Israeli wines come of age

Israeli wineries can feel more self confident today. The Wine Advocate, the mouthpiece of Robert Parker, the world’s most famous wine critic, published details of its first ever tasting of Israeli wines at the end of December 2007. The results were not at all bad – in fact for some wineries, rather good.

No less than 14 wines scored more than 90 points and this is an important threshold for Israeli wines to have passed. The highest scoring red wine in the tasting was Yatir Forest from Yatir Winery at Tel Arad. The best white wine was ‘C’ Blanc du Castel from Castel, situated in the mountains west of Jerusalem and the best dessert wine was the Yarden Heights Wine from the Golan Heights Winery. Four wineries excelled by receiving at least two wines with 90+ scores. They were Carmel, Castel, Golan Heights and Yatir.

The result of the tasting was the eagerly awaited judgment of the most powerful and influential wine magazine in the world of wine, which can make or break reputations with its much sought after opinions.

The tasting supports my long held opinion that Israeli wines are in fact world class and that we are producing the finest quality wines in the whole of the Eastern Mediterranean. Whilst proud of the successes, it also encourages us to continue the upward curve and be still more quality orientated in future. Israel has done well, but we still have a long way to go.

Not all Israeli wineries produce wines that are kosher. However, it is significant that no less than 11 of the top 14 wines in the order of merit are kosher.

Sometimes our most disbelieving followers are our Jewish consumers who have grown up with Manischevitz or Palwin sacramental wines and assume that all kosher wines are by definition poor wines.

However, The Wine Advocate summary of the tasting was very clear: “No one should avoid wines because they have kosher certifications… in fact Kosher wines are amongst the best in this report, such as those from Domaine du Castel and Yatir.”

This brings home another truth that we have known for years – a kosher wine can be a great wine and it is irrelevant to the quality if it is kosher or not. Coming from me, this is what you would expect, but from Robert Parker’s publication, it is a very significant statement that should help to change preconceived ideas.

Israel is a ‘new world’ wine country, in one of the oldest wine regions on earth. In this Biblical land, one can find a curious combination of the new, old and ancient world of winemaking in a country no bigger than Wales or New Jersey.

Ancient Israel, with roots going back deep into Bible times, must have been one of the earliest wine producing countries – at least 2,000 years before the Greeks and Romans took the vine to Europe. It took a Rothschild to renew the tradition and create a modern wine industry in Israel. Baron Edmond de Rothschild, owner of the famous Bordeaux winery Chateau Lafite, founded Carmel Winery in 1882 with advice and expertise from the French. He built two large wineries with deep underground cellars, at Rishon Le Zion, south of Tel Aviv, and Zichron Ya’acov, south of Haifa.

However, the quality revolution really began with the founding of the Golan Heights Winery in 1983. The winery brought in expertise from California and showed the world, and more important Israelis, that it was possible to make international class wines in Israel.

The Israeli wine industry is built on the pillars of three large wineries: Carmel, Barkan and Golan Heights – which together control about 70% both of the local market and of Israeli wine exports. There are 25 commercial wineries in all.

Something close to wine fever has gripped the country in recent years. The amount of vineyards planted with noble varieties has doubled and there are now over 200 wineries, many of them boutiques.

The majority of them have sprung up in the last 15 years. The most famous of these is Castel, situated in the mountains west of Jerusalem. Some of the new quality wineries, like Yatir, Flam and Clos de Gat have provided much needed variety and added color to the Israeli wine scene. This in turn has galvanized the larger wineries like Carmel, Golan, Barkan and Teperberg, all of whom have responded by building new wineries.

Israel is famed for its agriculture. Drip irrigation, which is used worldwide, was an Israeli invention that revolutionized the global agricultural industry. The same high standards may be seen in our vineyards. The use of meteorological stations in the Golan vineyards or pioneering attempts to plant vineyards in the desert, show Israel’s viticulturists are dynamic and up to date.

