Sunday, March 9, 2014

A Beeg Deal About Wine


There are a few bits of advice, some common sense ideas, that you pick up over the years if you’re wise, all to make life a little more manageable. One biggie is, never ask a woman if she's pregnant – because if she's not, boy are you in trouble! In a different vein, there's the simple, homespun advice that you should never, ever, do your weekly grocery shopping when you're hungry – unless you have room to store the ten pound sack of pistachios that you brought home with you. Then there's the somewhat obverse corollary: don't start buying wine right after you've had a few glasses.

I followed the last bit of wisdom punctiliously when we were back in Teaneck, NJ. Twice a year, before Pesach and before Rosh Hashana, our shul, Congregation Beth Aaron, would host a wine tasting, organized by Kevin, the proprietor of a local spirits emporium – as a warm-up to the wine sale that he and the shul would run. We would buy at a discount, the shul would get a percentage, and Kevin would make his well-earned profit. By the second or third such event, I figured out something startlingly brilliant. Don't get there at 7PM when the thing started. Saunter in at 9:15. That would allow ample time to sample the twenty or so wines that had been opened (unfortunately served in plastic cups!) and still be there when they were closing up shop – which was when they had to dispose of all the open bottles. Some of the bottles would stay in the shul, but some of us would generously offer to take a bottle or two or three of the leftovers off their hands. There were order forms available to buy wine, and lots of folks availed themselves of the opportunity to fill one out, hand it back to the young lady at the table, write a check, and go about their business. I was not going to do that. No, no, no! I would leave with a few half-filled bottles of good wine nestled in my arms, and a blank order form in my pocket. Several days after, when the alcohol had gone through my system and I had calmed down, I sat down with the list, mindful of our limited budget, and placed our modest order. In the proverbial cold light of day, I was aware that there was a lot of wonderful wine out there that was simply out of my price range. My task was to locate and purchase the best of what I could afford and anticipate the day when.….....

We seem to have a little more money at our disposal, now that we are retired and living in The Land and not dealing with the insane expenses associated with life in Bergen County. Therefore, our budget for wine is not as limited as it used to be. The availability of wine and other goodies has also increased, now that we are living where kosher food is not merely a concession to a minority, but a way of life. As a result I have more opportunity to go haywire and spend more than I ought to on some incredible cheese or a fine vintage. We have managed so far to control ourselves – most of the time. (Unless Barbara goes by herself to the cheese shop in our local mall, where they offer samples of the good stuff to customers who are both discerning and weak-willed.) One way to tempt fate is to visit one of the many kosher wineries that are no more than a drive away. You usually get a tour and are able to sample some of what they have to offer. It goes without saying that, sooner or later, you would wind up in their store where you could buy a bottle or two, or a case or two....... Some of these places are complete rip-offs. They would select their cheaper wines to sample and offer to sell them for a lot more than you could find in downtown Jerusalem. Other wineries are much more insidious. After sharing their genuine enthusiasm about what they doing, they let you sample some of their top-of-the-line stuff, the kind you like, the kind you want, the kind they hope you will purchase….

Of course, if going to one winery is dangerous to your bottom line, imagine the effect of a wine tour, where you go to a bunch of wineries, one after the other – and you're there, not just with a random group of visitors, but with a coterie of wine lovers. Oh the temptation!

Several weeks ago, we were actually on such a tour, organized by the Israeli branch of the Young Israel movement and run by Eli Poch, the founder and proprietor of the Jerusalem Wine Club, who had arranged for us to visit three first-rate wineries in the Shomron (that's the area north of Jerusalem sometimes called “Samaria”) – easily doable in one wine-filled day. Eli is just the kind of guy you want to give a running commentary on a wine tour, a legitimate authority on wines of Israel, in fact an authentic Wine Expert – one who can sit down with nine other Wine Experts, all of whom will correctly identify the unlabeled wine being quaffed as a Fruit of the Loom Pinot Blanc, 2007.

The largest and best known of the three wineries, the one we stopped at first, is Psagot, now owned by the Royal Wine Company (“Kedem”), the largest distributor of kosher wine in The States. No surprise, their visitors center is suitably impressive, designed to host a busload or two of people. What they do there is show you movies: the first short film was about how Jews had lived in this area, the part of the Land assigned to the biblical tribe of Binyamin, how we still retained our connection to it, and that we needed to remain there. Of course, the film was “preaching to the choir,” given the nature of people on our bus, right-wing wine lovers to a person. We were then ushered into a larger screening room, where we saw a half-hour film, impressively produced, if somewhat bizarre.

As the film opened, we see a young secular Israeli, riding in a cab in Tel Aviv. He’s talking to his boss on the phone. Boss is telling him that he’s getting a promotion; he will be in charge of the company’s London office and will have to leave in a week or so to take over his new job. This is the young man’s dream; he wants to make it “big time.” (You have to do it with an Israeli accent: BEEEEG TIME.) He goes back to his bachelor apartment and is about to open a celebratory bottle of wine, when the phone rings. His father has been in a serious accident and is in the hospital. The son rushes there to visit him. (We realize something immediately: the rest of the family is “religious.”) The father is intent on getting released from the hospital, even though he is in no condition to do so. The next day is the start of the grape harvest in the family’s vineyard in – guess where – Binyamina. The son reassures him; he has grown up in the business, and he can and will supervise the harvest while his father recuperates. Off he goes.

