“If we stop here, they will kill us.” So said Vered Ben Sa’adon, as we passed through the last Arab village, before arriving at the Har Bracha vineyard, just south of Nablus. An alarming prospect for someone not used to travelling these roads. At that moment, I felt more like a stiff whisky than a glass of wine.
We arrived at the high altitude vineyard at 850 meters above sea level. It was sparse, stony, and slightly bleak. The expanse of green vineyards was familiar and strangely comforting. There was a feeling of Biblical Israel. It was also quiet. An absolute silence. The only activity, was the of evangelist families who had arrived that morning from America and were already building huts and preparing containers for a period of work and contemplation in the Holy Land.
Har Bracha was a name I knew in a wine context from the early 2000’s. When Carmel Winery began its own mini quality revolution, it released a series of single vineyard wines. One of which was the much praised Har Bracha Merlot 2002. Of course, at the time I worked for Carmel. Now this was a mighty Merlot, one that really wanted to be a Cabernet. It was a tannic, big wine that needed a few years to soften. Even the last time I tasted it, it was still showing its personality.
The name Har Bracha proved too toxic for marketing to the general world and it was dropped, but this one time flash of lightening was enough to encourage the local growers to develop their vineyards.
The people who had sold their precious fruit to Carmel were Erez and Vered Ben Sa’adon. They first planted vines in 1997. On the strength of this success, they expanded their vineyards. Erez studied wine at Tel Hai College and at Ariel and they founded the Erez Winery in 2003. Later the name was later changed to Tura. The winery is situated in Rehelim, which is east of Ariel. There, they have built an attractive and original visitors center with a long tasting table, which just invites you to sit down and have a shluk of wine.
Erez is a grower type, probably happier to be amongst his vines than with people. He is the thinker and stategist who has the drive to implement his dreams. Vered is vivacious, feisty, talkative and enthusiastic. Vered describes it best; She said Erez ‘does’ and she ‘talks’! In fact they are a great team, one complimenting the other.
Vered has a fascinating background. She was born in Holland to a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother. Her grandmother on her mother’s side was engaged to a member of the Gestapo. Anyway to cut a long story short, in the funny way these things happen, the mother eventually came to Israel, converted and her three year old girl was brought up as an orthodox Jewess.
The Ben Sa’adons are growers who also sell their grapes to a number of wineries in Israel, though many will not admit where the grapes come from. They have flirted with all sorts of agriculture including producing honey and olive oil. They also produced a great cider, but now sell their apples on, wanting to concentrate on wine.
Different areas are becoming known in Israel for different varieties. It is unwise to generalize, but maybe the Upper Galilee is Cabernet land. The northern Golan Heights produces the freshest white wines. The Mt Carmel region is best for Carignan, whilst the Judean Hills is excellent for Chardonnay, Syrah and Petite Sirah. In the same vein, it is possible to say that the Samarian Mountains are known for producing some of the finest Merlot in the country. The Tura and Shiloh Merlots are regular prize winners.
Samaria is the northern part of the West Back, otherwise known as ‘The Territories’, or ‘Yehuda and Shomron’. I prefer to describe the region as the Central Mountains which is a non-political way to describe the topography. In fact the same mountain range runs down the spine of the country from Har Bracha or Mount Grizim to Hebron.
Of course mention the word ‘Samaria’ and certain people the world over, termed by some as ‘leftists’, will not touch the wines because they come from Occupied Territory. Even in Tel Aviv the debate is no less vociferous. Many restaurants will not list wines from there.
However, you need not worry for the well-being of the Central Mountain wineries. There are more than enough Jewish communities worldwide, and in Israel too, that may be termed by others as ‘right wing’, who practice reverse discrimination and buy the wine precisely because they come from there. Of course when used in this way, the words ‘right wing’ or ‘leftist’ are pejorative terms, used to convey a feeling of utter disgust by the ‘other’ side of the political equation. Everything is political in Israel, including wine it seems!
Tura is a proud winery first and foremost, but they also consider themselves as ambassadors for the region. Vered Ben Sa’adon is a determined advocate of wines from Central Mountains and is not afraid to call out those, whether journalists, restaurateurs or members of the public, who give their wines a miss. She is almost missionary in her determination to advance the region. Just to reemphasize the point, the words: ‘Wine from the Land of Israel’ is written on every label.
I visited as a wine guy interested in the development of a new wine region in Israel in the exact place where Biblical Israel flourished. A viable wine route has been created with a number of successful wineries and young vineyards planted along the way. The wines are good and getting better. The passion of the farmers and wine growers is immense. To work in wine requires passion. To work the land as pioneers is one sort of passion. To settle the land of Biblical Israel as religious Jews, requires another sort of passion. Together, this is a triple dose. These wine pioneers are not shrinking violets, but they are recreating a wine trade to mimic their forefathers of ancient times.
