Although winemaking in the region dates back thousands of years, modern Israeli wine has gotten a bad rap and in the past visitors rarely traveled to Israel thinking of vineyards. But the times they are a-changin’, and Israeli wine is gaining its place alongside other respected New World regions like California, South Africa and New Zealand. Along with the improvement in wine, a small but passionate wine tourism industry has sprouted in Israel in recent years.
Travelers looking to sample wine grown on land as old as the Bible have been able to indulge their wine interest with short trips to wineries on grand tours of the country for the past couple of years. But until recently, dedicated foodies and curious oenophiles had nowhere to turn for wine travel in the holy land.
That changed with the start of the start of My Israel Wine Tours, led by Boston native Esther Cohen. Since launching in January 2010, Cohen’s company has taken nearly 500 individuals on tours of some of Israel’s 380 wineries.
“It just took off and there’s a huge demand for it,” she explains. Still, wine tourism is “very much in its infancy stage in Israel,” and is popular primarily among the tourist and Anglo community in Israel. Cohen estimates that 80% of the people who plan tours with her are foreign tourists and the remaining 20% are English-speakers who live in Israel.
One of the reasons organized tours are such a boon in the country is that it is much harder to visit wineries on your own in Israel than in more developed wine tourist destinations like Napa or Bordeaux. “In Israel a lot of wineries are in people’s homes, there are no signs, or their English is no good,” she notes. “I’ve figured all this stuff out, which wineries are worth going to, where they are, and the language isn’t a problem for me.” Although the language barrier isn’t an issue, navigating wineries in Israel can even be tricky for native Israelis for all the other reasons.
Cohen, who made aliyah at 25, was originally unsure of her career path when she arrived in Israel. Having developed a passion for wine while studying abroad in New Zealand, she took a job giving tours and waitressing at the country’s fifth largest winery, Tishbi.
“I learned a lot about the Israeli wine industry through Tishbi,” recalls Cohen. After eight months she realized a need for organized tours and began planning her company. She built a Web site and quickly started getting hits and people enquiring about tours. Today she leads customized tours of any of the five wine regions of Israel, and has recently expanded into the West Bank as well.
Typically Cohen visits three wineries per tour, each of which offers something different. “One winery is usually a big winery; we tour the facility and I explain the process, the oak barrels, and so on. The second is usually a boutique winery. The third is usually something unique, like the winemaker is also a chef, or it’s in an awe inspiring location,” Cohen explains. Of course, they also taste wine at each location, usually three to four per winery.
When asked which wineries are Cohen’s favorites, she replies, “It’s hard to pick out favorites. There are certain things I love about each winery.” When pressed, Cohen is able to point out a few top picks. Somek Estate Winery, which produces 10,000 bottles a year, has been making wine since the first aliyah in 1882 when Baron de Rothschild taught the family how. The winemaker “is still making that same French style wine in his home,” shares Cohen. “It’s like you just stepped back into a little French villa.”
She also says that the Psagot Winery (with “one of the most beautiful visitor’s centers in Israel”) offers “good value for the quality,” and Domaine du Castel “has a reputation for being the best quality wine in Israel.” And, hearkening back to her days working at Tishbi, she of course loves the Tishbi Shiraz.
In the end, it’s all a matter of personal preference. “Who says what good wine is? You,” argues Cohen. “You know your palate. No one can tell you what’s better.”
For more information on Esther Cohen and My Israel Wine Tours visit www.myisraelwinetours.com.