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Golan Heights Comes to San Francisco

By Dan Clarke

When a writer is invited to Restaurant Gary Danko, he is reminded that his current line of work beats whatever the alternative might be. So it was last Thursday when I joined colleagues in San Francisco for a tasting of 20 years of Yarden wines from Golan Heights Winery.

We sampled a surprisingly diverse 11 wines in the morning while learning about the general state of winemaking in Israel and, more specifically, in the Golan Heights where Yarden Wines are made.

The winery has very strong connection to California. Victor Schoenfeld was reared a Californian and is a product of the enology program at the UC Davis. The 40-year old chief winemaker gained experience in the 1980s at the Robert Mondavi, Preston, Sonoma Creek and Chateau St. Jean wineries in California and worked at Champagne Jacquesson & Fils in France before joining Golan Heights Winery in 1992.

Associate winemaker Micah Vaadia has been with Yarden for six years. He is a native Israeli, but earned a Master's degree in enology at Davis and worked in the California industry at Anderson Navarro, La Crema and at J. His experience also includes stints in New Zealand at Cloudy Bay and in Argentina at Catena.

Zelma Long is another product of the UC Davis system and is probably best known for the 20 years she spent at Simi Winery and Domaine Chandon. Since retiring from Chandon Estates, she has been a consulting winemaker for clients in the United States, South Africa and in Israel at Golan Heights.

Schoenfeld acknowledged that those unfamiliar with winemaking in Israel might presume that the landscape was all camels and dessert. The reality is quite different, we learned. While the area immediately surrounding the Sea of Galilee, which is 689 feet below sea level, does grow dates and bananas, just 31 miles away is Mount Hermon, a 7,284-foot peak. The vineyards of Golan Heights Winery are situated between 1,300 and 3,900 feet elevation. Snow fell as late as April of last year, said the California native, who's still developing his understanding of the terroir and how his wines will best express it.

There's a long history--a long interrupted history--of grape growing and winemaking in the Middle East. In the 1970s and 80s there was a revival of vineyard plantings in Israel and there were substantial increases in quality of its product, due in large part to lessons learned by the California wine industry.

Golan Heights Winery is Israel's third-largest winery, producing about 450,000 cases per year. Their primary label is Yarden and awards mentioned in their press kit give substantial validation that they are making wines that can stand with the best in the world.

Arriving guests were handed flutes of sparkling wine. At Gary Danko's restaurant you don't expect to taste anything unpleasant and the reception wine could have been a Champagne, and a good one at that. It was the Yarden Blanc de Blancs, 1997 ($20).

Seated in a private room a bit later we began a tasting of 11 Yarden wines. Two styles of Chardonnay were poured, the Odem Organic Vineyard, 2002 (suggested retail $19), and the Katzrin, 2002 ($30). The latter was a more concentrated wine, which had sur lie aging and saw more oak. I actually preferred the less expensive first offering, which was also served with our lobster course at lunch.

Pinot Noir is a recent development for Yarden. In the formal tasting we sampled the 2001 vintage ($25) and enjoyed it, along with a Cabernet Sauvignon, in accompaniment to the sutffed quail on seared foie gras. Several winery representatives were proud to be on the way to Oregon later in the day as they'd been invited to present their wine for the first time at the international Pinot Noir conference in McMinnville.

Two products of year 2000 were next in sequence, the Merlot ($23) and the Syrah ($23)—both were nice, but I particularly favored the Syrah, which had plenty of blueberry fruit expression while incorporating the wild earthiness and spice that I so enjoy.

Four Cabernet Sauvignons followed. The 1993 and 1997 are no longer available, but the 2000 and 2001 are both priced at $26. The earliest of these wines—the ‘93—showed a herbaceous, green pepper quality that I actually liked, but it seemed untypical of the three more recent Cabs, which were to my palate deeper, more concentrated, more complex and, overall, better wines.

The 2000 Yarden Katzrin ($85) is a Bordeaux blend, comprised of 89% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Merlot and 2% Cabernet Franc. Its maker said we were “not doing it justice by drinking it now,” but as Californians we're used to sampling some pretty big wines way before they approach their prime. An opportunity to taste this wine ten years down the road is one I wouldn't miss, however.

Our final wine in the tasting was also reprised at the conclusion of lunch, the Yarden Gewurztraminer “Heights Wine” ($25/375ml). This dessert wine, made in the style of a naturally occurring ice wine ( eiswein ), is harvested normally but frozen for about a month before undergoing a gentle pressing to yield a must of concentrated flavors and sweetness. It was wonderfully floral with flavors of apricot and pear.

For those of us with little experience of Israeli wines, the day was a revelation. Through three hours of afternoon traffic on the way home I sustained a relatively serene countenance. Great wine and a great lunch have such powers of pacification.

California Wine and Food

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