One red wine was compared to a really great passionate kiss. Another was praised as earthy, like wet leaves, like the earth itself.
Participants in the Israeli Wine Lovers Club are encouraged to share their reactions to the wines they taste, to speak about aromas, flavors, oakiness, acidity, balance and, mostly, how all of the above strikes their palettes.
“A good wine is wine that you like,” Avi Ashman, founder of the group, likes to say. The group meets monthly and tastes a series of wines, guided by Ashman and a panel of knowledgeable aficionados — usually including a wine importer, a chef, and a wine writer turned banker — who share their impressions along with some of the back stories of the wines and their producers.
The Club, which began meeting last February, has almost 200 members, and about 30 turned up for a session earlier this month featuring the wines of some boutique wineries that are not readily available in the U.S. The group is informal and relaxed, and its participants represent different ages and backgrounds, Israelis and Americans, connoisseurs and beginners. No wine snobbery here, just proof of Koheleth’s words, “Wine gladdens life” (10:19).
The setting is unusual: a Manhattan home renovation showroom, with wine served amidst fine bath and kitchen fixtures. People passing by the large windows on West 48th Street might think they are looking in on an animated book group, as participants sit attentively in chairs arranged in a semi-circle, many taking notes in pads Ashman provides, wine glasses in hand.
Some come for the opportunity to taste good wine; some enjoy talking about grapes, vintages and vineyards with like-minded people. One divorced mother from Brooklyn came with the hope of meeting people in a comfortable setting; one man who works in computers attends because he has always loved drinking wine and hasn’t had time until now to delve more deeply.
“I love wine,” says Gail Admoni, who was born in Israel and came to the event with her sister. Helen Flaum, who goes to a lot of tastings as a member of another wine club, hadn’t had experience with Israeli wine and was curious about the offerings. She said that she found a couple of wines she’d be more than pleased to drink again.
“I’ve never seen a spread like this at a wine tasting,” Flaum said, approaching the counter filled with an artfully arranged selection of cheese, bread, crackers, grapes, blackberries, nuts, and, later on, hand- smoked salmon.
The food is prepared by Eran Elhalal, an Israeli-born chef planning to open his own restaurant next year on the Lower East Side, a Balkan bistro named Saro, after his grandmother Sarah’s nickname. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Elhalal speaks about the wines, and makes suggestions about pairing them with specific foods.
Wine flowed amid the showerheads and faucets. Offerings came from four wineries: Margalit Winery, one of the first of Israel’s boutique wineries, run by a father and son, and located near Hadera; Saslove, founded by a computer engineer turned winemaker, and located at Kibbutz Eyal with grapes from the Upper Galil; Sea Horse, established by a movie producer turned winemaker at Moshav Bar-Giora in the Jerusalem Hills; and La Terra Promessa, in Moshav Shachar in the northern Negev, with grapes grown in the Upper Galil and northern Negev.
La Terra Promessa (the Promised Land, in Italian) has a great love story behind it. Sandro Pellegrini, who’s from Parma, Italy, first came to Israel as a favor to a friend in 1991. Pellegrini, a chef who is the son of a noble Italian family, agreed to trade jobs with his friend, who had to return to Parma. After two months they switched back, but Pellegrini’s heart was in Israel. He made aliyah in 1995 and married Irit, an Israeli woman whose family came from Cochin, India, who had worked at the same restaurant. They founded their winery in 1998. Pellegrini’s family, after all, had a tradition of winemaking in Italy dating back to 1425. In Israel, they produce Italian-style wines, and at the winery serve meals that combine the traditions of Italy and Cochin.
In the MyHome showroom, the affable Ashman does most of the pouring, sharing about an ounce of each wine with each participant (some swirl and sniff it, some drink it all, others sip a bit and pour the rest out, one fellow spits it out, as is often done at professional wine tastings). Admoni, a diamond wholesaler who started a wine club with a few friends several years ago, is critical of some of the wines tasted — “this one has a short finish” — and enthusiastic about others, identifying complex flavors. Participants describe tastes of cherry, caramel and cracked black pepper. As a bonus, the representative from Chai Wines, who imports wine from these boutique wineries, offers a bottle from his private cellar: Sea Horse’s Elul 2005, a cult wine in Israel not available here, a blend of Syrah and Petite Sirah grapes.
Wine has been produced in Israel since biblical times. In Ashman’s words, Israel was the France of the Old World. But it’s only in the last 10 or so years that the Israeli wine industry has really taken off, rising to international standing. There are now more than 200 wineries in Israel, and 90 percent of them are small operations. Ashman says he started the club to expose people to Israeli wine, “to take away the stigma that Israeli wine is sweet and not good, to show value and premium types of wine — to show that Israel can be taken seriously when it comes to wine making.”
Ashman’s own earliest experience with wine was in his parents’ small grocery store in Kiryat Bialik, Israel. In the 1960s and ’70s, one of his jobs was to unpack the boxes and stack the shelves. “I was drinking some not so good Israeli wines in the process,” he says.
After moving to New York in 1980, he began working in the computer field and over the years developed an interest in wine, encouraged by friends who worked in the Italian wine industry. He wasn’t much interested in Israeli wine, remembering “how not good it was.” But about six years ago, encouraged by a salesman at Gotham Wines on the Upper West Side who knew he was Israeli, he began tasting Israeli wines and was impressed. Since then, he’s become more involved with the Israeli wine industry, and in his visits to Israel, he seeks out wineries. He now has about 250 bottles of Israeli wine in the refrigerated wine case in his Manhattan apartment.
For the past few years, Ashman has been plotting his professional shift from computer consulting to working with wine. His hope is to establish a business that includes a wine shop, with various related operations, like an Israeli wine tour as well as the wine club, which features a message board with photos of each event. Next month, he plans to expand the club to include meetings in Paramus, N.J., at another branch of MyHome. Ashman is leading a two-week tour in March 2010, which features visits to winemakers, cheese and spice workshops, meals in off-the-beaten path restaurants and stays in kibbutz guest houses. (For information, see http://www.isram.us/groups/isragourmet/)
While the Israeli wines sampled that evening were not from kosher wineries, other tastings by the club include kosher wine, and those are accompanied by kosher food.
Most Israeli wines imported to the United States are kosher. But many of the small boutique wineries choose not to make kosher wine, either because they can’t afford the expense of added regulations or because they don’t want to be identified as kosher. It’s not that non-kosher elements are added to the wine; rather, Israeli wine that is not kosher is wine that has not been supervised by people who are certified by the Israeli rabbinate as religious Jews. For kosher wine, the grapes must be grown and harvested according to Jewish law, and only religious Jews are allowed to handle the grapes and equipment.
Among kosher wines sampled at previous events, Ashman recommends, thinking ahead toward Thanksgiving and celebratory events, Domaine du Castel C Chardonnay, Galil Mountain Viognier and Yatir Sauvignon Blanc (whites); Barkan Classic Pinotage, Dalton Reserve Merlot, Jonathan Tishbi Special Reserve Cabernet-Merlot Sde Boker, and Segal Cabernet Sauvignon Dishon Single Vineyard (reds); and Carmel Sha’al Gewurtraminer Late Harvest and Yarden Noble Semillon (dessert wines). He recommends Skyview in Riverdale and Gotham in Manhattan for their wide selections.
The Israeli Wine Lovers Club will meet next on Tuesday, Nov. 24 at 7 p.m. at MyHome Showroom, 353 W. 48th St. (between Eighth and Ninth avenues) in Manhattan for “Taste of the Lower Galil – Tabor Winery.” The wine will be kosher. $36. For more information, see http://www.meetup.com/Israeli-Wine-Lovers/.