Wine Talk: A conversation between two living things

“Behind every glass of wine, there is the grape, the story of the winemaker – and your own story,” Roni Saslove says.

RONI SASLOVE, grower, winemaker and wine educator par excellence. (photo credit: Courtesy)
RONI SASLOVE, grower, winemaker and wine educator par excellence.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Wine education is normally based on understanding all aspects of a wine – including where it is grown, how it is made, what it tastes like and what goes with it. The subject is the wine itself. The class of students will eagerly try to find the guava, forest fruits and cigar box in the nose or smell of the wine, that the teacher-expert tells them is there. It is a matter of “Follow me, and I will help you understand better.” It assumes wine tasting is an objective exercise, but it is not. It is wholly subjective.
This is where Roni Saslove comes in. She is a winemaker/educator who sees her role as removing snobbery from wine, allowing a more natural, intuitive and spontaneous response from her students. She does not take into account just the wine, the grapes or blend, terroir and winemaker, but also the person tasting.
“Behind every glass of wine, there is the grape, the story of the winemaker – and your own story,” she says.
It is obvious that this is a person fascinated not just by wine, but by people, too. She says, “Our perception of the wine we taste is influenced by so many things other the wine itself, the way each person experiences a wine, is unique.” She has a course that she calls “Mindful Wine Tasting,” which guides people to taste wine by using their own memories and experiences, starting from a simple smell and following memory triggers and even taking into account physical feeling.
I have known Roni a long time. In the early 1990s, her father, Barry Saslove, became infatuated with wine. He created an early wine cellar, used to hold court at home with similarly passionate wine lovers and was very generous in the wines he shared. He began to make wine purely for fun and out of curiosity, was one of the early importers, started holding wine courses and became a partner in the startup of the Soreq Wine School on practical winemaking. He founded Saslove Winery in 1998 and it became one of Israel’s better-known boutique wineries.
However, Barry to me was most influential as an educator and teacher, conveying and sharing the passion. On the long table set out by the stainless tanks, he would go on to introduce many Israelis to wine and enthuse them with his heavily accented Anglo Hebrew. (I say this with affection. His Hebrew always was, and annoyingly still is, far better than mine!) He was a wonderful teacher and the passion just oozed out, infecting all those who passed by.
It appears the apple has not fallen far from the tree. Roni started with the intention of becoming a veterinarian, but started dabbling in the family winery, and before she knew where she was, she was caught up in it. She loved the physical work in the vineyard, the smells of the harvest and getting dirty in wine at the winery. In 2004, her father gave her a massive prod forward by suggesting she make her own wine. Which she did – the unique and luscious Kadita dessert wine was the result.
In 2008, she studied enology and graduated from Brock University in Canada. From being an on-the-job winemaker, she became a formally educated winemaker. She says, “To make wine from a scientific perspective is not challenging, but to make a delicious wine, you need so much more than academic knowledge – it requires passion, soul and energy.” She was a winemaker with all these things in abundance, and more.
IN 2013, Saslove Winery was sold and Roni Saslove crossed the aisle. She moved away from the vineyard and winery to the side of the consumer. She opened and managed the innovative Tasting Room in Sarona, a concept ahead of its time, where 40 wines were available by glass at any one time on an automatic pouring system. Here, she discovered, “The majority of wine consumers will know to tell if they like a wine or not, but not always why they do so.” She likes to quote the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” She bemoans the fact that we are not brought up to connect between a word and a sensation or feeling and she does not think professional wine jargon is the answer.
So, she will like what The New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov writes in his book How to Love Wine: “What is baffling and confusing is not the wine, but the way we talk about wine.” He has observed that people who have no idea how one is supposed to talk about wine are far more creative than those who have read books or taken wine classes, because they are free of the wine expert straightjacket and the lingo you need to speak in order to belong. He believes the traditional wine critic tasting note is a “self-indulgent exercise that mostly serves to alienate people.”
Terry Theise, in “What Makes a Wine Worth Drinking,” makes this point about the objectivity of the critic: “The problem arises when you start to think critically about the wine… every little word choice you make is about you and not the wine.”
