Ruti Ben-Israel has too much energy for most people. She is a bit like the Energizer bunny in the advertisement for batteries. It keeps on going long after others have stopped. She is irrepressible.
Churning with ideas, desperate to implement all of them immediately, she wears her heart on her sleeve. Every feeling, good or bad, one sees immediately.
She is not a good actress, but when on the stage with an attendant audience, she brims with the sheer joy of talking about her passion. Her passion is wine.
She was made in Morocco and born in Israel. She remembers that her father drank arak which, to my disappointment, she hated until recently. I was once devastated when I went to her Mimouna celebration, only to be served Greek ouzo instead of a good arak, mahia or boukha. But she is coming round.
She was a career soldier in the IAF, ending up as a major.
That taught her a thing or two about discipline, attention to detail and following through, which was to help focus her boundless enthusiasm to the good of the projects she has undertaken.
Her other half, Benny Ben-Israel, was born to a French mother and an American father. A pilot in the IAF, he is the opposite of Ruti. It is hard to peel away enough layers of the onion to discover the real Benny.
Everything is held deep inside, well under control. He is an absolute perfectionist.
Only his perky, little-boy smile and twinkling eyes show a hint of his passion. His passion is in the kitchen.
They are so different, yet so complementary, that they are really the yin and yang of the Israel food and wine scene. The best cocktails and dishes are made up with contrasting flavors, and so it is with Ruti and Benny.
They were posted to Brussels together.
There, they were exposed to fine dining and a culture of French and Belgian gastronomy.
Ruti remembers the excitement of seeing a wine decanted with a candle for the first time. However, it was not the experience that tipped them over the edge.
It was in Italy, where they were posted next, that a whole new world opened for them. On a visit to a winery in Tuscany, they were shown around by a 40-year-old nurse, who suggested to Ruti that she participate in a wine course. So she registered to take part in a sommelier course in Rome organized by FISAR, the local sommelier organization.
The course was in Italian, so Ruti bravely dived in, swotting up using Michael Ben-Joseph’s book on wine (the first serious wine book in Hebrew), so the course was not beyond her.
Ruti finished up with a certificate of Sommelier, which certainly counts for something, coming not only from Italy but from such a respected organization. The course opened a window in her mind. She learned that wine touched ancient and more recent history, gastronomy and culture, agriculture and architecture, people and places, and art, science and religion. It was not just the wine itself that captivated Ruti, but everything around it. Apparently, it was a real grind learning in Italian, but now Ruti can’t stop talking in Italian and does so freely, given even half an chance.
Benny, too, found his nirvana in Italy.
In France and Belgium, the food was more elaborate, richer and more entwined with the theater of fine cuisine and less personal.
What he fell in love with in Italy was the simplicity, the purity, the emphasis on the ingredients. He discovered that even the simplest thing in the world can be the best quality and made to the highest standards.
The connection with basic ingredients and the rural, local aspect of Italian cuisine enchanted him. He, too, took a series of cooking courses to learn the theory and studied with a passion.
Ruti returned to Israel and opened the Center for Wine Culture at the Zichron ya’acov Wine Cellars with energy and originality. The concept was innovative, and her job was to be creative and implement the vision, which suited her very well. The idea, in a nutshell, was to give visitors to the winery a unique wine experience in a very professional but totally personal way.
For her, wine was no longer a hobby. She was in the wine business.
Benny Ben-Israel had his own dreams to make come true. He established a company called MoltoBen (www.moltoben.
co.il), which organizes boutique journeys to Italy, exploring food and wine culture.
Each visit is meticulously prepared. He knows the different regions and each individual venue from every possible angle.
He has the passion, but he is also a patient, knowledgeable teacher. His tours provide a wonderful insight into the essence of Italy.
Ruti is now freelance, sharing her passion, enthusiasm and no little expertise, with local projects in the Mount Carmel region.
She is a consultant to Shoshana Winery in Atlit, which made the award-winning wine at a recent Terravino wine competition.
She lectures on wine, including giving a presentation on Italian wines (of course) to the Ramat Gan College Wine Academy.
She proudly brandishes her business card, which describes her as an otzar yayin, the new Hebrew word for a sommelier.
Recently, Benny decided to push the boundaries further and entered MasterChef.
While Ruti is more outgoing and showy, Benny is quieter and more restrained. It showed courage for him to bare all on one of Israel’s most popular television programs.
However, he performed well under the pressure of competition and the glaring spotlight. He also learned a great deal.
Knowing Benny, that would have been the main reason for entering.
Where does this couple with their opposite characters and complementary passions meet? It is certainly not in the kitchen. Ruti explains that Benny is the cook at home; and when he cooks, the kitchen domain is his alone. However, they meet, like good wine and food, at the table. They perform a duet. Ruti may recommend a wine, and then Benny will spontaneously make an appropriate dish using the ingredients on hand. Or, alternatively, Benny will prepare the food, and Ruti will recommend the wine.
Sounds pretty sophisticated to me. Until Ruti reminds me that good food for them may be a fresh loaf of bread, some olive oil and quality cheeses. Again, the joy of celebrating simplicity: wine to drink, food to eat.
Where their interests meet, apart from at the table, is in their mutual interest in tourism. Ruti is a specialist in wine tourism.
She lectures on wine tourism at Ramat Gan College and at the School of Tourism in Haifa. She has also organized wine tourism workshops. Benny has studied Tourism at the University of Haifa and has plenty of practical experience to go with the theory.
He has been employed as tourism consultant to regional government agencies in developing tourism.
Their interest in tourism comes together, for instance, at the admirable Meir Shefeya youth Village. There, Ruti is the coordinator of the wonderful project to grow vineyards and make wine, while Benny advises on how to develop tourism at the site.
What next? Maybe the ultimate food-and-wine tour to Italy, with both Ruti and Benny hosting together? Now, that would be the perfect match.Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine in Israeli and international publications.