Heard it Through the Grapevine

Books

By Daniel Elkind

Published January 08, 2009, issue of January 16, 2009.
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Rogov’s Guide to Israeli Wines 2009
By Daniel Rogov
The Toby Press, 400 pages, $19.95.

As far as we know, Thucydides was the first to judge a society by its knowledge or ignorance of the fruit-bearing vine. Classifying a civilization according to its cultivation of grapes and olives, the father of the historiographical essay saw viticulture as a sign of emergence from “barbarism.”

When one considers the arduousness of the winemaking process in ancient Israel, the theory seems less far-fetched: “In biblical times… the treading of the grapes was done most often on a gat or an arevah, the gat being a small, generally square, pressing floor that had been cut into bedrock, and the arevah a smaller treading surface that could be moved from vineyard to vineyard. From either of these the must (that is to say, the fresh and as yet unfermented grape juice) ran into a yekev, which was a vat for collecting the must as it flowed from the treading floor through a hole carved in the stone.” Then came other complexities, like the storing, sealing and shipping of amphorae to all ends of the Roman empire: Europe, North Africa and the heart of the Mediterranean terroir, or wine region, itself.

A brief survey of the latest labels suggests that at least some part of this grand historical conceit has become, once again, relevant in a markedly different and different-looking world, as the vine has taken to the soil particularly well in countries emerging from their own forms of cultural barbarism: post-apartheid South Africa, post-Pinochet Chile and the post-junta republic of Argentina. Like Chile and Argentina, Israel has a long north-south continental axis that lends itself to a diverse range of soil types and microclimates: In recent years, wine production has steadily increased both in the mountainous regions and in the Negev.

But where does Israel fit into the geopolitical jigsaw of grapes? As Daniel Rogov, Israel’s “pre-eminent wine critic” suggests in his most recent handbook, “Rogov’s Guide to Israeli Wines 2009,” it is about time that Jews in the drinking Diaspora looked past the three-star sauvignons from Barkan — a winery owned by the beverage giant Tempo — and added Clos de Gat and Chateau Golan to their tables and cellars.

There are hundreds of stories within the Israeli wine industry, but many of the more auspicious ones run like this: An entrepreneurial oenophile or agronomist becomes an apprentice in Australia or California and returns to the kibbutz or some hill in the Golan to introduce the Gewurztraminer grape alongside a more streamlined, modern process for turning tannins into shekels. Seemingly concurrent with the proliferation of niche industries and boutique products, like craft beer, artisanal chocolate and organic açaí berries, Israeli wine, too, has matured by that benchmark of contemporary success: the branded international commodity. According to Rogov, the Golan Heights Winery, for example, has produced one of the best Israeli cabernet sauvignons in its 2003 Yarden series, bottled under the label El Rom Vineyard; 1976 and 1979 were great vintage years, but are now probably undrinkable; and, though the ’80s started off badly, they peaked toward the end of Yitzhak Shamir’s second term as prime minister — oenologically speaking, the end of the first Intifada was also the beginning of a resurgence in the overall quality of Israel’s harvest — while subsequent decades have tapered off into mere excellence.

Thus, avoiding over-description, as Rogov does in his guide, it would be safe to say that there are few generalizations regarding Israel and Israeli wines. Like people, some age gracefully, others (like the aforementioned El Rom) less so. Some of the best are certified kosher, others are not — the main benefit of certification being access to supermarkets. Most are now intended for export, though many are not: Israelis, on average, consume only about 6 liters annually, relatively little in comparison with France and Italy, at 56 and 49 liters, respectively.

As strange as it may seem for “chardonnay” and “merlot” to be spelled out in Hebrew letters on tastefully designed labels, the phenomenon parallels the history of Israel’s modern re-colonization: While the Spanish brought Vitis with them to South America, and the Dutch brought wine to their Cape Town colony, it was the Baron de Rothschild who financed vineyards in Rishon LeZion (1882) and Zikhron Ya’akov (1890), the latter named in honor of his father, James Mayer de Rothschild. Together these two halutzim came to form Israel’s largest wine producer, Carmel. The pioneering spirit, however, did not quite live on in their winemaking efforts: Defying Hegel’s transformation of quantity into quality, their 13 million bottles a year get them only four stars and a rating of “emerging winery” in Rogov’s guide.

Whether or not he’s right, Rogov — the Carmel of his industry — has certainly expended enough wine and energy to justify these eponymous guides and honorary titles. Thucydides was probably right, too, but he lived a long time ago, and this wine business has really only so much to do with history. Suffice it to say, Israel has taken its place among the other civilized barbarians in the most important ghetto today — the browsable store shelf — and in precisely this spirit, Rogov’s latest guide is a toast to our survival of the moral hangover of the “Israeli wine revolution” while remaining steadfastly fruitful and well balanced in our longevity, abundant and with a generous nose, swelling with Noachide ambitions in an increasingly oeno-phonic world.

Daniel Elkind is a writer and translator who lives in Brooklyn.

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