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While I make an effort to taste every wine from every winemaker in Israel, I'm getting lost quite a bit. It's OK I'm embracing the humor of it and knowing there's wines I've never tried (mostly amazing) waiting for me at my eventual arrival helps me deal with the proliferation of bad directions, signage and bus drivers who have no idea where to drop me off. Many of the smaller wineries are very poorly marked and barely noticeble from the roads they're on and many of them are hidden away on back roads on communal (kibbutzim) or collective (moshavim) farms. Following Israel's most popular, if only wine map, led me to the vicinity of the Alexander Winery in Beit Yitzhak but it was still more than an hour walk for me from the maps closest refence point and I passed by the winery before I was directed back to this no-sign, low profile facility. Did I mention my backpack had my laptop and a bunch of wine books and camera equipment too?
....9 Barrels to Lead the Way... the only street side clue to the location of the Alexander Winery
Before getting started I had to first quench my thirst with water. Wine at this point would have been gulped and not tasted and probably would have made a short day for me. I first met with Assistant Wine Maker Shalom Amzleg. Shalom is one of many observant Jews across Israel who assist non-observant owner/winemakers to assure that their wines are eligible for kosher certification by a supervising rabbi. Shalom has only been at Alexander for less than 10 months and previously has worked at Carmel, Tishbi, and Recanati (three of Israel's top producers). When he isn't drinking Alexander wine, Shalom's fond of downing Dalton wines which he finds as good value wines for everday drinking. His favorite Alexander wine is the Cabernet-Merlot blend, by which I believe he meant their Sandro series.
Several minutes after recovering from my hike, owner/winemaker Yarom Shalom pulled up in his company truck and trailer. The timing was perfect as I was just getting my wine glands glowing with excitement by what many told me would be a special treat. I was a little apprehensive about this winery visit more than any other I've been on so far. My Hebrew skills are slowly progressing and Yarom was fairly insistent on the phone that I try to converse in Hebrew. So I came into thinking I might taste a few wines and get a lousy interview. Well turns out, it was one of my favorite days wine spelunking in Israel.
When I make these forays into wine, I give a whole day to the prospect I'll be following the winemaker around and being patient until they basically go home or get swamped. I don't end the interview. I let them set the pace and give them a chance to wow me. Not only that there's typically other interesting winos who make cameo appearances. Yarom turned out to be much more hospitable than out initial conversations led me to believe I should expect. We both speak wine as a common language and between his English and my Hebrew we did a fine job asking and answering each other.
David Rhodes at work... really, he's working, taking one for the team as it were...
This time of year a lot of Northern Hemisphere wineries are apt to be bottling wines (a convenient time when the winemakers aren't dealing with vineyard or harvest/crush issues). As I arrived, a new worker Yuda, was bottling the 2006 Wine of Alexander Merlot. Well, that got me my first taste of Yarom's craft and I was impressed by the wine's smooth tannins brought about by it's 2 years in 90% French Oak and 10% American barrels. I picked up some dark cherry, a preceived sweetness, and a mouthful of plums. There was a slight hint of a fair amount of acidity which should help this fruity offering age gracefully if not distinctly.
...the last moments of a glass of delicious wine Alexander's award winnning 2006 Merlot
One of my favorite parts of visiting the wineries and meeting the winemakers personally is I usually gather tidbits if not chunks of "insider information" about Israeli wine not published in articles or wine books. I embrace the strange as well as the nerdy wine "roots and vines" as well as the "grapes" and like getting to the dirt of what going on in the winery and the industry. For instance, Yarom and I got to talking about Grappa production in Israel. Grappa is one of my pet projects. For those not familiar with Grappa, and many Anglos are not, Grappa is traditionally a peasant's spirit in the Mediterranean region (Greece, Italy... where it originated, Spain and elsewhere) where the leftovers of wine production ( stems, seeds and skins) are further pressed and the crushed fluid is distilled as a liquor (rather than fermented as a table wine).
As an aromatic brandy like beverage, with an alcohol level anywhere around between 40 to 60% or 80 to 120 proof, Grappa can knock your socks off and is typically drunk after the meal as a digestive aid to help dissolve heavy and hearty dinners. Traditionally, it was thought of a poor man's drink and often an underground moonshine but producers now have taken an oportunity to upsell it publicly and make some fine high-end well sought after bottles. I'm fond of the idea of Grappa if not the reality becuase i see it as it as a "green" carbon frinedly drink using the waste of one process to produce another product.
So, it was with this in mind I told Yarom about my desire to seek out or encorage grappa production by Israeli winemakers. To my surprise and delight he did tell me ther eis some being produced on the quiet. Distributed by some owners off the market to friends and good clients or amoungst the workers, I hope I come across some and will let you what I find when i do. It will most likely be featured as a seperate blog posting. (Since, this visit I came across a Grappa prouduced by the Tulip Winery in Israel. I'll be doing a follow-up essay on Tulip, it's wine and Grappa (non-kosher) and any other Israeli Grappa I come across).
