2017’s Most Memorable Wines

IMG_1447

Last December (okay, January 4th, 2017), I did a post on The Best Reds, Whites and Values of 2016 that I came across in my wine escapades that year. It was an enjoyable post to write because it let me indulge in some great nostalgia, and I was excited to do it again for this year. This post was just as rewarding to write, and as the title implies, I’m taking a slightly different approach. What follows are the dozen most memorable wines I tasted this year.

The two questions I used to guide the formation of this list were (1) what are the wines from 2017 that I stand the best chance of remembering until I go senile, and (2) what wines from 2017 will guide my 2018 purchasing? Only after assembling the list did I look at the metadata contained within, and there are some surprises. First, a rose made the list. While I enjoy rose, I drank much less of it in 2017 than I did in previous years. This wasn’t for any conscious reason; it just played out that way. Second, in Good Vitis Land, it was the year of the white wine. Half of the list, and the largest component of it, are whites. Third, it’s a geographically diverse list: five U.S. states and six countries. And forth, unusual varietals came in at the #4 and #1 spots: mtsvane and Pedro Ximenez that was made into a white wine. What a cool 2017.

Without further ado, here are my twelve most memorable wines from the past twelve months.

IMG_1419

#12: 2016 Ehlers Rose. I reviewed this wine back in July when I profiled the winery and winemaker and couldn’t stop raving about it. The wine itself is terrific, but it will always stand out in my mind for the vibrancy and beauty of its color. My God, it’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. I’ve never fixated on the appearance of a wine before, so this one is special. I visited the winery earlier in this month and the rose was sold out. I was told I wasn’t the only one who can’t even with the color.

Tasting note: July 9, 2017 – I don’t normally comment on color but this is a gorgeous, watermelon-colored red with a pinkish hew. Nose: a bit reticent at first, it wafts lovely strawberry, watermelon, lime zest, white pepper, sea mist and parsley. The body is medium in stature and has a real presence on the palate, it’s entirely dry with nicely balanced biting acid. The fruit, all red with the exception of under ripe mango and lime pith, is bright and light and backed up by some really nice bitter greens, celery, thyme and rosemary. This brilliant effort is best served with food as the racy acidity needs to sink its teeth into something. I successfully paired it with Santa Maria-style grilled tri tip. I’d actually be curious to stuff a few of these away for a year or two and see how they develop over the following three years. 92 points. Value: B+

#11: 2014 Block Wines Chenin Blanc Block V10 Rothrock Vineyard. I love chenin. It competes with chardonnay for my favorite white varietal, and usually whichever is in my glass and singing is the one I choose. I’ve written about Eric Morgat’s chenins from Savennieres in the Loire Valley in France as my favorite example of the varietal, and while I enjoyed several of them in 2017, this year’s gold standard belonged to the Block Wines project in Seattle, Washington. Owned and sold exclusively by the retailer Full Pull, it sources exceptional grapes from exceptional blocks in exceptional vineyards across the state and hands them over to Morgan Lee to convert into wine. Morgan is one of my favorite winemakers anywhere, and what he did with these grapes was pure magic.

Tasting note: Friday, June 23, 2017 – Magical stuff, and only improving with aging and aeration. The nose is blossoming with honeysuckle, sweet lemon curd, parsley, big marzipan and just a wiff of ginger powder. The palate is medium bodied with cutting acidity and a well-framed structure. The fruit is sweet and comes in the form of lemon, peach, apricot and yellow plum. There’s a good dose of vanilla bean, a big streak of slate and just a bit of creaminess and some nice sorbet-tartness on the finish. The most compelling American chenin blanc I’ve tasted, this has at least three years of upward development ahead of it. Wish I had more than the one remaining bottle in my cellar. 93 points.

IMG_1470

#10: 2011 Domaine William Fèvre Chablis 1er Cru Montée de Tonnerre. Unlike the #12 and #11 wines, this bottle is a well-known commodity. Among the most respected sites in Chablis, Montée de Tonnerre is often considered quality-wise on par with the Grand Cru sites despite its Premier Cru designation, while William Fèvre is widely respected as anything but a slouch producer. Despite the modest reception of the 2011 vintage in Chablis, this out-performed several other vintages of the same wine I’ve had previously. It was downright spectacular.

