Wine is not only for the weekends

One of the founders of the hit annual Jerusalem Wine Festival, which starts Monday night, says Israel makes wonderful wine but sabras need to drink a lot more of it

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Last year's wine festival in front of the museum's iconic Ahava sculpture (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Last year's wine festival in front of the museum's iconic Ahava sculpture (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

There may be no Jerusalem summer festival as eagerly awaited as the annual wine festival, with this year’s, the ninth, beginning Monday evening at the Israel Museum’s expanded Sculpture Garden.

Held Monday, July 30, through Thursday, August 2, from 7:00 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. each evening, the festival is Israel’s largest wine gathering, hosting thousands of visitors who will taste wines poured by more than two dozen wineries.

The concept was first put together by two Jerusalem wine purveyors, Avi Ben, the owner of Jerusalem’s Avi Ben wine shops, and Shmulik Cohen, who owns Hamashkaot shel Shachar, also in Jerusalem. The festival was first held on Emek Refaim, the busy main drag of the German Colony, moving in its second year to an area of the museum, and eventually to the larger, more spacious Sculpture Garden.

The idea, said Avi Ben, was just to have fun, to get people out on a cool Jerusalem summer evening and drink wine. That aspect of the festival has been overwhelmingly successful, he said.

What has been more difficult to overcome in Israel’s growing wine industry is the lack of a wine culture, said Ben.

“There isn’t a real culture of wine in Israel,” he commented. “Israelis don’t really drink during the week. They don’t have a glass of wine at dinner. It’s only for fun, or on the weekends. They understand more, they know more about wine — but they don’t drink enough.”

It’s a problem that both he and his wine festival partner, Cohen, have been discussing in a number of forums, pointing to the growth of the local boutique wine industry and the number of new wineries that are created each year on the one hand, while noting the lack of enough demand to warrant the growing supply. The local industry did witness an increase in wine production some 10 years ago, but it quickly stabilized.

“Clearly it takes time to develop a wine culture, like the kind that exists in France or Italy, where they linger over lunch and always have a glass or two of wine with each meal,” Ben said. “These things happen in stages. You have to teach people, and when they learn about wine, it increases the chances that they will drink more.”

Pouring the wine (photo credit: Anna Kaplan/Flash 90)
Pouring the wine (photo credit: Anna Kaplan/Flash90)

The festival has certainly helped expose wine, said Ben. Many attendees put it into their calendar months in advance and make sure to be in Israel during the festival, whether they are Israelis planning trips abroad or tourists who schedule their trips around it.

The festival includes more wineries each year, and there’s now a waiting list of wineries that want to participate.

“We always want to bring in new wineries, to expose people to what’s out there,” said Ben. “Still, we have to encourage them to drink wine, and not to consider mixed drinks as a substitute for wine. You drink wine with food; it’s part of the experience.”

Most Israeli homes have wine, whether an open bottle in the refrigerator or a few sitting in the closet — preferably lying down (the better to control temperature and oxygen exposure, though sparkling wines can sit right side up). But even that doesn’t create enough demand.

Still, the culture has developed more in recent years, Ben allowed. Israelis, he said, generally prefer red wines, but have also learned that the unrelenting hot weather of the summer makes white wine preferable. Roses, in particular, are great during the warmer months of the year.

Besides the wine tasting — which costs NIS 80 and includes a complimentary wine glass — there will be tastings of cheeses, chocolates from Holy Cacao and De Karina, and olive oils, as well as a wine shop.

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