It’s obvious there is a building boom in Israel. Since the early 1990s, nearly one million immigrants from the old Soviet Union have flooded into the country, invigorating and transforming its culture—and bringing a new appreciation for wine. Stylish apartment blocks march north from the city to my destination of the day, the historic heartland of Israeli wine culture on the fertile coastal plain that stretches to Haifa.
My first stop is at Saslove winery, which is owned by Barry Saslove. He grew up in Ottawa and immigrated to Israel during the Six-Day War in 1967. He went on to make his living working in high-tech and is now enjoying a professional life totally dedicated to winemaking.
Accompanying me on my journey today is Shuki Yashuv, the owner of the Agur winery in the Judean Hills. It’s a good thing, too, because my knowledge of Hebrew is nonexistent and Shuki makes multiple phone calls to find Saslove winery. It’s located in what’s called a "moshav" in Israel, a cooperative that usually combines agricultural and light industrial activities in a common setting. Indeed, when we arrive at Saslove, we find an active dairy farm across the fence and a collection of classic automobiles next door. Only in Israel, I think.
Saslove is a talkative sort, in a child-of-the-'60s kind of way, but he pours his wines professionally, and they show well. A particularly full-flavored red is a 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon he calls “Reserved.” He claims isn’t a typographical error but his intended name for the wine. I believe him—sort of.
Shuki and I soon continue our journey north. As he chatters away in the unique intonations of Hebrew on his hands-free cell phone, I’m left to ponder where this trip shall take me. It’s been a good start: Both Saslove’s and Recanati’s wines have shown their mettle—and with more than one bottling.
The next destination is Vitkin winery, just north of the burgeoning seaside city of Netanya. Shuki and I talk about the development of the Israeli wine industry, as well as a bit of personal history. He grew up in a diplomat’s family and spent his adolescence in Mexico City. He was groomed to be an academic in the field of German literature before he rebelled and became a carpenter and now winemaker. I first met him in New York in 2006, and he was one of the inspirations for my current journey. He’s honest and forthright, and I’m glad he’s with me, because Vitkin is really camouflaged amid farmsteads and a mix of eucalyptus trees, citrus and palms. It reminds me of visits to the small agricultural towns surrounding Monterey Bay in my home state of California, but on a much denser scale.
Vitkin is small and resembles an overgrown home winemaking operation. Indeed, the tanks and winemaking equipment are located an old dairy farm. Owners Sharona and Doron Belogolovsky greet me in their home, itself a converted facility, once used for poultry production. But it has been transformed into warm and inviting venue—it helps that Sharona is an architect. There’s a vineyard near their home, but Doron and Sharona buy grapes from throughout Israel and currently make about 3,300 cases of wine a year.
We taste a series of reds and whites, and the biggest surprise is a 2005 Cabernet Franc. It is very plummy and peppery—not overoaked or thin like too many versions of this fickle varietal.
Doron is friendly and garrulous with big hands, a mark of his profession as a stoneworker. For many years, he practiced his craft in Italy, where he picked up his interest in wine. “That was my stone age, and now I’m out of the stone age,” he says. Sharona is well spoken and the organizational side of the equation; they make a charming salt-of-the-earth couple. They have plans to build a new winery, but it won’t be open to tourists. This is a true boutique winery built on sweat equity and poised to make the next step. If the tasting today is any indication, they are on the right road. I wish them luck.
I'll continue to blog from the road in Israel. Meanwhile, read about Day 1 of my trip.
Bob Brack — Canada — February 20, 2008 6:10pm ET
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