Tasting note: Friday, July 14, 2017 – Right from the uncorking this thing bursts with energy. The nose is spectacular, offering incredibly pure limestone, lemon and lime zest, chalkiness, parsley, mushroom funk, daisies and dandelions, and sea mist. The body is lush but offers great cut with impeccably balanced acid that zigs and zags with nervous energy and verve. This is why you drink Chablis, it makes life come to life. The abundant citrus is all sorts of zest and pithy goodness. The sea is very prevalent as are the bitter greens. It finishes with a really nice, modest sweetness that doesn’t overwhelm the nervous acid. An amazing achievement considering the vintage, it’s drinking exceptionally well right now. 94 points.

IMG_1813

#9: Forge Cellars Les Allies Riesling. I visited Forge in September and couldn’t help but gush about what they’re doing. Forge is Finger Lakes in a bottle in every aspect, and for me that means several things: absolute physical beauty and salt-of-the-Earth people with a total commitment to the land and community. Forge makes a lineup of rieslings (and pinot noirs) that, from top to bottom, are among the very best being made in America and worth making the trek to experience first-hand (read the hyperlink above about the unique and amazing tasting experience every visitor receives at Forge). My favorite is the Les Allies.

Tasting note: September 18, 2017 – Big on fennel and bitter greens, sharp citrus and Devil’s Club with sneaky slate and flint streaks adding depth. Though savory elements drive the wine, it’s balanced by big hits of fresh apricot and peach on the finish. This is going to go through some cool short-term evolution in the cellar, and was my favorite riesling of the day. 93 points.

IMG_1155

#8: 2010 Baer Winery Arctos. I put this wine up against several legendary vintages from the legendary Bordeaux producer Las Cases in a post that asked, “Does Bordeaux Deserve Its Reputation?” More specifically, I asked “are six of the best vintages of the last fifty years of a storied chateau some consider worthy of first growth status really so good that it’s worth $150 per bottle at release and then two-plus decades in my cellar?” In order to answer this question, I picked Baer’s 2010 Arctos as a baseline wine. To be clear, I pitted a seven-year old blend from Washington State that retails for $43 against wines that are now only available at auctions for many multiples of that price point. My answer, which I’m pretty sure upset a few people, was “no.” I’m a Bordeaux skeptic, but more than that, I’m a Baer lover.

Tasting note: Thursday, April 20, 2017 – Bountiful nose of juicy red, black and blue berries, very sweet tobacco, thyme and black pepper. The palate coats the mouth with lush, polished and sweet tannins. It’s fully integrated and gorgeous. Sweet raspberries, cherries and blackberries swirl around with undercurrents of tobacco, graphite, cassis, nutmeg, cocoa, black currant, and rhubarb. Absolutely fantastic and pleasurable profile, it’s in exactly the right place. 94 points.

img_6834

#7: 2014 Covenant Israel Syrah. It’s a long story of how I came to know Jeff Morgan, the brains and brawn behind Covenant, a endeavor producing wine in California and Israel that has, as its genesis, the goal of making the best kosher wine in the world. I interviewed Jeff and told the fascinating story here. The Israel Syrah is a great example of how good Israeli wine and kosher wine can be, and a damn enjoyable bottle that will improve with more time.

Tasting note: Saturday, February 4, 2017 – This needed several hours of decanting. Nose: Dark and smokey. Stewed blackberries and blueberries along with maraschino cherry and caramelized sugar. Wafty smoke, a good dose of minerality and just a bit of olive juice. Palate: full bodied with coarse tannins that with multiple hours of air begin to integrate. Medium acidity. The fruit is dark and brown sugar sweet. Lot of blackberries and blueberries. Just a bit of orange and graphite and a good dose of tar. There are also some pronounced barrel notes of vanilla and nutmeg. This is a promising young wine. Fruit forward in its early stages, after 4 hours of air definite savoriness really starts to emerge. This has the tannin and acid to age and it will improve with another 3-5 years. 93 points.

