Adam S. Montefiore
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WINE EDUCATOR MEETS WINE ENTREPRENEUR

Wine guru to so many Israelis
Haim Gan

At Terravino 2024, Israel’s leading international wine and spirits competition, I was awarded the Terravino Lifetime Achievement Award. The person who rang me to give me the news was the Terravino creator, owner and manager, Haim Gan. In my acceptance speech, I said I looked forward to being present when Haim Gan himself received his Lifetime Achievement Award. The chances of him awarding himself this prestigious prize is pretty remote, so I thought I would least record for posterity his extraordinary career. This is someone I have known for more than thirty years, so I am well placed to tell the story of his contribution to Israeli wine. 

Israel was a bit of a wine culture backwater in the early 1990s. When I first came across Haim Gan though, I was immediately impressed with his knowledge and dedication. To be honest he stood out in an industry in which knowledge of professional wine service was pretty sparse. I felt I was meeting a kindred spirit and I immediately respected him.

He had been handpicked by Chef Israel Aharoni to open the Tapuach Zahav (Golden Apple) Restaurant. Haim Gan was their first wine waiter. A young man by the name of Yonatan Roshfeld became the sous chef. I have had some experience in eating out, and I still believe it was the best quality restaurant I have experienced in 35 years in the country. I remember hosting wine great Robert Mondavi there. I next came across Haim Gan as Restaurant Manager at Capot Tamarim. This was one of the first restaurants to showcase the chutzpa, creativity and variety of the new Israeli chef, devoted to local ingredients. It was forerunner of the Israeli chef revolution that has reached Europe and America in the last ten to fifteen years or so.

Haim Gan was not born with a silver tastevin (traditional sommelier’s wine cup) in his mouth. He was a son of Jaffa. His father was a fisherman. Gan served in the paratroopers and earned a plucky, determined reputation for coping with whatever was thrown at him and coming up trumps, stronger and smiling. When it became time to travel, his contemporaries, like everyone else, travelled to South America or the Far East. Gan decided to go to Europe. A chance meeting on a train led to the idea of travelling to a winery. “What is a winery?” Gan asked! It was when he visited a winery in the Loire Valley that something resonated within him. He decided to stay in France and offered to work there for a few months. This was Gan’s introduction to the wine world. Then with enthusiasm growing, he went to Bordeaux to absorb some of the wine culture there. Wine is very aspirational. The more you know, the more you want to know. Next, he travelled to America and gained experience working in restaurants in Miami. He was happy there, but swiftly returned to Israel for Reserve Duty at the outset of the Gulf War. His international experience along with a whiff of wine in Europe, blended with his drive and hunger to learn, and set him apart. That was why he was considered a catch by restaurants of the caliber of Tapuach Zahav and Capot Tamarim.

After that, Haim Gan was a sought-after name in wine circles. He was passionate, knowledgeable, had impeccable standards of service, and was incredibly enthusiastic. This brushed off on others. It was not long before the corporate world came knocking at his door. Carmi Lebenstein was the crafty and innovative marketing manager at Carmel Mizrahi. This was then by far Israel’s largest winery, virtually a monopoly. She persuaded Ham Gan to join as Education Manager and Professional Manager for Hotels & Restaurants. During his time there he strove to improve Carmel’s image and attended the legendary Carmel tastings. I had some experience of those, admittedly though from a few years previously. They were probably the most unprofessional tastings I ever participated in. Food and olives were on the table, and some tasted wine through a mouthful of flaky and greasy burekas. The senior manager would say what he thought before anyone had a chance to open their mouths, and then criticize the professional team. Before the end of the tasting someone else would light up a cigarette. I can put names to these memories, but out of respect for the people concerned, will not do so here. Of course I must point out, the Carmel Winery of today is leaps and bounds away from the Carmel Mizrahi of the 1990s, but I am just setting the scene of how it was.  

During Haim Gan’s time he was fortunate to work with a whole battalion of winemakers, who made names for themselves and went off to succeed elsewhere. These included Israel Flam ex head winemaker of Carmel (now Flam Winery), Koby Gat (Carmel loyalist, now retired), Shiki Rauchberger (now Teperberg), Philippe Lichtenstein (now Arza-Hayotzer), Gil Shatzberg (ex-Amphorae, Recanati), Arkadi Papikian (ex-Dalton, Amphorae), Zvi Skaist (now Teperberg, ex-Jerusalem, Barkan.) It was quite a team. 

When Carmi Lebenstein left, Haim Gan decided to go it alone and become independent. At the turn of Millennium, he founded a new start-up called “Ish Anavim” (Grape Man) based in Jaffa. His partner was Sariel Shany, greatly respected for his wine knowledge too. Their concept was to be an independent body advancing wine culture, giving wine courses, holding tastings and offering wine consultancy services. This was much needed as wine education was dominated by the wineries, and in particular by the Golan Heights Winery and Carmel. The Golan Heights Winery promoted wine service through its Yarden Award for Wine Service, which was my creation, and founded the first ever Wine School, which was managed by a young Yair Haidu, now considered one of the leading wine experts in Israel. Carmel was known for its wine courses taught by Koby Gat and its Barman’s Courses led by Tal Gal Cohen. However good they were, and they were all professional, they were seen as being sponsored by ‘the large wineries’. Because of this, they were devalued slightly.

