I just returned yesterday from a fantastic week-long trip to Israel with my wife where we got to both do some touring and spend time with family there. Always good to go back there for some "spiritual recharging". I also used the opportunity to visit several wineries there, which was a first for me (outside of the US). Before going any further, I have to give a big shout out to forum member Jon Tabak who had the foresight to put me in touch with the most excellent and resourceful Gabriel Geller of the Wine Mill in Jerusalem. Although unfortunately we did not have the chance to spend that much time together in person as my visit to Gabriel's wine shop was cut short by my pending dinner reservation downstairs at Keyara, I did converse plenty with Gabriel via phone and email and he not only gave me some great recommendations and tips regarding which wineries to visit, he actually arranged the visits and private tours for me as well. Thanks loads Gabriel and I hope to some day reciprocate however I can when you're in town in NY!
Our first stop was to the Psagot winery. This one was the most impressive, more professional and more commercial than the others I visited. They bottle 200,000 bottles of wine a year, I didn't know they were that big already. They also had more varietals than what I thought I'd seen (and certainly tasted) in the US - a cabernet franc, shiraz, port among others, although once I got back home I checked around and saw that these are readily available here, so I guess I'm just not paying enough attention... In any case after we were shown the winemaking and storage facilities (each viewable from a different side of a conference-style room with glass walls on 2 sides and perched above these areas) we were shown a few short videos explaining the history of the region and the winemaking process. We then got to taste the chardonnay, compare the '10 and '08 cabernets (08 was far superior and a great wine) and the '10 shiraz along with some great cheeses, crackers and olives in their beautiful glass-enclosed tasting room with a great panoramic view. A real nice tour, very educational and a wonderful time. Got to meet winemaker Yakov Berg for a few minutes as well, who told me he'll be in NY for the KFWE in February.
Then it was on to Tanya which was quite the experience. Winemaker Yoram Cohen was in Tel Aviv so we met with Yehoyada his nephew who actually works the vineyards and winemaking. Between his very broken english and my very broken hebrew we had a great time. He showed us the (small) warehouse with the vats and processing equipment and some barrel storage, then we went to another location dedicated to tasting and tours and there we barrel tasted some cabernet sauvignon and merlot and then he opened a bottle of 2009 Halel cab/merlot blend and an 09 shiraz I believe from the Eliya line, all with their homemade olives and fermented cherries in alcohol (which were so good I purchased 2 jars) while we sat at the open-air stone-built tasting room taking in the views of the surrounding hills. A real authentic experience as I got up close with the facilities and someone who actually makes the wine. He seemed thrilled to be able to sit and relax with people who enjoyed the fruits of his labor, and we must have sat chatting and drinking for close to an hour. Big contrast to Psagot which in hindsight seemed very commercial (although psagot pales in comparison to larger wineries like herzog which I've visited in the past).
We then got back into the car and headed for the Gvaot winery. It was at this point that I realized it was a very smart move on my part to hire a driver for the day...
Gvaot we got to right before sunset. We had the opportunity to take in some of the beautiful surroundings and take pictures before we sat with Shivi in the tasting room as night fell. This was a real cerebral experience as he was the only winemaker I got to really converse with at length that day and he seemed genuinely interested in our input. (He also happens to be a molecular biologist by trade and truthfully I'm not used to hanging out with scientists, but he's a pretty cool one!) He actually had us taste-test (literally poured out of test tubes!) different versions of a Rose he is developing and requested our input on the nose, taste, color etc. A real treat! Then they opened a Herodian cabernet sauvignon and a Gofna white which was a unique chardonnay/cabernet blend. Both excellent wines. So much so that I purchased a bottle of their elite Masada line wine based on tasting their lower-level wines. Hope it doesn't disappoint! Afterwards we went with Shivi to his beautiful house by the vineyards for a cup of espresso and got to meet his wife and 3 of his adorable children. All in all it was truly a great experience and I can't wait to go back and visit some more of them!