Israel is an Eastern Mediterranean country, so it is no surprise that the climate is mainly Mediterranean. However, in the higher altitude vineyards of the Upper Galilee, the Golan Heights and Judean Hills, the climate is cooler and there is even likely to be snow during the winter months. It is these areas where the new fine wines from Israel come from.

Most of the fine wines highlighted by The Wine Advocate are red. These are wines to buy as gifts, to lay down or to enjoy on an important occasion. Each of these will now automatically become sought after wines. I suggest you look them out while stocks last. For anyone who had any doubts, Israeli wine has arrived!

Cheerleaders for Aliyah

One hundred and ninety one reasons to get out of bed before 5am.Last Thursday, my wife Jody and I roused ourselves out of bed at the ungodly hour of 4:50 AM in order to arrive at Ben Gurion Airport, not for a trip to some exotic destination, but in time to greet an El Al flight of 191 new immigrants making aliyah to Israel. The process was inspirational and exhilarating. We were among more than 500 similarly minded Israelis who came to cheer, applaud and otherwise show their support for the new arrivals.

It made me think back to our own family’s aliyah. My, how times have changed.

When we arrived in Israel almost 13 years ago in October 1994, we were the only new immigrants on the plane. We told our flight attendant about our exciting new status and she merely shrugged her shoulders in a typically Israeli way (shades of things to come) while muttering a muted mazel tov (congratulations). There was no one at the airport to greet us. No flag waving. No enthusiastic hordes.

Instead we scrambled like everyone else to be first through passport control, then made our way upstairs to a cavernous hall that had been built to handle a planeload or two of Russians all arriving together. We had, in fact, been worried that we might come at the same time as a Russian aliyah flight and get stuck for hours in immigrant processing. Instead, we were shown into a small room where a perfunctory clerk stamped our papers and gave us our teuda oleh (immigrant ID cards) and temporary immigrant passports.

Flash forward 13 years. New immigrants from North America now fly together on a plane designated just for them where Ministry of the Interior officials walk up and down the aisles completing all of the paperwork from tablet computers.

Upon arrival, the new immigrants walk between two lines of cheering crowds waving flags, holding up hand-decorated signs and otherwise keeping up a remarkable amount of energy for so early in the morning. It reminded me of the “Shalom Kita Aleph” ceremony for first graders entering elementary school… only this time with adults.

The front rows of the two lines were reserved for a cadre of army soldiers; behind them were a gaggle of religious seminary girls wearing blue and white who’d painted their faces with Israeli flags and “I love Israel” in little hearts. A big bearded man blew a shofar as each busload of immigrants disembarked. A live band (well, a guy with a keyboard) played “Heveinu Shalom Aleichem” over and over. The arriving immigrants looked overwhelmed by all the attention after a 12-hour mostly sleepless flight.

Among the new immigrants on this flight was our cousin David Gilbert, a radio news reporter who, after nearly eight years living in Israel as a tourist, finally took the plunge to become a full-fledged Israeli citizen.

Once inside the arrivals hall, there was a large stage set up in front of the baggage claim conveyer belts for speeches. Dignitaries included representatives from various government ministries; Elazar Stern, the head of the army’s manpower unit; Danny Ayalon, former Israeli ambassador to the US; and Tal Brody, who years ago was a star basketball player for the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team and remains one of the best known North American immigrants to Israel.

The hoopla was choreographed by Nefesh b’Nefesh, an aliyah organization that has had a remarkable track record in boosting immigration from North America and the U.K. This was Nefesh b’Nefesh’s 31st chartered flight, the 18th of 2007. All together, Nefesh b’Nefesh has brought over 13,000 immigrants to Israel since its establishment in 2002, nearly 3,000 alone this year, and an 80 percent increase in the past five years.

Last Thursday’s flight included 82 singles, 32 families with 25 children, 30 future IDF soldiers and a former ballerina for the Zurich Ballet who made aliyah from New York with her husband and two children. The youngest oleh in the group was 3 months old, the oldest was 96. The flight also included six dogs and two cats. Pictures taken by long time aliyah advocate Jacob Richman can be seen at http://www.jr.co.il/pictures/israel/history/2007/a260.htm.

