Toasting the PM: What Does Choice of Wine Say About a Leader?

In contrast to the scandalously expensive vintages uncorked over the years in the White House, a good-quality but inexpensive, local merlot is a favorite in the Netanyahu wine cellar.

Itay Gleitman
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The Netanyahus. Their preference in wines is surprising and unconventional.
The Netanyahus. Their preference in wines is surprising and unconventional. Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv
Itay Gleitman

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s electoral victory last week was also a modest victory for the Alfasi family, which lives in Moshav Odem on the northern Golan Heights and for the past 11 years has run a small winery in the small complex around their home named Odem Mountain (Har Odem).

The family winery's merlot wine, from its Volcani series, is one of the best-loved wines of Sara and Benjamin Netanyahu, and the fact that they have bought it in not-particularly-small quantities even led to a media flurry just before the election.

If we can learn anything from the Netanyahus' ongoing purchasing of this specific variety, it may be that at least as far as wine is concerned, the preferences of the Prime Minister’s Residence have been revealed to be somewhat surprising, interesting and unconventional. The choice of the most basic series produced by this small winery, without a famous name on the label, as well as the loyalty to merlot, which has been bad-mouthed in the country in recent years, also makes it a surprising choice.

In practice, the wine in question is made from 100 percent merlot grapes from the vineyard at Kfar Yuval, which presents a pleasant fragrance of mixed red-and-black berries with a hint of wildflowers and seasoned oak wood.

The merlot is soft on the palate and pleasant for drinking, full-bodied and characterized by a sweetness that is immediately apparent upon first taste, and balances very nicely with a pleasant sourness at the finish. This is a particularly agreeable merlot, even if it is lacking any special complexity, and provides a light, everyday drinking experience and good value for the price: 85 shekels ($20).

Cork-popping and publicity

The custom of wine drinking – along with the subject of the tastes and personal preferences in wines of the leaders of the world, in general – has always attracted media attention, and sometimes has even had a major effect on wine industries in the leaders' own countries. Perhaps the best-known example of this is that of Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, who was known as the first wine connoisseur in America.

While serving as a diplomat in France in the late 1780s, Jefferson toured the famous vineyards of France and neighboring Germany, documented his impressions and fell in love with the charms of the world of European wine. He also made sure to augment his own impressive and exemplary collection, including bottles bearing personal dedications such as a Chateau Lafite 1787, for example. Some of these wines were found in Paris in the 1980s, and sold at a public auction by Christie’s for astronomic sums. The author of the U.S. Declaration of Independence also later become one of the founders of the American wine industry.

American politics has also seen its share of scandals related to wine, with the latest coming during U.S. President Barack Obama’s first term, when he hosted his Chinese counterpart at the time, Hu Jintao. One of the wines served at their festive state meal was a 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon from Washington state. It originally sold for $115 a bottle, but at the time of the dinner it was went for $399. This, of course, aroused the fury of the Republicans, who attacked Obama for drinking overpriced wine during an economic crisis.

At the next state dinner, at which Obama hosted German Chancellor Angel Merkel, the names of the wineries and vintages served were not publicized, which did not exactly please American vintners, who hoped to capitalize on the publicity brought by the popping of their corks in the White House.

As for us, we can hope that at least Odem Mountain will enjoy the exposure that accompanies the raising of full glasses of its merlot in the Israeli prime minister’s official residence.

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