Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A Lot of Wine, A Little Whisky


I dare say that  almost no one getting this post has seen most of my most recent articles.  That’s because they were written for and shared only with a few of my friends here in The Land who share my enthusiasm for Israeli wine, one of our most glorious products. My articles were mostly about my gallivanting around Jerusalem, looking for choice selections to  fill my brand new twenty-eight bottle wine fridge, in the process, checking out the most important wine shops in Jerusalem. I started to take notes  as to which shops carried which wines. I wound up creating a spreadsheet that listed over eighty different Israeli kosher wineries and where their wines were available in Jerusalem. Some of the companies, like Golan and and Carmel, are available everywhere, but there are some terrific wines that you have to hunt to find – hence the reason for the spreadsheet.

As I wrote recently – in the articles you didn’t see – back in the Exile, wine was not a major item of interest in the circles I traveled in.  Some of us didn’t have the extra cash available to indulge in anything more than the most modest of the kosher wines available to us. Barbara and I did have friends who appreciated a decent glass  at a Shabbat meal. But I can’t think of anybody who was truly excited by it. In some circles, there seemed to be more enthusiasm over Single Malt Scotch (not a bad thing!) or, heretically, some good bourbon (also a good thing!). Kosher wine may have been a requirement, but it certainly wasn’t a passion.

Twice a year, there would be a wine tasting and sale at our shul in Teaneck, when they would give you some samples – in little plastic cups.  Not the best way to size up a good vintage.  (As a matter of fact, the guy who knew the most on the subject was Kevin, the gentile who owned the store that ran the wine tasting.) Of course, all of the wine we sampled  was from far away: California, South America, Italy, Australia, some from Israel. (Don’t get the stuff from France. If it’s any good, it’s much more than you can afford.) There was no way we could learn very much about the grapes, the soil, or how the wines were made. All we could do for a Shabbat meal was to drink it and decide if we liked it or not.

No doubt about it, things are different here in The Land – where the Hagim are not extended and the wine is not boiled. As I wrote recently:

Here, wine is local. You can visit the wineries; you can even see the grapes growing in the fields. Here, wine is ubiquitous. You can find respectable entry level kosher wine at any supermarket in the country. Here, wine is plentiful. Every year finds new wineries getting started and more wine that is either excellent or close to it. Wine here is for sharing: not only the tasting, but also the knowledge and enthusiasm.

Now if we are talking about sharing and tasting wine, then there’s every chance in the world that our friends Barbara and Richard Levine are involved in it somehow. Either they are spending a Shabbat with us or we are heading up to visit them at their headquarters all the way up north in Har Halutz. Which was exactly what we were doing a few weeks ago.

One bit of advice: don’t start out a journey the way we did. We got off the bus from Ma’ale Adumim across from the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem, and as we were walking towards the station, I let out a cry, “Our suitcase!” We had left it on the bus. Fortunately for us, the CBS is the last stop, and the terminal for the Egged buses is just down the hill. So we skedaddled down there and waited for our bus to wend its way through traffic to the terminal. What a wonderful sight: our driver walking to the office, carrying one large, rose colored suitcase with all our stuff in it!

Back to the CBS, onto the #480 to Tel Aviv, just in the nick of time to get on the train that Richard was on, heading north to Acco, where his car is parked.  Up to Har Halutz to pick up Barbara; then back to Karmiel for a burger and fries before heading off to the once a month Karmiel folk music club. By the time the three guys from Tel Aviv finished with their Irish fiddle music, it was way past our usual bedtimes.

Richard and I got up bright and early Fri. morning – much too early, in my opinion. But he needed to do the weekly shopping, and the few times I’m around, I volunteer to be his assistant and chief cheerleader. A lot has changed in Israel over the years, and one of the biggies is what’s available to buy and where you can go to get it. Check out the Supersol Deal in Karmiel; it’s as least as big as your typical Shoprite in New Jersey, plus it’s stocked from top to bottom, aisle after aisle, with kosher food. A far cry from your local makolet! But something even more special is a few minutes away: TAKEAWAY. Not only do the folks in this part of The Land have enough to eat these days (more than enough!), they don’t even have to cook their own Shabbat meals. Every Friday, a catering outfit takes over the premises of a local restaurant, and a platoon of chefs spends Thursday night preparing over thirty different dishes (not counting the salads), a bewildering array of fish, chicken, meat, rice, potatoes, and vegetables – a menu that changes week to week. As an added bonus, the proprietor, because he knows Richard, handed him two scrumptious North African-style flat challas – piping hot, right out of the oven. We left Karmiel, laden with a week’s worth of groceries, plus a staggering number of aluminum foil and plastic containers, enough food for Friday night dinner with enough left over for Richard and Barbara to have an evening meal the rest of the week. We were not going to spend this beautiful fall day in the kitchen cooking for Shabbat. No sirree!  The four of us were going to get into their car and head over to Kishorit to sample some wine. Oh joy!

Once upon a time, there was a kibbutz in the western Galilee called Kishor. It apparently never really got going and was essentially out of business. To save the day, a few wise people took over much of the property and created something special, Kishorit, self-described as “a home for life in the Western Galilee for adults with special needs.”  Some 150 of the members live and work there, in the organic garden, the dairy, the bakery, the toy factory, the stable, or the communication center. Richard and Barbara could probably find their way blindfolded to the kennels there. That’s where they got their miniature Schnauzer, DonnaDog (who along with MobyDog and SheezaDog are no longer with us), and where they boarded these respective canines when they went on vacation.

