Since day one, the mission in the kitchen at Zahav has been clear – serve modern Israeli cuisine and do it with as much care, soul and deliciousness as possible. Owners Steven Cook and Chef Michael Solomonov have done just that, garnering accolades along the way from both local and national press and putting together what I feel is the most exciting restaurant to have opened in Philadelphia in the last year (its first birthday is coming up in May). While Cook and Solomonov hit the ground running with their mezze and shipudim (kebab) dominated menu, it’s taken the wine program at Zahav a bit longer to approach maturity.
The compact, international wine list at Zahav has always included at least a couple of Israeli wines. Given the constraints of Pennsylvania’s state controlled wine distribution system, through which few Israeli wines are available, Mr. Cook’s initial options were minimal at best. Steven has been working to change that. Over the course of the last year, he has forged relationships with importers such as Israeli Wine Direct and Sol Stars, as well as with a local distributor, allowing Steven to bring many wines from Israel into Pennsylvania for the first time ever. He’s taken some risks in doing it, too. Given that these wines are coming into PA by special order from importers in Chicago and New York, he’s had to buy many selections sight unseen – without tasting and in full case lots. Luck has been on his side for the most part, with only a couple of chances not passing muster.
From its rudimentary beginnings – few if any of the initially offered Israeli wines are still included – Zahav’s list has now expanded to include twenty-two selections from Israel, as well as eight from Lebanon and two from Morocco.
Here are some of my general impressions based on tasting through a selection of the restaurant’s current offerings at a press tasting held earlier this week in “The Quarter” at Zahav:
- From my perspective, most if not all of the wines showed promise, offering direct fruit and adequate acid balance. The only wine with which I struggled to find any redeeming traits was the 2007 Sauvignon Blanc/Chardonnay blend from Flam, a winery located outside of Jerusalem in the Judean Hills. There wasn’t enough charm in its neutral nose or simple fruit approach to make up for its disjointed alcohol, aggressive texture and unresolved residual sugar.
- Speaking of alcohol, I found the level of heat problematic in most of the wines save the white and red from Clos de Gat, another Judean Hills based producer, and the Late Harvest Gewurztraminer from Carmel, Israel’s largest and oldest producer. Whether on the nose, on the mid-palate or on the finish, high alcohol levels – a tough byproduct to overcome, at least naturally, in a hot, arid climate – marred some otherwise quite palatable wines.
- I’m no expert on Israeli wines (far from it in fact), and I don’t have a finely honed sense of Israel’s terroir, much less of the differences in terroir from region to region within the country. That said, I am confident in saying that the wines we tasted lacked any clear expression or sense of place. Instead, winemaking tendencies appear to lean heavily toward the international.
On the obvious end of this spectrum was “Mes’ha,” a 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot/Shiraz blend from Galilee-based producer Tabor, a large winery owned by the local Coca-Cola bottling company. Hot and jammy with a punchy cherry/berry fruit attack, this could have come from Puglia or the Barossa Valley just as easily as from Galilee. Even the wines from Clos de Gat – I say “even” because I found them to be the most complete wines at the tasting – could easily have passed as hailing from California. Their 2005 Judean Hills Chardonnay was very Central Coast in style, full of tropical fruit and sweet vanilla, while their ’04 Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot blend from the Ayalon Valley reminded me very much of early 1990s Alexander Valley reds from producers such as Clos du Bois and V. Sattui.
- A growing number of wineries are foregoing Kosher certification, both in reaction to the market stigma often associated with Kosher wines – quick, what’s the first thing you think of when you hear “Kosher wine”? – and to avoid the costly, time consuming bureaucratic requirements of certification. Of the six wines from Israel we tasted, only two were Kosher, those from Tabor and Carmel.
In spite of the growth and success of the Israeli wine program at Zahav, Steven still voiced some reservations about the current state of winemaking in Israel and what it means for the restaurant’s overall wine program. Aware that many of the Israeli wines that we tasted – most ranged from US$70-100 on Zahav’s list – do not offer good quality-to-price ratio, Steven takes a lower margin on them to encourage sales and to help fit them into the price spread of the overall list. Also acknowledging that the wines are not always food friendly, he has every intention of keeping wines from Europe and other parts of the globe on the list to ensure versatility.
Based on the range in this tasting, I share many of Mr. Cook’s reservations. I also respect what he’s doing and applaud his efforts in seeking out the best work of the fledgling Israeli wine industry and taking a huge chance by building the core of his wine program around it. Thus far his work has bore fruit, as Israeli and Lebanese wines represent nearly 70% of bottle sales at Zahav. His program also shows a commitment to and understanding of the place-based relationship between wine and food that I only wish more restaurateurs shared. I look forward to watching – and exploring – the growth and evolution of both Zahav’s list and the Israeli wine industry in the months and years to come.
If you’re interested in doing a little exploration of your own, Zahav will be launching its new monthly dinner series on Thursday, May 14, 2009, with a five-course meal prepared by Chef Solomonov and paired with Israeli boutique wines. Cost for the event is $85, plus tax and gratuity. Contact the restaurant for reservations or more information.
237 Saint James Place
Philadelphia, PA 19106
And for even more in-depth exploration, Daniel Rogov writes an annually updated guide that's generally considered the authoritative text on the wines of Israel.
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Postscript: I just realized this might be considered a marginally eligible entry for Wine Blogging Wednesday, even if it is a day late. (But who's counting...? It's WBW 56 for those that are.) Hats off to The Corkdork for hosting this month's edition, which focused on fine Kosher wines.