Life in the Bubble

Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon

"I fell in love immediately," says Sivan Dorot with a tipsy smile, sitting on the edge of the sidewalk holding a green bottle and a big glass. "I enjoy my drunkenness, there's something different about it, light. When I arrive here with friends we polish off at least five bottles. Since tasting our first cava here we've become regulars, we really connected. There's an experience of intimacy here that cava creates around it, an experience that isn't found in other bars, where because of the music any attempt at conversation is impossible. Going out to a cava bar becomes part of your day, its continuation, the drink after work that ends up in a celebration. It's simply nice, there's a feeling of Europe here."

Shortly before midnight on a Wednesday recently, Dorot was observing the dozens of young party makers crowding with her outside La Champa, at the corner of Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard and Nahalat Binyamin Street. More and more cava is being drunk on these sidewalks. For a moment it looks as though Tel Aviv has warmly embraced the Botellon, the drinking festival that has been common in the streets of Spain since the 1990s.

"There are no chairs and no waiters, we take a bottle and go outside to sit on the boulevard, in the street," says Dorot, as small plates with fragrant sausages and smoked fish pass over her head. "Everything here takes you away from being closed in," she adds, pouring herself another glass. "Since we discovered cava that's what we drink, that's what we buy, it's become a part of our lives. At my wedding, for example, nine months ago, we adopted this entire concept and served our guests only cava."

Dorot is not alone in being captivated by the sparkling drink from Catalonia, in the northeastern corner of Spain. The swift development of the romance between cava and the Israeli consumer is very clearly expressed in the statistics published by the Cava Council in Spain: In 2005, Spain exported 40,000 bottles of cava to Israel. The number doubled in 2006 to 80,000, leaped in 2007 to 190,000 and soared last year to 483,300 bottles (compared to 319,000 to Argentina and 302,000 to Poland). For the sake of comparison, imports of prosecco, the popular Italian sparkling wine, come to only 40,000 bottles a year.

Guy Shevach owns La Champa, the focal point of the cava scene. He is the person who opened the first and only bar in Israel to serve just cava. He surveys the chaos around him with enjoyment. "Two years ago, shortly before we opened the bar, a business consultant asked me whether we thought it made sense to open a bar that would serve only ouzo," he says, giving an example of reactions to the concept. "I had just returned from Barcelona and had seen lively cava bars, and thought that if cava makes the Spaniards feel good it would do the same for us. I believed that it had a different charm, that there's something very mysterious about this drink that people connect to."

As he sits at the heavy wooden bar, beneath the Catalonian flag, he reveals that he didn't really believe he would become the leader of a revolution. "When we started out we weren't so sure, we consoled ourselves by telling ourselves that even if we didn't succeed and the business didn't take off at least we would have loads of cava and a good place to be bummed out in, feel down," says Shevach. "And in fact, the click wasn't immediate, it took time before people started coming. But we were stubborn. Only after two and a half months did something begin to move and we began to see people coming back. In the end, in spite of the fears, our bar signaled the beginning of a cultural change."

It's hard to miss it now. In the past year cava has become further entrenched in bars, wine shops, restaurants and cafes and even grocery stores, to become a mass consumer phenomenon. In Pinxos, a new tapas bar on the other side of Nahalat Binyamin Street, the Spanish party continues. Beneath a dim, yellowish light waiters pass between the tables with trays laden with tiny rounds of white bread adorned with baby shrimp salad, truffle spread or smoked palamida fish. On almost every table are tall glasses and proud bottles of cava immersed in bowls of ice water.

"This is the summer of cava," asserts Shimon Meshal who own Pinxos and is a familiar figure in Tel Aviv nightlife. "There is something very light, even less festive, about cava, which makes it acceptable. Its sale has become very natural, which doesn't happen with other sparkling wines like champagne, for example. The Israeli consumer is very clear, the moment something catches on our small market behaves illogically in the quantities it consumes. There are trends that stop and there are those, like cava and Red Bull, which are sold nonstop and become a milestone in our consumer culture."

Meshal says the flourishing of cava is one of the signs of the flourishing of Spanish culture. "Everything comes together," he says. "Cava connects well to the Israeli summer but also to the 'Spanish summer' that has awakened here. Pinxos is another reflection of the spirit of Spain that one sees in other places in the world, as well as in Israel. Since the downfall of Franco, Spain has slowly opened to the world, and in the past decade it has become a cultural leader in the West. One can see a renaissance of Spanish culture that is reflected in cinema, sports, and food. I see cava as a continuation of the activity of the Spanish fashion chains Zara, Mango and Pull and Bear here, part of the trend of taking a charter flight to Barcelona. The Spanish takeover is coming from all directions."

