From a French Bistro in Manhattan to a Vineyard in Israel

Egyptian-American restauranteur Jacques Capsouto has long believed in Israeli wines, serving them to hesitant clientele at his landmark restaurant in Tribeca. Now he's braved Israeli bureaucracy in order to make his own.

Natan Dvir

It has been more than a decade since I began following the work of restaurateur Jacques Capsouto - the former owner of the classic French restaurant Capsouto Frères. Capsouto broke the mold when he added Israeli wines to his wine menu over 10 years ago. Many of his clients wondered what in hell Israeli wines were doing in a French restaurant, but Capsouto paid them no mind. Whenever anyone quizzed him about the peculiar choice he just offered them a taste. "Israeli wine is excellent," he told his diners. "This wine should have a place in any restaurant that respects itself. Taste it, if you don’t it, then don't pay for it."

But Capsouto didn't make do with just serving the wine, 10 years later he began kindling a new dream: "I want to make wine in Israel," he told me five years ago, as part of my second report about him. Capsouto is a man of his word and he took action, making sure to keep me in the loop. He invested $1.7 million to see his vineyard dream come true. He got a generous tasting of Israeli bureaucracy, but he also says encountered many helpful Israelis. Eventually he found a piece of land near the village of Peki'in in the Galilee, where his grapevines now grow.

Last week, a significant portion of his dream came true: he returned to his home in New York with two bottles of white wine and two bottles of rosé which he produced in Israel. "I'm holding on to them like gold," he told me when we met. He opened two of them and gave me a taste. Capsouto beamed with pride at his latest creation. He even (psychically) patted himself on the shoulder. "I think that for a first vintage I did a very good job. The rosé is light a pleasant. The white is complex and should be taken with a meal. But these are still not the best wines which I have had."

I took a sip. To be honest, Capsouto's wine did me well, but I'll leave the last word to the critics.

In the upcoming weeks, Capsouto will receive two crates from Israel and will begin to attempt to sell them to local restaurants here in New York. And he has more than a fighting chance of succeeding. Capsouto's name is well known in the New York restaurant scene.

And in the meantime, before he returns to Israel to oversee the production and sale of his wines, he plans to sell his Tribeca building and embark on a new life, one divided between New York and Israel. Part of the sum he hopes to raise from the sale will be dedicated to his wine business, in addition to the sum he has already invested in the venture. And he already has his eyes set on a new dream. Maybe he will one day open a restaurant in Israel, but at this stage he's reluctant to elaborate.

For now, Capsouto has decided to call his brand "Cotes De Galilee Village". In all, there will be five wines. In addition to the two I tasted in New York, he plans an additional line of white and red wines, and in October a special red wine. Needless to say, Capsouto doesn't work alone. "In Israel I work with Pini Sarig, an agronomist, Eran Israeli, who is in charge of the wine production, and I also have a consultant from France, Jean-Luc Colombo.

"I make wine in Israel like no one else. In Israel most of the wine is made like in California. I'm producing something different, a Mediterranean blend which includes Cinsault, Granas Noir and Muvedre grapes. These are grapes rarely used in Israel."

But why? Why give up Tribeca in Manhattan, the old industrial area turned trendy neighborhood, for Peki'in HaHadasha?  "I love Israel," he responds, "but I also believe in Israeli wine. I've lived here in New York and look what has happened to me: Thirty years my restaurant has been active in the neighborhood. When I came to Tribeca it was all workshops. We've done well. The neighborhood is blossoming. Celebrities' have moved into the area. But after the Twin Towers fell, our business grinded to a halt. Everything was closed. We gave free food to the rescue workers. Slowly but surely life returned to normal. Then came hurricane Sandy and the restaurant was flooded for days and we were again forced to shut it down. But that's not all. I had a retreat house in Fire Island that was also flooded. But my vineyard in Israel, nine kilometers from the border with Lebanon, not far from Hezbollah, everything is fine."

Capsouto, 70, was born in Egypt, and when he was 12 his family moved to France.

Jacques Capsouto's wine: Cotes De Galilee Village
Haim Handwerker

"We live in Lyon for four years and there I had my first taste of French cuisine," he told me in a previous interview. "Credit is due to my grandmother in that regard, she was an outstanding cook." After four years, the family immigrated to the U.S. When he was in his 20s, he took his first steps in the culinary business, and for the subsequent 35 years he ran Capsouto Frères with his brothers – Samuel and Albert.

In 2004, Capsouto first came in contact with Israeli wine. "I came to Israel after not having visited it for over 30 years to participate in the actress Mili Avital's wedding, we are relatives. I asked myself what I hope to do during my visit and so I decided to check out the wine. I went to five vineyards and was surprised with what I saw and tasted. I just clicked with Israeli wines.

"Since then, every visit I look into more vineyards in Israel. When I went back to the U.S. I looked into who was importing Israeli wines and began serving them at my restaurant. When I noticed that some French and American wines from the menu weren’t selling, I decided to switch them with Israeli wines."

Capsouto admitted during his last interview with me that it wasn't easy serving Israeli wine in New York: "Kosher wine in general, and Israeli wine specifically, are perceived as wines reserved for holidays – not the stuff you drink in your day to day.

"I offer my clients to try it, and they know that they can trust me and that if I recommend something they will not be disappointed. If they need more convincing, I promise them they will not pay for the bottle if they are displeased with the wine. When clients request something new, I offer them Israeli wine. Most of the time they are supersized for the better by the taste."

The route to growing wine in Israel was not simple for Capsouto: "I wanted to lease a plot of land to establish my vineyard, but then I learned that the Israel Land Authority doesn’t give land to private individuals. I needed to find privately owned land or lease land through a partnership with local communities.

"A lot of people recommended I go to the Golan, but I felt the Western Galilee was preferable. I wandered the Galilee a lot at the time, and now I know the area very well. I negotiated with a Moshav Alkush, but it didn't work out, so I kept on searching. I found some good land near Moshav Lapidot, but the area wasn't large enough. I looked into Moshav Zarit, but I learned that that Binyamina Winery were already in negotiations with them, so I let it go. During the same time Galil Mountain Winery were in talks with Peki'in HaHadasha, but had decided against it because it was two far from their winery. I asked their permission to negotiate with Peki'in myself, and they agreed."

Capsouto visited Israel four more times, and eventually signed a contract with Peki'in HaHadasha, receiving 160 dunam of land – 100 of which have already been cultivated. He's currently growing nine different types of grapes, all from France, except one from California.

"These grapes originated in the Middle East. In Sardinia, southern France and Spain there are varieties whose seeds were brought to the area by the Phoenicians in 700 B.C. Experts believe that Carignan and Granas Noir also came from the Middle East, and they can still be found in Lebanon. There are some who claim that the name 'chardonnay' comes from 'sha'ar adonay' (God's gate in Hebrew). Until the end of the Byzantine-era, large amounts of wine were being created in the region. But eventually, after the Muslim conquest, it was banned, and the result was that wine production shifted to Europe."

Jacques Capsouto
Haim Handwerker

Back to the present. Capsouto hopes to churn out 28,000 bottles of wine this year. Some 60 percent, he hopes, will be sold in the U.S. and the rest in Israel. Tel Aviv's "Brasserie" will likely be the first restraint to sell his goods, he says.

Though his Tribeca restaurant was not kosher, his wine will be. "It is easier to sell Israeli wine in the U.S. if it is kosher," he admits. "Most of the potential buyers are Jewish and when they buy an Israeli wine they want it we kosher. So I made kosher wine. Now, I believe I have a good chance at succeeding. Let's wait and see. But personally, I am very pleased with my results."