The woman who is putting the case for Israeli wines
Esther Cohen runs tours of wineries and champions their products abroad.
Cohen got into wine by dating an off-licence owner. "I learned a lot from him," she says
Until recently, Israeli wine was associated with overly sweet kosher varieties and received minimal respect in the sometimes snobby world of oenophiles (aka wine lovers).
But there has been a shift in recent years - the influential Robert Parker guides now include ratings for Israeli wines, the vintages win international competitions and a wider selection is available worldwide.
At the heart of this revolution is American-Israeli Esther Cohen, who heads My Israel Wine Tours and is a champion of Israeli wine both at home and abroad.
Cohen, a native of Boston, made aliyah at the age of 25, but her passion for wine was already well established. She first got the bug when studying abroad in Christchurch, New Zealand where she took a wine appreciation course. After college, where she studied psychology and business, she dated the owner of an off-licence. "I learned a lot through him," she recalls.
After working in a series of odd jobs in Jerusalem, Cohen realised she wanted to be involved in Israel's burgeoning wine industry. She emailed Tishbi, Israel's fifth largest winery, inquiring about jobs. To her surprise, owner Jonathan Tishbi called her just hours later to offer her a position as a tour guide. She moved near the winery in Zichron Yaakov, where she worked for eight months as a guide, as well helping in the restaurant and assisting with marketing. It was there that she realised that there would be a demand for organised wine tours, and in 2010 she left Tishbi and launched My Israel Wine Tours. It was an immediate success. "In 2010 I had 75 tours of about 450 people," she says. "It just took off and there's a huge demand for it."
Israel may be a small country, but it has 380 wineries across five distinct regions. Adom or red wine makes up a huge percentage of the market with varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot hugely popular.
While the wine industry is seeing rapid growth, says Cohen, it is still "very much in its infancy stage". This is where her tours come in handy. "In Israel a lot of the wineries are in people's homes, there are no signs, their English is no good," she explains. It can be daunting for a visitor to navigate. "I've figured out all this stuff; which wineries are worth going to, where they are, and the language isn't a problem for me."
Although asking Cohen to choose her favorite Israeli wines is a little like asking a parent which is their favourite child, she does have a few top picks.
"As much as I like individual wines, there are certain wineries I love," she says. "Somek winery makes 10,000 bottles a year. Somek's family is from the first aliyah in 1882; his great grandparents came from Romania and settled in Israel. At that time Rothschild taught all the families how to develop grapes for wine, and he learned from his father, who learned from his grandfather, and he's still making that same French style wine in his home."
Another favorite is Psagot, whose visitors centre is "one of most beautiful in Israel, and their wines are good value for the quality."
Domaine du Castel, she says, "has a reputation for being the best quality wine in Israel," and, of course, "Tishbi Shiraz, I love. There are different things I love about each winery."
As well as her tours, Cohen is using other methods to spread the word about Israeli wine. She hosts a web series called The Israeli Wine Show, hosts wine tastings at restaurants around Israel, leads a wine club in California, and was a guest on wine expert Gary Vaynerchuk's Sirius Radio show in March.
Slowly, word is getting out internationally about Israeli wine, and it seems there is a market for it. Tell that to the oenophiles.
More details at www.myisraelwinetours.com