One of Israel’s fast-flowering boutique wineries, Flam is small but gathering rave reviews from top critics.
When Prof. Cornelius Ough, a professor of oenology at the University of California at Davis, arrived in Israel in 1972, he didn’t know what a revolution he’d set off. He took a look at the rugged Golan Heights region, whose fields were primarily used to grow apples, and declared it optimal for winemaking as well.
Four years later, the Golan Winery was founded, transforming Israel from a country specializing in sweet wines for ritual use on Shabbat and holidays, to a source of high-quality wines for enjoyment year round.
The fruit of that discovery is still in play, with the opening of nearly 250 small “boutique” wineries across Israel in the last decade and a half. One of those new establishments is the Flam Winery, a plucky family-owned business run by winemaker Golan Flam, who studied agriculture at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem before continuing on to apprentice at top wineries in Tuscany and Australia.
The winery is truly a family affair. Golan’s brother Gilad is in charge of business and marketing, while mom Kami runs operations. And father Israel worked for 35 years as the chief winemaker at the veteran Carmel Winery, established in 1882 by the Baron Edmond de Rothschild.
‘Spicy oak on the nose’
The Flams’ winery is tiny by comparison with Carmel, producing a mere 100,000 bottles versus Carmel’s 15 million. But the winery’s CS Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon received a 90 (out of 100) score from Robert Parker, publisher of the Wine Advocate magazine.
Daniel Rogov, dean of Israeli wine critics, gave the wine an even higher ranking, at 94, describing the 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve as being “Deep, almost impenetrable garnet in color, with spicy oak on the nose, the oak having the grace of showing only gently in the glass. On the nose and palate wild berries, blackcurrants and spiced plums, all on a background that hints at one moment of garrigue and another of roasted herbs.”
Many of the boutique wineries now operating in Israel –Tulip is another notable family-run establishment – are located in Israel’s northern Galilee and Golan Heights regions. Flam vineyards, by contrast, are planted close to Jerusalem.
Gilad Flam describes the difference. “The soil here is more chunky, while in the Golan it’s mostly volcanic. The temperatures in the Judean Hills are also more moderate, which makes for a more premium wine.”
It’s not so surprising that higher quality wines have taken Israel by storm, as have wine festivals around the country. The explosion in the small wineries corresponds with the increase in Israelis traveling abroad, where they are increasingly discovering fine European wines as well as more exotic cuisine.
An attachment to the land
Getting started wasn’t so easy for the Flams. Despite his years in the wine business, Israel was against the new venture. “In 1998 there were only four to five boutique wineries in the whole country. He was afraid we were going to lose all our money,” Gilad says.
The brothers hedged their bets by opening not only a winery, but also HaGefen, a wine import and distribution business. It’s the latter that turns a profit under the guidance of Gilad, who has an MBA and could have gone into high-tech and made a lot more money. But, he says, “I didn’t want to sit in an office in Herzliya.” Though he lives in Tel Aviv, it’s the countryside he relishes. “As Israelis, we have a real attachment to the land.”
Of the Flam Winery’s 100,000 bottles, 80 percent are purchased within Israel. The Flams’ goal is to evolve that split so that 40% of their wine is consumed abroad.
The Flams recently got kosher certification. The decision had nothing to do with religion. It was pure business. “When you’re not kosher, you’re not working in the free market,” Gilad explains. “People can’t drink your wine for the holidays. And, according to Jewish law, not everyone can touch it. Being kosher will help us work without any limitations.”
How does the kosher wine taste? “We don’t know yet,” he says. “We’ve only been kosher since 2010.” The first bottles haven’t come to market yet. But wine connoisseurs everywhere may soon find one of Israel’s top wines in a retail location close to home.