Where in the world does a winery have to deal with a war being fought across the border from their vineyards? If not for the miracle of a cease-fire declared just one day before harvest, they would have lost everything. This is not a story most wineries would tell. But this is the story of Flam. And this is a story of Israel.
I meet Gilad Flam, Owner and Founder of Flam Winery, at Pico Kosher Deli, located on the main boulevard of Los Angeles’s largest Jewish community. It’s the restaurant that has been picked out by Adam Dromi for all of us to have lunch. Adam, who is Israeli-born, is the buyer of Israeli wines for L.A.’s largest independent fine wine shop, The Wine House. Also at the table is Levi Ehrman, West Coast Sales Rep for The Royal Wine Group, the largest distributor for Israeli wines in the U.S. I am not Jewish and, naturally, not kosher either, but I enter the conversation as a lover of wine from all regions of the world—and while I am probably more familiar with Israeli wines than the regular-joe consumer, I have a lot to learn about the fascinating revolution happening in the wine industry of Israel today.
ADAM DROMI (AD): Israel is a place where the wine industry doesn’t just have to deal with the normal wine problems. It’s the only wine industry that has to deal with politics, economics, religion, location and countless other variables you have to look at before you can get to the regular wine problems.
Gilad recalls the unique situation his winery was facing before their 2006 harvest.
GILAD FLAM (GF): In 2006, there was the Second War in Lebanon. Our vineyards are on the border. You can see from anywhere in our vineyards the Hezbollah flag. The distance is like going from here to the nearest Starbucks. There was a late summer war, and the cease-fire—it was a miracle—was declared just one day before harvest. If there wasn’t a cease-fire we would have lost the harvest.
LEVI EHRMAN (LE): It’s a miracle.
AD: I don’t think Tuscany has to worry about this sort of thing.
Eating my half-pastrami sandwich and bowl of matzoh ball soup, I nod in agreement.
THE CORKSCREWER REPORT (TCR): Maybe way back, when Italy was fighting their wars. But certainly California has never had to worry about anything like this.
AD: I don’t know . . . those Sonoma people . . . [laughter at the table]
GF: This is the terroir! This is the story of Israel. Wine is the story of the country.
That’s an interesting notion—that a country’s wine could tell the story of its country. And that to understand the unique terroir of Israel’s vineyards, you have to factor in falling missiles and smoke. How did we get here in our conversation about Flam Winery?—one of the top boutique wineries in the country, located in the Judean Hills, which is in close proximity to Jerusalem and Lebanon. Let’s back up a bit.
ISRAELI WINE, THEN AND NOW
The first revolution in Israeli winemaking occurred in 1882 when Baron Edmond de Rothschild, who was a Zionist living in France, believed that Jewish people should return to the homeland and be farmers. Rothschild returned to Israel and established the country’s first major winery, Carmel, which remains today the largest wine cooperative. Back then, they were making wine primarily for Kiddush—prayers over family meals during Shabbat.
The second revolution was sparked by Gilad’s father, Israel Flam. In 1968, Israel Flam was the first person from Israel to graduate from UC Davis, that prestigious university responsible for educating so many of the pioneers of modern winemaking. Based on family pictures Gilad has seen, he says there were only 12 graduates in his father’s class. Israel Flam returned to his home and became head winemaker for Carmel, a position he held for 35 years. Israel brought a new, modern sensibility to wine production in the country, having been the first to receive a degree in the U.S. Eventually, in the 1980s, the first major competition to Carmel would be established, the Golan Heights Winery, which furthered Israel Flam’s revolution by working with several experts from the U.S. This began the period of investments in new vineyards in Israel, the relevance of which is felt to this day.
The third revolution of Israeli wine is the revolution that Flam Winery is a part of. Flam was one of five small, estate wineries established in the late 1990s; today, there are roughly 300 boutique wineries in Israel. Gilad’s and his brother Golan’s inspiration to create a winery came from their experiences in Europe, especially Tuscany. Golan, who is Flam’s winemaker, studied winemaking in Tuscany. He and his brother wanted to model themselves after small wine estates like Ornellaia, Sassicaia and Chateau Latour that were doing everything themselves—from planting the vineyard to bottling. This model didn’t exist in Israel at the time.
GF: This was our vision—to create this model in Israel: an estate winery in Israel committed to making high quality wines that express our own terroir.
