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Israel Uncorks World-class Wines

By ordinary standards, the Roman-era grape press found a couple of years ago in the tilled red earth on the outskirts of Kibbutz Netiv HaLamed Heh is not enormously newsworthy. It is just another ruin found in a country in which road workers and homebuilders know that any given square foot of excavation probably could yield a shard or two.

But this particular grape press, known as a gat, in fact represents what winemaker Doron Rav Hon calls “a renaissance”: The elegantly carved stone sphere was found when his young winery, Ella Valley, dug up a new and particularly promising parcel of land called Aderet. Apparently, someone beat him to the idea — by 2,000 years.

“We thought we were doing something entirely new here,” the French-trained Rav Hon said with a small smile at his gleaming, state-of-the-art visitor’s center. “But it turns out all we are doing is returning to the land.”

It’s a pun on Zionist myths, but it’s no joke. Israeli wines have hit (or re-hit) their stride.

Daniel Rogov, the famous café-hopping, chain-smoking adopted Tel Avivian who serves as Ha’aretz’s urbane and highly regarded wine critic, has just published “Rogov’s Guide to Israeli Wines 2005” (Toby Press). The book is a shiny and very sleek thing, pale blue, sized to travel easily, with a glistening glass of wine enticingly set front and center. It looks, actually, much more Northern California than Israel.

Shiny or not, it’s a supremely practical field guide. Rogov embarks with a fast-paced, workmanlike introduction that presents an overview of the subject — “Israeli” versus “kosher” wines; a survey of the long history of Judean winemaking versus the very recent industrialization of same; the question of varietal grapes in an area so long bereft of the fruit — and proceeds with a listing of all known wineries: large, boutique, all the way to garagiste — those producing fewer than 3,000 bottles a year.

Wineries receive a total score from 1 to 5, and a short paragraph of every bottle of wine produced. Rav Hon’s Ella winery, which released its first bottles this past May, scored an impressive 4. Most thumbnail sketches include some geographical description and a few biographical notes about the winemaker, along with kosher/nonkosher designations. The text is illuminated with the labels of almost every winery. In the venerable style of The New Yorker, Rogov supplies amusing anecdotes or small bits of learned advice on crucial matters, such as the correct (though not necessarily fashionable) temperature for serving wines, and various food and wine matchings in small boxes where space is available.

It is the perfect book for a car trip. It is also, increasingly, the perfect book for fans of Israel who already have visited every biblical and touristy site the small country has to offer. “Israeli wines are seeking out their own niche now as a small Mediterranean country producing fine wines,” Rogov said. “But realistically, people who have an interest in Israel or who are looking for excellent kosher wines are likely to be most interested.”

The diminutive tome does not report on sweet, goopy kosher syrup that was once sold under the label wine and presented at many a Jewish holiday table. Local wines, Rogov said while puffing and signing a pile of his books, “are no longer anything to be embarrassed of. I take them anywhere. I keep them in my own cellar. I invite friends from abroad to share my table.”

The book has come out now “because now there is what to write about,” he said. “Israeli wine production, in terms of achievement and variety, now justifies a book. Ten years ago, I wouldn’t even have written a pamphlet.”

The revolution, after centuries of neglect and stagnation, and following decades of a virtual monopoly held by the Carmel Winery, began in 1989 with the release of the Golan Heights Winery’s first vintages. “I had this glass in my hand,” Rogov said, twirling a cigarette as if it were made of crystal, “and I tasted it, and I thought, ‘What’s wrong here? This is an Israeli wine?’”

Israeli wines, skeptics should know, today make up fully some of the world’s most exciting wine finds. Tom Stevenson’s small oenophillic bible, Wine Report 2004, (Dorling Kindersley), presents four Israeli wines on its legendary list of 100. One is the full-bodied, fabulous Cabernet Sauvignon produced by the Zichron Ya’acov area Margalit Winery (Rogov score: 5), owned and operated by Yair Margalit.

The other three are produced by the small Flam winery, owned and operated by two brothers in their early 30s — Gilad, 32, the CEO, and Golan, 35, the Italy-trained winemaker — in a shack outside the city of Beit Shemesh. The two seem almost embarrassed by their feat.

“I know, I know,” Gilad said. “My dad told us about it.” Their father, winemaker Israel Flam, was the first Israeli to acquire a degree in oenology at University of California, Davis, and has ruled over the Carmel Winery operation for more than 30 years. “Our playground was the barreling room,” Gilad said, as his brother supervised a delivery of handpicked Syrah grapes outside. “Don’t you just love the smell?”

The Flam family comes closest to embodying Israel’s viniticultural revolution: Israel Flam now manages a staff of a dozen younger winemakers at the mammoth Carmel; his sons are leading the charge of young boutique wine producers, producing small but precious amounts of world-class elixir.

“We’re building a new winery,” Gilad said in our first conversation, before Rogov gave them a score of 5 and Stevenson crowned them on his list. “Yup. We just can’t keep working like this, you know, like students.” The final cement block covering his new cellar, in the Judean Hills wine trail, was laid in late August.

Noga Tarnopolsky is a writer living in Jerusalem.

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