Richard Shaffer has a life that most can only envy. He hosts events throughout the United States that involve the pouring and drinking of quality wine. In this case, boutique Israeli wines that Shaffer is introducing to America via his company, Israeli Wine Direct, which he founded in April 2007.
The family-owned, boutique wineries that produce some of Israel’s best wines, and which were once one of Israel’s best-kept secrets, are for the first time gaining publicity overseas. Now Americans can order cases of wine from the Golan Heights to be shipped to their homes, for a minimal shipping cost.And the timing couldn’t be better, since according to Shaffer, wine is replacing beer as many Americans’ drink of choice. With an overflowing market of about 10,000 wine brands currently available in the US, Shaffer believes it is the stories behind the wines that can help individual brands stand out. And Israel’s deep roots in the wine industry are a unique story that is rarely told.
“Wine was born in Israel, and on the Eastern Mediterranean as a whole,” Shaffer tells ISRAEL21c. “In Israel, Cyprus, and Turkey, you can find stone wine presses that are 5,000 years old. It’s a land that has been ‘wining’ for thousands of years.”
Shaffer’s story is a unique one, as well. After 11 years in the insurance industry, where he helped large companies manage health care costs, Shaffer made the dramatic shift to wine connoisseur and entrepreneur.
A better way of living
It was only four years ago that Shaffer began drinking wine, and somewhat later that his research uncovered the family-owned boutique wineries in Israel that produce the country’s finest wines.
A resident of Chicago with a family of four children, Shaffer is happy with the change of lifestyle, which at least partly involves flying around the US promoting his wines. “I was in New York the other day, wearing blue jeans and talking about wine, and all these businessmen in dark suits seemed so depressed,” Shaffer relates. “It’s been a nice shift for me.”
Shaffer’s investigation into Israeli wines began when he first discovered how mediocre the wines being sold in most Israeli stores were. Digging deeper into the world of Israeli wines, Shaffer discovered five boutique wineries in Israel that produce world-class wines, and with whom he now works: Tulip, Pelter, Flam, Margalit and Tzora.
Shaffer describes how Israeli Wine Direct was born. “In the summer of 2007, my son Noah and I met with about a dozen family-owned wineries in Israel and tasted their wines, and presented an idea to them that hadn’t been done before, which was to create a platform for small boutique wineries in Israel, and market them at an international level.”
Beyond just wine, Shaffer believes that because wine is so reflective of the place in which it is made, Israeli wine can give Americans an insight into the Israel “beyond the CNN curtain.”
“Wine has an amazing way of bringing people together – what it does is connect people to a sense of place,” explains Shaffer. “Wine translates a particular place inside the bottle. The combination of soil, sun, and culture come together in good wine, creating a unique flavor and aroma.”
A vehicle for understanding Israel
For this reason, Shaffer concludes, “Israeli wine is a vehicle for understanding the real Israel.”
In a further effort to publicize what he believes is the real Israel, Shaffer has formed an unusual partnership with Save a Child’s Heart (SACH), an Israeli organization that performs free, life-saving operations on children from around the world, including Palestinian children.
Shaffer plans to speak about SACH at future wine tasting events throughout the US, and to donate 10 percent of his company’s sales to the charity. Like Israel’s boutique wines, SACH is little known abroad, and both in their own way provide an insight into Israel beyond the news headlines.
On his most recent visit to Israel, Shaffer visited the Jerusalem headquarters of SACH. “I was in units near the kids with their moms,” recounts Shaffer. “In one room there were five children from Gaza, as well as children from Uganda, Tanzania, the Philippines, and Moldova, all of whom would have died without surgery.”
Shaffer tells of how after a wine tasting event in Boston, the Consul General said to him, “Thank you for making us proud to be Israeli.”
That event inspired Shaffer to create a membership club that will be starting in May, called “Proud to Pour,” which will offer tours of Israeli wineries and lectures on the various wines.
The idea for Shaffer is to look beyond the wine itself and focus on its meaning for Israel as a whole. “Just as Israel’s language is reborn after 2000 years, the wine is, too,” says Shaffer. “Israeli wine is now something that people can be proud of.”