IMG_1616

#6: 2005 Cameron Pinot Noir Abbey Ridge. Of course there’s a Cameron in this list. Cameron was my 2016 revelation and I spent a lot of time this year tracking down as much of it as I could find. It was a decent haul, but now I just have to be incredibly patient. The 2016 experience showed me that the older a bottle of Cameron pinot is, the better it is. In 2017 I had the 2005, 2010 and 2011 vintages of Abbey Ridge and the theme continued. This 2005 was AMAZING.

Tasting note: Saturday, July 1, 2017 – Another data point that Cameron is at the very front edge of domestic pinot noir. The nose is absolutely gorgeous, very floral and bursting with a cornucopia of sweet fruit. The body is rich but extraordinarily balanced and dancing light on its feet. The acid is lively and the pepper is sharp, while the cherries and cranberries burst with juiciness and richness. There are slightly bitter flower petals and a lot of Rose water. Absolutely fantastic wine sitting in a great place in its evolution. I can’t stop drinking this. 95 points.

IMG_1503

#5: 2012 Cameron Blanc Clos Electrique. Of course there are two Camerons on this list. Nuff’ said.

Tasting note: Sunday, July 23, 2017 – Just, and entirely, gorgeous wine. The nose has high toned honeysuckle, bruised apples and pears, dried apricots, Starfruit, vanilla and petrol. The body is in perfect balance. It is medium bodied with super bright, but not hurtful, acid. It offers reams of slate, mint, lime and funky goodness. There is a good dose of Mandarin orange that offers nice sweetness, and from the oak influence there emerges a nice amount of cantaloupe, Golden Raisin and yellow plum, while parsley and saline provide stabilizing undercurrents. This is all good, all the time, now and over the next five to ten years. 95 points.

IMG_7582

#4: 2015 Togo Mtsvane. This is a challenging wine to write about for several reasons, beginning with the unusualness of it and ending with the situation in which it was consumed, for good and bad reasons. The good reasons are written about in detail in what is probably my favorite post from 2017. I’ll summarize this wine, and the country where it is made, this way: you’ve never had anything like it, you have to go to the Republic of Georgia to try it, and you’re making a mistake if you don’t.

Tasting note: May, 2017 – Gia’s 2015 Mtsvane was picked at 25.8 brix and finished at 14.8% ABV, which it wells extremely well. The word “mtsvane” means green (the color), and this particular source vine was found in a family plot that Gia is slowly bringing back. It is thin skinned and very difficult to grow because of its fragility in the region’s rainy climate. Nevertheless, the aromatics were gorgeous with mint, dulce de leche, sweet lemon and light tobacco. The palate was equally appealing and satisfying as it offered honeysuckle, apricot, ginger, vanilla, green apple and a big hit of mint.  Multiple bottles consumed over a long and drunken evening with the winemaker, his family and my friends. Unscored, but otherworldly.

IMG_2013

#3: 1998 Pian Delle Vigne (Antinori) Brunello di Montalcino. Aged Brunello, need I say more? The 1998 was considered a good but not great vintage when it was released, but I think people have realized over the following 19 years that it’s gone through a particularly impressive evolutionary arc. This wine certainly proves that. Well-aged Brunello has some wonderfully unique qualities, and again, this wine certainly proves that. Basically, this wine proves that all the good things about Brunello can be true in one bottle.

Tasting note: Saturday, October 28, 2017 – This is remarkably good. The nose is pure heaven, and very fragrant. Super sweet cherries, strawberries, Açaí, cinnamon, nutmeg, dried tarragon, a bit of sea mist and a small finish of olive juice. The palate is fully integrated: extremely fine grained and polished tannins have faded into the background while the acid is mellow but zips. The Alcohol is seamless. It’s the full, professional package. What a gorgeous mouthfeel. Flavors pop with cherries, strawberries, tobacco, thick dusty cocoa, Herbs de Provence, bright orange rind and a wiff of smoke at the end. This has a few more years of good drinking, but why wait? 95 points.

