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Israel wineries I visited in the north and the state of Israeli kosher Wines

I just returned from a long and wonderful trip to Israel where I visited a total of 36 wineries in less than three weeks. To be fair, I was set to visit more, but let us just say that a family member, who will go nameless, slowed me down just a wee bit – LOL!!! All the same, it was great visiting the wineries, meeting the wine makers and owners, and getting a far deeper feel for all things wine in the land of Israel!

Yes, I brought back many bottles, and I had friends and family who helped me schlep in even more bottles. In all some 30+ bottles or so made it back to the diaspora, and I will be enjoying them in due time. Many of them are NOT available here in America and some were just too good to pass up on.

So, let us start with the facts – there are five wine regions in the land of Israel, and I visited wineries in all of them. According to Yossie’s Israel winery page that is a mash up of Google maps and his winery data, there are some 70+ kosher wineries. The kosher wineries are bunched up in the Judean Hills, Shomron, Samson, and the Galilee. There are wineries in the other wine region; the Negev, but other than Yatir, which is really the southern tip of the Judean Hills, there is no winery that I wanted to visit in the Negev (dessert – southern wine region of Israel).

I started my wine adventure in the north and went to every kosher winery that would let me visit. One of the first things I realized about wineries in Israel is that it is a business. To me, wine and wineries are like candy and big candy store. To top it off – they are kosher and in a land I love. So, when I visit a winery, I want to know everything about it and why it exists. Others see me as a pain or as a lack of dollars and cents and as such, are not so receptive to my interests. That is fair, and as such, if I was received well I will state it and if not, or I got to taste a single wine or less, I will simply state what I tasted and move on.

The first day, I dropped my stuff off at friends in the north and drove up to Tabor Winery. Tabor Winery ha recently been bought up by the Coca-Cola company of Israel, and as such has seen a fair amount of investment in both vineyards and winery facilities. Tabor Winery-smallThey have some of the coolest high-tech gear out there, though a few others do rival them, including Yarden (which I did not visit this time), Yatir Winery (visited and loved it!), Shiloh Winery, and of course Carmel and Binyamina (because their size allows for more toys). I was really shocked there and then by the cold blue fruit that exists if you look for it. By cold blue fruit I mean that wines (Syrah, Malbec, Cabernet – YES CAB, Petite Verdot, and Petite Sirah) exhibit blueberry, boysenberry, and other blue colored fruit when controlled in a cold enough climate. They had some lovely wines there, though no WOW wines (wines that get an A- to A or higher score). Still, a very nice and wonderful winery well worth the visit, if you can handle the drive all the way up there.

Now before you laugh at one winery in a day, driving north from Jerusalem, even with highway 6, is a large haul and in the pouring rain, I rest my case. While driving my way up there – I noticed another aspect that I have not spoken about in the past – Israeli drivers. I think it was my nephew who brought this to my attention; they drive cars like they have no tomorrow, without hesitation, and without fear – almost like war. Drivers in Israel are more than happy to pass you going uphill, on a curve, in the pouring rain! In no way was this a singular or rare occurrence! If you drive in Israel and you blink or hesitate, you may well find yourself forced onto the other side of oncoming traffic by a public transit bus! I am not kidding – and in a not so hospitable location to boot! My point is, if you wish to drive in Israel, and to get to all the wineries in and about Israel, a car is required (or a tour guide), my best advice is pray a lot, and be very careful. Also, get full coverage on your rental car. Read the rest of this entry

My wonderful and wine eventful Jerusalem whiteout – Day 1

Snow mountains surrounding JerusalemTwo weeks ago I was in Jerusalem and all I can say is that the words, “in God We Trust” cannot have been more fulfilled than on this journey. To start, I had flown into Israel for one of my nephew’s weddings, and a lovely wedding it was, but that is getting ahead of ourselves. I arrived on Tuesday the 10th and while deplaning, I was asked to join in on a group prayer – which initially I was not so interested in, as I had a ton of things to get done in the day. Thank goodness I agreed and while talking with the group at the conclusion of the services, I hear my name being bellowed out! Now, sure I love Israel, and I know people there, but I am not Netanyahu or Gal Gadot, nor do I know anyone who knows Gal Gadot (trying to stay current and yes I know she is a female model – just making sure you are following), so I had no idea why someone was calling out my name!