We are still in the midst of this third revolution in Israeli wine, and it’s particularly thrilling in our modern age to be able to witness firsthand the birth of a nation, so to speak. But let’s not forget the context here: the country of Israel started making wine 3,300 years ago. You can walk the vineyards all over Israel, and it’s not uncommon to come across an old wine press from before 7 B.C.
AD: It’s interesting going back to the history of wine in Israel. There’s a lot of studies today that indicate, because of the conflict in the Ottoman Empire, a lot of indigenous varieties have been destroyed—a lot of wines people have never heard of. You know how Italy is known to have thousands of different grapes?—who knows what Israel has lost. Because those vineyards have been uprooted. There’s a mass cultural effort today to find out what these grapes were.
In fact, there’s a university conducting very serious research because they want to know what wine the likes of King David and King Solomon were drinking. C’mon now, you can’t find this kind of story in any other winemaking country. Only in Israel. Now all we need are baseball caps with “Only in Israel” branded on them so that the message can get spread across the world.
THE CHALLENGE OF PERCEPTION
Ask a salesperson at any wine shop in America to point you towards the Israeli wine section—if there is one—and inevitably you’ll walk past the Italy, France, Spain, U.S., and South America sections and taken to a very small area of shelf space in the least desirable, or most hidden, area of the store where kosher wines are kept. I ask Gilad, bluntly, how he feels about this, considering the high quality of wines being made in Israel today that could easily stand up to the quality of its distant European neighbors. Gilad answers without a hint of frustration, perhaps stoically, and even with a touch of humor.
GF: . . . It’s complicated. I go to the shops and they put you on the kosher shelves. There’s Italy, France, Portugal, U.S. . . . and the kosher shelf. I don’t know any Kosher country—is this a new country? Kosher is seen as a sub-class. A wine lover that loves Cabernet Sauvignon won’t go to the kosher section. But I can tell you, because we’re doing a lot of testing, our Cabernet costs $55 to $60 and we can compete with any California Cabernet or French Cabernet at this price level. There’s very few people like Adam [Dromi] who can educate people that Israeli wine is not what you think, and that there’s good stuff out there. Again, you see the terroir. You see the people who have invested the money. We want to get past these borders of perception. It’s going to take time.
TCR: What is it going to take? We’ve seen concerted marketing efforts from wine associations in certain regions, like Ribera del Duero or Rioja, to help inform people’s perceptions. Is any of that going on in Israel?
GF: The problem with Israel as a state, as a country, is that we have a lot of problems before the wine problem. The state’s budget invests in a lot of other things. It’s a lot of money to invest and spend for a wine marketing program. At the end of the day, Israel is a very small producer of wine. We only produce 20% of what New Zealand produces, and New Zealand is very small. We’re just like one village in Italy. I tell myself, we will never conquer the U.S. market by volume of wine, but we have to find our quality, we have to find our identity.
AD: Unfortunately, when everything you hear about Israel is everything but wine, investment from the government is low on the totem pole. From my vantage point [as a buyer and seller], to be blunt, kosher or not kosher, I don’t give a damn. Is it good wine, or is it not good wine? The question is, how do we get distributors to show these wines? I met Levi [Ehrman] three years ago, and something in those Flam wines caught my attention. Two years ago, I pulled the trigger. It’s rare for us [the Wine House] to buy the whole book of a winery. I bought everything in it. It’s wine we stand behind because they’re great wines.
GF: Wine shops I visit in the U.S., which are non-kosher, they are really surprised. They don’t believe that such wines come from Israel. And I tell them, ‘Listen—wines didn’t start in Napa Valley, wines started in Israel, don’t forget it!’ [laughter at the table] It’s the story of an ancient land that produces New World wines. No country has this story. 100 feet from our winery there’s a wine press that’s 3,000 years old. Where else in the world can you find this?
One sticking point of Israeli wines is their relatively high price point. To be clear, Manischewitz, and other wines modeled after it, is not an Israeli wine. It’s made in the U.S. and it tastes like @#!% . . . what do you expect for $5? However, this most popular and well-known of Jewish-themed wines has set the bar low—setting up an expectation in the customer that Israeli wines should not be expensive. It’s kind of like when you go to a fine-dining Chinese restaurant. The mind gets all confused when you see that the Kung Pao Chicken is $30 on the menu. But there’s a difference in quality with the Kung Pao Chicken made by master chef Ming Yu at Restaurant Wing Lei versus the Kung Pao Chicken at the takeout place next to the laundromat down the street.