Nefesh b’Nefesh, which was started by Rabbi Yehoshua Fass and businessman Tony Gelbart, has been instrumental in the dramatic increase of immigrants from the West. The Jewish Agency, however, disputes Nefesh b’Nefesh’s numbers, saying that immigration from North America actually dropped seven percent this year and that aliyah from the UK is down 20 percent. The Agency claims that Nefesh b’Nefesh has deliberately inflated its immigration numbers to justify the group’s request for more funds from the state and from Jewish philanthropists. Nefesh b’Nefesh says it needs the money and claims to have a waiting list of some 20,000 Jews.

While North American aliyah may or may not be up, both sides agree with the Absorption Ministry which reports that the overall figures are down. In 2007, 19,700 immigrants arrived in the country, a decline of six percent from the previous year and the lowest number since 1989 after the wave of immigration following the fall of the Iron Curtain. The largest number of immigrants in 2007 still came from the former Soviet Union at 6,445. In second place was Ethiopia at 3,607. North America had 2,957 and France held strong at 2,659.

Israel’s total population is about seven million. Approximately 118,000 people have moved to Israel from North America since the founding of the state, and over one million have come from the FSU.

Nefesh b’Nefesh certainly puts on a good show and makes for a comfortable and supportive landing. But new arrivals eventually have to move past immigration and deal with the “absorption” part of the process where, I’m afraid, no cheering crowds or speeches by well-dressed dignitaries can properly prepare a new arrival for Israel’s plethora of crazy drivers, surly store clerks and questionable customer service.

But the fact that 191 new immigrants nevertheless chose this week to throw their lot in with the rest of us was good enough news for me – and reason to get out of bed in the wee hours of the morning.

Israel’s 60th through a different lens

Your neighbors and colleagues may not know it, but it’s their celebration too.It was just another night in Jerusalem. I was having dinner last month with a visiting group from the Beachwood, Ohio Chamber of Commerce.

We were into our first course and some wine, and discussing Israel’s perception among Americans and how Beachwood’s efforts to woo Israeli startups to open US offices in their fair city dovetails nicely into our efforts at ISRAEL21c to inform people around the world about the ‘other’ Israel that they don’t read or see about on the news.

Suddenly, all eyes turned as into the restaurant walked former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan followed closely by CNN founder Ted Turner. They’re the head of the United Nations Foundation whose mandate is to build public-private partnerships that address the world’s most pressing problems. And they evidently decided to take some time out from those pressing issues for a meal in one of Jerusalem’s finest eateries.

A couple of days later, I spoke to another delegation of Houston, Texas congressmen and councilmen here on their first trip to Israel – same restaurant, but no Turner or Annan this time… but the same fascinated interest in the innovations and technology coming out of Israel.

Earlier that day, I brought a group of American Jewish Community Center directors from around the US to visit NDS – the leading global supplier of open end-to-end digital pay-TV solutions for the secure delivery of entertainment and information to television set-top boxes and IP devices. The company’s offices at the Har Hotzvim high tech park in Jerusalem would put some Silicon Valley establishments to shame, and the visitors were duly dazzled by the far-reaching technology emanating from this Israeli hotbed of innovation.

What do all these vignettes have in common? First, they’re all part of the wildly diverse reality of Israel in the 21st century. And second – and this is the crux of the matter – hardly anybody knows about it!

With Israel’s 60th birthday year forthcoming, all the big guns are coming out with their versions of how the country’s tumultuous 60 years should be commemorated. Undoubtedly, most celebrations in Jewish communities around the world will deservedly focus on the amazing center – religiously, culturally and historically – that Israel has become for the Jewish people.

But what does Israel mean to everyone else, like those people (both Jewish and non-Jewish) who don’t feel that pride in the blue and white, or get goosebumps when they hear ‘Hatikva’?

Unfortunately, most people who only get their views and ideas about Israel from what they see and read in the news, are seeing Israel with tunnel vision glasses. What those glasses show them is a country at war, a place of concrete, walls and tanks, and people either wearing the green helmets of the army or the black hats of the haredim. And more than that, it’s a country that has absolutely no relevance to their lives whatsoever.