My own view is that I don’t believe in boycotts, because you either have to boycott everything or nothing. You can’t credibly be a boycotter on one issue only without exhibiting prejudice. On the other hand I believe every restaurant or customer has the right to buy what they want and every journalist has the right to write about which wines they want. It is a free world. I believe in ‘Live & Let live.’ As far as it goes with critics and customers, you win some and lose some. That is the way of the world. Anyway, in my opinion, no Israeli winery suffers lasting damage from boycotts from anywhere. Furthermore, most Israel wine is sold in places where the effect of BDS is zilch. Where there is bad publicity, contrary to the wishes of the boycotters, it normally works to the advantage of the winery or region.
Tura Winery is arguably the most visual representative of the northern Central Mountains. They have three labels. Mountain Vista is their entry level label for bright, up front wines. Mountain Heights is their reserve label and Mountain Peak, their flagship wine. They regularly win awards in both Israeli and international competitions. They use the services of Itai Lahat one of Israel’s best winemaking consultants, which underlines their ambition and professionalism. They have a winery slogan ‘Patience & Inspiration’. I think it is a mistake. It should read: Patience, Inspiration and Passion.
TURA MOUNTAIN VISTA ROSE 2015
Nicely colored pink rose made from Merlot and Cabernet Franc grapes. It is fruity with a touch of sweetness but nonetheless, is very refreshing. Price: 90 ILS
TURA MOUNTAIN VISTA GEWURZTRAMINER 2015.
This will be popular. Fruity with floral notes, with a pleasing sweetness. Price: 90 ILS
TURA MOUNTAIN VISTA HEARTLAND 2014
A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon 67% and Merlot 33%, aged for 12 months in French oak barrels. The wine is rich, spicy and the oak is apparent but in balance. Price: 129 ILS
TURA MOUNTAIN HEIGHTS MERLOT 2013
Rounded, full bodied red with warm berry fruit and plum, with more than a touch of vanilla. The wine is oaky, has soft tannins and good acidity. Long finish. Price: 129 ILS
TURA MOUNTAIN PEAK 2013
This the prestige wine of the winery. It is a Bordeaux style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. The wine was aged for 22 months in oak. The result is a full bodied wine with aromas of black currant and blackberry with black cherry, a dominant oak presence which coats the mouth and a long balanced finish. Price 200 ILS
I recently met Haim Spiegel, the Director of Food & Beverage and Procurement at Dan Hotels, one of the stalwarts of the Israel hotel industry. These days, F& B Managers in Israeli hotels seem younger and the job has changed with time. It seems to be more a fire-fighting role than it used to be. F & B Managers can be seen rushing from crisis to crisis wielding big bunches of keys, in order to keep the show on the road. The F& B Manager today seems to be a stop gap before another stepping stone up the greasy ladder. Today F & B, tomorrow Front of House. The old style Food & Beverage Manager, equally at home in the kitchen and wine cellar, with a lifetime’s experience is not only rare but a threatened species.
I say this not to denigrate a whole new generation of F& B enthusiasts, but by way of introduction to Haim Spiegel, We met in a café, but as always, he was dressed immaculately. He always wears a dark suit, usually with a white shirt and always with a tie. If you saw him at the Old Bailey Law Courts he would not be out of place. I have known him for over 25 years. During all that time he has been the address for all things food & beverage in the Dan Hotels, setting and maintaining the standards for their hotels all over the country. I often sometimes feel he is the Food & Beverage guardian for the country, for he is a true master of his craft.
Haim Spiegel is stylish in all he does. An absolute and total perfectionist, he is the ultimate foodie, immersed in the history and folklore of gastronomy, yet as up to date as tomorrow regarding the latest trends. He is quietly spoken, but misses nothing. Rather like the wise owl in children’s books. (Do you remember: “The wise old owl who lived in an oak; the more he saw the less he spoke…”) He is the antithesis to the usual Israeli that knows something. He does not raise his voice to draw attention to himself, but when he does speak it is normally brief, pithy, smart and of value. In other words, worth waiting for. He is a Food & Beverage expert through and through.
He is also pretty sharp on wines too and has played his part in advancing Israeli wines to the outside world. Not for nothing, he is invited year after year to play a crucial part at the annual Eshkol Hazahav (Golden Cluster) Wine Competition, organized by Studio Ben Ami. This is the Oscars of Israeli wine. Haim Spiegel oversees the tasting and the competition to ensure it is held to the highest moral and professional standards and then presents the awards. He is seen as the credible figure to do this important job by the wine industry, being totally above board and with no conflict of interests.
Normally as people become older, or have been around in a job for a while, they tend to become more conservative. Furthermore the hotel world can be as conservative as you can get. So I was surprised, delighted and excited to hear Haim Spiegel’s views on wine service and about his campaign to advance the accessibility, service and sales of wine in Dan Hotels. The Dan Hotels Group is the oldest, most prestigious hotel chain in Israel. It comprises 14 hotels and it is the most recognized name in the Israeli hotel industry.
