At a seder last year, the host put out a few bottles of Israeli wine.
"Oh, kosher wine," one of the host's relatives observed with flared nostrils and a raised brow, "Yum."
The topic of Israeli wines -- not all kosher wines are Israeli, not all Israeli wines are kosher -- can seem like a meeting place that's made specially for snobs and rubes to share. To paraphrase a certain White House Cabinet member, a lot of people don't know what they don't know or don't know what they think they know. "Kosher" triggers associations with Manischewitz, the syrupy, sacramental stuff found in the fruit and jug wines section.
In fact, Israel has followed the global trend of crafting quality wine and is now regarded by wine experts as an up-and-comer. The industry is technologically modern, with state-of-the-art facilities and know-how. It's also growing aggressively, with more than 120 wineries, an implausibly high number given Israel's small population. To put that in perspective, if Israel were a U.S. state, it would rank fifth.
"Israeli wines are on a steep upward curve," said wine writer Rod Smith. "The country has the conditions, especially in the Golan Heights with its cool high-altitude sites, varied exposures, and volcanic soils. Israeli growers and winemakers are among the most progressive and cosmopolitan in the world. They have the financial backing, too, so all the parts are in place."
The latest part is "Rogov's Guide to Israeli Wines 2005," the first comprehensive English-language book on the subject.
Rogov has long played the role of food and wine ambassador for Israeli tourism, and readers have consulted him for wine and restaurant choices for more than 35 years in his columns in Ha'aretz and the International Herald Tribune and on his Web site. He has, and is, a big personality, who knows the skinny on seemingly every chef, restaurateur, supplier and wine expert in Israel.
The guide aims to put Israel on the oenological map a la John Platter's South African Wine Guide or annual Pocket Wine Guides by Britain's Hugh Johnson and Australia's Oz Clark. Rogov's endeavor is handsomely published, and its portable format underscores its usefulness for wine-travelers.
The book includes a fine introduction with a history and an overview of the subject, then reviews vineyards and their varietals using the convention of stars and the 100-point ratings system, with evaluations according to the flavor wheel. Although wine talk can be generally hard to understand even for experienced wine drinkers (What, after all, is the difference between an 86 and an 87? What is an 87, anyway?), Rogov can be amusing. Of one lowly regarded bottle, sarcasm overflows.
"Drink up," he writes, proving how brevity is wit.
The introduction, though, is worth the book's $14.95 price. For all the effete and inaccessible talk that wine sometimes seems to invite, wine is fundamentally about the land. Wines' roots in the Land of Israel extend back to ancient times, and they laid the foundation for the Zionist enterprise. The Torah notes that Noah planted the first vineyard, and how Moses' spies in Canaan brought back immense clusters of grapes. Deuteronomy lists wine among the blessings the Promised Land will yield. Ezekiel even makes reference to wine-growing methods, specifically trellises winemakers used to train vines. There's a considerable archeological record to back up the Bible, too, with remains of ancient wine presses and other wine-making paraphernalia across the entire Land of Israel. The only interruptions of wine production were during certain periods of Muslim rule, since Islam forbids alcohol.
That vines, like people, need strong roots was a metaphor that wasn't lost on the earliest pioneers in Palestine, the Chalutzim, who saw a prospect to meet the Jewish world's demand for kosher wine. In 1882, with backing from the Baron Edmund de Rothschild, who owned the Chateau Lafite, one of the most esteemed wineries in Bordeaux, the early settlers planted vineyards in Rishon LeZion. Rothschild sent experts, supplies and grape varieties from Europe and funded wineries in Rishon, as well as in Zichron Ya'akov, which opened in 1890. Heat killed the first harvests, followed by a plague of insects, and the ventures failed. Even so, Rothschild subsequently organized a collective to manage the two wineries in 1906 called, Carmel Mizrahi -- and that entity dominated the Israeli wine industry through the 1980s.
Quality improved dramatically in the 1990s and early 2000s, especially with the rise of dozens of boutique and artisanal producers. Some produce fewer than 1,000 bottles, some more than 100,000 bottles. The challenge for small wineries is distribution, and various efforts are under way, including one by Carmel, to organize boutique producers and help them reach a wider market. The big producers, notably Carmel and Golan Heights Winery, dominate shelf space in the metropolitan Philadelphia region. In New York, selection is somewhat better.
The question now is the future, and where, given the competition, Israeli wine will go from here. Because it's Israel, wine also faces political pressures, especially because some of Israel's best wine-growing lands are in disputed areas, most notably the Golan Heights but also in the hills of Judea.
That aside, Rogov looks to the niche success of places such as Sicily and the Penedes region of Spain, which succeeded by appealing to wine drinkers in search of novel, high-quality wines, as examples Israeli winemakers should look to for guidance. As niche wines, Rogov writes, Israelis wines "will move off those shelves limited only to kosher holdings and begin to appear in a special Israeli section. Their appeal to the broader population will come form their unique qualities, reflecting their Mediterranean and specifically Israeli source.... Those that prove their excellence will find themselves in greater demand by both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences."