My Israel Wine Tours: Drinking and Driving - the Acceptable Way

U.S. immigrant Esther Cohen's wine tours serve up vino for oenophiles and uninitiated alike.

Esther Cohen and her clients have made their way to an ancient winepress in the Judean mountains. Overlooking the breathtaking scenery on a recent Thursday, she explains that the three holes cut in the stones in front of them are 2,100 years old and in ancient times served as fermentation tanks, as the searing sun would shine on the grapes.

"They believe wine made here was brought to the Temple," says Cohen, 28, who immigrated to Israel three years ago and recently opened My Israel Wine Tours, a business focusing on English speakers living in or visiting Israel.

Tzuba’s vineyard -  Emil Salman - 19082011
Emil Salman

Just minutes before, Cohen's clients, Dani and Arielle Klein, were standing in a vineyard near Kibbutz Tzuba - keenly listening as Cohen talked about the wine making process, shared tidbits about the Israeli and international kosher wine industry and explained what actually makes wines kosher. "Israelis on average drink 4.6 liters per head per year," Cohen said, adding that the French consume 10 times that amount. The Kleins ask questions and take photos, but are secretly waiting for the true highlight of every wine tour: the tasting.

Since launching "My Israel Wine Tours" in January of 2010, Cohen has taken some 800 clients - both wine greenhorns like the Kleins and die hard aficionados and experts - to some of Israel's 300 wineries. Clients either choose which kind of wineries they want to visit or let Cohen create the itinerary for them, based on their preferences regarding size of the business, location and other factors such as whether the wines need to be kosher or not.

The Kleins, Orthodox Jews from New York, are not big wine connoisseurs. "What kind of wine do you usually drink?" Cohen had asked them in the car on the way from Jerusalem to the Judean mountains. They usually do not drink wine at all, besides Shabbat, when he makes Kiddush on sweet sparkling wine, said Dani, a marketing professional who in his free time runs, a blog about food-related issues for observant travelers. "Everyone loves that," his wife added. "In this regard, we're typical American Jews."

Cohen sighed in disappointment. "I'm going to expand your palate today," she then said, and started the first part of her routine talking about the history of wine making in Israel. Because of Muslim dominion no alcohol was produced here for about 1,000 years, she says, until the dawn of Zionism in the 1880s. After a short survey of the main wine companies, she introduces her clients to the basics of wine making, such as the difference between a Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.

About half an hour later, sitting on the balcony of the Tzuba estate winery, which is part of the kibbutz, the Kleins are being served their first tastings. Earton Green, the business's New York-born manager, and winemaker Paul Dubb, who moved to Israel from Cape Town, pour three or four cups of their best vino, as Cohen explains the different kinds of wine barrels, which feature hints of almonds, red grapefruit and green apples.

"I really like this one," Arielle finally says, after taking a sip of sweet dessert wine. "You see, we're not really wine people."

At the wine tour's second stop, however, at Kibbutz Tzora, near Beit Shemesh, Arielle gets more sophisticated. "I don't like dry, but this one has something sweet in it," she said about Tzora's Shoresh White, which consists of 85 percent Gewurztraminer and 15 percent Chardonnay.

Cohen herself says she grew up with Manishewitz and only fell in love with more distinguished vintages after taking a wine appreciation course while studying in New Zealand for a semester. "During that period I also dated this guy in Boston for two years who owned a liquor store," she recalled. "So we were going to wine exclusives and beer fests and I was learning very informally through him."

A few months after moving from Boston to Jerusalem in 2008, Cohen decided to travel up north, handing her resume to every winemaker she could find. She was soon hired by Tishbi in Zichron Yaakov, waiting tables at the company's visitors center and helping management with all aspects that require fluent English, including attending wine fairs across the country and abroad.

After working at Tisbhi for eight months, Cohen, who today lives in Tel Aviv, identified a market for organized wine tours. Not having any credentials in the field beyond the college course she took, she started learning more about Israeli wine and started offering her expertise while keeping her day job at Tishbi. Today, she is a full time wine guide and also has her own company, which plans to export Israeli bottles to the United States.

Producing wine in Israel has its challenges - corks, barrels and glass bottles are imported, the extra costs of kosher certification, the high price of water, and so on - but Cohen believes the success story of local wines is just getting starting.

"The wine industry is increasing by 10 percent every year," she said, adding that she expects the current number of wineries in Israel to grow from 300 to 400 within a decade. While leading Israeli industry experts agree that the business has impressively grown, some are unsure whether the trend is going to continue or plateau in the near future.

Either way, with the launch of "My Israel Wine Tours" Cohen did her new home country and herself a huge favor, according to Yoel Mansfeld, the director of Haifa University's Center for Tourism, Pilgrimage and Recreation Research.

"Wine tours geared at English speakers is a nice market, but a very good one, one that reaches people all over the world," said Mansfeld, who together with his student Noa Shor has studied wine tourism in Israel. "A lot of people are specifically interested in wine tourism and they will go across the globe in order to experience good wine, and especially the narratives and the stories and the culture behind it. Wine tourism is not only about tasting wine, it's about the landscapes, the territories, the culture, the people, history - it's about a lot of different subjects and things which are of interest and relate somehow to wine production and consumption."

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