MYSTERY – MERLOT or Malbec?: Trying to recommend flavors while blindfolded. (Credit: Courtesy)MYSTERY – MERLOT or Malbec?: Trying to recommend flavors while blindfolded. (Credit: Courtesy)
Theise beautifully summarizes the importance of the individual in the equation.
“My relationship with wine was (is) a conversation between two living things,” and “We drink a wine, and the wine drinks us.” He, too, criticizes “winespeak.” In “Reading between the Vines,” he compares enjoying a view, with describing it. “If you are sitting on a hilltop… you may be able to say, ‘This is beautiful because I can see a great distance, and the hills fold into one another in an especially comely way, and the river is perfectly situated to give depth to the scene…’ Think of music. Can you say why a certain piece of music makes you feel so intensely? Probably not.”
In other words, you don’t need to throw baskets of fruit at a wine for it to move you. He is critical of the wine critic.
“Too much wine writing… seems to crawl into an envelope and seal it from the inside. It’s as though a writer discussed his cross-country journey by writing about the engine of his car, what the mileage was, how often he checked his tire pressure. He doesn’t even say what music he played! Landscapes whiz by unremarked upon.”
What he is saying so vividly, is the detail of the wine tasting note can leave you with little insight into the wine itself. Instead, you may marvel at the writer’s vocabulary and imagination, but all the tasting notes, from a distance, seem the same.
RONI SASLOVE’S own worldview changed when she went to India and visited the Viphasana meditation retreat. Viphasana is a way to achieve self-transformation through self-observation. She studied reflexology and how people react to different stimuli – including words, signs and tone of voice. This opened a door in her mind and transformed not only the way she thought about wine, but also the way she observed others around wine.
She now runs a wide range of wine appreciation courses, often using the Kerem Montefiore Tasting Room in Jaffa as a venue. Wine for her is sensual, tactile and intensely personal. With her beautiful laid-back approach, she conveys all these in her relaxed, informal delivery, sans dogma, which seeks to encourage people to explore their own inner wine. It is breathtakingly refreshing, innovative and totally original. I attended a session where we all had to put on blindfolds and smell different fruits, spices and some unpleasant aromas, too. We were then encouraged to give our first word association to the various smells. It was invigorating and empowering – and fun.
I can’t forget the quote from Roger Scruton’s I Drink, Therefore I Am: “I learnt… that wine is not just an object of pleasure, but an object of knowledge; and the pleasure depends on the knowledge.” This is also true. There is no doubt that learning about wine fuels the enjoyment and appreciation.
Now wine education in Israel is varied and there are many options. Haim Gan’s Ish Anavim and The Derech Ha’Yayin chain of wine stores have provided regular wine courses for wine lovers for years. The Soreq Winery Winemaking School is ideal for those who want to make wine and the International Viticulture & Enology MSc program created by Zohar Kerem, of The Hebrew University, is perfect for those who want to become professional winemakers.
Last and not least, WEST, the world’s most famous wine school, is now here, brought by sommelier-consultant-educator Gal Zohar. He founded The Israel Wine & Spirit Institute, and countless students in the wine trade and without, are receiving the best formal wine education, with international accreditation.
However, Roni Saslove offers something beyond: the ability to explore one’s inner self with wine, and learn about wine in an informal way at the same time. Her courses are recommended for wine lovers, the occasional drinker or for those curious who wish to learn more. She is an especially bright, responsive communicator, which is why her courses are popular, and her easy, unpretentious style has made her hit on local radio, too. She loves communicating about wine, and she does so totally naturally, but also with the inner urge of an artist, who receives the drive to paint, create or write from something deep within.
As far as Saslove is concerned, she talks about wine as though she needs to, simply in order to exist. It is for her a reason for being. Important for Jerusalem Post readers, she speaks perfect English – and her Hebrew is better than her father’s!
The writer has advanced Israeli wine for over 30 years and is referred to as the English voice of Israeli wines.