Is Wine Consumption in Israel Dying on the Vine?

There's a lot of mythology surrounding the subject of how little wine Israelis drink, with some estimates as low as 5 liters – as opposed to France's 70 liters – a year per capita. The trend starts at the top.

Noga Tarnopolsky
Noga Tarnopolsky
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The Sommelier 2014 event in Tel Aviv, which has relatively more wine-lovers.
The Sommelier 2014 event in Tel Aviv, which has relatively more wine-lovers.Credit: David Silberman
Noga Tarnopolsky
Noga Tarnopolsky

If you want to understand why Israelis drink relatively little wine, start at the top.

To begin with, the wife of our prime minister, Sara Netanyahu, got into trouble for recycling plastic soft-drink bottles, not glass bottles of wine.

As for the new media sensation, Ayman Odeh, the Joint List’s chairman and new MK, cider is apparently the preferred beverage. At first his spokeswoman told me it was tea, but her boss overheard and insisted it was not.

Yair Lapid’s favorite drink, according to his spokesman, is espresso. During the last electoral campaign, Lapid enjoyed recounting the anecdote of the moment he was notified that he was fired by Benjamin Netanyahu, last December. He was sitting in a café with his daughter, waiting for his espresso.

During the headier, hopeful moments of the Zionist Union’s campaign Isaac Herzog would tell some audiences he hoped to celebrate the results of Election Day, which fell on St. Patrick’s Day, with a Guinness, which may have been the favorite drink of his Irish-born dad, President Chaim Herzog.

Finally, a relative of Supreme Justice Salim Joubran, who chaired the Central Elections Committee, cautiously allowed that very occasionally, Joubran enjoys “a small glass of wine, not more.”

Barak Ravid, this newspaper’s diplomatic correspondent whose personal favorite is a vodka martini, told me that Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s favorite drink is Cabernet Sauvignon.

It struck me as counter-intuitive that the Moldovan-born politician would prefer wine to vodka whereas the thoroughly Israeli reporter would tend toward vodka, but apparently this is typical of the Israeli demographic.

Says Haim Gan, director of Ish Hanavim, the Tel Aviv wine school/website/wine shop: “The good news is that wonderful Russian sector has made a real change here, from vodka to wine. We’re seeing a very clear trend.”

On the other hand, he adds, sighing, “young Israelis sees alcoholic drinks as sexy, and wine as stodgier, more archaic.”

The two ubiquitous complaints heard about local consumption of wine are: 1, Israelis don’t drink enough; and 2, local wines are just too expensive. Both charges are partially true.

In the absence of official figures, there is a lot of mythology surrounding the subject of how much or little wine Israelis drink, with some estimates as low as 5 liters a year per capita. Compare that to the mythic figure of 70 liters imbibed per person per year by French citizens. While widely quoted, I’m calling that a myth because it includes the purchase of wine by collectors and connoisseurs, and by tourists – which in France is significant – and, among other things, the fact that a lot of wine is bought by citizens of neighboring countries such as Switzerland and Germany.

The annual consumption in most of the world's wine-producing nations is an estimated 18 liters per capita. According to Tzachy Dotan, the chairman of Israel’s wine board, an industry-wide nonprofit, local consumption is indeed a paltry 5.5 liter annual per person.

He is hopeful, however, for a positive change in drinking behavior: “We have a long, hot summer in which people tend not to drink wine, but Israelis are starting to discover chilled whites, so I hope we’ll get the numbers up.”

Muslims constitute about 20 percent of Israel’s population and a significant percentage of them do not consume alcohol in any form. This should probably be taken into account when calculating the figures of what is, at the end of the day, a very small, relatively nascent market.

The fact is, in the Gush Dan area in the central part of the country, annual consumption is pretty close to other new, world markets, hovering at about 15 liters a year per annum, much higher than the rest of Israel. It is not just that Tel Avivians (apart from some of our politicians, apparently) enjoy more wine: rather, visitors from outlying areas also converge on the seaside city, among other things, to drink. In this respect, perhaps we can think of the White City as our own local Paris.

Haim Gan estimates that the average Israeli over the age of 18 probably drinks about 8 liters of wine a year. That’s about 40 glasses of wine a year, significantly less than one glass a week.

Due to the heated electoral season, we’ve been speaking a lot about the bubbles people live in, and I have to confess I don’t think I know anyone who drinks an average of less than a glass of wine a week. Do you?

The bubbles I am best acquainted with personally rise in tall, thin glasses.

Stay tuned for discussions about why Israeli wines are so costly, and about sparkling rosés, dry as slate. ‘Tis the season.

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