March 6, 2012, Updated September 11, 2012

Photo by Ilan Levy
Visitors poured into Israel to taste Israeli wines.

It’s a sign of the times: A country once synonymous with pioneering farmers and cloying sacramental wine is now associated with high-tech and fine wines.

“Israeli wines are now considered quality wines,” premier wine connoisseur Haim Gan tells ISRAEL21c.

Gan organizes the annual International Wine Exhibition in Israel, held this year over two days in February. IsraWineExpo was the fourth such event at the Israel Trade Fairs and Convention Center in Tel Aviv.

The first modern winery in Israel, the award-winning Carmel Winery, was founded by Baron Edmond James de Rothschild in Zichron Yaakov in 1882. Since the 1990s and especially in the past 15 years, the industry has become state-of-the-art.

“You can see the change everywhere — in the service, the presentation, greater public awareness of wines, wine lists in restaurants. A vintner is no longer a farmer — he’s an expert in his field. The best of our youth are now studying winemaking all over the world, instead of law or medicine.”

IsraWineExpo has become a fixture on the worldwide circuit, says Gan. “About 18,000 visitors passed through in three days. There were dozens of exhibitors, representatives of wine importers from abroad, buyers and critics from all over the world.”

Several new wines were launched at the expo, he adds. “The first day was devoted to the professionals — buyers, barmen, exporters, importers, restaurateurs, critics, etc. The other two days we opened to the general public,” he explains.

Photo by Ilan Levy
Israeli wine production is up to about 60 million bottles per year.

A visit to the expo has become an annual must for those Israelis who profess affinity to the vine. Mingling is part of the event.

“This expo also has a social aspect — the small talk, the atmosphere,” says Gan, a gregarious character himself. “After all, wine is a sensatory experience.”

“This is the way to promote the wine industry in Israel — by bringing people from abroad to get an impression of what’s happening here and sample the wines firsthand. Now that we’ve shown that we can produce a steady yield of quality wines, it’s time for Israeli wines to have more international exposure,” he says.

The Grape Man

Gan manages and owns what is widely considered the most authentic wine venue in the country: The Grape Man House (Beit Ish HaAnavim), a combination of wine school, wine bar and restaurant, wine shop, wine cellar and magnet for local connoisseurs.

Formerly a successful restaurateur, he opened The Grape Man House 12 years ago in a three-story building in the restored Old City of Jaffa.

He unwillingly assumed the role of Israel’s wine guru following last September’s death of Daniel Rogov, Haaretz’s veteran wine critic who chronicled the rise of Israeli winemaking and penned the definitive annual Rogov Guide to Israeli Wine.

“That man did so much for Israeli wines,” sighs Gan. “It was a desert here when he arrived [from the US, via France, in 1978]. No one can enter his shoes.”

Gan estimates Israeli wine production at 58-60 million bottles a year, and they’re sold in about 50 countries worldwide. Considerable investments over the years have leveraged the industry, notes Gan, but it is not yet saturated.

Haim Gan, “The Grape Man.”

“There must be 300 wineries in Israel — and we’re still counting,” says Gan. “Who’s the best in town is very much a matter of opinion. Some are better and some are worse, naturally. Some are commercial, while others are based in a garage. Those that produce fewer than 10,000 bottles are not worth looking at.”

Every year there are a few new wineries

The small “boutique” wineries that have proliferated in recent years reflect both their owners’ personalities and Israel’s unique characteristics: plentiful sunshine, Mediterranean herbs, asphalt, minerals and volcanic soil.

“Every year there a few new wineries, while others fall by the wayside. Many of the small-scale wine producers are artisans. Some come from love, while others see it more as a hobby. About 100 of them are worthwhile — the other 200 are still at the experimentation stage,” Gan says, diplomatically.

“In terms of market share, the big five wineries — Carmel, Barkan, Ramat Hagolan, Binyamina and Teperberg — control about 80 percent of the [local] market. Others, like Tishbi, Dalton, Galil Mountain and Recanati, are also strong.”

Exporting the wine is the way forward for the industry, he says, since the rate of wine consumption in Israel is one of the lowest in the Western world.

Israeli wineries offer varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Shiraz (particularly suitable for Israel’s climate) and Bordeaux.

Gan offers some advice for the Israeli consumer: “When you scan the supermarket shelves, look at the Israel wineries. Notice that most of the best wines are blends. Try to break the bounds of familiarity. It’s not all about Cabernet and Merlot.”

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

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