Two things happen as our hero is tending to the grapes. First, his old girl friend shows up. She had left the country but has returned, realizing that she belongs in the rocky soil of Binyamina, all of which she explains in a long speech to our hero. She is, of course, contemptuous of her old flame’s intention of leaving The Land to make it BEEG TIME. Then our hero starts having real-live hallucinations, seeing events from all over the Bible that occurred in the area where he is standing. He forgets to call in to his boss; he forgets to call the London office. His boss gets angry because he went out on a limb to recommend this guy. Is he going to London or not? What’s going to happen?????? You’ll never believe how the film ends. Our hero marries his old sweetheart and takes over the family business. We see him, with wife and kids in the background, on the phone, making a BEEG DEAL with a wine distributor in London.

The basic premise of the film could have been turned into a moving, sensitive film instead of the agit-prop it was. But more to the point, I hadn’t woken up early and headed to the bus by the Prima Kings Hotel in Jerusalem to attend a film festival or a political rally. Where’s the wine? Oh yes, when the screenings were over, we were ushered into the tasting room, where we spent a few minutes sampling some of their stuff. Certainly respectable, although a tad overpriced – in my humble opinion. But we left no wiser about what makes this winery different from all other wineries – which is more to the point as to why we bothered to show up. A few people on the tour invested in some Psagot wine, but not too many. We were in the majority!

Our next stop was the Gvaot winery (“Gvaot” means “hills”), not that far away, but v-e-r-y different. Their wine making plant was an industrial shack, their “facilities” was a Porto-San, and their visitors center, a long table outside the plant with wine glasses set out for everyone. But the wine…… Now you’re talking. You’re also paying. Their least expensive series is about 100NIS (current exchange rate is about 3.5 to the dollar), their most expensive, about 270NIS. That’s for a bottle. We had been promised lunch as part of the package, and Young Israel was true to its word. In the storage area under the bus were boxes of take-out from Holy Bagel (you want your bagel with cheese, with tuna, etc.) to go along with our world-class wine. The English speakers from the winery were either sampling their products or AWOL, (although they did have a nice brochure in English) so it was up to Eli to explain a little about the wine and the family who made it. More people were lugging shopping bags with wine bottles inside as they got back on the bus.

But not us. I had already explained to Eli why I hadn’t joined his Jerusalem Wine Club. (You pay a membership fee and you get discounts on good wine, which he will select and send to you.) There is no point in buying higher quality wine, the kind you would hold onto for a year or two or three, if you have no way of storing it properly. Back in Teaneck, our basement would do the trick, as it was cool down there all year long. Not so our dining room here in Ma’ale Adumim. Here you really need a wine fridge to maintain an appropriate, even temperature through the short winter and the long summer. Otherwise, you are wasting your money on such quality wine. And I was not making that investment until after we had paid for the shiputsim (renovations) to our bathrooms – which are going on as we speak. (If your computer starts to shake as you’re reading this, that’s the guy drilling upstairs.)

If you drink enough wine over time and you pay attention to what you are drinking, you begin to notice the differences in what you are tasting. The wines at Psagot were grown in soil heavy with limestone, so their wine had a certain taste. The wines at Gvaot were lighter and full of fruit. The ones we were offered at the third winery, Tura, where we were hosted by the wife of the proprietor herself, were fuller-bodied and less fruity, but equally as good as the wines from Gvaot. Maybe it was the woman’s personality and enthusiasm, perhaps it was the quality of the merchandise, or a combination of the above, but people were lining up at the cash register with their bottles of wine at 100 shekel a pop. I was also waiting my turn; I had picked up a box of chocolate and a jar of jam, items that the winery was promoting. So far, so good. Gotta save our money for the fancy faucets that are being installed. (Ten minutes ago, the guys came down and took upstairs the new bathtub that had been sitting in our living room.)

Now would come the big test. If going to three wineries was an almost irresistible temptation, imagine the challenge of dealing with scads of wineries all at once. Every year since we’ve been here, we’ve gone to the Wine Festival held outdoors in August at the Israel Museum. That’s always a fun-filled, romantic evening, hanging out with friends, sipping wine, and looking out at the lights of the city. You have to get there early while the wineries are showcasing their best products. As the evening progresses and it becomes more and more “date night,” the wineries start slipping in some lesser quality stuff, figuring the kids are less discerning. The other problem is keeping track of the different exhibits, for there are at least two dozen wineries represented and everything is spread out over the grounds of the museum. You need a map, which the festival no longer provides.

A few weeks after our wine tour, there was another BEEG wine event, this time at the Jerusalem convention center. It was advertised as the largest kosher wine event anywhere in the world. This year, the third time it’s been held, there would be forty wineries represented, showcasing 160 varieties of wine. That's a lot of wine; would we be up to the task? Well, yes and no. It was obvious to me from the get-go that even a mouthful, a sip, of 160 kinds of wine was out of the question. I needed a plan, a strategy to get through the evening – so I could walk out when we were done and get on the #174 back to Ma'ale Adumim.