TCR: In our opinion, the Flam Noble, at $90 for your flagship Bordeaux blend [we rated both the 2010 and 2011 vintage 97 points], is a good value in relation to comparable Bordeaux wines.
AD: The challenge is getting that customer to buy a Bordeaux blend from Israel.
LE: We run into this issue exactly when we visit the shops.
TCR: But you can’t reduce your prices just to move the wine when you know the quality is far superior in its price point.
AD: And, so, you have to get them to try it. They’ll say: A $57 kosher wine, what are you thinking? I’ll say: Try it. When I bought the whole book of the winery, I was hoping to sell three or four cases of the [Flam] Cabernet. I ended up selling 20-25 cases of it. Because we stood behind the wine as a good wine—the rest of it is secondary. It was about getting people to try it. You still get those people that want the under-$10 kosher wine, because the opinion is kosher wine = bad. Why spend the money if it’s bad? But the customer will spend $25-35 for a good bottle these days.
LE: It’s about education at the end of the day. That’s not bad as an entry-level price for an Israeli wine.
TCR: As a consumer we just have a lot of catching up to do.
GF: It will take time. And a constant message, and it will spread. Those of us making wine [in Israel] need to reach critical mass as an industry, and then we become very attractive as a wine region. . . . I think the movement will start from wine lovers. I’m a wine lover, at the end of the day. And I like very much always to find new regions . . . to go to Portugal, to go to South Italy. When I go, I taste all the time, and Israel has to be on the map for people who love to taste, who love to experience new wines. I love to taste Turkish wine, Cypress wine, Croatian wines, you just name it—and I will taste it. Because I’m curious about wines and about new tastes, new varieties and new terroirs.
IT’S A FLAM FAMILY AFFAIR
“Blood is thicker than the mud.” That’s a line from one of Sly & The Family Stone’s biggest radio hits, “Family Affair.”
GF: It can be difficult working with your own family, sometimes. But when you have a family wine business it’s strong, because you are so committed to your product. From the vineyard to the bottle to the website, you’re paying attention. This is your brand, this is your family.
Total production for Flam Winery is 14,000 cases. The percentage of their export business is around 30%, with the biggest foreign market in the U.S. Flam also markets their wines to Australia, U.K., France, Belgium, Holland, Italy, Canada and also Hong Kong, Singapore and Tokyo. In Israel, the winery only distributes to fine wine shops and restaurants—not big retailers or supermarkets. One might be surprised to know that Israel has many fine wine shops and a bustling restaurant scene; the center of culinary activity is Tel-Aviv, with chefs popping up everywhere. And Israeli palates are non-defined and adventurous, so all kinds of varieties are popular with the public—Cabernet Sauvignon, of course, but Syrah is also becoming very popular, as well as varieties such as Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, Grenache and Carignan, and for whites, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and Roussanne/Marsanne. Competition from imports is limited—around 30% of wine in Israel is imported, mainly European wines because of the closer proximity.
It’s worth noting that a large percentage of wines in Israel are not kosher. Most of the restaurants are not kosher in Israel. There are varying level of religious practice in the country, just like there is anywhere else. For example, in the U.S. you have conservative Jews and you have Jews like presidential candidate Bernie Sanders who relate to Judaism as an identity, not so much a religion. Gilad reflects on this duality.
GF: In Israel, I can be not a religious guy, but I will feel more Jewish because my kids will go to public school and you will celebrate all the holidays. Here in America, you almost have to be more religious in order to feel connected. For me, every Friday we’re all doing a family meal and we’re lighting candles. My kids are growing up and this is their environment. Even though it’s not a religious environment, they will know for sure all the holidays from Tu B’Shevat to Yom Kippur, and they are celebrating it. In America, it’s harder to keep your Jewish identity.
I ask about drinking wine in relationship to everyday culture versus religion.
GF: Tel Aviv is the restaurant and culinary center of Israel. You can see very nice wine lists at the restaurants there. As daily consumption, I can tell you it’s not like in Europe, but the trend is there. Tel Aviv almost feels like it’s a different country. As there are more good wines, people will drink more. You have to understand, though, because of Pesach and the holidays, wine is part of our religion. And so, if you want it or don’t want it, you drink wine!
