Jerusalem & Babylon / Goodbye to a Vintage Writer

Before Daniel Rogov, Israelis had no appreciation of fine wines.

It isn't my proudest journalistic achievement - I don't even usually list it on my CV - but being a wine critic was probably the most enjoyable thing I did in my career. My knowledge of the subject was limited to the fact that white wine is for dairy and fish dishes, red goes with meat. But for various obscure reasons I was given the job of tasting and rating wines for a certain financial supplement that would probably prefer if I did not mention our long-past association.

Luckily, I discovered I had a discerning palate and what I lacked in enological knowledge and experience, I made up with little anecdotes and information gleaned from the Internet to fill the space on the page. My little column emigrated to the Internet and another newspaper, until after four years it became clear that more pressing demands on my time prevented me from attending the long lavish launches of new vintages or touring vineyards, or even meeting the column's deadline week after week. I was forced with a pang of regret to put my taste buds out to pasture.

But enough about me, I don't want to be one of those obituarists who talk about themselves instead of the late departed, and we are here today to sing the praises of Daniel Rogov, Haaretz's fabled wine and restaurant critic who passed away on Tuesday night.

I first met him at the wine launch I attended in a Tel Aviv restaurant, a heavy red from Recanati Winery, the 2003 Special Reserve if memory serves. I knew none of the other wine writers and found the whole experience dauntingly foreign. Escaping the mingling in the lobby, I sat down to the tasting table on my own, a frightened pupil on his first day at a new school. Then he sat down heavily in the chair next to me and asked me in his laborious, heavily-accented Hebrew, "so how are you?"

Most people were too apprehensive to talk to Daniel Rogov when first meeting him.

The prestige accumulated over decades of writing, his incisive style and encyclopedic knowledge, the unquestioning verdicts, created in the public eye a forbidding and aloof image, like the demonic Parisian critic Anton Ego in Walt Disney's Ratatouille. After breaking down the psychological barrier, you would discover that nothing could have been further from reality. The stern arbiter of taste was in person an open and gregarious character, with time not only for celebrity chefs and senior winemakers, but also for every reader, wine and food lover who sought him out, regardless of their social standing, financial situation or knowledge of his beloved subjects.

Inevitably, a man who spends his entire career in the company of bottles with price tags in the hundreds and thousands, dining almost nightly at the finest venues, is identified as a member of the class that can afford that lifestyle, but he was a man of relatively modest means and never forgot that so were most of his readers.

His reviews did not only concern themselves with the taste notes, but also with a wine's affordability and value for money, and he was always quick to point out a bargain wine currently on the market.

My short experience of wine writing doesn't equip me with the tools to professionally appraise his contribution to the appreciation of fine wines and the Israeli winemaking industry. I certainly can't seriously judge on the accusations leveled at him, always behind his back or from the anonymity of cyberspace, of exaggerating the praises of his favorites and that his taste buds had long been burned away by those filthy Broadway cigarettes. But on a personal level, it usually seemed to be motivated by jealousy, the just due of a man who sits firmly at the top of his profession.

His restaurant reviews left little doubt that he had no truck with the requirements of kashrut. He could be bitingly cynical about religion - any religion - but along with his expertise on Israeli and international wine, he built for himself a unique position as the world's expert on kosher wine, from every corner of the globe. From reading his Internet forum, I think that at least half the regular correspondents were mitzvah-observant enophiles, eagerly seeking out his opinions despite his personal lack of belief. He never belittled their sensibilities, answering every query with patience. Only occasionally, when the questioner overstepped some unseen line, he would write, "you, sir, are a nudnik" and end it there.

In recent years, as settlers planted vineyards and quality wine-making crossed the Green Line, he forced them to bend their principles. He wouldn't visit the settlements (the Golan Heights were a different case ), but he agreed to taste and review their vintages on his own home turf.

They swallowed their pride and came to Tel Aviv. You could see them pursuing him at wine fairs: heavily-bearded men, so out of place among the hedonistic crowd, eager for a sign of approval, hanging onto his every word as if he was a venerated rabbi.

Rogov created a unique modus vivendi around his writing. And maybe some will say that the his chosen field was trivial and insignificant when placed next to the great issues of the day, but what other writer succeeded in doing so in any other part of our polarized environment?

Like the finest clarets of Bordeaux transplanted to the rocky hills of Judea, he was a rare blend of meticulous professionalism operating for three and a half decades in the hucksterish world of Israeli journalism, connecting with all strands of the society he lived in for half his life while not losing any of his so-foreign and old-world (despite having been born in Brooklyn ) demeanor.

He took naturally to the thrust and parry of cyberspace in his last decade as a writer, as the "resident curmudgeon" of his lively web forum, which he still managed to update this week. In an age of celebrity, few knew his real name (David Joroff ), and none of the obituaries managed to come up with his age or the most basic details of his personal life.

Even after death, he reserved for himself the final world. In a farewell letter posted on the forum on Wednesday morning announcing his passing away, he was unapologetic for a life appreciating the finer things. "Wine and food to me are not simply things that enter our body. They are a reflection of our anthropology, history, psychology, social needs and, of course pleasure. And, like all critics who take themselves seriously, I have gained enormous pleasure from sharing my thoughts."

He nailed the essence of his profession: "It is clear that we do not agree on everything but that an honest, open dialogue and a sense of mutual trust are crucial to the true success of the critic."