Rogov’s Puts Israel on Oenological Map


 

At a seder last year, the host put out a few bottles of Israeli wine.

“Oh, kosher wine,” one of the host’s relatives observed with flared nostrils and a raised brow, “Yum.”

The topic of Israeli wines — not all kosher wines are Israeli, not all Israeli wines are kosher — can seem like a meeting place that’s made specially for snobs and rubes to share. To paraphrase a certain White House Cabinet member, a lot of people don’t know what they don’t know or don’t know what they think they know. “Kosher” triggers associations with Manischewitz, the syrupy, sacramental stuff found in the fruit and jug wines section.

In fact, Israel has followed the global trend of crafting quality wine and is now regarded by wine experts as an up-and-comer. The industry is technologically modern, with state-of-the-art facilities and know-how. It’s also growing aggressively, with more than 120 wineries, an implausibly high number given Israel’s small population. To put that in perspective, if Israel were a U.S. state, it would rank fifth.

“Israeli wines are on a steep upward curve,” said wine writer Rod Smith. “The country has the conditions, especially in the Golan Heights with its cool high-altitude sites, varied exposures, and volcanic soils. Israeli growers and winemakers are among the most progressive and cosmopolitan in the world. They have the financial backing, too, so all the parts are in place.”

The latest part is “Rogov’s Guide to Israeli Wines 2005,” the first comprehensive English-language book on the subject.

Rogov has long played the role of food and wine ambassador for Israeli tourism, and readers have consulted him for wine and restaurant choices for more than 35 years in his columns in Ha’aretz and the International Herald Tribune and on his Web site. He has, and is, a big personality, who knows the skinny on seemingly every chef, restaurateur, supplier and wine expert in Israel.

The guide aims to put Israel on the oenological map a la John Platter’s South African Wine Guide or annual Pocket Wine Guides by Britain’s Hugh Johnson and Australia’s Oz Clark. Rogov’s endeavor is handsomely published, and its portable format underscores its usefulness for wine-travelers.

The book includes a fine introduction with a history and an overview of the subject, then reviews vineyards and their varietals using the convention of stars and the 100-point ratings system, with evaluations according to the flavor wheel. Although wine talk can be generally hard to understand even for experienced wine drinkers (What, after all, is the difference between an 86 and an 87? What is an 87, anyway?), Rogov can be amusing. Of one lowly regarded bottle, sarcasm overflows.

“Drink up,” he writes, proving how brevity is wit.

The introduction, though, is worth the book’s $14.95 price. For all the effete and inaccessible talk that wine sometimes seems to invite, wine is fundamentally about the land. Wines’ roots in the Land of Israel extend back to ancient times, and they laid the foundation for the Zionist enterprise. The Torah notes that Noah planted the first vineyard, and how Moses’ spies in Canaan brought back immense clusters of grapes. Deuteronomy lists wine among the blessings the Promised Land will yield. Ezekiel even makes reference to wine-growing methods, specifically trellises winemakers used to train vines. There’s a considerable archeological record to back up the Bible, too, with remains of ancient wine presses and other wine-making paraphernalia across the entire Land of Israel. The only interruptions of wine production were during certain periods of Muslim rule, since Islam forbids alcohol.

That vines, like people, need strong roots was a metaphor that wasn’t lost on the earliest pioneers in Palestine, the Chalutzim, who saw a prospect to meet the Jewish world’s demand for kosher wine. In 1882, with backing from the Baron Edmund de Rothschild, who owned the Chateau Lafite, one of the most esteemed wineries in Bordeaux, the early settlers planted vineyards in Rishon LeZion. Rothschild sent experts, supplies and grape varieties from Europe and funded wineries in Rishon, as well as in Zichron Ya’akov, which opened in 1890. Heat killed the first harvests, followed by a plague of insects, and the ventures failed. Even so, Rothschild subsequently organized a collective to manage the two wineries in 1906 called, Carmel Mizrahi — and that entity dominated the Israeli wine industry through the 1980s.

Quality improved dramatically in the 1990s and early 2000s, especially with the rise of dozens of boutique and artisanal producers. Some produce fewer than 1,000 bottles, some more than 100,000 bottles. The challenge for small wineries is distribution, and various efforts are under way, including one by Carmel, to organize boutique producers and help them reach a wider market. The big producers, notably Carmel and Golan Heights Winery, dominate shelf space in the metropolitan Philadelphia region. In New York, selection is somewhat better.

The question now is the future, and where, given the competition, Israeli wine will go from here. Because it’s Israel, wine also faces political pressures, especially because some of Israel’s best wine-growing lands are in disputed areas, most notably the Golan Heights but also in the hills of Judea.

That aside, Rogov looks to the niche success of places such as Sicily and the Penedes region of Spain, which succeeded by appealing to wine drinkers in search of novel, high-quality wines, as examples Israeli winemakers should look to for guidance. As niche wines, Rogov writes, Israelis wines “will move off those shelves limited only to kosher holdings and begin to appear in a special Israeli section. Their appeal to the broader population will come form their unique qualities, reflecting their Mediterranean and specifically Israeli source…. Those that prove their excellence will find themselves in greater demand by both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences.”