So, I turn around and lo and behold who is there, Mendel! Now you may not remember Mendel, but he has been canonized on this very virtual pages, here and here (de-boning a duck) – though incorrectly familiarly associated with Elchonon. I state this because it will be with Mendel’s hands that my wine salvation will be realized. He wondered if I remember who he was, and after sharing a few pleasantries, we agreed to keep in touch as he was interested in joining me on my wine escapades, which sounded great to me!

From there we both got our cars and I went off to see my sister in HarNof. That evening I was so exhausted, I tried to order a burger from a place that will go nameless. Two hours later, no burger and my card were charged! To be fair, after much cajoling they did refund my money, which I understand in Israel is requires an act from God to implement, but equilibrium was returned.

The next day, I WhatsApp Mendy and sure enough, he is up and ready – like I was, so I asked if he minded driving and off we went to pursue the wineries around Jerusalem. I must start by saying that I have no issue driving, but as I explained many times in the past, Israeli drivers have no drive control or manners, they are 100% certifiable! Well, I guess either work; “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” or “Fight fire with fire”, and that is exactly what Mendy does so well. The roads were slick with rain, at some points the roads were almost washed out with a literal deluge of rain, making the roads slick and a perfect pairing for hydroplaning. No worries, Mendel is at the wheel! So, our first stop was Castel!

Domaine du Castel

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Tura and Har Bracha Wineries – two great examples of Shomron Wine Passion

Sunset outside of Tura WineryThe title may seem extreme but there is a clear and present passion and almost zeal to the wine makers and vineyard managers of the Shomron. In no way is that a slight to other wine regions, or to denote that others are not as passionate. The real point is that when I met with 30+ wineries on my past trip to Israel, every winery spoke about their wines and their processes and technology, but none spoke as passionately about their land as the winemakers in the Shomron. I need to stress, that many speak about their vineyards, the terroir, like Tzora and others, but the passion about the land versus the correct vines to grow – the sheer desire to own and plant trees or vines – it was truly an uplifting experience.

However, before we get into all of that, this post is about day two of week three during my trip to Israel last year December (2012). This posting is an account of my visit to both the Har Bracha and Tura wineries, in that order. Since we left off, I had completed week one all by myself, and week two partly with my nephew, who yes slowed me down, but truly added so much color and life to the proceedings, that it was a fair trade 🙂 The day started off like any day in Israel, we were set to see as many wineries as possible within a single day! The day started off with Doron and I picking up Gabriel Geller, yes the dastardly mastermind of the previous week’s Monday adventure to Ella Valley, Teperberg, Flam, and Herzberg Winery. It was a grand day trip and one that Geller was ready to try again! Talk about committed or is it that he needs to be committed, I am really not sure! Anyway, we pick him up and off we go to another wine adventure on Route 60! There were many stories that occurred to us on route 60 on this storied day, but being that they were part of the tapestry of the day, we will weave the tails into this wild and ruckus wine trail adventure.

The Shomron day started off with a visit to Shiloh, and then to Gvaot, described here. From there we were pointing our car towards Har Bracha and that is when we should have listened to the darn phone – both of our phones! The madness started with Doron’s phone which texted him with a very important message. You see he has an AT&T phone, a very nice phone actually, that did not easily support popping in a new SIM (the modus apprendre of international cell phone travelers when they visit Israel), so he went with an international plan from the US with certain countries on it. Simple enough plan, that is until you enter route 60, or more specifically, the Shomron area of route 60. AT&T was texting Doron to notify him that his data plan did not work in the new country he had just entered! Well, if that was not enough of a hint, at about that same time, my phone starts to chirp. Now, I must be specific here, we were interested in getting to Har Bracha which is north of Shiloh and we actually have to pass Tura to get there, but that was because Tura was not available at that time, so Har Bracha was where we were pointed towards.

Har Bracha Vineyards 5To quickly remind you, Yossie’s wine map is an awesome resource for finding kosher wineries in Israel, and for getting a sense of what and where the kosher wineries are in Israel. The map gave us a great layout of our day, and it also gave us a closer understanding of what was driving waze so crazy! Waze is the only real navigation tool in Israel and one that I explained saved my life at least two times in the north. Well, my girlfriend (waze’s voice is a female’s voice and it tells me where to go at all times – so all my friends think it fits) started to notify me that I needed to get ready for a left turn coming up. Now, driving in Israel is an already tense and terrifying enough of a job, looking at a navigation device is too much. So, Doron and Gabe (back seat driver) were thrust into the navigator role. Doron had the girlfriend and Gabe knows most of the roads by heart, and he also had his own phone-based girlfriend as well. All the phones were telling me to turn left, while Gabe was coaxing me forward – with soothing words of, do not worry we need to keep driving – no warning! Read the rest of this entry