9OfcNd3JQCC+BDb0IH612g

#2: 2012 Smith-Madrone Cook’s Flat Reserve. Stu Smith and his family are some of my favorite people in the wine industry, and among the most generous I’ve met. He’s also one of the best winemakers in a state known for attracting many of the best winemakers in the world. Cooks’ Flat is his reserve wine, which he makes during good vintages. It retails for $225. Given the region, that’s a steal for a wine of this quality and, in one of many manifestations, evidence of his generosity. I’m not a lover of most California wine, and I don’t get the California Cult Cab thing with its focus on fruit and tannin. Stu could care less whether his wines were considered “cult,” but it certainly tops the list of cabernets from the Sunshine State that I’ve had. The fact that any California cab made my most memorable wine list is personally surprising, but that it landed at #2? It’s just that good.

Tasting note: December 7, 2017 – This seems to me to be what Napa cab should be all about. It hits the palate with a velvety lushness, and is followed by waves of red, blue and black fruit that polish a core of dark minerals and Earth that broadens the mid palate and adds depth to the wine. The acid is towards the higher end of the Napa range, adding juiciness to the fruit and levity to the body. Unlike many California cabs, the tannins are well-kept and aren’t allowed to dry the palate and prematurely kill the finish. This is elegant and refined wine. Given the price of reserve wines from Napa, the Cook’s Flat is a downright steel. 95 points.

IMG_0096

#1: 2016 En Numeros Vermells Priorat DOQ. A small amount of the small production En Numeros wine makes its way to a retailer near me in Virginia. The importer, a friend of Silvia Puig, the winemaker, pours the wines himself one afternoon a year and I look forward to the email announcing it. This is the first vintage of this white wine, which is made out of the Pedro Ximenez grape that is usually made into Port, and the first of its style I’ve ever had. The tasting note below is the first time I drank it. I revisited it in November and it had changed fairly dramatically. Some of the lushness was gone, and the acid was more pronounced. To be honest, it was a bit more complex the second time around. That said, it’s the first bottle that will leave the lasting impression, and so I’m using that note. It’s one of those wines that is “unique” in the sense of the word: one of a kind.

Tasting note: Sunday, July 23, 2017 – Coolest. Nose. Ever. Sophisticated as shit movie theater buttered popcorn, honeyed hay, flannel/linen and balsamic reduction. The palate is lush, oh-so-smooth and super glycerin-y without being heavy at all. There is no waxiness to this whatsoever. It has definite sherry qualities, but is entirely dry. There is sweet cream, Jelly Belly buttered popcorn flavor and lemon curd, along with sweet grapefruit and a ton of pear nectar. This is a weirdly bold wine with a ton of subtly, it’s wholly captivating. 94 points.

And there we have it: the dozen most memorable wines of 2017. I already have some great stuff t’d up for 2018, and I hope the year will bring adventure and surprise. Wishing everyone a great end to 2017 from Good Vitis! Thanks for the readership.

Jeff Morgan: California and Israeli winemaker on why he makes wine in both places

img_6826

This is the second in a series of interviews with winemakers who have experience making wine in Israel. The first interview featured Shane Moore of Zena Crown Vineyards in Oregon. This time around I spoke with Jeff Morgan, co-owner and vintner of Covenant Wines in California. While both have vineyard and winemaking experience in Israel, their stories are quite different, set off by a pivotal distinction: Jeff’s Judaism.

Fourteen years ago Jeff and his partner Leslie Rudd drank a red wine from Domaine du Castel, one of Israel’s premier wineries. “It was really good wine,” Jeff told me, much better than either expected it would be. What really blew them away was that it was made according to kashrut (the laws of keeping kosher), which back then was a category of wine that didn’t have a reputation of being very good at all. Ironically, the wine wasn’t actually kosher, but that false assumption would prove fateful. They had already been making wine in California for more than a decade, but the bottle of Castel motivated them to see if they couldn’t make a better kosher wine in California. The challenge wasn’t connected to Jeff’s Judaism at the time – he was a secular and largely disengaged Jew – but really just a focus on improving the quality of kosher wine.

They deemed cabernet sauvignon the greatest expression of California’s terrior and climate, and decided to use it to achieve that goal. Leslie had access to the grapes and capital and Jeff had the winemaking experience and so they created Covenant Wines. Quickly the goal of the project changed into making the best kosher wine in the world. Fourteen years ago that bar wasn’t very high; today it’s far more challenging.