The amazing success of cava is not only a Tel Aviv story. "Every month we sell over 160,000 bottles of cava," says Roger Moore, who owns Jerusalem's Chakra restaurant and is a veteran on the Israeli culinary scene. "The Israeli bon vivant likes to show off, and cava provides him a big-time opportunity to do so," he explains. "He likes the look of the thin-stemmed flute cava is served in, it reminds him of champagne. Israelis like things that look good. In Jerusalem, as in Tel Aviv, the cava niche has become strongly entrenched. Here it actually stopped beer and white wine. I love these new trends, it's fun to see how new products are accepted. This exposure to European culture keeps us on the map and it's nice to see that Israelis are open and eager for new experiences."

At the Lenon Bar, at the Ruppin Junction in the Sharon region, cava is drawing a growing clientele. "Cava is so popular here we decided to give it the respect it deserves and to devote an entire evening to it," owner Roi Roichman says enthusiastically. "Every Wednesday we have a cava party. It's crazy, the bottles are sold by the pile, about 300 a month. I always say that to understand this phenomenon you have to finish an entire bottle, then everything becomes clear. This drink is simply a recipe for a successful party."

Immediate satisfaction

In May 2007 the Israel Tax Authority abolish the sales tax on sparkling wine. "Cava made a dramatic entrance," says Sariel Shani, head of the wine department at Hakerem, Israel's largest importer of wine and liquor. "If you had to put your finger on the moment when the revolution took place, that's it. The significance for the consumer was critical, abolishing the tax enabled us to lower the price of cava by about 50 percent. The average retail price of cava is now only about NIS 33 per bottle. That in part explains why cava imports to Israel increased by more than 300 percent in two years," Shani says.

Shani considers cava to be a marvelous brand-name product. "The secret of its charm is that it is not consumed as wine, it's consumed as cava. The clientele that goes to a bar or a restaurant orders cava and does not consider itself wine drinkers. Cava is like a politician who succeeds in getting the public to identify him by his first name." He estimates that in the coming year Israeli consumption will increase to about one million bottles.

Although cava suits Israelis, they don't necessarily distinguish among its different types, says Shmuel Welbard of M. Ackerman importers. "We are constantly progressing in the field of wine, and cava is part of our evolution," he says. It is noon and he is at a cafe on Tel Aviv's King George Street. At the same time, claims Welbard, the story is only beginning. "The change came very fast, the Israeli public doesn't look for a certain brand; any cava is fine despite the fact that there are lots of vineyards and lots of different flavors. One reason is that the average Israeli who goes to a restaurant and opens the wine menu is quite lost, so one easy solution is to seize on a name he recognizes, like cava. 'Cava' has become a generic term. I assume a time will come people will differentiate among the cavas, because there are also different levels of quality. At the moment we are importing and consuming mainly the most basic cava."

Cava versus champagne

In the Penedes region of Catalonia, says Welbard, there are hundreds of vineyards that produce cava. They operate in the traditional and ancient method of a second fermentation inside the bottle, the champagne method, rather than the tank fermentation used for Italian prosecco, for example. For champagne and cava, grape sugar and yeast are added and the wine is allowed to ferment inside the bottle. The carbon dioxide that is created is not allowed to escape and remains trapped inside the bottle, reaching very high pressures. About 200 years ago a monk named Dom Perignon found a way to blow glass bottles and to make corks that could withstand the pressure of the gas, and that is in effect how champagne was born. This process spread quite quickly to other places in Europe, such as Spain.

"In 1872 the first 3,000 bottles of cava were produced in Spain, after a vintner from the Codorniu vineyard concluded a series of fermentation experiments using the French method. Additional vineyards followed suit and began to ferment wines in bottles, and within a few decades turned the town of Sant Sadurni d'Anoia in the Penedes region into the capital of cava. Only in 1920 was the commercial cava market established in Spain. International marketing began in the 1980s. Today, 200 million bottles of cava are sold worldwide every year.

"The leaders of Spain's cava industry are the Codorniu, Freixenet and Segura Viudas wineries," explains Shevach. "Each year they buy more small wineries, entire series of cava. They are even taking over wineries in Chile and Argentina. In addition to those three, there are small boutique wineries that produce up to a million bottles a year and for the most part don't grow the grapes themselves, as well as medium-sized wineries that produce their own grapes and sell between one million and 20 million bottles a year."

Until the 1970s cava was also called champagne, but France succeeded in restricting the use of the name to sparkling wines produced in the Champagne region. "Although cava is produced by exactly the same method and to the same standard as champagne," says Welbard, "Spain was forced by European Union regulations to give up the name and to call its sparkling wine cava, which in Catalan means cellar. In Eastern Europe, which also has a serious wine tradition, they still produce sparkling wines and call them champagne, there they did not give in to the French dictate."

In that case, why is cava still considered a mass-appeal wine, compared to the more glamorous champagne?

"In my opinion cava is just as good as champagne. Cava is very light compared to champagne, which makes a light impression but is often challenging and not light at all. French champagne has the magic, the special status of being first, and its price is derived from its position. That's the significant difference. While a decent bottle of champagne costs at least NIS 200, and there are champagnes that cost as much as NIS 1000, good cava can be found in the stores for as little as NIS 40."

