Napa, Watch Your Back!
Tue, 02/07/2012
Travel Writer

About five years ago, I was scanning reds by the glass in a Park Slope wine bar when something unusual caught my eye.

“Recanati,” read the listing. “Cabernet Sauvignon, Israel.”

Suddenly, in the last few years, it’s Israel’s turn to be one of the world’s hot new regions for serious wine. And boutique outfits like Recanati, with vineyards throughout the Galilee, are turning their wineries into a destination for oenophile vacationers — a kind of Napa Valley for the Holy Land.

“Wine tourism is really booming,” confirmed Valerie Hecht, wine and culture manager for Carmel Winery, one of the original Israeli winemakers. As more wineries open visitor centers and tasting rooms for curious travelers, Hecht and her colleagues in the industry are working to put together a tourism-ready Israeli wine route — modeled on California’s legendary Napa and Sonoma counties.

David Rhodes, a California-trained sommelier and wine educator and one of Israel’s most prominent wine writers, said the Israeli wine boom paralleled its gastronomic revolution in the 1990s. A prospering economy sent Israelis abroad, where they cultivated sophisticated tastes and began demanding more adventurous cuisine at home. “And then as restaurants got better, they wanted better wine lists,” said Rhodes, who leads custom wine tours throughout the country (reserve at israeliwineguy@gmail.com). “It’s gone hand in hand.”

Another of Israel’s foremost wine experts, the writer and consultant Adam Montefiore, agreed that the boutique trend took off between 1990 and 2000. “It became a very ‘in’ thing to own your own winery,” recalled Montefiore, who himself is development manager for the Carmel and Yatir Wineries.

So in a land once dominated by serviceable, unexciting kiddush wines, there are now more than 300 winemaking outfits. The vast majority are small, boutique or even micro-boutique operations: 92 percent of Israeli wine is made by the top 10 wineries, said Rhodes, leaving more than 200 small outfits responsible for the other 8 percent.

Most wineries cluster in the historic wine town of Zikhron Ya’akov, the Golan Heights, the Judean Hills and the Galilee. This diversity of climates — from the sun-baked high altitudes to the cold desert nights, from Mediterranean breezes to the lush northern valley — permits a variety of grapes that would otherwise seem implausible.

And while the lack of a single, compact region may at first glance seem a drawback for wine tourists, it’s actually a distinct advantage: there’s a cluster of ambitious wineries within a half-hour drive of any major city.

From Jerusalem, you can tour the boutique outfits of the Judean Hills after a 20-minute drive. Meanwhile, Zikhron Ya’akov is neatly situated between Tel Aviv and Haifa, and the Galilee wineries also make a great Haifa day trip.

For enthusiasts or road trippers, the country is small enough that you could easily string together a tour of all four wine areas, swilling everything from cabernet franc to kosher viognier. “That’s what is so unique about Israel,” said Hecht. “We’re small in size, but the contrasts are very dramatic. You’ve got all these very different environments, yet you don’t have to travel very far.”

And as Rhodes pointed out, while the high-end wine scene might be new, the grape has an age-old relationship with Israel and its people. “People were drinking wine here in ancient times — they’ve come across ancient wine presses,” Rhodes said. “There’s so much history in this country that has to do with wine, so much mention of wine in both Jewish and Christian ritual.”

Yatir, for instance, is a small boutique outfit at the foot of the 3,000-year-old archaeological site Tel Arad. “A lot of people come for the history and come across the winery,” said Montefiore. The winery also attracts trekkers from its namesake, Israel’s largest planted forest, thick with pines and pistachios that have grown up alongside the vines.

Yatir itself is only 12 years old, yet its Yatir Forest label is already winning international recognition — 92 points from Wine Spectator magazine and 93 from Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, as Montefiore points out. Another of its cabernet blends is on the wine list at a Michelin-starred restaurant in London.

But its local grape growers, who run Yatir in a joint venture with Carmel Winery, have a problem unique to Israeli viticulture: camels.

“Camels sometimes eat the vines, and when they eat the vines, they eat them right down to the ground,” lamented Montefiore.

The winemakers of Zikhron Ya’akov have known this for over 100 years. The first grapes were planted here in the late 19th century, when Romanian Zionist families settled the area and began an agricultural tradition centered more around Shabbat than happy hour.

Today the town is a tourist draw for its cute historic downtown, with boutiques full of artisanal jams and handcrafts and a main street closed to car traffic.

But it’s a far cry from the 1890s, when Jonathan Tishbi’s great-grandparents were commissioned by Baron Edmond de Rothschild to plant the first modern-wine grape vineyards in Israel. A century later, Tishbi created the modern Tishbi Estates label and now oversees a tourist-ready facility with a visitors’ center overlooking the vineyards.

Food, unsurprisingly, is an integral part of the wine-tourism experience. Like many of the new boutique wineries, Tishbi invites visitors to pull off the highway and stay awhile with an on-site restaurant.

Take a seat at one of the outdoor tables in the shade of grape arbors and order local feta cheese, bread from the bakery down the street and salad of Galilee vegetables. There’s even a chocolate and wine pairing available.

Still, Israeli wine tourism is in its infancy — so even in Zikhron Ya’akov, don’t expect to drop in and join a guided tour. Reservations are still generally required for the kind of winemaking tours that are routine at California vineyards. As Rhodes observed: “The wine here is world class. The culture takes a while to catch up.”

In Zikhron Ya’akov, you can tour the roots of that culture at the 120-year-old Carmel Winery building, where the original underground cellars are still in use.

More than a century later, this idyllic Mediterranean setting at the foot of the Carmel Mountains continues to attract newer, grassroots winemakers. “There are wineries based in people’s houses or in their backyards,” said Rhodes. He cites Sonek Winery, “a husband-and-wife winemaking team” that is typical of the new breed, eager to share a glass and a story with interested visitors.

Down south in the Judean Hills, the restaurants are more likely to be kosher, and the winemakers speak of their spiritual mission on land where wine has been cultivated since biblical times.

Typical is the small and classy Flam Winery, founded in 1998 after the Flam family fell in love with Tuscan wine country. Inspired to reproduce the tastes in an Israeli context, Flam now produces some of the country’s best-regarded vintages; visitors can enjoy a taste while taking in stunning views over the hillsides.

And if you get hungry, Rhodes is partial to the tasty kosher buffet at nearby Tzuba Estates Winery, where “for 60 shekels, you get all you can eat — it’s an amazing deal.”

Most Israeli wines are themselves kosher, though not all are. Experts noted that many of the smaller outfits make wine make according to kosher practices, but cannot yet afford the cost of official certification — similar to many mom-and-pop American farmers, who shun pesticides yet bypass the organic certification process.

The good news is that more producers are going kosher all the time, giving lovers of zinfandel more options than ever. There may come a time when feta and cucumber salad, instead of salumi and formaggi, define the upscale wine-bar experience.

And I won’t be surprised if the next “Sideways” is set right here in the Galilee.