*****

img_6835

2014 Covenant Cabernet Sauvignon Blend. From California, Covenant’s flagship wine. Nose of cocoa, espresso and toffee barrel notes along with dark cherries and blackberries. There’s graphite and scorched Earth and some heat on it as well. The full body has smooth, subtle but developed tannins. Strong saline and iodine streaks help the wine overcome lean acidity. As the wine takes on air, the nose turns savory as olive juices start wafting. Orange zest develops on the palate along with toffeed barrel char, sweet strawberries and rich boysenberries, creating a densely layered wine. It has great balance but is tightly wound and will improve over 5-8 years. 92 points. Global value: C-. Kosher value: B.

*****

The making of kosher wine had a slow but cumulative effect on Jeff and Leslie’s connections with Judaism, and in 2011 they took a trip to Israel to explore their Jewish roots. While there they visited vineyards and wineries and noticed that the topography was very similar to that of California, as was the climate, soils, hillsides and valleys. Shortly after returning to California they decided that making Californian kosher wine was insufficient and moved to open a second line of Covenant wines made in Israel using Israeli grapes – the appeal of making wine in California and in the region where wine was created was too strong to resist.

In 2013 they started with three barrels working with an American-Israeli winemaker friend. They increased to seven barrels in 2014 and by 2016 were up to fifty (roughly 2000 cases’ worth of wine). In that year they crushed 35 tons of fruit, roughly one-third the tonnage of their California production. They began with one vineyard in the Golan Heights, but are now sourcing from seven vineyards across the Golan and the Galilee. Jeff loves the markedly different terriors of the two regions, although he noted that there are many stylistic similarities between the wines of California and Israel, more so than, say, between California and Oregon. So far they’ve used Jezreel Winery’s facilities to produce their wines, though because Jeff travels to Israel five or so times per year and he and his own team do the production themselves, he has become intent on opening his own winery there someday. He gives credit to his California team and cloud-based computing for allowing him to spend the time needed in Israel to oversee the production there without sacrificing attention of the California production. In 2017 he feels confident enough that he plans to leave California in the middle of harvest to monitor fermentation in Israel.

*****

img_6834

2014 Covenant Wine Israel Syrah. This needed several hours of decanting. Nose: Dark and smokey. Stewed blackberries and blueberries along with maraschino cherry and caramelized sugar. Wafty smoke, a good dose of minerality and just a bit of olive juice. Palate: full bodied with coarse tannins that with multiple hours of air begin to integrate. Medium acidity. The fruit is dark and brown sugar sweet. Lot of blackberries and blueberries. Just a bit of orange and graphite and a good dose of tar. There are also some pronounced barrel notes of vanilla and nutmeg. This is a promising young wine. Fruit forward in its early stages, after 4 hours of air definite savoriness really starts to emerge. This has the tannin and acid to age and it will improve with another 3-5 years. 93 points. Global value: C+. Kosher value: B+.

*****

Everything Jeff has learned about winemaking he picked up in California and New York State, and he’s applied those lessons to Israel where the biggest difference from the United States is mentality in the wine industry. Jeff noted that one difference is in vinicultural where Israel, despite closing the gap, is still behind. The California scene is more “dialed in” to the detail and knowledge of how individual vines respond to terrior while the workforce is more experienced in large part due to California’s immigrant labor that has worked the vineyards for generations (“and are great to say the least”). Conversely, in Israel “you have a ragtag crew of Thai and Arab workers along with some Jewish ones who are still figuring out what the essence of grape viniculture is and how it relates to great wine.” Further, Jeff noted that the Thai and Arab cultures don’t feature wine consumption as a tradition, and this makes it harder for vineyard workers to appreciate why vinicultural techniques affect the final product: “If you don’t drink wine you can’t really see the end result. That doesn’t mean you can’t do great work, but it’s a difference.”

Despite these differences, Jeff is high on the Israeli wine scene because every year the overall quality is markedly improving. The culture of wine in Israel, the making and consuming of it, is still decades behind the U.S., however. The level of “religious conviction” in California to their way of wine life remains higher than that in Israel. “Israelis still refer to wineries as ‘plants,’” Jeff told me, adding that Israelis don’t drink nearly as much wine as Americans. The winemaking community, therefore, “needs to raise the consciousness in Israel about the product. Israel is where Napa was thirty years ago in that sense, but Israel is more advanced in the winemaking than Napa was at that point.”

