Wines of Israel event – review

This past Tuesday, February 3rd, I attended “Wines of Israel: Mediterranean Inspiration”, an event intended to showcase the emerging Israeli wine industry to members of the media as well as members of the wine industry.

The idea behind these types of events is to both promote the wines (media) and to encourage “off premise” (retail stores) and “on premise” (bars & restaurants) wine buyers to add Israeli wines to their offerings.

The day was brutally cold and snowy in NYC and while I have spoken with some people in the industry who admitted that the weather kept them at bay, the turnout was quite good and most in attendance felt it a worthwhile event.

Twenty of Israel’s 200 or so wineries were in attendance.  This may seem like a small representation but it is worth noting that 5 large wineries produce about 90% of the countries wine output.  And yes, those 5 were all in attendance.

Of special note were some of the smaller “boutique” wineries.  Many of whom are playing a large role in helping to break the stigma about Israeli wine – that it is all certified kosher & syrupy thick & sweet.   While none of the wines showcased at the event were “Manishewitz” like, several of these boutiques further broke the mold as they are not certified as kosher.  I don’t want to get into too many details about kosher here, but since the topic did come up at the event I will simply state that with the exclusion of certain ingredients that are prohibited (fining agents such as gelatin or isinglass – which the uncertified wineries do not use anyway) all of these wines are produced the same way.  The only difference between the certified and uncertified wines is the person handing the wines (and wine-making equipment).  In order for the wine to be eligible for kosher certification the individual(s) handling the wine must be sabbath observant.

Getting back to the event, in addition to the tasting there were two speakers.  The first to speak was Mark Squires of Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate.  I’m sure Squires is a nice guy but the decision to have Squires speak was in my opinion a poor one.  In December of 2007 the Wine Advocate published a piece complete with scores following an extensive tasting of Israeli wines.  While there was some cautious optimism, the scores were very complimentary and the overall tone of the piece was glowing.

I am not sure what happened following the publishing of that piece but Squires optimism seemingly shifted as he has subsequently lowered virtually all the scores he initially handed out.  Following in this theme was the tone of Squires talk at the event.  Rather than focusing on the positive and the tremendous progress the industry has made in the last 25 years, he instead chose to be critical.  While this criticism could in theory serve the industry well, he was not speaking to the industry.  He was speaking to individuals seeking to learn more about Israeli wine.  And for them to hear him state things such as the low per capita consumption of wine within Israel, that the best varietal at present is Cabernet Sauvignon (which must compete with Cabernets from around the world), or that in his opinion this Mediterranean climate country needs to plant more Mediterranean varietals (he suggested Grenache) served nobody.

I apologize for that rant but it would have been nice to hear Squires focus on the positive, albeit with guarded optimism, rather than point to what he believes are the pitfalls.

Stream of conscience writing (blogs) can often result in a writer’s going off on tangents and incorporate personal feelings rather than reporting the facts.  Clearly I have fallen victim to this pitfall.

Getting back to the event, the second speaker was Victor Schoenfeld of Golan Heights Winery (known more commonly in the U.S. as “Yarden Wines”).  With over 15 years at the helm of Israel’s #1 winery,  Schoenfeld is very well regarded within the industry.  Schoenfeld’s presentation was insightful and educational.  He spoke of the use of technology in the vineyards to ensure that the vines are planted in the correct location (based on climate and soil), and the technology used to ensure that the grapes ripen as they should (uniformly).  He spoke of the use of organic farming within the vineyards and how this has proven to lead to a lessor occurrence of disease in the vines.  And when asked about varietals he mentioned that GHW has 22 varietals planted and some he is “excited by” include Syrah and Viognier.

I was asked by a colleague what I thought of the event.  I must admit that I have no idea whether or not it was “worthwhile” (whatever that means).  Its worth is (in my opinion) going to be very difficult to quantify.   From a personal standpoint I met many people at the event all of whom were very enthusiastic about the wines they tried.  With so many critics in attendance (both professional and otherwise) there was of course plenty of wine critiquing taking place.  But I do believe that the event raised the awareness of Israel’s improved (and still improving) wine industry to key players in the food & beverage business.  So I suppose from that perspective it was definitely a worthwhile event.

I’m not sure how to end this post other than to thank everyone in my life who has encouraged me to pursue a career that involves two of my greatest life passions, Israel & wine.

L’Chaim & Happy Israeli wine tasting!