We circle back to the topic of the family’s vision for the future of the winery, and Gilad turns particularly introspective. The values of studying and learning are deeply ingrained in the Jewish culture, and his words reflect an overall value system in place at Flam.
GF: We are learning. To establish a winery, and to make wine, and to plant vineyards—it’s a lifetime. It’s three rounds of lifetime. It’s a big journey. We’re still at the stage of learning about our vineyards. They’re only 16 years old. You study, you learn, you try to attain more and more knowledge—from all kinds of sources. For example, for the last three years we have been working with Christian Le Sommer, who was the winemaker for Chateau Latour for 20 years. It’s like having a basketball team with Michael Jordan as your trainer. It’s to study and to try to achieve a better wine. It’s also a lot of time getting to know your wine, your palate getting used to your wine. Only in this way can you improve yourself. In Israel we are very dynamic. We learn quickly, and we invent a lot. It’s a young industry. The resolve that the Israeli wine industry has achieved in the last 15 years has not come easy.
TCR: Where do you see yourselves in 20 years?
GF: I see Flam improving our quality and learning more about our vineyards. I hope to see new vineyards planted and finding new varieties that will be the best for our terroir. And to have more recognition as quality wines in the general world, not only in the kosher world. This is our target.
It’s an entirely reasonable expectation for the future, not just for Flam but for Israel’s booming wine industry at large. Success won’t come without a struggle, but, in the world of winemaking, struggle is a noble thing. Vines that struggle must dig deep into the terroir for sustenance, and the resulting fruit is richer, more vibrant than from those vines which have it far easier.
WINE REVIEWSFLAM flamwinery.com Eshtaol, Judean Hills, ISRAEL Owned by: Gilad and Golan Flam Winemaker: Golan Flam U.S. Distributor: Royal Wine Corporation royalwine.com
2014 BLANC (SAUVIGNON BLANC AND CHARDONNAY)
$28 | 91 pts
A wonderfully distinctive white wine, a blend of roughly 60% Sauvignon Blanc and 40% Chardonnay, which you won’t see often. Winemaker Golan Flam calls this a “dangerously drinkable white,” and there’s no hyperbole to be found in that description. Supremely bright, focused, clean, crisp and clear—dry ice is used in fermentation and in the press, and there’s hardly any color to the wine because oxygen never makes contact with the juice—this is as easygoing yet stylish and sophisticated as easy gets. Aromas and flavors of white peach, honeysuckle, orange oil and tropical fruit enchant the senses, a truly attractive wine. Adventurously pair with tapas-style small plates, and you’ve got a match made in heaven.
$30 | 91 pts
This is one that will make you see Rosé in a new light. Leftover grapes are not what goes into this wine; the Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon used are harvested with the same exactitude as the grapes that go into Flam’s prestige wines, resulting in a wine of deep character. This Rosé is an exquisite padparadscha sapphire color and is simultaneously richer, softer-textured and creamier than most of its peers. Expressive notes of melon and watermelon, ripe papaya and bright, young cranberry. There’s a sweet honeysuckle undercurrent with every sip, with a lengthy finish that comes with a note of minerality and bitters like in a glitzy cocktail. This bottling received high scores from Japanese journalists recently, partly because it pairs so well with sushi. With a fuller body than most Rosés, it can hold up to a virtually limitless variety of main dishes on the dinner table.
2013 CLASSICO (BORDEAUX BLEND)
$35 | 90 pts
A Claret by any other name, and a true pastiche of Judean Hills terroir—as the Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Syrah grapes that go into this Bordeaux blend are all picked separately according to their optimal harvest time and treated separately until blending. In personality and depth of character, the Classico surpasses the field of American-made Clarets in the same price range and presents a rather subversive value in comparison to Bordeaux wines of similar quality. The wine invites comparison to a well-made, midrange Margaux (Giscours, Brane-Cantenac, Prieuré-Lichine, etc.) with its ripe fruit-forwardness, supple texture, solid structure and elegant finesse. An excellent expression of Israeli terroir, and a good place to start to discover the special character of Israeli wine.