We shifted in conversation to the wines Jeff produces at Covenant. In both locations he starts with the same general protocols because “you can’t erase terrior, it’s stronger than the protocols. The idea is to make wine in a gentle, non-interventionist manner to allow the freest and truest expression of terrior to be seen in the wine.”  All of his wines are native yeast fermented, something he notes that is common in California but very unusual in Israel “because they’re afraid of it.” He prefers native yeast fermentations “because native yeast is a key component in harvesting terrior from the vineyard, [which also produce] slower fermentations which yield more complex wines.”

*****

img_6833

2014 Covenant Wines Lavan Chardonnay. From California. Nose: big varietal characteristics of high strung lemon, grass, white pepper and vanilla bean. There’s also a little big of spearmint and a lot of slate and honey along with a mild petrol note. Palate: full bodied and although lush, the acidity is sharp and zips enough to keep the mouthfeel light and lively. Meyer lemon curd, lemon sorbet, Granny Smith apple and vanilla pudding dominate on the onset, but really nice red pepper flake spice and dried tarragon kick in on the mid palate. The ML and oak manifest themselves in a macadamia nut flavor and texture. Very pleasing and drinkable, there’s no reason to sit on it. 92 points. Global value: B. Kosher value: A.

*****

Jeff’s style tends to favor softer, suppler tannins in his reds and bright, fresh acidity in his whites and roses, leveraging the heat of California and Israel to achieve those profiles. His California and Israeli flagship wines, a cabernet sauvignon blend and a syrah, respectively, reflect his belief that the terrior of California favors Bordeaux varietals while Rhones best suit Israel. The sales figures speak to the appeal of Jeff’s wine: he sells both wines in both countries, and he sells out.

I asked Jeff about my favorite Israeli wine topic: does Israel have a signature style and, if not, should it? If Israel were as monochromatic as Napa, Bordeaux or Burgundy, Jeff responded, it would be easier to wish for, or define, a signature style. But Israel has so many microclimates and so many different kinds of grapes in production that it’s “wishful thinking and would make Israeli wine boring.” Syrah in the Galillee “is very different from in the Golan, viognier is very different from anywhere else in the world – ours came in at 11.5% alcohol by volume [an unusually low figure for the grape].” Signature styles “need to come from the winemakers themselves and while it’s true wine is made in the vineyard, that’s only true until it comes to the winery and the winemaker does their thing with it. What’s exciting for the consumer is that in Israel it’s all about the producers and their own styles, if they have one.” When he looks at the wine list in Israel he looks at the producers names, not the region, because “that’s where the signature is for me in Israeli wine.”

When asked about his hope for the Israeli wine industry’s future, he said his greatest hope “is that Israel is synonymous with high quality wine. Varietally they’ll see which deliver best long-term. Syrah is likely king but cabernet could be a close second or overtake it depending on where it’s grown and who is making it. We need 10-20 years of developments before we’ll have a real answer.”

*****

img_6836

2014 Covenant Wine Neshama. From California, a blend of petit verdot, malbec and syrah. Nose: Very cool profile of big grapiness, blackberries, strawberries, asphalt, wet forest floor and Herbs de Provence. Just a hint of rubbing alcohol. The profile is dark and brooding but somewhat muddled, an issue a few years of aging will clear up. Palate: full bodied with big, coarse palate-drying tannins. Moderate acidity and tamed alcohol keeps it in good balance. The fruits are black, red, big and juicy: acai, strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries. There’s wet smoke and black pepper as well with graphite and iodine. This is hedonistic stuff, but it’s impressively managed. It’ll only get better over the following 10 years, but I’d sit on remaining bottles for at least five. At minimum give this a 2+ hour decant. 93 points. Global value: C+. Kosher value: B+.

