Voices of Jerusalem: Wild about wine

Loren Minsky speaks to Avi Ben, wine connoisseur and owner of the Avi Ben wine shop chain.

Avi Ben (photo credit: Courtesy)
Avi Ben
(photo credit: Courtesy)
"When I was growing up, the only alcohol I encountered was Kiddush Wine on Friday night, and Arak on Saturday mornings," grins Avi Ben, the owner of one of the most famous and oldest wine shops in Israel.
The Avi Ben wine shop chain offers Israeli, kosher and boutique wines as well as imported wines from the Bordeaux region in France, Italy and Spain. In addition Avi Ben sells a wide choice of spirits from around the world, and refined gifts – wine glasses, accessories, chocolates, olive oils, coffee, cheeses, and more.
After the army, Avi began studying law while working in the family business – wholesale alcohol distribution based in Mahane Yehuda. "At the time, I began drinking and appreciating wine more and more, and found that I loved it," shares Avi. He later abandoned his law studies as the business gained momentum, and learned the trade "from being on the job, life and visiting wineries around the world".
When Avi opened his first store, the wine trend was only just beginning to emerge. But wine consciousness continued to develop and by 1993 when Avi opened his store on Rivlin Street in Nahalat Shiva, interest had increased.
The store was the first liquor store of its kind in Jerusalem with a focus on wine.
The shop was a pioneer in more ways than one with an espresso bar that is still a feature in the store today. "This was before the days of Aroma and Café Hillel so people would flock to the shop for their coffee," recalls Avi.
"Downtown Jerusalem was a different place altogether back then. The area was a lot cleaner and quieter than it is nowadays and there were only two good restaurants in the area. A lot of people would come from Tel Aviv to buy a good bottle of wine to take with them to dinner."
In 2003, Avi initiated the Wine Festival that takes place annually on the Israel Museum campus. "The early 2000s and intifada period were a challenging time for Jerusalemites, and so I came up with the idea of the Festival in order to boost business and to bring people to the city," says Avi.
Though the Wine Festival started off small, these days it is a highlight of the summer in Jerusalem, loved by wine aficionados, first-time drinkers and everything in-between. The Festival features the biggest and best wineries in Israel as well as emerging boutique wineries. "I am proud of the Festival, but it's hard work," admits Avi. "Two days after the event, we begin working on the following year's event."
There are currently three Avi Ben stores: The main one in downtown Jerusalem, one in Mahane Yehuda and one in Mevasseret Zion. All of the storesoffer wine tasting, especially on Thursdays and Fridays, as well as private tastings for groups. "Just yesterday we had 17 senators in the store," exclaims Avi. "I am confident that they were left with a good impression of Israeli wines."
For Avi,one of the highlights of his job is interacting with customers and speaking about wine. The store attracts a broad range of people, from Palestinians that come from Ramallah to the ultra-Orthodox. "Everyone feels much better with a glass of wine in their hand," says Avi.
In general, Avi spends his days in the warehouse and offices in Mevasseret Zion dealing with the logistics and management of the business. "What I do exactly with my days is a secret," declares Avi. "I'm a free man - sometimes here, sometimes there. I have worked very hard over the years, and have learnt to delegate to my staff, many of whom have been with me for five or six years."
Avi lives in Mevasseret Zion with his family. Apart from his son-in-law who has helped run the business for the past 15 years, Avi's family is not involved in the business. "They do, however, enjoy drinking wine," smiles Avi.
To unwind, Avi makes sure to do a lot of sport, particularly cycling and walking in the mountains. "You have to be active when you drink a lot of wine," says Avi."My passions, personality and interests are reflected in the store – the good things in life."Avi enjoys histravels abroad to France, Italy or Spain at least twice a year. "I have a dream of spending a year abroad in Tosca one day soon."
Avi was born in Jerusalem,and has no plans to leave. "Regarding the light rail, there's been nothing good until now," remarks Avi, who later concedes that it is indeed good for an employee who travels to town from Pisga'at Zeev.
"What's good for my employeeis good for me."
"Advice for aspiring business owners? I'm not a teacher. I sell wine and have worked very hard for this luck," says Avi.
Next year, the Wine Festival celebrates ten years, and the store turns 20.
"We're proud to still be around. Our plan for the future is more of the same – continuing to grow whilst retaining what we've built. I have no big dreams; this is good enough."
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