Israel wineries I visited in the Judean Hills and the Shomron during my second week and the The Wine Mill wine shop

Wine Mill wine shop in the center of Jerusalem

The Wine Mill wine shop

Last week I posted that I was in Israel for three weeks over the month of December, and in that first post I wrote about the wineries I saw in the Galilee wine region (the north of Israel). What I failed to talk about was Gabriel Geller and his wine shop in the middle of Jerusalem. I spoke about the Wine Mill wine shop in a previous post, it is located smack dab in the middle of Jerusalem, close to the city center, and to many hotels and restaurants. The address for the Wine Mill wine shop is 8, Ramban Street, 92422 Jerusalem, Israel, it is a shop that I can say is stocked with wines that I would be happy to enjoy and is the main wine shop that I use when in Israel. Why? Because Geller knows his wines, sells only wines he or his customers like, and knows the wines he sells. His shop is filled with wines that are often only sold at the winery itself, like Midbar Winery wines (see below) or Herzberg Winery wines (see below). His shop is also filled with small winery wines, like Weitzman Petite Verdot, or Gat Shomron Winery, and many others. Please do not think that this is a paid advertisement or something – LOL! I do not take money from people. I bring up Gabriel Geller and the Wine Mill, because during my three week stay in Israel, I was either in Geller’s store, with Geller himself, or calling Geller everyday, including Friday day and Saturdays (Saturday night of course)!

As I ended the previous posting – I wrote about my take on the Israeli wine scene, and I would like to add some more thoughts to the thread:

  1. If I had to give a color or fruit that best describes the 2010 vintage in Israel – it would blueberry! YES blueberry! No, I am not talking about malbec or Syrah or Petite Verdot. What I am talking about is all of those and more shockingly, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot! Try it out and see for yourself. When I asked the wine makers about it, they said that the growing conditions of 2010, hot and then cool led to the blue flavors.
  2. 2010 and on can well be the year of the small wine maker. Wineries are coming and going – that is for sure, but it is also a fact that small production wineries, like Herzberg Winery and Gat Shomron winery are popping up and staying afloat – because they do not have that much wine to move. Time will tell.
  3. Finally, more and more high level and high quality mevushal is occurring in Israel. Shiloh winery has been doing it for a few years now, as is Binyamina on its reserve series and cave, and others. It is not widespread or low quality. The process is being done at great cost and at great effort – bringing forth quality wine that happens to be mevushal, much like Herzog and Hagafen. While this is true of the few that I have listed above, Recanati has started doing it to some of their diamond label wines and the outcome is not that great. The 2010 Shiraz tasted cooked while the non-mevushal bottle in Israel did not have that taint – time will tell how these experiments will turn out.
  4. If you must pick a single varietal that shines in the Shomron – it would be Merlot. All the Merlot wines we tasted from the Shomron (whether made from a winery in the Shomron or wineries that source their grapes from the Shomron – like Teperberg) – the winners were always the Merlot! If it is the cooler weather the higher acidity – who cares – it is great wine!
  5. Wineries are getting the message – making more old-world wines with Israeli fruit. What that means to me is to make ripe and sweet wines that are controlled without the overripe date and raisin bombs that were so very prevalent some 5 years ago. In its place I find that Israeli wineries are producing wine with sweet and ripe fruit, while all the while showing clear control of both the sweetness of the fruit and the amount of oak used.
  6. Israel residents are finally starting to understand that they live in a Mediterranean country (with one of their borders on the Med) with blazing hot summers and therefore need to start appreciating white wines! I know, Jews like to drink red wines, something to do with the whole kiddush and shabbos thing. Still, white wine is lovely and is a wine that can be done well in Israel. Take the Midbar winery as an example. A winery that was built on the premise of making GREAT white wines in Israel! It took a long time for the perfect storm to occur, the nexus point of Israeli residents wanting white wines and for wineries to excel at the production of good white wines. Maybe it was a chicken-egg thing between the wineries and the residents, or maybe it was the whole culture thing – but Israeli wineries are figuring it now. More and more every winery is making a Rose, a Chardonnay, and many are doing Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling wines, and many others. So keep a look out for very solid Israeli white wines – they may actually remove them from Israel’s endangered species list!
  7. The main high end red wines being poured at wineries in Israel are shmitta wines, wines from the 2008 vintage. I say this simply as a warning and no more than that. If you care, than skip the wines. If you do not worry about it – than do what you wish. I simply state it here as an informational notice. Read the rest of this entry