But that day we were not going to stop at the kennels. You don’t let Richard, a man who, for the first time in twenty-five years is without a dog, near a kennel. Not unless you’re planning to return home with an extra passenger or two. Nor were we intending to inspect the livestock or visit the toy factory. When we were stopped by the guard at the entrance to the yishuv, we all shouted in unison, “yekev.” We were headed to the winery – or to be precise, the winery’s new visitors’ center.
It’s true that our friends haven’t been to the visitors’ center as often as they’ve been to the kennel, but they’ve been there often enough to get a royal welcome when they do show up.  The drill is simple: you sit down on some benches and watch Kishorit’s video, showing some of the residents and how happy and proud they are to have a meaningful job to perform, the kind of video designed to cause copious quantities of American money to flow in their direction. That’s how the attractive visitors’ center got built; that’s how the grapes got planted in the first place. I should mention that the vineyards are on the other side of the road directly opposite the visitors’ center. Definitely local. You can stand there and watch the grapes ripening on the vine -- if you have enough patience.

Next, we were invited to sit down at a table for a light mid-day meal. The simple menu, I’m sure, never changes: several kinds of their best bread, several kinds of their best goat cheese, several kinds of their best vegetables, and as many kinds of their wine as we wished to sample.  That’s easy: whatever you got! We started with a white wine and proceeded to sample both of their reds, each of which has been awarded a medal at the most recent Eshkol Hazahav Israeli wine competition.  What a wonderful way to spend a late autumn Friday in The Land, on a hilltop in the Galil, with the sunlight streaming through the picture windows and a glass of wine in hand– topped off with a very nice cup of coffee. No worries; plenty of time before Shabbat.

An hour or so went by, and the “plenty of time” was starting to look less plentiful. We left the visitors’ center with our purchases of wine (in a sturdy cardboard packing case), bread, and cheese – oh, and some of their freshly baked cookies – and returned to Har Halutz.  Enough time to start a cholent and get ready for Shabbat.

There is, unfortunately, no minyan in Har Halutz, so Shabbat in this small yishuv is fairly low-key: relax, chill out, take a walk around the new neighborhood to look at the rather opulent homes under construction, have non-binding debates on questions of halachah, solve the problems of the world, and repair to the dining area for our required number of meals – washed down with copious quantities of wine from Kishor and Netufa, another local winery – both of which are hard to find in our neck of the woods – topped off with a generous selection of desert wines.

As it always seems to, this Shabbat came to an end. There’s not much we were going to do that evening. We would have to get to bed real early because we needed to be up before 4:30 (ouch!) Sunday morning. We would have to leave Har Halutz before 5AM, in order to catch the 5:50 train at Acco – allowing Richard to get to work on time in Tel Aviv. The trains Sunday morning are particularly crowded with soldiers returning to their base, schlepping all their gear. Before long, there would be no more seats and precious little room to stand in the aisles. Usually I put on my tallit and tefillin where I’m sitting on the train (people do that here), but that morning I was just too tired. Wait until I get back to Ma’ale Adumim. Instead, I drifted in and out of sleep, occasionally waking enough to look out at the rows of small houses  right by the railroad tracks, the high rise buildings nearer the shore, the industrial complexes scattered here and there, and, occasionally, a glimpse of the Mediterranean itself.  We finally arrived in Tel Aviv, got on the #480 bus going back to Jerusalem, and then the #174 to Ma’ale Adumim. Cookie and Moby were delighted to see us; we unpacked our suitcases and put our two bottles of Kishor wines into the wine fridge. The start of another week in The Land……


Several months ago, Mordechai, who sits across the aisle from me at Musar Avicha, hosted a Scotch tasting evening on a motzei Shabbat at his apartment. Because we had made a commitment to be out of town that Shabbat, I could not attend.  But when I received an e-mail invitation for another such event, I was determined to be there. This one was to mark the completion of a section of gemarrah by his regular Sat. night group AND his son Daniel’s bar mitzvah the previous week.

I think it’s fair to say that Mordechai knows his Scotch whisky; he is certainly willing to share both his best bottles and his extensive knowledge. Over the next hour and a half, in addition to some salads and crackers, we got to sample 1) a Tomintoul 14 year old, 2) a Glengyle Kilkerran Work in Progress 6, 3) a Caol Ila Cask Strength, 4) a Lagavulin 12 year old Cask Strength. All of the above were served, very sparingly, in matching Glencairn tasting glasses.

The whiskies we were offered that evening have two distinctions in common: neither is chilled filtered and neither has any added coloring, both of which are what you find with almost all Scotches on the market. Until I walked in the door, I had no idea about any of this; certainly not what difference it would make – but, trust me, it does BIG TIME, as I discovered with my taste buds. So we finished the evening, all of much wiser and definitely happier. There will be more events like this, and, meanwhile,  I’ll be nosing around the various spirits emporiums – the same ones that sell the wines – with a increased attention to the whiskies on hand.

And yet…. In a way, it reminded me of being back in New Jersey, sampling wines from faraway places. The Scotch whiskies, especially the best one, are truly wonderful, but that by itself doesn’t give me a warm, fuzzy feeling about the place of origin, nor any sense of pride about what its people have accomplished.  Speyside? It could be Guantanamo Bay or the Gobi Desert, for all I care.

Just like with the fine whiskies from Scotland, what is special about wine in The Land is the care with which the best of it is produced. But here I have a stake in the outcome. Slowly, very slowly, at times barely perceptibly, we can see the old Israeli mentality of “It’s good enough” being replaced by a determination to create the world’s finest products: hi-tech, medical innovations, environmental solutions, and, bless my soul, the fruit of the vine. Yes, I feel truly blessed to be able to witness it all in my lifetime – right in front of my eyes. May it continue, and may you all be so blessed.

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