyards winery (named after his mother) and tasted barrel samples from his beautifully organized barrel room (including a slow-ferm chenin blanc I am now obsessed with) and then several wines already bottled.
One wine of Gaby's I fell in love with (and had tasted a day before in Tel Aviv's restaurant Coffee Bar) was a Rose made entirely from Barbera grapes - an amazing food wine - which in Gaby's hands has become the color of a salmon sunrise and manages to generously fill every bit of your mouth with a handful of ripe berries. The wine, frankly, astonished me.
My challenge is I took all his remaining inventory of this wine, a mere 240 bottles (and at least 24 are heading for my cellar!).
That leaves 216 wines I can share.
[Since I sent an email on this to our mailing list, we are down to 100 bottles!!!!]
For now, the wine is NOT going up on the website. I am making it available only to our followers and this mailing list.
I HIGHLY RECOMMEND this wine as a liquid discovery from off-the-map and deep within the boutique Israeli wine scene you have yet to even hear about. I have tasted nothing like this from Israel to date.
You can ACQUIRE this wine as follows (all packages include ground shipping and tax):
3 bottles = $75
6 bottles = $139
12 bottles = $264
.....and you can ONLY ORDER it by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org or calling me personally at 847-924-5523.
I need your help.
There is an adventure inside each bottle of wine I import.
I mean it.
Hand-made wines contain stories about their place, and their people and about the specific challenge of a particular vintage and how it was overcome.
Nothing is better at capturing such stories to share with on-line friends than videos from the region.
Sometimes these stories get lost behind the wine, stuck inside the bottle. They're like genies needing someone to rub their bottle so they can break loose and reveal themselves.
So....I am teaming up with my import pals from Negev Nectars to hire this summer a videographer based in Israel to work with us to tell the stories of the farmers and winemakers (the best winemakers are farmers, too, by the way) we work with.
Can you help us?
Here's a little write-up my pal Caitlin from Negev Nectars penned describing what we're looking for:
"We are searching for a videographer/content developer to create a series of videos for our website. The candidate must provide their own equipment and have the ability to travel around Israel and visit each of the farms/wineries that we import products from, as well as perform video shoots alone (or with minimal support). Each video should contain interviews, tours, highlight the production process and final product, and be less than three minutes in length. The candidate should be experienced at sourcing music and editing music into video as appropriate. Fluency in both Hebrew and English is a must."
Email me if you know someone or are someone who can do this up in a BIG way for us...the farmers and winemakers of Israel deserve to have their stories told.
or call me 866-469-8708
Last night my wife and I had supper at Great Lakes Pizza in Chicago.
It's a favorite spot of ours for killer pizza and seasonal salads - in spite of the extremely quirky owner/pizzamaker and the inevitably long wait for what ends up being a cramped rickety seat at a noisy table.
We made a decision over a bottle of Jean-Paul Brun's Beaujolais Blanc that we will (and here's the scary part) together tell you more about our business start-up story via video this year.
A kind of Reality-TV look into how and why we founded Israeli Wine Direct, to include the occasional stress, upset and disruption even a tiny start-up like ours can have on a family and a marriage and a bank account.
While we want to keep doing a better job telling you the personal stories of the winemakers we work with, we realize we should also be sharing perhaps more of our Story, too. So you can see how it's all related. We want to connect the dots better for ourselves and take you along for some of that ride, too.
This is maybe sort of risky but I can promise you this will be REAL.
I think any start-up, especially one from within the context of a marriage, leaves you asking questions like,
What are we meant to do? REALLY uniquely meant, even called, to do?
How did we get here?
Why are we doing this?
What if we didn't?
It's fascinating experiencing our micro-importer business through the lens of a marriage that's 17 years and 4 amazing kids deep.
So we want to share some of that. For better and worse and all...
My wife's name is Michaux (she pronounces it like Misha). She's as pragmatic and grounded and level as I am often the opposite, which is a good thing, since someone has to know how to pay bills and stuff and remember to Fasten Your Seatbelts and Remain Calm through life's turbulence.
We met in a Marriage and Family Therapy graduate program in North Carolina in 1990. So, as you might imagine, our brains are now forever focused on relationships and systems and process, the filaments of connection and meaning that bind people together. And we are frequently trying to figure out what it all means and live as purposefully as possible, as flawed as we both are.
Maybe along the way of our sharing you'll glean something that makes you think or moves you a bit closer towards your own DREAM or, more likely, makes you dig Michaux (a lot) but want to throw something at me that's sharp and pointed!
Anyway, more to come...maybe we will post our first video this weekend.
Feel free to write us with questions you have about Israeli wine or our little biz or the interplay of marriage and business and we will try to respond via video or in the Comments section at least.
Catch you later...
You can follow Michaux on Twitter here.
You can follow Richard on Twitter here.
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.
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.
A few updates for you as we start 2011!
First, we are about to ship a container of wine from israel any day now. As of this moment, here's what's on the boat:
Pelter Unoaked Chardonnay 2010
Pelter Sauvignon Blanc 2010
Pelter Trio 2009
Pelter Cabernet / Shiraz 2008 *NEW WINE*
Shvo Rose 2009 *NEW WINE* (100% Barbera native fermention wine)
Also...you can expect 2011 to be the year of winery/winemaker pictures and video from me that will take you behind-the-scenes into the leading boutiques in the re-emerging Israeli wine world. I know I have said this before and this year we will do it right!
And...I am excited for the first time to be partnered up with a pal and colleague Peter Izzo (more from him later) who is both Israeli Wine Direct's first outside investor and will now be an active marketing partner with me. Peter lives in the West Village in Manhattan. Together we will grow the footprint of Israeli wine in the US so Buckle Up!
You will likely hear more about new team members and fun alliances during 2011, also, in places like Texas and California.
Finally, I am actively sourcing more wines to add to the portfolio from Israeli wineries now so PLEASE keep the recommendations flowing. I like small, family-owned under-the-radar outstanding wineries from the Galilee and Judean Hills who are playing with grape varieties well beyond Cabernet Sauvignon, making terroir-driven wines...and even better if they are at least experimenting with practices like dry-farming and native yeast fermentations.
The goal for me is finding WINES THAT TASTE LIKE A PLACE.
So, help me with suggestions of wineries you know and love.