Teperberg Winery Tasting – just outside of snowed in Jerusalem

Teperberg Tasting with all the wines and Fricassee a person can dream for!As I have stated before, these postings are from my previous trip to Israel, where Jerusalem and mush of the north was snowed in with many feet of snow. Picking up from where we left off, the Sabbath was snowed in and cold, but at least we had power. The next day, my brother drove the car to the hotel and from there – the careful but madman driver – known as Mendel made his way to both GG and me and using Waze we were off to highway 1. The road itself was open, as was clear by the crowd sourcing cars driving up and down the road on the Waze map. However, there were parts of the road that were packed to the gills, because these were car drivers – driving to har menuchot (Jerusalem’s cemetery which has a massive parking lot) to pick up their abandoned cars! Yup, on Friday, these folks could not make it into Jerusalem, as their car was stuck, and they could not get back to where they came from, so they left their cars and were bussed out by the Army using mechanized solider transport vehicles, that can drive through snow or up a hill, for that matter.

Well, as we drove by that horde of cars, our minds were all single focused on getting to Teperberg Winery, one of the best unheralded wineries in Israel. As I wrote about in previous posts, here and here, ever since the U.C. Davis trained senior winemaker Shiki Rauchberger joined the winery, they have been producing wines destined to appeal to a more sophisticated audience. With the addition of Olivier Fratty and tons of new high-end equipment, the winery is poised to make the next leap into the upper echelon of Israeli kosher wine producers.

When we arrived after driving through the snow covered mountains, the roads cleared as we dropped in elevations, and the mountains became hills, and their color turned from white to green. Not too far down the highway, we turned off for the road leading to Bet Shemesh, and from there another turn and we quickly found out way to Kibbutz Tzora (where the Tzora Winery can be found), which is across the street from the Teperberg Winery, and down the street from Mony Winery.

We arrived almost on time, and Shiki and Olivier were there to greet us and lead us to a room where we would be having the tasting. Shiki told us that they are drawing up plans for a visitor’s center where they can have official tastings, and exhibits where the winemakers and the guests can interact in a more intimate environment. The exact date for this building to be completed is still unknown, as it has yet to even start, but it is on the books to be started soon. Read the rest of this entry

To Asia and Back twice within a couple of weeks, all with no good kosher wine

WOW! That is what I can say, when I last blogged, I was just about to leave for India, and then I went to China and then Israel and now I am back. In a single sentence – there is very little to no good kosher wine in Asia, which is a shame! I was thinking of shlepping my own wine, but truly it would not have been worth it. In the end, I suffered a bit, drank beer and some absolutely undrinkable wine (which was all I needed for a blessing), while in India, the Rabbi made Kiddish on grape juice (which I refused to drink!). What can I say, it was a truly bad string of wine weeks, that culminated in a great wine weekend with a BUNCH of great Malbec wines and then a trip to Israel (yeah a snowed in Jerusalem – coming next).

To be honest, I was truly shaken by my experience in India, the people are really nice in Bangalore India, but the infrastructure – the very basic things we take for granted in the developed nations of this world, are so deeply lacking there. On the Shabbat I was terrified to walk the streets because there were no sidewalks, sewage ran under what was defined as a sidewalk – raw and honest – no pipes and no hiding the smell. Worse the roads are underdeveloped, made for a few cars and a few cows, not millions of cars. A road that can accommodate two cars, is traversed by three cars, two auto-rickshaw, and god only knows how many “Tasmanian devil” moped drivers shifting in and out of the melee called a street in India. Sure, many would find this invigorating, but I guess I have lost that mad-insane-loving gene, and now I do not mind a dollop of calmness in my life. If you are like me – pass on India, enough said. Read the rest of this entry

Shirah Winery (AKA Weiss Brothers) – sensory overload in a kosher wine bottle

 

Benyo, the Weiss brothers, and graig at ADSAfter having a quiet set of days at my friend’s homes and at our house, without any guests, it was time to open the wine spigots and see what we could get going. It has been too long since we enjoyed some Shirah Wines – wines from the now famous Weiss Brothers. The winery is in Southern California, but the wines are now very easy to buy, as they are being sold in NY and Chicago, (distributed by River Wines – thanks Ami!!) The wines are also online at Kosherwine.com (where you can get some of the now sold-out 2010 Coalition), Gotham Wines, and SkyViewWine.com.

