Every wine aficionado in Israel owns at least one copy of Daniel Rogov’s “Guide to Israeli Wines.” First published in 2005 and updated every year until 2012, the guide came to be considered the oracle of the Israeli wine scene. The late Daniel Rogov, who began writing on the subject for Haaretz at a time when most locals couldn’t tell the difference between a bottle of champagne and a wine cooler, became an ambassador for the budding local wine industry, introducing an overseas audience to thousands of Israeli wines.
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Rogov’s death two and a half years ago left a major void, and there is no apparent successor to continue his demanding project. But is there actually a need for a guide to Israeli wines, or was it the myth surrounding Rogov’s personality that made us think so?
It’s hard to say. Rogov’s guide allowed local wine-lovers, and the entire industry here, to feel that we were living in a genuine wine country, with a lively industry that attracts worldwide attention. Since his death, has anything changed in the pattern of consumption of Israeli wines here and abroad? And is there a new demand for such a guide?
To judge by a conversation with Matthew Miller, publisher of “Rogov’s Guide to Israeli Wines,” the answer to the second question, at least, is yes. This is good news for Yair Gat and Gal Zohar, who launched their “New Israeli Wine Guide” a couple of weeks ago. Gat, the wine reporter for Israel Hayom and Zohar, a former wine curator in London and now a wine consultant for several Tel Aviv restaurants, are well-known figures in the field, though they do not enjoy Rogov’s standing as an authority on Israeli wine, especially outside the country.
The two decided to distribute their first edition independently and solely in digital format, in Hebrew and English, at no cost – an indication of the project’s still-experimental state. An initial perusal of the guide confirms this: It is a 24-page document, divided into nine categories, with the wines in each category listed in order of grade, from highest to lowest. In putting together the guide, Gat and Zohar did a blind taste test of 150 wines, and included those that received the highest grades in each category.
Altogether, the guide covers 70 wines, and this limited number makes the title seem like a bit of an overreach. Something like “The 70 Best Israeli Wines” would have been a more faithful reflection of the contents. A guide should provide information about an extensive industry that produces thousands of wines of varying quality. What about wines that didn’t make it into the guide? Are there some good ones, or should they all be avoided?
The information Gat and Zohar present often seems rather obvious. For example, most of us have been familiar with Flam, Tzora, Castel and Clos de Gat wines for some time. It would have been interesting to learn about a new and intriguing winery like Safra, or a relatively unknown boutique winery like Ortal. The authors are aware that they cannot compete with the 600-page volume published by Rogov, particularly in this day and age when print is on the downswing. The choice of using the digital format makes sense; it is economical and makes future expansion easier, and most important, makes the information readily available via tablet or smartphone.
“Realizing that we could not sample all the wines made in Israel, we decided to focus on the 70 best wines,” say Gat and Zohar, explaining the main obstacle to producing a really comprehensive guide. To do so year after year, one would have to sample all the products of the more than 200 active wineries in Israel and create a database upon which to base the guide. This would be a demanding full-time job and require a substantial financial investment. At the same time, expected sales would be relatively low, and thus the compensation would not be especially attractive. Such is the reality.
So all in all, better to have the new guide than no guide at all, especially since the authors are a talented pair with discerning palates and a flair for writing. This is also the place to note the inviting and friendly presentation of the material. Rogov was a wine critic of the classic and slightly anachronistic type, while Gat and Zohar write in a modern, straightforward style, offering clear, useful information alongside numerical grades for each wine.
Each wine is also given a brief “nickname” that succinctly conveys its essence and appeal. To avoid the skepticism often expressed regarding the high scores Rogov would give Israeli wines, Gat and Zohar have created a balanced grading system that situates Israeli wine in its rightful place in relation to other wines.
This project is the latest in a series of positive happenings on the local wine scene. At a time when new markets are opening up to Israeli wineries, and as the quality of locally produced wine continues to improve, an English-language guide will surely help to market these wines worldwide. Its long-term success will depend on the authors’ ability to improve and expand it, and keep it consistently updated.