Another one of my favorite parts of the winery visits are the guided tastings by the winemakers. For two reasons, no one knows their wines better and they'll often serve up what their proudest off aging in the barrel. At Alexnader's on this my first visit, Yarom fed into one of my guiltiest pleasures. He took a vial from a barrel and poured me a taste of a familar looking wine that sparked immediate salivation. Without initailly recognizing it, I was having sme kind of Pavlovian response to sense memories of what has been one of my favorite wine styles. I think I resisted believing it because I've been suggesting to winemakers to try but most seemed resistnt to make Armarone.
Armarone, like Grappa, is a bit of a cult drink. Not every or most wine drinker is familiar with it. It's price, typically, starting at least $50/ bottle keeps out of the reach of many and it's rarely ever served by the glass in restaaurants or wine bars. Yet, if you get into wine, go to wine events and hang out without adventerous winos someone will eventually slip you a glass and say "you gotta try a glass of this"!!! Armarone is a style of Italian wine making where the grapes are dryed into raisins and then pressed for their juices for making wine. The drying is important to the efffect of Amarone because it reduces the water content of the grapes and concentrates the flavors and aromas of the wine eventually produced.
Yarom's creation was that kind of a concretrated pleasure punch to the palatte. Having been aged already for two years and not being expected for release for another two, we were catching the wine in still it's early stages but it showed more than it's fair share of indications it was going to be a market changer and once trying it other winemakers in Israel might do the same.
Moshav Beit Yitzhak 42970
Tel: 09 8822956 Fax: 098872076
currently exporting to Canada, Holland and Germany
All over the wine world, it's very common for wineries to pass from one generation to the next from father to son. What's far less common but becoming less of a surprise is a winery passing down from father to daughter. Roni Saslove, the middle daughter of Barry Saslove, is one such prodigy. Though the winemaking today is a team effort between Barry and Roni, she has secured her place as the Saslove Winery's heir apparent and every vintage she manages to make the Saslove Wines as much of a reflection of her own passion for wines as that of her father. .
winemaker Roni Saslove takes great pride in their premium oak barrels
Barry Saslove, a Canadian immigrant to Israel, started the winery in 1991. It was a humble beginning processing only 100 kilos of grapes it's first vintage compared to 80,000 bottles/year they make today. In 1991 their low tech non-commercial effort involved pressing their grapes through stomping the grapes. Barry was a computer programmer whose curiousity had him flirting with winemaking. As his interest peaked, he took wine courses at UC Davis that would spark 18 vintages of fine wine making each year better than the last.
founder and winemaker Barry Saslove at Jerusalem Wine Festival
Barry would transition from an aspring student to a well saught after lecturer about winemaking and wine appreciation. Thousands would listen to Barry talk about wines yet no one was listening with more interest than his daughter Roni. Roni had participated in every one of the winery's vintages ( except 2008) since 1991 when she was 14. After graduating college, she went on to become a vetinarian nurse but became disillusioned believing at first that she would make people happy healing and helping animals under their care but found that the job was more often than not dealing with people and their animal wards in a state of despair. Roni didn't have to look far to find a more joyful vocation.
Roni enjoys drinking Saslove wine as much as making it
Roni feels she made the transition from assistant to winemaker during the 2002 vintage. Since then her contributions have become more and more significant. Although, Barry continues as the senior winemaker, Roni is evolving into a respected winemaker in her own right. Asked if her winemaking philosophy differs that much from her father's she says no. Roni says it's hard to disagree with her father's success in making very good wines, wines that she loves to make and drink and share with others.
David enjoying the hospitality of the Saslove Winery
Then what does does Roni add to the Saslove team one might ask. Roni spent her last year at Brock University in Canada quanitifying her 17 years of experience and honing her craft through a one year, ten course program intended for those already working as winery professionals that included course and lab work including wine chemistry and microbiology, vineyard managment, vineyard biology, vineyard pest management, sensory analysis and wine marketing. Though she and her father make most decisions in concert, Roni says her contributions are most strongly felt in the choice and use of barrels, the blending of which wines from which grapes and then from which vineyards and barrels and the choice of which yeast strains work best with each grape and even which grape from which vineyard. Until the day she eventually takes over as the winery's sole winemaker maybe decades from now, what Roni provides the winery most is immeasurable. Her father Barry and the Saslove Winery's patrons should be confident that the winery will be in good hands for many more vintages to come.
David Rhodes worked at wineries in California & Israel, hosted over 100 wine parties.as a sommelier & adviser for the SDSU Business of Wine program. He speaks weekly about wine on Rustymikeradio.com & writes for ESRA magazine. Israeliwineguy@gmail.com