In what kind of glass is cava served?

"In most of the world, and in Israel too, cava is served in a tall flute that helps preserve the bubbles and keeps the cold in for longer. In Spain there are many places that serve cava in a more traditional manner, in champagne saucers. Places like La Champa here use such glasses, but that's a question of fashion."

Not everyone is captivated by cava. Amir Efrati, who owns the Anavim wine shop on Tel Aviv's Ben Yehuda Street, is actually a little put off by the new romance. "In my opinion, the cava takeover symbolizes the Israeli herd mentality," he says, sitting on a wooden bench on the sidewalk as he lights a fat, aromatic cigar. "In the past two years something crazy has happened here, suddenly everyone is drinking cava, only cava and more cava. This craze for cava changed my store dramatically. It's a plague. It took over a huge part of sales, at the expense of red and white [still] wines. To my great embarrassment almost 20 percent of my sales are cavas."

Efrati, who opened his store in 1996, sees cava's penetration of the local market as a regressive move on the part of the wine culture that has developed here in the past decade. "It is dragging the entire wine industry backward, because people aren't drinking anything else," he complains. "The customers stop at cava. When you come into the shop and buy a bottle of wine for NIS 50, your palate begins to take an interest, and next time you'll go up a grade, try something better. Your palate gradually opens to flavors, grape varieties, wines from other countries. If cava would lead people to drink champagne or a good wine they have never tried then fine, but that's not happening. Moreover, I also have cavas in my store that cost NIS 150 a bottle, but nobody goes near them. Once in a blue moon I get some nutcase who buys such a cava. People don't buy one bottle of cava here, only three for NIS 100. That's the essence, that's the culture: three for a hundred, four for a hundred. People take three bottles, six bottles, a dozen bottles of cava. It's crazy. The level is constantly pushed downward."

You don't drink cava?

"I don't like this drink, I don't like the smell, it leaves an aftertaste. Cava is a totally commercial product, that's why I hate to see this obsession. Cava may provide fun, pleasant drinking, but that's where it ends. I'm sorry I have to stock this drink in my store. I don't want to stock goods [to sell at] three for a hundred, but I go with the flow, I have no choice. All day long people come in and say 'Give me cava,' 'Do you have cava?' I can't fight the public, I've given up, I can't educate anyone here."

Maybe for these recessionary times it's a winning formula, the right drink for the bourgeoisie at a time of crisis?

"I have no doubt that a main part of its success derives from the economic crisis. To me the takeover by this drink expresses the spirit of the recession that encourages cheap drinking. I see in the shop how people vehemently defend their cheap purchase. They justify it by convincing themselves they really won't receive significant value if they pay more. They really believe they can't get anything better than cava for NIS 30, that this cheap drink in effect provides them with an experience of a drink costing NIS 60 or more. It's a psychological phenomenon that's hard to understand."

A little happiness

At the Cordovero tapas bar in the south Tel Aviv neighborhood of Florentin, another Spanish enclave, Efrati's criticism is greeted with another toast. At midday on Friday young parents with babies beat the high heat and humidity with a refreshing cava. "If this drink were ordinary I wouldn't sell 70 bottles a day," is the defensive reaction of owner and devoted cava lover Hanan Raviv. "Without the meteoric rise of cava it is doubtful whether we could have opened a tapas bar in the heart of Florentin. The drink's acceptance made it possible for a place like this to grow. Today there are only two cava bars in the country, La Champa and us, both in Tel Aviv. I'm sure that next summer we'll see more cava bars in cities such as Rishon Letzion, Be'er Sheva and Jerusalem. It's a phenomenon that is only beginning."

Regarding the scorn for cava expressed by Efrati, Raviv says: "I don't think it's right to say that all cava is mass-produced, industrial. This is a very complex drink. Cava is usually divided into six categories that reflect the level of sugar in the drink, from extra brut, in which the quantity of sugar is the lowest, to secco and up to dulce, which is the sweetest. The colors and flavors vary depending on the level of sugar and the manner of production. So there are cavas that are pink, like rose wines, there are cavas in the extra brut category that are very reminiscent of chardonnay and sauvignon, the brut reminds us of somewhat lighter, more summery wines. There's a difference between cheap cava and high-quality cavas, such as Cava Aliguer from Agusti Torello that goes for NIS 180 per bottle."

To the strains of Middle Eastern music, Raviv has difficulty finding anything negative about cava's entry to the Israeli market. "People have undergone a revolution, it's hard to see anything in this process that is about being closed off," he says angrily. "The fact that customers come at noon, sit for three hours, drink four bottles and enjoy life is the heart of the issue. As in any relationship one must gauge one's expectations. It's impossible to expect cava to be a fine wine. Its essence is simplicity and that's why it suits us so well. Cava seeks only to be a bubbly drink that is fun, puts you in a good mood and makes you happy. The social experience it creates is what makes it great and it actually has no pretense to more than that, although I consider that a lot. We are simple people and that's what we need: a little happiness."

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