A connoisseur who loves Israel

Landmark New York bistro creates 'buzz' about Israeli wines.

israeli wine 88 (photo credit: )
israeli wine 88
(photo credit: )
From the look on his face when he sticks his nose into a glass of wine and inhales deeply, one could easily think Jacques Capsouto was a trained sommelier. The thick French accent and moustache also help. But he isn't and, as he's quite proud of saying, "I taught myself everything in this life. I have a PhD from the street." Capsouto's restaurant, Capsouto Freres, which he runs with his two brothers, is a quintessential French bistro - from the souffl s to the tuxedoed waiters - housed in a cavernous red brick building by the Hudson that used to be a spice warehouse. Everything seems exactly as it should be for this type of culinary experience. Until you look at the wine list. There, above the Bordeaux and the Cote de Rhone, before you even reach the full splendor of French and Italian varieties, are 16 wines from Israel. Unlike any other restaurateur in New York City, and probably in America, Jacques Capsouto is a true believer in Israeli wines. His house Merlot? A 2003 from the Galil winery in the Galilee. His house Sauvignon Blanc? A 2004 from Dalton, also in the Galilee. For a young wine industry that must compete with the established old world (France and Italy) and new world (California and Australia), the championing of Israeli wines by a restaurant that has existed for a quarter century and is regularly referred to as a New York "landmark" is no small development. Capsouto, who has a Sephardic background and grew up in the Jewish community of Cairo, insists that he has not added wines from Israel to his list of 140 wines simply out of some kind of Zionist affiliation. "I truly think Israel in the next 10 or 15 years will be able to make a world-class wine," Capsouto says. "There is no such a thing as loyalty. I am in business. I like to give my customers a good bottle of wine at a good price. I make the same deals with the importers of Israeli wines as I do with the French and Italian... I'm telling you, the quality is there. If you want to see an affiliation, you can. My father was a Zionist. We have family in Israel. But if the quality wasn't there, I wouldn't do it." Still, Capsouto has gone above and beyond simply selling the wines to his customers. He sees himself as trying to create what he calls "a great buzz," about Israel's product. He has lectured at a local wine institute about the subject. He recently invited a writer for a wine journal to come to his restaurant and taste a few different kinds. And he has encouraged his fellow restaurateurs to try out Israeli reds and whites at their own establishments. Ever since he began teaching himself about wines Capsouto had been a bit curious about what was happening in Israel but it was only in 2004 that he began actively cultivating a collection of Israeli wines. And it came first out of necessity. Following the start of the Iraq war there was a backlash in much of America against French products; it was the period that saw "freedom fries" replace "french fries". After Capsouto was forced to give a press conference with other bistro owners insisting that the public should not abandon French wines, he and his brothers decided it was time to diversify their wine list. Around the same time Capsouto decided to visit Israel for the first time in 30 years to attend the wedding of his cousin, the actress Mili Avital. During the trip Capsouto says he naturally did what he always does when he travels - he visited wineries and tasted wines. He wasn't off the plane for more than half an hour before he found himself in a shack in Lod, tasting the product of a small vintner. Fifteen more wineries followed. And he liked what he tasted. "Israel is really in between the new world and old world," Capsouto says. "You don't have that attack of fruitiness that the new world has but you also don't have that subtlety that the European has. You have a nice middle ground between these two extremes. I found them very plumy. Israeli wine, the plum jumps out of the glass." One of the lasting impressions was the large Yarden winery in the Golan Heights. "Yarden is the winery that really revolutionized the wine industry in Israel," Capsouto says. "I see Yarden like the Gallo of California, the Georges Duboeuf of Beaujolais, the Latour of Burgundy, the Fortant de France of Languedoc." Capsouto came back from Israel excited about what he found and determined to be what he calls a "pioneer," slowly replacing the other wines on his list with wines produced by wineries like Carmel, Dalton, Margalit and Yarden, among others. He took one more trip last year to visit with growers. And this summer will find him again in Israel, touring wineries with journalists and American sellers in an effort to promote the industry. Some customers look at him funny when they see the wines on his list. Others specifically order a bottle as a way to support Israel. And sometimes Capsouto himself will approach a table of connoisseurs who are trying to decide what to order and give them his spiel on the Merlot from the Galilee. Then he will pour some in a glass, swill it around, inhale it deeply and exclaim, in that "Pepe-le-Peu" accent, "Ah, just smell that plum."