There were slow beginnings at Ish Anavim. The first wine course took seven months to fill. Eventually Gan took over Shany’s share and went on alone. From there on until now, Haim Gan became one Israel’s most prolific wine educators. A number of people have stood out for their contribution to wine education. Legendary names include Israel Assayel, wine store owner and autodidact who was giving courses when I arrived in Israel. The aforementioned Koby Gat was known for his courses at Rishon Le Zion Cellars for decades. Winemaker Barry Saslove became an enthusiastic and inspiring educator in the 1990s. Nir Shaham has run his amazingly successful Soreq Winery Winemaking School for thirty years. Sommelier Gal Zohar (DipWSET) founded his very influential and important W – Wine & Spirit School (WSET approved) in 2016. My son David Montefiore (DipWSET) is a lecturer-teacher there.  However, Haim Gan’s reign as an educator lasted all this time and still continues. He has an impressive following of wine lovers who have passed through his hands. Those who completed one of his wine courses, return for his special ‘Open House’ tastings at the end of the week. And the really keen ones travel with Gan as their guide, visiting the most famous wine regions in Europe. Those who fall under his charismatic spell, follow his every word with absolute loyalty. Wine education has been his main contribution over the last 25 years, but he has done so much more.

He founded the Terravino International Wine & Spirits Challenge in 2006. This was Israel’s first international wine tasting competition. He brought experts from abroad to be judges and decided on the rules and procedures would be according those laid down by the OIV, the main wine administrative body worldwide.  Terravino became part of our calendar, and this year he organized the competition for the 18th year. To his great credit, he managed to do so in a year of war, grief and upheaval. It gave us all, the important message that life must go on, especially in tough times.

He introduced the Terravino Lifetime Achievement Award, which is regarded as the ultimate award for an individual in our industry. Early winners included a wide range of wine personalities from all aspects of the wine trade: Michael Ben-Joseph (wine author), Avraham Ben-Moshe (winery CEO), Professor Amos Hadas z”l (academic), Charles Loinger z”l (wine institute), Arkadi Papikian (winemaking consultant) and Freddie Stiller z”l (winery technical director) were some of the laureates. The last winners have been: Carmi Lebenstein z”l of Carmel in 2018; Uri Shaked of Shaked & Derech Ha’Yayin in 2019; Eli Ben-Zaken of Domaine du Castel in 2020; Dr. Yair Margalit of Margalit Winery in 2021; Yonatan Tishbi of Tishbi Winery in 2022…and yours truly, ex-Golan Heights Winery & Carmel, in 2023-4.

Haim Gan organized the first IsraWinExpo. This was a proper authentic international wine exhibition, and though we have plenty of wine festivals and a successful trade show, we miss this fully fledged exhibition to proudly showcase Israeli wine. In those days IsraWinExpo and the Israel Export Institute succeeded to bring famous sommeliers, international wine critics and wine buyers here as guests, to visit the exhibition and sample Israeli wine up close. It showed what could be done and remains a prompt and reminder for those holding the reins today.

White wine festival

Haim Gan was one of the first people to promote white wines here. He says: “Israel should mean fish and not meat; olive oil and not butter; and… ” this was the punch line: “white wines, not red wines!” Of course, at the time he first said this, Israelis mainly drank red wines. Furthermore, many wine drinkers would boast: “I only drink red wines” thinking that this statement alone would qualify them to be considered great experts. However, Haim Gan, was a prophet before his time. He went ahead promoting white wines, without the support of the wineries. Now, his annual White Festival at the Herzliyah Pituach Marina is packed with wineries and visitors showing their white wines and roses. Since Gan went rogue on whites, there has been a white wine quality revolution in Israel and whites are coming back in. People are realizing what Haim Gan realized first: white wines go better with our climate and cuisine.

Many auctions have featured occasional Israeli wines, but there was never an auction exclusively for wine here. That was until Haim Gan founded the Claret Auction House, prepared a beautiful catalogue and organized a smoothly run auction. He creatively organized an international competition for wine labels. He edited an Israel wine book which appeared in Russian, called Vinoland. This educated a whole generation of new Russion immigrants who were wine drinkers. With wine critics, Yair Koren and Sagi Cooper as partners, he authored an Israeli wine book which was published in Hebrew and English. It was called “The Comprehensive Guide To Israeli Wines.” Pity it only appeared once.

Haim Gan has also been a consultant and friend to many wineries. One of them was a small domestic winery at Kibbutz Nir Oz, which was Gideon Fauker’s baby. When Hamas invaded on that black October 7th, they brutally murdered Gideon Fauker z’l. Furthermore, his partners Haim Perry and Gadi Moses were kidnapped to Gaza. They are still there. The grapes had been harvested, but there was no-one to look after the wine. Haim Gan, who had known them for years through the activities of the Eshkol Wine Club, sprang into action. He commandeered two winemakers, Dr. Shibi Drori of Gvaot Winery and Meiram Harel of Amphorae Winery, to assist, and the three of them cleaned up the winery and took care of the wine. There will be wine from Nir Oz Winery from the 2023 harvest…thanks to Haim Gan. It will be a fitting memorial to Gideon Fauker. May his memory be a blessing. At the Gala Awards Presentation of Terravino this year, Orna Fauker, his widow, was called up to present the Trophy for the Best Wine. There was barely a dry eye in the house. 

What is Haim Gan’s vision for the future? He says there have to be proper regulations here like in wine industries elsewhere. He has a vision of an extensive museum to tell the story of our wine renaissance, international wine schools for sommeliers and winemakers. He foresees a time when there will a thousand wineries here and consumption will increase to 11-12 liters per head. He explains all this will happen with evolution, not revolution.

Let’s hope Haim Gan maintains his energy and ability to think out of the box, and be ahead of the game. He has been a wine educator and wine entrepreneur, and contributed so much to Israeli wine over three decades. He is the wine guru to so many Israelis. Proposing him for a Lifetime Achievement Award is long overdue.

Adam Montefiore is a winery insider turned wine writer, who has advanced Israeli wine for 38 years. He is referred to as ‘the English voice of Israeli wine’ and is the Wine Writer for the Jerusalem Post. www.adammontefiore.com

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