We all know that this isn’t an accurate portrayal of Israel and its people. Between the beaches, the high tech centers and the thriving night spots in Tel Aviv, Israel is a kaleidoscope of diversity. But much more than that, due to the steady stream of scientific research, medical devices and high tech innovations coming out of the country’s thriving business community, Israel is actually very relevant to everyone’s lives.

There’s the usual litany of products we use every day that have Israeli footprints on them – you’ve probably received viral emails listing them… the Centrino chip, AOL instant messenger, etc.. but it really is true. And it’s incumbent on the people who care deeply about Israel to let the world know about these accomplishments… accomplishments that are enabling people to live better, safer, healthier and fuller lives.

So as we prepare to celebrate Israel’s 60th, and as our chests puff out with pride as we look back on the wars won, the challenges overcome, and the Zionist dream fulfilled, let’s also look at how we can recruit our neighbors, our colleagues and our friends to join in on the celebrations. Because they might not know it yet, but it’s their celebration too.

I’d like to take this chance to thank all of ISRAEL21c’s board, staff, contributors, readers and supporters who have helped to make our site the leading reference for Israel in the 21st century that’s available anywhere. It’s been an amazing five years, and as I move on to other challenges, I’m confident that the organization and the website will have an even greater impact in helping to reshape the image of Israel in the world.

(Originally appeared in The Persistence of Vision: Israel at 60)

A summer camp for the future

As the world gets flatter, Israel is ideally placed to nurture the creative impulse.The world is flat. That’s what writer Thomas Friedman says about the new global reality of the twenty-first century, in which innovation is no longer held back by national borders, creativity crashes across continents, and ideas travel the globe faster than the speed of megabytes.

It’s a radically changed status quo, uncomfortable perhaps for those of us who grew up with no idea where Bangalore or Beijing precisely were, let alone what they might have to do with our hard drive or our telco helpdesk. But in this kind of flat world, it’s easy to see one thing: that Israel, at the cusp of its sixtieth birthday, is just beginning (like any good baby boomer) to hit its second wind.

Flashback to 1948 for a moment: to a small wedge of a nation struggling to survive on little more than the power of conviction, idealism and sheer tenacity, contending not only with enemies on every side but also with the frustrations of a land poor in natural resources. Lucky, then, that Israel could sustain itself upon a different sort of milk and honey: its brains, which today have already improved the lives of billions around the world – from drip irrigation to purified drinking water to the technology behind Intel chips and Microsoft operating systems.

Did you know that Israel has the second largest number of start ups in the world, second only to Silicon Valley, despite having a fraction of the population? And as the world grows still flatter, we find ourselves ideally placed to nurture this creative impulse into an even brighter future.

That’s the idea behind the eCamp Israel, an idea my partners and I developed which is designed to bring enterprising teenagers from around the world together for a unique interactive summer camp experience.

We’ve received the support of government ministries, President Shimon Peres and one of Israel’s greatest high tech success stories Shai Agassi.

Participants in eCamp Israel will meet the world’s top innovators – from the founder of ICQ and AOL Instant Messaging software, to leading researchers at Intel, Google, Microsoft and Motorola. They will participate in workshops on 3D animation, flash programming, Web 2.0 video creation, robotics, programming, and will even get the chance to develop their own mobile-device video game.

Most importantly, though, campers will be introduced to maybe one of the most staggering facts about our new, flattened reality – the notion that all you need is a little work, a little chutzpah, and a lot of imagination – and you can change the entire world.

Or as Theodor Herzl put it, “if you will it, it is no dream.”

The first ever eCamp will be opening its doors in Summer 2008, planting the seeds of our future in the rich intellectual soil of the land of Israel. And I, personally, can’t wait to see what grows.

Welcome to the Silicon Wadi.

