Israel has the world’s oldest winemaking industry. “It only took it 5,000 years to get good at it,” said Joshua Greenstein to laughter from the crowd of 65 at Temple Beth El of Somerset.
Surrounded by bottles of fruity Chardonnay, classic Pinot Noir, full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon, and sweet dessert wines, Greenstein, vice president of the Israel Wine Producers Association, spoke of what has become in the last 15 years a respected and booming industry in Israel.
The Nov. 15 event was the 19th annual Dr. Michael Fink Memorial Lecture, sponsored by congregants Lori and Bob Fink in honor of the yahrtzeit of their son, who died at age 27 from a brain tumor shortly after earning his doctorate in psychology from Fairleigh
Wine is a familiar topic to the Fink family as they are owners of America’s Wine Shop in Manhattan; Bob serves as president, son Scott as vice president.
“What is the difference between kosher and nonkosher wine?” Greenstein asked the audience, before quickly providing the answer: “Absolutely nothing. Kosher does not in any way affect the quality of the wine.”
Kosher wine does have to be bottled under rabbinic supervision to make sure there are no unkosher ingredients used. And since traditional Jewish law requires winemaking be handled only by Sabbath-observant Jews, observant Jews also require often that it be mevushal, meaning cooked, which today is achieved through the high heat of flash
“But that only makes it better,” explained Greenstein. “The longer you age a wine the better it gets. Making a wine meshuval ages it three or four years right away.”
The ancient law was instituted because pagans used wine as part of their idol worship. However, pagans would not use wine that was cooked or boiled because of concerns over flavor loss.
Greenstein represents many commercial wineries, spread over five vineyard regions in Israel — the Galilee (including the Golan Heights), Shomron, Shimshon, the Judean Hills, and the Negev. Grapes can be grown in the desert through the use of drip irrigation, which, Greenstein said, was developed in Israel. There are 35 commercial wineries and 250 boutique wineries in the country.
Greenstein, who lives in upstate New York, said he fights an “uphill battle” to sell kosher wines to some retailers and consumers, who have a “Manischewitz mindset.” Many people still think of the company’s sweet wine that was traditionally served in Jewish households as synonymous with kosher and remain ignorant of the quality and variety of Israeli wines, he said.
Attendees and a reporter were seated at tables, in front of each of them 10 cups each containing several sips of different wines, ranging from, according to a handout, a “light and fruity” Chardonnay from the Carmel Winery, which Greenstein described as being reminiscent of a California vintage, to the more intensely flavored Teperberg Impression Chardonnay. Samples moved from whites to bold reds, which included Segal Fusion Red which is a blend of a variety of grapes.
The tasting finished with Yatir Forest, described as “deep firm tannins and ripe flavors of cherries, currants, anise, and nice touches of earth and minerals.” Later, over chocolate cake and cookies, participants sampled dessert wines from Morad Winery, including lychee and pomegranate varieties.
Despite Israel’s small size, its regions have different types of soil — samples of which Greenstein passed around in jars — suitable for different types of grapes. Unlike wineries elsewhere in the world, Israel’s wineries use grapes not grown on site. Some are trucked in from other vineyards in Israel, producing a variety of high-quality blends, flavors, and types of wines.
Some are so good that Wine Spectator magazine has rated them 90 or above on a scale of 100 possible points, a rare accomplishment.
Greenstein said, given the integral part wine plays in Jewish rituals, from Kiddush on Shabbat to the Passover seder and other religious occasions, it should come as no surprise that Israel produces fine wines.
He showed photos of ancient caves where Jews, under continuous threat from warring neighbors, hid their stashes of wine. “The first thing they grabbed when they would flee was the wine,” he said.
Much of the native grape crop was destroyed by the Arabs who inhabited the land, said Greenstein, who said that many of the indigenous species were restored by Baron Edmond de Rothschild, who sent his own viticulturists from France in 1882 to establish vineyards. He built the large wineries at Rishon Letzion in 1890 and Zichron Yaakov in 1892, sent Bordeaux winemakers to make the first vintages, and then made a large investment in Carmel Winery, which today is owned by three Americans.
“My favorite way to give back to Israel and support the local economy is to buy Israeli products,” said Greenstein. “Have them in your home. Every time you buy a bottle of Israeli wine you help 10 families. You help people that grow the grapes, the people that package it, the people that make it.”
He had a suggestion for anyone bringing a bottle of wine as a gift. Put it in a brown paper bag and don’t let the recipient know it’s from Israel until after they taste it.
“It will blow their mind,” he said.