Winemaking is part scientific and part art. The scientific winemaker will make technically perfect, clean wines, whilst the artist will make wine more naturally with character, dirt and terroir. Winemaking is normally a combination of the two. The wine educator also comes in two ways. He or she may have encyclopedic knowledge, know all the facts and the student sits, (like at University in front of a knowledgeable Professor), and picks up the nuggets they can. Or the wine educator may be an artist, who talks in broad strokes, inspires and enthuses.
Wine education is normally based on understanding all aspects of a wine, including where it is grown, how it is made, what it tastes like and what is the ideal dish to accompany it. The subject is the wine itself. The class of students will eagerly try and find the guava, forest fruits and cigar box in the nose or smell of the wine, that the teacher-expert tells them is there. It is a matter of ‘follow me, and I will help you understand better.’ It assumes wine tasting is an objective exercise, but of course, it is not. It is wholly subjective.
This is where Roni Saslove comes in. She is a winemaker educator, who sees her role as removing snobbery from wine, and encouraging a more natural, intuitive and spontaneous response from her students. She does not just take into account the wine, the grapes or blend, terroir and winemaker into account, but also the person tasting. She says: “Behind every glass of wine there is the grape, the story of the winemaker – and your own story.” It is obvious that this is a person fascinated not just by wine but by people too. She goes on: “Our perception of wine we taste is influenced by so many things other the wine itself, the way each person experiences a wine, is unique.” She has a course which she calls ‘Mindful Wine Tasting’, which is trying to get people to taste wine by using their own memories and experiences, starting from a simple smell and following memory triggers and even taking into account physical feeling.
I have known Roni a long time. In the early 1990’s her father, Barry Saslove, became infatuated with wine. He created an early wine cellar, used to hold court at home with similarly passionate wine lovers and was very generous in the wines he shared. He began to make wine purely for fun and out of curiosity, was one of the early importers, started holding wine courses and became a partner in the startup of the Soreq Wine School on practical winemaking. He founded Saslove Winery in 1998 and it became one of Israel’s better-known boutique wineries.
However, Barry to me was most influential as an educator and teacher, conveying and sharing the passion. On the long table set out by the stainless tanks, he would go on to introduce many Israelis to wine and enthuse them with his heavily accented Anglo Hebrew (I say this with affection. His Hebrew always was, and annoyingly still is, far better than mine!) He was a wonderful teacher and the passion just oozed out infecting all those who passed by.
It appears the apple has not fallen far from the tree. Roni started with the intention of becoming a vet, but started dabbling in the family winery, and before she knew where she was, she was caught up in it. She loved the physical work in the vineyard, the smells of the harvest and getting dirty in the wine at the winery. In 2004, her father gave her a massive prod forward by suggesting she make her own wine. Which she did…the unique and luscious Kadita dessert wine was the result. In 2008 she studied enology and graduated from Brock University in Canada. From being an ‘on the job’ winemaker, she became a formally educated winemaker. She says: “To make wine from a scientific perspective is not challenging, but to make a delicious wine you need so much more than academic knowledge – it requires passion, soul and energy.” She was a winemaker with all these things, and more.
In 2013, Saslove Winery was sold and Roni Saslove crossed the aisle. She moved away from the vineyard and winery, to the side of the wine drinker. She opened and managed the innovative Tasting Room in Sarona, a concept ahead of its time, where forty wines were available by glass at any one time on an automatic pouring system. Here she discovered: “The majority of wine consumers will know to tell if they like a wine or not but not always why they do so.” And she likes to quote the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” She bemoans the fact that we are not brought up to connect between a word and a sensation or feeling and she does not think professional wine jargon is the answer.
So, she will like what Eric Asimov, wine critic of the New York Times writes in his book ‘How to Love Wine’. He notes: “What is baffling and confusing is not the wine, but the way we talk about wine.” He has observed that people who have no idea how one is supposed to talk about wine, are far more creative than those who have read books or taken wine classes, because they are free of the wine expert straight jacket and the lingo you need to speak in order to belong. He believes the traditional wine critic tasting note is a “self-indulgent exercise that mostly serves to alienate people”. Terry Theise, in his ‘What Makes A Wine Worth Drinking,’ makes this point about the objectivity of the critic: “The problem arises when you start to think critically about the wine….every little word choice you make is about you and not the wine.”