It almost seemed like Shirah Wine became famous after my original post about the Weiss brothers (all I did was give them their due and rightful respect – their wine did the rest!). They are two wine hell bent (in the right way) brothers who went out on a ledge, and almost went over it, to make great kosher wine and spirits! Throughout all the crazy tribulations they continued and believed in themselves, a truly rare and awesome trait – if I say so myself.  You have to have a very strong internal compass and self-belief to build a wine when all seems to be going against you. I really do have great respect for the two of them, but that does not bias my feelings about their wines – they just happen to make damn good wines!

The first time we tasted their wines, was indeed at the now famous Benyamin Cantz (Benyo of Four Gates Winery) and Rabbi Naftali Citron Shabbaton, where they shared with us the just bottled 1-2 punch and Syraph. Since then we re-tasted the 2008 Syraph again along with the 2009 Power to the People and it was truly a joy tasting them side by side the much heralded and hot Israeli Ortal Syrah from Yarden, which to me felt underwhelming in comparison!

The Weiss brothers, is not just a saying or moniker, they are actually brothers! They consist of Shimon Weiss (the hands and crazy good palate of the pair) and Gabriel Weiss (newly married with a family) is the winemaker. However, they really are the “brothers”, nothing gets done without the two of them. I recently visited the Agua Dolce Winery, where the Shirah Winery is currently stationed, on the way home from the 2013 IFWF, and Shimon was going to Israel in the next few days. To get ready for his departure, they had to get everything bottled and ready to go for the Passover sales. Why? Because the bottling line, labeling, and the entire complex minutia that goes into bottling a wine after the wine is made, was being handled by Shimon at that time. That included bottling the new 2011 Coalition and the new 2010 Single V. Thompson, Syrah/Mourvedre, both of which I tasted and blogged about at the 2013 Jewish Week City Winery tasting.

It all started in 2004 when Gabriel moved from the east coast to the other side of the country to work for Herzog Winery. He worked as a cellar rat (person who moves around wine, cleans out barrels and tanks, etc.) there for almost a year before the opportunity to make wine almost literally fell into his lap! The 2005 season was a bumper crop and in November, the vineyard, from where they sourced the grapes, still had grapes on the vines! The vineyard owner told Gabe to come on by and harvest all the Syrah grapes he wanted – free of charge! So, in 2005 Gabe made the first ever Shirah wine, a wine label that would go dormant for three years, but not forgotten! The wine was made with a bunch of friends in a garage! Now that is what I call Garagiste wine! Read the rest of this entry

Gvaot Winery – one of the rising stars in Israel’s Shomron Wine Region

Gvaot Winery, Gabriel geller, and Shivi DroriSo, after taking a slight break from writing about my trip to Israel, and concentrating on all the wine events that occurred here in the states, it is time to return to where I left off. The last time we spoke, I was blogging about my last trip to the Shomron and Judean Hills wine regions. Week two was clearly a more Judean Hills focused week than a Shomron focus, but it gave me a chance to introduce you to the wine region.

Talk about Israel wine regions and most will start off with the Galilee/Golan wine regions, which started the entire wine revolution in Israel. The wine region became famous in 1972, during a visit to Israel, Professor Cornelius Ough of the Department of Viticulture and Oenology at the U.C. Davis suggested that the soil and climate of the Golan Heights (captured from Syria in the Six-Day War) would prove ideal for raising grapes. They planted vines in 1976 and released wine in 1983, all kosher from the start.

However, since than more and more wineries have been sourcing their grapes from the Judean Hills, an idea that was started by Flam Winery, Tzuba Winery, and the Doamine du Castel Winery. Since then the wine region has been heating up and going crazy – with wineries from all over Israel buying land and planting vineyards – to the tune of many millions of dollars! The funny thing is that, if you read my last article on the Shomron wine region, you would realize that the best Merlot wines come from the Shomron wine region, especially the sub-wine region; Har Bracha! Anyone desiring an Israeli Merlot – please do look for one from the Shomron/Har Bracha sub region. Note that there are wineries that sell Shomron wines even though they are not situated in the Shomron wine region, like the Teperberg Winery, Carmel Winery, and Tishbi Winery.

The Shomron wine region may be very good for certain varietals, but when you talk about wineries, there really are only a few that pop to mind; Psagot Winery, the Shiloh Winery, and the Gvaot Winery. The Tanya Winery has also released some nice wines, though recently the wines have not been up to Yoram’s standard, in my opinion. Gat Shomron has released a couple of nice wines, like the crazy good Ice wine and the Shomron Merlot reserve. Read the rest of this entry

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