Wine Talk: The wine Zionist

Famous for his Tribeca bistro in New York, Jacques Capsouto is also an enthusiast of Israeli wines.

Capsouto (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Jacques Capsouto is a debonair gentleman with old-world courtesy.
Slightly stooped, always wearing a jacket, he has a rich French accent, slightly wavy gray hair and a soft mustache.
He keeps his passions and drive under wraps, but passion and drive he has in bucket loads.
Capsouto was born in Egypt and moved to France with his family when he was 12.
He lived in Lyon for four years, where he was exposed to one of the centers of French cuisine. There, he absorbed the principles of an industry that was to become his life’s work, which he married to his experiences at home. His grandmother’s cooking was also a major influence.
Then the family moved to the United States, where the much-traveled youngster made his home.
Naturally with his background, Capsouto soon found work in the restaurant business, where he has been ever since. For more than 30 years he and his brothers have been running a restaurant called Capsouto Frères in the Tribeca district of New York. It is a classic French bistro. The high ceiling, tuxedoed waiters and décor lend themselves to tradition. There are not many restaurants in Manhattan that still receive good reviews after 30 years, but Capsouto was almost born a restaurateur, and the passion is still there. The Capsouto soufflé, for example, is a light, feathery soufflé that made the restaurant famous.
Later, Capsouto also became known for his interest in Israeli wines.
He has a Sephardi background and has a Passover Seder every year that raises money for charity. He is also a Zionist.
Capsouto fell in love with Israeli wine in 2004 when he visited Israel for the wedding of actress Mili Avital, a close relative. He visited wineries, talked to winemakers, walked the vineyards. Here was an experienced wine-knowledgeable professional suddenly being blown away by the quality of what he found here.
Since then, his restaurant has been the finest ambassador for Israeli wines in New York City. Most Israeli wines are rooted to the kosher market in America, so it is a real achievement when a leading non-kosher restaurant selects Israeli wines for their quality alone.
As you would expect with a restaurant that has won The Wine Spectator Award of Excellence on numerous occasions, the wine list is international and comprehensive. What is a welcome surprise is that he has chosen the wines from Israel to lead his list. He does not list only one or two Israeli wines but a wide range from wineries such as Barkan, Binyamina, Carmel, Castel, Clos du Gat, Galil Mountain, Margalit, Recanati, Tzuba, Yarden and Yatir. These wineries are large and small, covering every corner of Israel.
Yarden is in the Golan Heights, Yatir is in the Negev. Some make kosher wines, others non-kosher. This is a man who likes Israeli wines and is prepared to support the local industry by making a feature of them. His restaurant is a showcase for the best wines in Israel.
“I am in business,” he says. “If the quality wasn’t there, I wouldn’t do it.”
He is now in his late 60s, normally a time when people think of winding down and consolidating a life’s achievements.
However, Capsouto is starting on a new long-term project with the determination of someone who will not be stopped. He has decided to build a winery in Israel.
But as good wines start in a vineyard, he has first planted a vineyard. Interestingly, he chose the Western Galilee, not the more fashionable Upper Galilee or Golan Heights. He says, “My mother always said I should do something in Israel.”
He is choosing grapes that he believes are suitable for Israel’s climate. Not the trendy Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot for him.
He has chosen varieties from the south of France like Syrah, Carignan, Grenache, Mourvedre, Cinsault among the reds and Clairette, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne and Roussanne for the whites.
As he explains, “Well, Baron Edmond de Rothschild knew something about wine, and these were some of the first varieties planted in the 1880s in Israel.”
Baron Edmond de Rothschild certainly did. He was the owner of the famous Bordeaux winery Chateau Lafite, and he founded the modern Israeli wine industry.
Capsouto says, though, that these are not indigenous varieties to Israel. The origin is likely to have been the Eastern Mediterranean or Middle East. They may have been brought to western and southern Europe by the trading Phoenicians more than 2,500 years ago before settling in the south of France and Spain.
Capsouto plans to make 65% red wines, 30% white wines and 5% rosés. He is a man of conviction and has an abundance of self-belief. It is difficult to shake him from an idea, but as his restaurant shows, he has perseverance combined with a great deal of patience. He firmly believes that Israel could be the next new thing in wine after the current wave of Chilean and Australian wine.
Capsouto believes that Israeli wine finds a middle ground between the upfront fruit of the New World and the complexity of Old World wines.
Jacques Capsouto, the wine Zionist, thank-you for your support of Israeli wine in New York, and good luck with your venture in Israel.
Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine in Israeli and international publications.