The layout for the event was quite user friendly. There is a large entrance area at the convention center with plenty of comfortable chairs and couches. On the left is an area where the food court was set up. In the large middle room, the wineries had their booths, all arranged along the perimeter. In the center of the room was a large roped-off area. That was the “wine store.” First step, get your wine goblet as you come in. Then slowly, methodically, walk around and see who and what is there. Unlike the summer event, you can't miss anything and you can't get lost. Make some mental notes and set some priorities. You know which booths you can skip and which ones are an absolute must. When you're good and ready, start at one end, wine glass in hand, and go around the room. If a booth is too crowded, skip it and go back later. Engage the folks working the booth in conversation; they all speak some English. Try to remember what floats your boat and which wines you dumped after one taste. Drink enough to enjoy yourself but not so much as to dull your senses and your memory. That's not so hard, is it!!!????

After a while, Barbara pooped out (she had been tired to begin with), leaving me to finish the important business at hand. She repaired to the lobby, sat on one of the white couches, and got into a long conversation with a young woman from Beit Shemesh. After a while, when I had drunk as much as I thought was prudent, it was time to start doing some shopping. I left my wine glass with Barbara and went back in to find one of the small shopping carts that people were wheeling through the aisles of the “wine store.” Every kind of wine I had sampled that evening was there, stacked neatly and, most importantly, every bottle had some notation as to how much it cost. 100 shekels, that would be the most I would spend, I reminded myself as I wheeled my little cart between the displays. Remember you are in debt BEEG TIME for your new bathrooms. I was nearly done – I thought; I had a few bottles in my cart. I was standing at the Tura display, looking at a few offerings at 105NIS, when a young woman with a sheitel approached me. She was obviously one of the many hawkers hired to prowl the store area to steer customers to the wares of a particular winery.

“Have you tried our wine,?” she inquired, pointing to a nearby display for the Abouhav Winery. In fact, I had not. As I had never heard of them, that's one of the wines I chose to ignore. When I explained my decision to the young lady with the sheitel, she was visibly distressed. I had obviously done myself a great disservice, one which she was prepared to rectify on the spot. The fact that my wine glass was in the lobby was no obstacle; she would give me another one. How could I say no? She brought me over to the Abouhav display and poured me a sample. She was right. It was quite good, surprisingly so. There was only one thing to do, give a swig to Barbara. I explained to the nice young lady with the sheitel that I didn't buy wine, especially expensive wine, unless I was reasonably certain that my wife would like it. (Refer back to “common sense ideas” described in paragraph 1.) So I trotted out to the lobby, my glass of Abouhav wine in hand. Barbara was still sitting on the same white couch, talking to the same young woman from Beit Shemesh.

What do you think of this wine, I inquired, having no idea what she would say, as she had previously vetoed several selections that I thought were first-rate. This one got a thumbs-up (or the equivalent). I reported this information back to the nice young lady with the sheitel. One more question: How much is a bottle? 135NIS???!!!!!!! I was off the hook; too expensive, I explained. The problem was, I knew what she was going to say. The really BEEG DEAL about this wine show was their sale prices. If you bought any two bottles of wine, the second one was half price. That's a really BEEG SAVINGS. If you factor that in, we're back to our 100NIS limit. What could I say? The wine seemed to be quite good, Barbara liked, and it was in effect on sale. Plus, I had been sipping wine all evening, and my defenses were down. I was about to ignore the “obverse corollary,” don't start buying wine right after you've had a few glasses.

We left the show with six bottles of assorted wine, enough to fill up my wine carrying case. They are all sitting in or on top of the wine rack in our dining room. A fine layer of dust from the renovation is beginning to settle on each bottle. Will that be enough protection against the heat and cold – until I can afford to buy my wine fridge? We'll find out, won't we?

Last thing: As I had never, ever heard of the Abouhav winery, I decided to find out whatever I could about it. So I did what you would do, I “googled” it, and this is what I came up with (at
While guiding a lovely family in the mystical city of Tsfat (Safed), we stumbled across a fabulous boutique winery in a narrow alley. Overlooking the Meiron Mountain, where Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai is buried, a wonderful couple chose to reside.
Their home doubles as a charming hospitable visitors’ center with the best view of the Meiron Mountain. Yigal, a formerly Tel Aviv  party scene producer, and his wife, Odelia, have become more observant in recent years. While studying and living in Tsfat, it seemed natural to take on the industry of Kosher wine. The warm hospitality of the couple complimented the wonderful wine. “We make only 7200 bottles a year”, says Yigal, “and most of it goes to elite restaurants in Tel Aviv”. An example for this would be the new restaurant of the Master Chef Jonathan Roshfeld at the Ritz Carlton.

I had actually read about the opening of this restaurant; it is apparently a BEEG DEAL as kosher restaurants go in the White City. One thing is certain. Roshfeld is not getting all 7200 bottles. One of them is here in Ma'ale Adumim at the Casden's. Now all I need is a BEEG enough event to warrant opening it.