I am hosting a tasting of wines from unusual regions and I have been hugging myself gleefully as I plan the delights that will be in store for the lucky tasters. There will be Koshu from Japan, Agiorgitiko from Greece, Pinot Grigio from Slovenia, Teran from Croatia and, following an unforgettable tasting trip I was excited to present a wine from Israel. I spoke to one of my suppliers to check on the availability of their Israeli wine only to find it had been delisted as it was proving too hard to sell.
Frustrated, I countered that Israeli wine was just the kind of challenging sell that they should relish. I naively thought it was a quality perception that was proving to be the insurmountable hurdle. Many consumers are unaware that Israel produce wine, and if they are aware, they often believe that being Kosher will negatively impact the quality; that it is simply the equivalent of communion wine. The time I spent there showed me this was simply not true. Quality levels are generally exceptionally high, and the restrictions of kosher winemaking makes the winemakers deft forward thinkers as they work to ensure Sabbath does not fall in the first ¼ of fermentation – the danger zone for stuck fermentations. This is a point I relished demonstrating to consumers through a blind tasting. But I was both surprised and disappointed to find that it was actually political objections that were causing the majority of potential customers to reject the wines.
I am all for people taking a political stance and like most, have my own opinions on this complex subject. I appreciate that for many consumers choosing what you buy is one of the limited ways we can make a political statement. However, having met a number of wine farmers, and I use that term deliberately as they are simply agricultural farmers not political movers and shakers, it is saddening to think that they are being penalised for the politics of the region.
One producer I encountered came from a family that had farmed grapes in the Gaza strip for decades, but now it is such a politically volatile area no one will buy her wine or even the grapes. An accident of geography has left her on the brink of ruin. She has no interest in politics beyond wanting enough stability to enable her to work her land, produce a product she loves and sell it based on its quality.
Another producer who is situated on a hillside facing Lebanon described how, one year during the war, they were busy harvesting while rockets flew over their heads, fired from the bank opposite them and destined for the town a few miles behind them. He said with a wry smile and sad eyes that it was one of the best vintages they had produced. This resignation to the sad reality of their situation, combined with a determination to continue to make wine (an admirable mentality which can be found on both sides of the border), is what I have come to learn, embodies the type of person drawn to the wine industry.
I am proud that the international wine community is an all embracing institution where people and wines are judged on their own personal merits and not tarred with politics and accidents of geography. I understand the heightened emotions surrounding the Middle Eastern politics but I wish that consumers could, for a moment, look beyond that and remember the men and women working the soil and trying to make a living with no thought of political power play. So before you disregard wine for political reasons remember that sometimes it is simply humble fermented grape juice trying to make its way in the big bad world.