It’s been that long since I had my feet on the ground among the vines in Israeli wine country, and until now I’d yet to write a word about the experience, apart from a few social media updates and the odd mini-review.
The mistake I’d made over that period of waiting? Thinking that there would be an appropriate time during which the political maelstrom that is Middle East politics would present a low-key time for me to simply be able to focus on the region’s wines themselves, without the specter of centuries upon centuries of conflict rearing its ghostly head obtrusively behind. And it’s just difficult to do that when you have visited vines that grow among former Lebanese army bunkers, or are surrounded by land mine warning signs, or that have turned up with the occasional IED among them. In that context, waiting for a quieter period of Israel in the national news before focusing on something as simple as vino doesn’t seem like a bad idea.
Buuuuuut… Fat chance. I may never see that time. And so I suppose this is the start of me trying to do a (very) small part of in taking matters into my own hands with giving Israel a bit of media focus that isn’t packed to the gills with cringe-worthy tales of damage to pride, property, and lives. Well, perhaps the writing will be cringe-worthy, but hopefully that’s the extent of it.
Fortunately, Israel’s winemaking history surpases its history of conflict, both in terms of longevity and in interest. There is evidence of winmaking and (particularly along the Mediterranean coast) wine export dating back at least five thousand years. About seven hundred years of Muslim Ottoman influence slowed things down, buy by the 1880s a wave of Zionist immigrants, focused on farming, renewed and rejuvenated the region’s wine industry. Investment from the Rothschilds in France helped to modernize the industry here, and another wave, starting in about 2008, focused the fine wine scene mostly on Mediterranean grape varieties, and saw the development of more modernized marketing approaches.
And despite all of that, as Recanati winemaker Gil Shatsberg told me, “Israeli wine is not really defined yet…”
A few weeks ago, I visited San Diego for yet another stint of judging at the annual Critics Challenge International Wine Competition, now in its sixteenth year. As is always the case with CC, the organization, staff, and execution were all top-notch, allowing us critic-judge-types to give the wines their fair due under the palate evaluation microscope. As is always the case with CC, I count myself extremely fortunate to have once again fooled everyone into thinking that I have some talent been invited to join such a finely-tuned event.
For those who are new to CC, a quick word on the format: judges are usually paired (or in some rare cases, trio-ed) into panels and judge several flights of wines blind. All of the judges are wine critics with wine competition experience, and judge all of the wines independently, awarding Silver, Gold, or Platinum medals (there is no Bronze category in CC). For each wine, the highest medal awarded “wins,” so judges in the same panel need not agree for a wine to be awarded a medal (in my experience, we do often discuss the results and generally agree about 80% – or more – of the time).
Now that the results have been published, I can share some of my thoughts on a few of the excellent wines that my panel were able to taste, and to Platinum (which, in wine judging parlance, is absolutely a verb; as in “did you Platinum anything this morning?” and – with the appropriate past-tense – “yeah, we totally Platinumed some killer dessert wines in that last flight”).
And so, here are a handful of interesting wines that stood out to me over two days of evaluation, with the more interesting result being that they are from less than a handful of producers…
While I enjoy the thrill of the new, in some ways I am a creature of habit.
Specifically, I have both a habit of getting invited to wine regions that don’t make the usual list of media darling locales, and I have a habit of accepting those invitations because, well, new. And so it was that I recently found myself in Texas, touring that state’s budding Hill Country wine scene as part of a media jaunt, and generally annoying Dallas Cowboy fans by telling them how great I think that the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers is.
Interestingly, this Texas Hill Country has a streak of uniqueness, even for a state famous for its larger-than-life machismo flamboyance. To wit: the region is rich in immigrant history (tellingly, it was home too the German Free Thinkers movement), to the point that the area opposed secession from the Union during the American Civil War (a Union monument to the Abolitionists who were killed for refusing to fight for the Confederacy still stands in Comfort, TX).
Apart from those living in Texas, Hill Country remains off of the fine wine radar. Its tasting rooms, however, are generally packed to the gills on the weekends, due to a combination of favorable factors:
Proximity to Austin and Houston,
A budding fine wine appreciation culture that still has disposable cash to spend on vino, given that the region in general didn’t dip as severely as the rest of the nation during the most recent economic downturn, and
Actually some really, really good wine being made locally.
It’s that latter part, of course, that is the focus today here on these virtual pages; bonus points, of course, …
“It only took me… eleven years!” remarked Ron Yates, owner of the family-run Spicewood Vineyards, which produces about three thousand cases from about forty acres in the about-as-unlikely-as-they-come-at-first-but-upon-further-review-kind-of-inevitable fine wine region of Texas Hill Country.
Yates was speaking about the fact that he and Texas-native winemaker Todd Crowell can now offer an all-estate tasting list. Getting there, apparently, wasn’t all that easy; or, at least, not straightforward. Yates was studying law and working in the record label business (High Wire Music, once home of Toad the Wet Sprocket front-man Glen Phillips, a personal 1WD fave), when he caught the fine wine bug. In unlikely-but-inevitable fashion, his cousins Ed and Susan Auler own Fall Creek Vineyards; but that’s not really what got him into wine. That would be… Spanish Tempranillo. Of course, right?
“That’s my favorite grape in the whole world,” Yates told me when I visited his tasting room in Spicewood, TX (as part of a media jaunt). While a student in his twenties at the University of Texas, Yates spent a semester in Spain, living with a host family whose son just happened to be grape grower in Ribera del Duero (see what I mean about kind-of-inevitable?). A love affair with that region’s signature red grape thus ensued. “A good bottle of Tempranillo was as cheap as a bottle of water back then” Yates recalled.
Years later, in 2007, thoroughly enthralled with things vinous, Yates began courting then Spiwood’s then owners Edward and Madeleine Manigold, eventually buying from them. The vineyards, sandy loam with a well-draining limestone bed, had potential; the vines, though, needed some work. They reduced the `92 plantings, removing “stuff that just shouldn’t be here [in Texas] with the heat.” Yates’ grandfather helped him with the lease and purchase; “he was so excited that his long-haired, hippy grandchild was leaving the music biz and getting into agriculture!” Turns out, it was a pretty good move after all…
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