I am basically a “the glass is half-full”-type person.
And my half-full cups really added up earlier this week when I participated in a Jerusalem Press Club evening with a talk – and more important, a tasting – sponsored by the Golan Heights Winery. Israel has definitely come a long way since the early days of the state when wine was divided into generic red, white and a kiddush that fulfilled religious purposes but lacked the heavenly touch of a truly great wine.
In all, I worked my way through nine half-full glasses of excellent wine (but who was counting, especially as I wasn’t driving). I started with a “crisp and lively” 2013 Gamla Sauvignon Blanc and progressed through the “versatile” 2009 Yarden Pinot Noir, the “full-bodied” 2009 Yarden Merlot, and ended with a “pleasingly sweet but not cloying” 2011 Yarden Muscat with lots of other “delectable” fruits of the vine passing my lips in between.
A firm believer in mixing business and pleasure, I took the evening to be part of a timely birthday celebration, and at some point (after the fourth or fifth not-so-empty glass, I believe) I began to relate personally to the descriptions of what I was drinking.
Admittedly, the “delectable, crisp and elegant” tag on my favorite – a sparkling 2008 Yarden rosé – seemed a little far-fetched, but I liked the bit about continuing to “age gracefully” for the next 10 years.
No sour grapes here.
The talk was given by Yael Gai, the winery’s international sales and marketing manager, who, like me, clearly enjoys her job, which includes traveling around the world and literally giving people a taste of Israel very different from what usually springs to mind.
During the early part of the event, I took notes and discovered all sorts of morsels of information that went down well with everything I sipped. The first of many mentions of vines in the Bible, for instance, is in Genesis (9:20) when Noah planted a vineyard after the flood (and got drunk with disastrous results, of course).
According to Gai, the planting of vines can be taken as a sign that life was returning to normal because proper drainage is crucial to successful vine-growing.
This region was producing wines thousands of years before viticulture reached Europe. By the Second Temple period, wine was the most popular local drink (which given the quality of life is understandable).
Soldiers were paid with wine: the higher the rank, the greater the quantity. The Crusaders exported wine from here to Europe, but the Ottomans, non-drinking Muslims, uprooted the ancient vineyards and destroyed the industry, which didn’t make a comeback until the late 19th century with the help of philanthropists like Baron Edmond de Rothschild.
The Golan Heights Winery is relatively new, founded in 1983 and now exporting to 32 countries as well as educating local palates. Gai explained some of the secrets of the success of the Golan Heights wines: the blessing of volcanic soil (like that found in other wellknown wine regions including Mosel, Napa and Languedoc); the Mediterranean climate; and above all the altitude. Since every meter elevation is the equivalent of a kilometer longitude, the Golan is home to more than 25 varieties of grapes that elsewhere are spread through a large number of wine-producing regions in Europe from Portugal and Spain through to France and Germany.
The question of Israel’s right to the Golan Heights is raised now and again in Europe, Gai admits, but for the most part this is not an issue. As she points out, almost every wine-growing European country has some kind of territorial dispute of one kind or another, but BDSers have never targeted wines from Alsace.
About three years ago, I visited a small Golan Heights winery, near Katzrin, belonging to Tami and Babi Kabalo.
The wine carries the label Ein Nashut, the name of the Second Temple-period synagogue whose remnants can be seen nearby. Among the peculiarly Israeli experiences was a visit to their wine cellar, a Syrian bunker now being used for more peaceful purposes.
It might not be turning swords into plowshares, but it has to be better than growing the grapes of wrath. And it’s preferable to the bloodbath between Bashar Assad’s forces and the Islamist rebels just over the border.
AS THE EVENING progressed, I found myself fighting the urge to dip my finger in the glasses and rub the rims. It was partly the influence of the alcohol, but mainly the influence of having watched the perennially funny Miss Congeniality for the umpteenth time the previous night.
In the movie, Sandra Bullock plays FBI agent Gracie Hart, who goes undercover to thwart an attack at the Miss America beauty pageant. The hapless agent has to learn how to walk, talk, eat and dress, and the various tricks of the beauty queen’s trade (hair spray on her bum stops her bikini riding up).
At the last moment before going on stage at the preliminary level of the contest, she discovers she doesn’t have “a talent” and is reduced to playing “Somewhere My Love” on glasses. Disaster strikes ahead of the finals when the other contestants drink the water just before she’s due to do her act. Hart, an agent with an attitude, improvises by doing the only other thing she can do: SING. But this is no song-and-dance act, the initials stand for the vulnerable places she teaches women to hit in self-defense: solar plexus, instep, nose and groin.
When the host asks her: “What is the one most important thing our society needs?” She replies: “That would be harsher punishment for parole violators, Stan.”
It’s not the answer the crowd wants, so she hastily adds the wish of beauty queens everywhere: “And world peace!”
The movie also came to mind this week as the new Miss Israel was chosen in a TV extravaganza. (I confess I watched only the last 15 minutes or so. I’m willing to spend an evening drinking as part of my job, but spending hours on a beauty pageant goes beyond the call of duty.) It’s ironic that the contest should take place in the week which ends with International Women’s Day, but a former Israeli beauty queen comes to mind as a particularly courageous figure.
Linor Abargil was crowned Miss Israel in 1998, at the age of 18. The month before she competed in the Miss World competition, she was the victim of a brutal kidnapping and rape. Keeping quiet about her ordeal, Abargil won the coveted crown. Abargil now uses her experience to help others. She earned a law degree and traveled the world talking to other rape victims, helping them to overcome unwarranted feelings of shame. The result can be seen in the painful but fascinating documentary of her encounters, Brave Miss World, currently being screened at various film festivals.
Last year’s Miss Israel was also a trailblazer of sorts. Towering Ethiopian-born Yityish “Titi” Aynaw, a former IDF officer, used her term as queen to promote the issues particularly pertinent to other members of the Ethiopian immigrant community (and also impressed US President Barack Obama during his visit here last year).
The country’s latest beauty queen, 18-year-old Mor Maman, pledged to continue to use her experience and serve as an example to help girls who want to lose weight avoid the trap of anorexia and maintain a healthy lifestyle.
I’ll drink to that: Le’haim, to life! And, yeah, world peace wouldn’t come amiss.
The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.