2011 CABERNET SAUVIGNON RESERVE
$57 | 91 pts
The Italian inspiration is evident here. Gilad and Golan Flam, who spent a significant part of their formative years in Tuscany, produce a well-crafted estate Cabernet that has a lot in common with a Super Tuscan. Mineral-driven, chalky texture, fresh acidity, soft oak touch, spices, robust fruit character of red and dark berries, mild tannins, elegant structure and a supple, lengthy finish. Out of the whole Flam portfolio, this is the wine to keep the closest eye on, as the winery gains knowledge and as the vines get older through future vintages. This is the Flam wine that is a window to their soul. It would not be a surprise, given time, if this were to become Israel’s Ornellaia.
2011 MERLOT RESERVE
$56 | 92 pts
Merlot with a wonderful sense of place. Vibrant, robust, fruit-forward with black cherry, blackberry and lavender notes, velvety, succulent, integrated and complete. Great finesse and body to the wine, quite sensuous. The tannins are formidable here—it’s a powerful wine but supremely balanced, due to a bit of Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon added to the mix. The vines in the Upper Galilee that bear this elegant Merlot fruit is extremely low-yielding, requiring tender care. The Mediterranean climate that this winegrowing area of Israel enjoys brings daytime warmth while the adjacent Mediterranean Sea is cold—good for the sugar and color of the wine—while nighttime brings temperatures that drop down by 15 degrees Celsius, which makes the ground cold while the sea is hot—very good for the acidity in the fruit. This is the essence of the uniqueness of the Judean Hills terroir, and expressed none more so than in the Flam Merlot.
2013 SYRAH RESERVE
$42 | 93 pts
While the northern Rhone Valley of France has long set the standard for Syrah, Israeli Syrah is raising the standard to a new level of distinction in the modern era. Winemaking has been a part of the culture for 3,300 years, and something about the incredible makeup of the ancient terrain of the Judean Hills—including a variety of clay, volcanic soil, rock and stone—brings about a beautifully complex Syrah with an exquisite sense of terroir. All the elements of a great wine are in harmony here: aroma, flavor, texture, structure, balance, complexity and length. There’s a saline quality to the texture that glides along with the wine’s expressive notes of red currant, red cherry, bacon, baking spice and cedar. The ripeness of the fruit is just right, and the smooth journey ends on a tinge of smoky pepper and spice. Israel, despite its long history of political strife, is a land of wondrous beauty. It’s a beauty borne out of complexity. Beauty’s persistence certainly makes itself evident in this lovely Syrah.
$90 | 97 pts
The day of atonement is an acknowledgment of human frailty and an accounting of one’s sins towards others. Through this act of recognition and seeking of forgiveness for those transgressions, a person mends their relationship with God and achieves a higher state of nobility. There is perhaps no more aptly named wine from Israel than the Flam Noble. With extraordinary depth and preponderance of philosophical character, the 2010 bottling is a lush and silky but intense blend of 84% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Petit Verdot, 5% Merlot and 5% Cabernet Franc harvested from estate-held plots in the upper Galilee and Jerusalem mountains. The tannins of the wine are the star here—gripping and immensely powerful—but never overpowering because of the wine’s superb balance and structure and elongated finish. Amidst the notes of violets, blackberries and cassis that are never reticent, there is a persistence of mocha on the palate. The boldness and forwardness of dark fruit is endlessly engaging, drawing inspiration equally from the noble heart and mind.
$90 | 97 pts
The 2011 harvest was a stark contrast to the very hot 2010. And the current 2011 vintage of the Flam Noble provides a fascinating contrast to the majestic, powerful 2010 bottling. Gilad Flam describes 2011 as a “very European, very mild, very cool” year. The 2011 Noble, then, can be seen as the Yin to 2010’s Yang. According to the Tai Chi of ancient Chinese philosophy, the universe, which is constant and cyclical, consists of two forces that are contrary but complementary and interconnected. Ergo, the 2011 is steeped in femininity—the prettiest aromatics of purple flowers, the smell of happy, romantic Spring; emphasis on red fruit flavor profile, sensuous, flirtatious and sexy; silky smooth texture, caressingly soft on the palate; and a dramatically lengthy finish that is sentimental and deep. A blend of 61% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Petit Verdot, 11% Merlot and 11% Cabernet Franc, in the bottle is the essence of balance and harmony, reflecting the craft and passion of the winemaker’s touch. A noble beauty.