*****

Beyond aiming to make better Israeli wine from one vintage to the next, Jeff is pitching in to help the industry. He has been working with Israel’s government, importers and distributors to raise consciousness outside Israel for its wines and develop more export markets. Israeli wine “won’t be an overnight sensation but the status quo has shifted dramatically in a short amount of time, for wine.” Israel wasn’t on the wine map when Jeff got started thirty years ago, whereas it graced the cover of Wine Spectator in 2016. “It’s going to happen,” Jeff said, “but nothing happens fast in the wine world.”

I received four of Jeff’s wines to review for this piece. All were exceptional in quality but the challenge I had in reviewing them was assigning a value grade. My normal approach is to put the wine in the context of the body of wine I’ve consumed to rate it based on its price competitiveness with that “global” market. However, in this case the wines are certified kosher, which means the wine requires a process that is different from the rest of the global market and therefore it could be argued that the value should be based on the category of kosher wine. The thing is, Jeff’s wines are not only among the best kosher wines I’ve had, but also great wines in the global context, so I wouldn’t want to suggest to the reader that they should try Covenant only if they focus on the kosher category. Therefore, I’m going to give value ratings for both the global market and the kosher category.

Jeff is building a very cool project and the wines are quite good.  One of the more interesting practices of Covenant is their wine club, which includes a version that supplies the member with kosher wine for every Shabbat of the year. It’s a fantastic concept. I’m excited to follow the winery, especially as he expands his Israeli production where the syrah I tried is especially distinctive.

 

Oregon Star Winemaker: I made wine among the landmines

golan-heights-vineyard

Picture: One of Golan Heights Winery’s vineyards (credit: Israel 21c)

My wine-drinking buddy Isaac Baker of Terriorist recently published very positive reviews of an Oregon producer called Zena Crown Vineyard. Isaac is pretty conservative with his points and when I saw how many he gave to Zena Crown I knew I had to look into them. In doing so I learned that their wine maker, Shane Moore, spent time previously working at Israel’s Golan Heights Winery, and I had the thought that those are two very different places to make wine. I’ve lived and worked in Israel, having drank my way from the north to the south, and have written about wine’s history in that part of the world in depth. Israel’s wine industry is a star on the rise recently acknowledged by a cover story in Wine Enthusiast and one of the most interesting to visit and explore. As I thought about the wine I’ve enjoyed from Oregon and Israel, I began to wonder if making wine in Israel helped Shane make wine in Oregon, and so I decided to ask.

In sending an email requesting an interview with Shane I remembered a brief correspondence I had last year with Jeff Morgan, the winemaker and owner of Covenant Wine, which makes wine in both California and Israel, and so I asked him if he’d be open to talking about the same topic. The conversations with each were so great – and sufficiently different – that I’m going to break them up into two Good Vitis posts. For now I’m going to focus on Shane, and readers can look for the post on Jeff Morgan and Covenant Wines in the coming weeks.

My call with Shane started with the great story of how Shane landed at Golan Heights. He was working at a winery in Australia and found himself having brunch one day at the famously wild Ying Chow Chinese restaurant in Adelaide with some friends. Conversation drifted to the topic of the craziest places to make wine and the Golan Heights in Israel came up for debate. The Golan Heights was taken over by Israel in 1967 in a war with several Arab states and formally annexed by Israel in 1981. It constitutes the most northern part of Israel. Syria, it’s former owner, still lays claim to the land which remains checker boarded with fenced-in fields of landmines from wars past. It also happens to be beautifully mountainous and in the minds of many, mine included, Israel’s best area for wine grape growing.

Shane had never thought about making wine in the Golan but it peaked his interest because he “wanted a unique experience.” His friend Tom Stransky gave him the name of an Australian winemaker who was part of the team at Golan Heights Winery, one of the founding wineries of Israel’s wine industry and a world-leader in terms of technical advancement, who Shane called. Two months later Shane was in the Golan starting harvest…in July. Shane stayed through the end of the year leaving just after Christmas.

When he left for Israel Shane had it in his mind that he’d do a quick harvest in Israel and then hop to Europe and finish the harvest there. However, Israel is a country of many and significantly different microclimates and therefore for big wineries like Golan Heights that source from several of them, its harvests can be long. In 2010 the harvest began in July and went through November. This happened to be the warmest harvest on record up to that point. Shane never made it to Europe that year.

