The Wines They are a Changin’

When Martin Gerstel, a high-flying company executive from Silicon Valley, and his Israeli wife, Shoshana, refurbished a historic old house in Jerusalem’s Ethiopia Street, they installed a wine cellar and shipped in 30-40 cases of Napa Valley’s choicest.

A decade later, he restocks with the fruit of the vine, Israeli style. “The quality here has improved greatly over the last 10 years,” he says, “particularly the reds. I find them just as good as we had in California. Some of the smaller Israeli wineries have good and bad years, but Golan’s Yarden has excellent quality every year.”

As if to prove his point, an old journalist friend of mine, an Englishman with a French wife, recently took four bottles of Yarden Merlot back to their home in France after sipping the velvety red during a visit here.

Forget the sweet and sticky Kiddush wine of yesteryear. Israeli wine is on the map. And Israelis are drinking it, too. The Promised Land is going yuppie.

Thousands of aspiring connoisseurs a year are taking courses at the Tel-Aviv Wine Academy. Every newspaper worth its “Style” supplement runs a regular wine column. There are two Hebrew magazines devoted to the grape. Every city boasts at least one well-stocked wine store. Tasting clubs flourish in the suburbs.

Tamar Porat, a 25-year-old sabra, works in Avi Ben’s Jerusalem shop where my friend bought his Merlot. “Things are totally changing,” she says. “It’s trendy to drink wine, it’s an OK thing to do. People don’t think it’s an affectation. Young Israelis travel more, they’re exposed to good wine in other countries, and they’re demanding it here too.”

Over the past 15 years, Israeli wine producers have begun to give it to them. Adam Montefiore, Golan’s international marketing manager, was a professional wine buyer in England before making aliyah 10 years ago. “Wine from Israel,” he shudders to remember, “was pretty terrible. I used to wonder if it was made from grapes.”