The whole idea revolves around the idea of creating what Spiegel call ‘Wine Friendly Hotels’. King David is the first, and others such as Dan Tel Aviv, Dan Accadia and Dan Carmel may be next on the agenda. Of course, the King David Hotel is the most famous hotel in Israel and known throughout the world for its rich history.
This pioneering idea was dreamed up and is being implemented by Spiegel. He realizes wine is Israel’s number one ambassador. Today we are more known for Hi Tec, but you can’t give a bottle of Hi Tec as a present. He appreciates that a bottle of wine is prohibitive item to purchase. It is expensive and many people do not want to drink a whole bottle. So he believes that the future is serving wine by the glass.
The focus is on variety, attractive prices, accessibility with helpful, knowledgeable assistance. The grand Oriental Bar of the King David Hotel has been relaunched as a Wine Bar. Wines are carefully chosen to show the finest of Israel as every price point. A number of wines are made available by the glass at attractive prices. A Eurocave dispenser is used to ensure quality is maintained. You don’t have that awful feeling of buying a glass when you don’t know how long the bottle has been open or how it has been kept.
You can purchase by the glass, or in a most praiseworthy innovation, buy smaller glasses in flights of two, three or four wines to sample one against the other, or simply to broaden the tasting experience. Prices by the glass range from 30 to 54 shekels, unheard of in most hotels. The wines by the glass in the Wine Bar are divided in to two categories. There are the ‘Classics’: Carmel Kayoumi Riesling, C Blanc du Castel, Maia Mare Nostrum and the Flam Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve. Then there are Wines of the Month which include the Binyamina Unoaked Chardonnay, the Kishor Savant Riesling, Montefiore Cabernet Sauvignon and Recanati Wild Carignan. The range is chosen to be of interest to the wine expert and to educate the curious. In the other food and beverage areas there are a further six wines by the glass, making fourteen in all.
The King David Wine Bar not only champions Israeli wines, but also Israeli beers and spirits. The hotel lists beers from the Alexander and Herzl boutique breweries and also spirits from the Pelter and Julius artisan distilleries. So if you want to glug the Alexander Blonde or Herzl Dolce De Asal or nose and sip the Pelter Gin or Julius VI Brandy, you can. The bar menu, carefully chosen by celebrated chef David Biton, offers a few snacks to compliment but not dominate the wines
Then comes the product knowledge aspect. The hotel has appointed a sommelier who has grown in the job and is learning and developing his knowledge day by day. I met him dressed in a spotless white tuxedo. After all this is the King David! His name is Daniel Gidey. He made aliyah from Ethiopia in 1986 on his own, leaving his family behind. He had learnt to speak English and so was immediately drawn to a life in hotels. He started working for Isrotel as an 18 year old and spent his time as a bartender and waiter in bars and restaurants. He took the bar courses and got his F & B diploma at Hadassah College and ended up as Assistant Manager of La Regence, the prestige restaurant of the King David. Today he has climbed his greasy ladder to become the first sommelier of a hotel in the Dan’s Wine Friendly Hotel program.
He is backed by a good support team, hand selected by Spiegel. Gal Zohar, an international sommelier, wine consultant and author of the New Israeli Wine Guide, is the consultant who helped select the wines, develop the concept and train the staff. He is the leading light of the next generation of Israeli wine experts. The Food & Beverage Manager, Elie Fischer, is far from the type of F & B manager I described, but an experienced Frenchman from Paris, who has been imported for his experience, expertise and for his dynamic, youthful approach to energizing service and encourage ever improving standards.
The bar is open from 17.00 hours until 12.30 am. Guests are tourists, residents of the hotel and the hotel is pleased to encourage walk-ins from outside. This represents marvelous opportunity to sample the Middle Eastern grandeur of one of the world’s great hotels, which won’t cripple you financially. You don’t need a mortgage to buy a glass and a snack.
We in the wine trade have spent a lifetime building ivory towers of wine expertise which are elusive to the usual Joe or Yaacov. We have made wine exclusive. If you don’t understand and can’t compete with knowledge, how on earth can you enjoy it Wine has become like opera. It is only for those who understand. If you can’t give fluent tasting descriptions containing baskets of fruit, you don’t belong and cannot be part of the club. This is fundamentally wrong and it is important to rip up the pretension, and to take a lead in making wine more accessible. There are many progressive outlets, but what makes the King David initiative interesting is that it is the King David & Dan Hotels, which would normally be a byword for formality in wine service.
King David, the man, employed someone to look after his vineyards and another person to look after his vineyards. These were maybe the first Jewish viticulturist and sommelier. How appropriate it is that King David, the hotel, is bringing wine sales in a formal setting into the 21st century. Looking forward for more hotels to join the pioneering Wine Friendly program.