Shane had strong praise for his experience at Golan Heights. He called it one of, if not the most, modern wineries he’s worked at. The list includes Kendall-Jackson, considered one of the most advanced in California. One of the winery’s advancements that Shane says fellow winemakers don’t believe when he tells them is the large digital tank board at Golan Heights that he’s never seen elsewhere. What really blew Shane away, though, is how management ran the winery. The winemakers assemble at 5am every day to taste the wine and write up work orders for the winery workers who arrive at 7am and are handed their day’s tasks. Shane remarked that this management was reflective of the fact that everyone working at Golan Heights had gone through mandatory military service and has more self-discipline than the average winery professional. Because it improved efficiency and minimized mistakes, Shane now follows the same schedule and management style at Zena Crown as well as at Le Crema’s project in Oregon he is also running. Winemaking is logistical in nature, and of the eleven wineries where Shane has worked he says he learned the most at Golan Heights because of how meticulously it is run.

Golan Heights is a kosher winery, which means Shane, as a non-Jew, was limited in what he was able to do. In order to maintain a kosher certification, only Shabbat-observant Jews can be hands-on from the time the grapes are picked to when the bottles are sealed. Shane wasn’t able to touch the hoses or tanks, so he was given control over the in-house experimental winery that produced wine that wasn’t sold and therefore didn’t need kosher certification. He also served as their vintage winemaker, wrote work orders, kept things organized and spent a lot of time in the vineyards working with harvest parameters, though he didn’t call pick dates; so long as the grapes remained on the vine he could be as hands-on as needed. Over the six months that Shane was there he says his hands were never idle.

800px-brechat_ram_mt_hermon

Lake Ram, with Mount Hermon in the background, in the northeastern part of the Golan Heights (credit: “R. Ertov uploaded by his friend Asaf” on Wikipedia)

The Golan reminded him of growing fruit and producing wine in Washington State (which he has also done) because the climate and challenges are similar. Winemaking, as he pointed out, is pretty universal in terms of what a winemaker needs to do to produce a red or white wine, though “the devil is in the details.” As in Washington, water is relatively scarce in the Golan and that presented irrigation and vineyard difficulties. Likewise, both offer lots of long days of sunlight and moderate heat with significant cooling overnight. The difference, though, is that in October, when they’ve harvested in Washington, there’s still sunlight and photosynthesis going on in the Golan. He also made the humorous reference to the many acres of landmines that needed to be avoided (they’re fenced and well-marked, but still…) as an easily overcome “challenge.”

Challenges are aplenty in Israel, however, just like other parts of the world. Leaf roll has become a very real problem that threatens significant acreage. Because of the significant danger leaf roll presents – it’s fatal to vineyards where it really takes off – Golan Heights winery has its own nursery where it can work to mitigate the risks. Another challenge (which Jeff Morgan of Convenant Wines echoed) is finding high quality labor. Golan Heights makes a huge range of wine that retails from $10 on the low end to $300 on the high end, and to make wine commanding three figures hand picking and sorting is required, and in Israel it’s hard to find people who have the kind of experience needed to do that well just as California is reportedly on the precipice of its own labor shortage.

It is often observed, and in many different manifestations, that Israelis have their own way of doing things. One of the most critical to the wine industry is irrigation as Israel invented drip irrigation which is now agriculture’s – including the wine industry – standard around the world. While Shane didn’t point to any significant and unique similarities or differences between growing grapes and making wine in Oregon and Israel, it is significant that his time at Golan Heights has shaped how he runs his wineries today.

Shane was pretty animated over the phone as he told stories and answered my questions, and even though I’ve spent afternoons at countless Israeli wineries he invigorated my appetite for the occasional Israeli wine. For those who haven’t tried their wines, or have had one or two and weren’t blown away, I strong encourage you to seek a few out. My article from last summer, “Thirteen Israeli Wines That Will Change Your Worldview,” goes into depth on the history of winemaking in Israel and includes both a suggested wine route and reviews of thirteen wines that are relatively easily sourced in the United States. For the adventurous or bored wine drinker, Israel offers some very cool stuff. And after talking to Shane I’ll be looking for some Zena Crown as well.