Hooters and Herzl

Hooters and Herzl

Doesn’t its diversity help make Israel the beautiful country it is today?When I heard a few months ago that Hooters was opening their first franchise in Israel, the following thoughts entered my head in no particular order:

- I like buffalo wings.

- Hmm… that’s interesting.

- WHOOOOO-HOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Ok, it was more like “ha ha!” While the value of a place to watch sports, drink beer, and act like men cannot be overstated, the potential comedic value of this particular place in Israel for me – a comedian – far outweighs it. In a land constantly struggling to define what it means to be a Jewish state, chalk up a point for secular Judaism. What, you were expecting waitresses in long skirts? (See, the concept is making me laugh already.)

Busting with curiosity, I had to check it out myself. And I did, finagling my way into the private opening night party a couple weeks ago as a media member. Some observations along the way…

** The opponents of the Gaza disengagement adopted the color orange during their protests in the spring and summer of 2005. At the Hooters launch, the color took on a whole new meaning. Why do I have a feeling these two groups will never, ever meet?

** Will they be selling Jewish Hooters calendars, complete with the holidays? ‘Holy chumus, Shlomo! Check out Miss Cheshvan! She is smokin’!!!’

** Suddenly, the IDF’s generation-long stay at the top of my ‘Uniforms I Find Really Hot’ rankings just got a little more tenuous, didn’t it? This is the biggest shake-up since Katie Couric and the Today Show took down Good Morning America in the 90s.

Ok, enough. Truth be told, the opening was a fascinating cultural experience. At least half the staff were flown over from the States to help the launch. As I suspected, the highlight was not being a creepy, drooling male, but having the rare taste of home, some greasy (albeit non-kosher) American food, a beer with friends, and good old-fashioned rock ‘n roll.

With my friends eager to hear firsthand about opening night, I raced home and immediately posted pictures on this site’s blog, Israelity, in my typical silly and sarcastic tone. I didn’t think anything of it.

Silly me. As the old saying goes, ‘two Jews, three opinions’, and Jews in Israel are certainly diverse in their beliefs and practices. The very first commenter took me to task for my celebrating and high-fiving tone for what he called a shameful event.

“This is what we waited for 2000 years for? To be like everyone else? To bring Hooters and culture such as that into this beautiful land?… What is the reason for living and building Israel if not for beautifying it, making it special? To be a light unto nations? not, to be like or worse than the nations. Why is Hooters breaking news and not the constant barrage of missles on Sderot and the Negev? You find Hooters more important than Jewish lives? You find Hooters more important than giving up Jerusalem, our capital, our home, our beacon of all Judaism?”

Suddenly, those buffalo wings didn’t taste so good anymore. Did he have a point? Was I making too much of this hedonistic restaurant which, yes, objectifies its female waitstaff? Was this going to contribute to the downfall of Israel? Nah?

While I fully respect and appreciate this commenter’s opinion, I feel great about Hooters’ arrival to Israel and not for the obvious reasons. Let’s face it: in a country known way too much for its politics and, ahem, situation with its neighbors, each new capitalistic venture from the Western world is a positive reminder that, hey, there’s more to this place than what Americans see on CNN.

I’m proud of what Israel has done as a capitalist country: the start-ups, the scientific breakthroughs, even that McDonalds can make it here with an Israeli twist by selling shawarma in pita. Do I think Hooters is going to make it here selling mozzarella sticks? I have my doubts. But I applaud people in this country for their risk-taking values.

I think we are a light unto other nations by not targeting civilians in war like our enemies do. We are a light by sending aid to countries affected by the tsunami in 2004. And as another Israelity commenter stated, while Israel is indeed the Holy Land, it is also an actual, functioning democratic nation with diverse citizens. Isn’t that part of what makes this place the beautiful country it is today?

After all, father of modern Zionism Theodor Herzl dreamed for a place where Jews would fill the workforce in their own state, as doctors, merchants, and laborers… and as hot waitresses in orange outfits. Consider his dream come true.

So count me as one of those who’ll be going back and enjoying every Zionist bite I take. Just don’t expect me to keep from laughing when the waitress offers me “bah-fah-lo weengs.”