Congressmen and senators raise a glass to Israeli wine

California Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman, center, samples Israeli wine at the ‘America and Israel Together’ wine-tasting evening. (Photo: Ron Sacks)Lawmakers on Capitol Hill may think they know a lot about Israel – and many of them do. But last week, …

California Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman, center, samples Israeli wine at the ‘America and Israel Together’ wine-tasting evening. (Photo: Ron Sacks)Lawmakers on Capitol Hill may think they know a lot about Israel – and many of them do.

But last week, they learned about one aspect of the country that few of them were familiar with – the world of Israeli wine.

At the first-ever joint Israel-American wine tasting at the US Capitol, a bipartisan cross-section of legislators including 25 high-ranking members of Congress, two senators and several dozen policymakers, advisors and staff gathered to sip merlots, cabernets and have their palates and eyes opened wide by what they tasted.

“Frankly, I never knew that any kosher wine could be good,” Gregory Slayton, US Ambassador to the Bahamas told ISRAEL21c. “I started with the Cabernet and I was surprised how good it was. Then I moved on to the Merlot, and it’s delicious!”

The wine-tasting reception, under the theme ‘America and Israel Together’, was held in honor of the Congressional Wine Caucus, a group that promotes American wine interests. According to organizer, Californian venture capitalist and wine aficionado Yitz Applbaum, Israel is producing “some of the best wines anywhere.”

Applbaum, president of the California-Israel Chamber of Commerce, is passionate about business – his career demands that he be attuned to developing trends. But Applbaum is also passionate about wine – a former vintner, his wine cellar houses one of the largest private collections of kosher wines in the world and his palate can decipher the nuances that make the fine wines truly great.

For Applbaum, this is not merely an international trade or food quality issue. Wine is much more than just another beverage, he says, but a time-honored symbol of hospitality and an enabler for communication and reconciliation.

“Wine is a common language between people,” Applbaum says, “Sometimes there are disagreements. Sometimes there are issues you need to get over with someone, and what you do is you sit down together with a glass of wine, usually a cigar, and at the end of the meal, you’re friends.”

He gestures to a glass of red wine cradled in his hand.

“With this wine from Israel, we can sit and drink wine together and make friends.”

CWC Co-chairman, California Congressman George Radanovich, himself a vintner and a friend of Applbaum, envisioned the wine-tasting as an opportunity to deepen ties between the US and Israel.

When Applbaum floated the idea of the wine tasting, “[Radanovich] told me, ‘Israel and America have such close relations in so many different areas, lets try and build the bridges to wine,’” Applbaum says.

Applbaum along with Jay Buchsbaum, vice president of the Royal Wine Corporation – the largest importer of Israeli wines to the United States – went to work selecting a variety of wines for the tasting that they hoped they would impress the experts and laymen alike.

At the wine tasting, many attendees, whose past experience with Israeli wine had been limited to the sweet, sacramental variety once popular with Israeli exports, could hardly contain their astonishment.

“Oh my god… This is the best wine I’ve ever tasted!” gushed Representative Shelley Berkley of Nevada, and leaned over to study the label on the bottle of Israeli Chardonnay more closely.

Connecticut Senator and former president and vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew and frequent visitor to Israel, who is no stranger to fine Israeli wines, led a toast to the assembly and afterwards remarked, “To have the modern state of Israel and have that state producing wine of high quality, it’s one of the bonuses of being alive today and I’m very grateful.”

Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman quipped, “No offense, but we’ve come a long way from Manischewitz – a long way from the sweet grape juice plus that we drink on Passover.”

Coleman said that on a previous mission to Israel he had been treated to another wine tasting arranged by Applbaum, and had since committed to memory the names of several Israeli wineries that particularly impressed him.

Congressman Radanovich was struck by the remarkable diversity of Israeli wines. “They are good clean wines and yet each winery tastes quite different. That’s because they’re grown in different climates.”

Buchsbaum expounded upon Radanovich’s observations:

“What’s so interesting about Israel as a wine growing region is that – even as small as Israel is – it has tremendous diversity in its wine terroir (growing conditions). You have cool mountainous regions of the Golan, you have warmish Shomron regions and you have cooler but more compact earth regions around the Judean hills, each which has its own distinct flavor profile when the grapes are grown in those vineyards. What wineries really try to do is to try and infuse the grape with the unique characteristics of the earth that it is harvested from.”

Buchsbaum said that in the past several years, Israeli wineries have made a serious effort to improve the quality of their wines, upgrading production machinery and enlisting the services of some of the world’s top wine consultants, viticulturists and enologists.

At one time, Buchsbaum said, Israeli winemakers would mix together grapes from different vineyards indiscriminately during wine production.

“You can’t do that and still get really focused, excellent wines.” Buchsbaum says.

Today, Israeli wineries are far more careful monitoring the quality and consistency of the grapes they harvest, he adds.

According to Buchsbaum, another new development is the proliferation of small-batch wines harvested from individual vineyards. Even huge wine producers such as Carmel Mizrahi have embraced this trend with excellent results.

Buchsbaum said he was especially excited about a new multi-million dollar Israeli marketing initiative. “Just like people today are buzzing about South African or Australian wines, so they may soon be talking about Israeli wines.”

The wine community has already begun to see Israeli wines in a new light, Buchsbaum saysd. “Recently, most publications on wine such as Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have written glowingly about many Israeli wineries,” he says.

Even The Washington Post, Buchsbaum notes, had sent their wine reporter to cover the Capitol wine tasting as a story for the Food section, instead of merely a political curiosity.

While hopes for the future are high, nobody expects Israeli wines to become a global sensation overnight, but gradually and steadily, like fine wine aging in a oak cask. For now, Applbaum still considers an American wine, a Baron Herzog 1996 Special Edition Cabernet, the darling of his collection, but in time, that too might change.

Next on Applbaum’s agenda is plans to bring investors to Israel to visit vineyards and wineries much in the same way he has been bringing groups to learn about Israel’s high tech industries. Israel’s wine industry is poised to compete vine to vine with some of the world’s most prestigious winegrowers while shattering a few myths and stereotypes along the way.

In a memorable scene in the movie Sideways, the protagonist, a wine aficionado, likens himself to the Pinot Noir grape. In the same spirit, Applbaum was posed the following question: If Israel was a grape, which one would it be?

“It would have to be the Cabernet,” he said without a moment’s hesitation, “It’s full of life and very big… It can be overpowering at times and it needs to be aged in order to mellow a little bit.”