Theise beautifully summarizes the importance of the individual in the equation: “My relationship with wine was (is) a conversation between two living things,” and “We drink the wine, and the wine drinks us.” He too criticizes formal wine speak. In ‘Reading Between The Vines,’ he compares enjoying a view, with describing it. He says: “if you are sitting on a hilltop….you may be able to say: ‘This is beautiful because I can see a great distance, and the hills fold into one another in an especially comely way, and the river is perfectly situated to give depth to the scene,’ and that is certainly part of the truth. But beauty has a face that’s turned away from the light. Think of music. Can you say why a certain piece of music makes you feel so intensely? Probably not.”
In other words, you don’t need to throw baskets of fruit at a wine for it to move you. He is also critical of the wine critic: “Too much wine writing….seems to crawl into an envelope and seal it from the inside. It’s as though a writer discussed his cross country journey by writing about the engine of his car, what the mileage was, how often he checked his tire pressure. He doesn’t even say what music he played! Landscapes whiz by unremarked upon. ‘On the climb up to the front range of the Rockies, my motor was really purring; I gave it 94 points on my 100 point scale.’”
What he is saying so vividly, is the detail of the wine tasting note can leave you with little insight into the wine itself. Instead, you may marvel at the writer’s vocabulary and imagination, but all the tasting notes, from a distance, seem the same.
Roni Saslove’s own word view changed when she went to India and visited the Viphasana meditation retreat. Viphasana is a way of self-transformation through self-observation. She studied reflexology, and how people react to different stimuli including words, signs and tone of voice. This opened a door in her mind and transformed not only the way she thought about wine but also the way she observed others around wine.
She now runs a wide range of wine appreciation courses, often using the Kerem Montefiore Tasting Room in Jaffa as a venue. Wine for her is sensual, tactile and intensely personal. With her beautiful, laid back approach, she conveys all these in her relaxed, informal delivery, sans dogma, which seeks to encourage people to explore their own inner wine. It is breathtakingly refreshing, innovative and totally original. I attended a session where we all had to put on blindfolds and smell different fruits, spices and some unpleasant aromas too. We were then encouraged to give our first word association to the various smells. It was invigorating and empowering….and fun.
I can’t forget the quote from Roger Scruton’s ‘I Drink, Therefore I Am’: “I learnt…that wine is not just an object of pleasure, but an object of knowledge; and the pleasure depends on the knowledge.” This is also true, so learning about wine fuels the enjoyment and appreciation.
Now wine education in Israel is varied and there are many options. Haim Gan, is a legendary educator, who has a big following. So many people have passed through his ‘Ish Anavim’ wine courses, and afterwards his ex-students still regard him as their guru. A compliment indeed. The ‘Derech Ha’Yayin’ chain of wine stores, have regular wine courses for wine lovers. The Soreq Winery Winemaking School is perfect for those who want to make wine. For those who want to make wine professionally, and become winemakers, there is the groundbreaking International Viticulture & Enology MSc program created by Zohar Kerem, of The Hebrew University.
Last and not least, WEST, the world’s most famous wine school is now here. The Wines & Spirits Education Trust was founded in 1969 and is based in London. It is now available in over 70 countries, including Israel. The sommelier, wine consultant, wine judge and educator, Gal Zohar brought it here. He founded the IWSI – The International Wine & Spirit Institute, and already countless students in the wine trade and without, are receiving the best formal wine education, with international accreditation. Eran Pick MW of Tzora Vineyards, Israel’s one and only Master of Wine, has said the founding of the IWSI was the single most important and significant thing to happen to Israeli wine in recent years. It is true and it is a must stop station for anyone in the wine trade or working with wine.
However, Roni Saslove offers something else: The ability to explore one’s inner self with wine, and learn about wine in an informal way at the same time. Her courses are recommended for wine lovers, the occasional drinker or for those curious and wishing to learn more. She is an especially bright, responsive communicator, which is why her courses are popular, and her easy, un-pretentious style, has made her hit on local radio too. She loves communicating about wine, and she does so totally naturally, but also with the inner calling of an artist, who receives the drive to paint, create or write from something deep within. As far as Saslove is concerned, she talks about wine as though she needs to, simply in order to exist. It is for her a reason for being. To know the material is one thing and as an enology graduate, grower and winemaker, she certainly knows her stuff. But to have the ability to teach, communicate, excite, whilst conveying the passion, that can’t be learnt. It is a gift from the Gods!
Adam Montefiore has advanced Israeli wine for over thirty years and is referred to as the ambassador of Israeli wines. He is the wine writer for the Jerusalem Post. www.adammontefiore.com