“Rogov’s Guide to Israeli Wines” is available online at ” target=”_blank”>www.tobypress.com/rogov.

 

Celebrating Jewish History in Alsace


Alsace, a picture-perfect rural region of rich vineyards, farmlands, soft green mountains and rolling valleys, sits on France’s northeast border, next to Germany. Around every bend along the narrow roads are charming villages with winding cobbled streets and neatly painted black and white timbered houses. In summer, pink and purple and scarlet geraniums blossom in gardens and window boxes. Though the region is only 20 miles wide and 100 miles long, its largest city, Strasbourg, has a population of more than 388,000, with a magnificent cathedral, and is home to the prestigious Council of Europe.

The Alsace tourist office, in association with the region’s Jewish communities, has produced an illustrated brochure in French and English describing some 200 places with Jewish significance and many special events that have been set up in towns and villages.

Alsace has a long Jewish history. In 1170, a Spanish Jew traveling in Europe wrote about a flourishing Jewish community in Strasbourg. Most of the Jews left in 1348 during the Black Death, when anti-Semites accused them of poisoning the wells. The Jews settled in villages and small rural communities to become farmers, cattle traders and secondhand clothes dealers.

It was the French Revolution’s Emancipation Decree that gave the 20,000 Jews in Alsace full citizenship in 1791. People moved back to the towns from the villages to work in industry and other trades, and the Jewish population increased. When the Germans occupied France in 1940, the Jews were expelled from Alsace.

Alsace itself suffered during the war. The Germans invaded and hung their swastika flag on Strasbourg Cathedral. Non-Jewish Alsatians who refused to fight for the German army were forced to build the Struthof concentration camp for their incarceration. Some 40,000 people from Alsace died. The camp, with its barbed wire and crematorium buildings, is open today as a tragic memorial.

After 1945, the survivors returned to Alsace, settling mostly in the cities. Today, Alsace is an important Jewish center.

Yiddish has influenced the Alsatian dialect, which you can still hear today. Words like schmooze (chat) and meshuge (crazy) are part of the language adapted from Jewish residents.

In Strasbourg, there is a guided walking tour called Discovering Jewish Heritage. The city’s Alsatian Museum has two rooms devoted to the Jewish community with treasured objects on display from local synagogues. You can also find restaurants that serve Jewish-Alsatian specialties such as sauerkraut, the traditional dish cooked with beef or goose, not pork; strudel, here an apple, raisin and cinnamon cake; and pickelfleisch (beef brisket in brine) – that’s pastrami to you.

Once you leave the city, there are dozens of villages with places of Jewish interest easily reached by car or bus. Guided tours are available. For the energetic, there’s a 50-mile bicycle trip touring a group of villages with Jewish connections.

Wolfisheim, just north of the city, has an beautifully restored 1897 synagogue. Further northeast is Bouxwiller, the county capital in 1791, a lovely village with distinctive stone fountains. You can visit the old synagogue, which has been converted into a modern museum showing the culture and history of Judaism.

In Pfaffenhoffen, the oldest synagogue in the region, built in 1791, has been completely restored and is open to visitors. Upstairs, where services were held, is an ornate frame for the ark that looks like an elaborate doorway, while downstairs is a community room, a matzah oven, a mikvah and a room for guests. You can also visit Ettendorf, about four miles southwest, where the oldest Jewish cemetery in Alsace sits on a hillside.

Hagenau, a few miles to the east on the banks of the Moder River, has a collection of Jewish art and artifacts in the Museum of History, which tells the story of the town from the 12th century to the 19th century. Marmoutier, to the south, has created a museum in an old house with a mikvah. On display are memorabilia of famous Jews from the town, among them the artist Alphonse Levy and his patron, Albert Kahn.

Colmar, a major town in the central southern region, is renowned for Little Venice, an area that has miles of peaceful winding waterways that you can tour by boat. The sculptor August Bartholdi, who designed the Statue of Liberty, lived here. The Bartholdi Museum commemorates his life and work and also displays Jewish arts.

The Alsace region is famous for its vineyards, particularly its white wines. There are vineyards in Goxwiller and Sigolsheim specializing in kosher wine; you can take a tour and taste the different vintages. In Wasselonne, there’s a company that makes unleavened bread products, which also offers tours. Several villages have excellent restaurants serving Alsatian-Jewish specialties.

For more information, contact France-on-Call Hotline at (410) 286-8310 or the French Government Tourist Office in Los Angeles at (310) 271-4721, at 9454 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 715, Beverly Hills CA 90212. Its Web site is francetourism.com

Travel expert Evelyn Kaye’s books include “Free Vacations,” “Active Woman Vacation Guide,” and “Adventures in Japan.” You can reach her at www.travelbooks123.com.