What Makes A Winery “Boutique?” | The Jewish Week | Food & Wine

What Makes A Winery “Boutique?”

What Makes A Winery “Boutique?”

What’s the difference between a boutique and commercial winery? Plus, a review of Domaine du Castel, Grand Vin, Judean Hills, Israel, 2013.

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In honor of the recent celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day), I thought it worthwhile revisiting some fabulous Israeli wines. After all, Israel’s wine industry today is thriving.

The general story is, by now, a familiar one. At the heart of it all is the Israeli “boutique” winery. Today there are approximately 35 large scale commercial wineries and 250 boutique wineries, and collectively they have helped bring Israel to the attention of sophisticated wine drinkers the world over.

Eli Ben Zaken of Castel Winery. Asaf Alboher“An Israeli wine revolution began in the 1990s,” notes Adam Montefiore, the wine development director of the Carmel Winery, Israel’s largest wine producer, “it is still going on now, with quality and variety getting ever better.” The dogged pursuit of wine quality, rather than quantity and volume, is central to this growth, suggests Montefiore, and these small, boutique wineries led—and in some cases are still leading—the way.

“I don’t like the word ‘boutique’”, reflects Eli Ben-Zaken, the founder and father of the family winery Domaine Du Castel, “I never did.” Castel is generally thought of as the quintessential Israeli boutique winery success story, and is widely credited with launching Israel’s ‘boutique wine revolution’. It is also widely considered by international wine critics as one of the very best wine producers in Israel. “I’ve always liked to define Castel as a family winery,” Ben-Zaken notes, “the size of it was not of the first importance.”

As he explains, “think of Burgundy; of a small winery making perhaps 20,000 bottles a year for generations. If you would go there and tell them they are a ‘boutique winery’ they won’t understand what you are talking about.”

“The word ‘boutique’ is a bit of a misnomer,” agrees Montefiore. “In France a ‘boutique’ is a shop. In Israel, it is used to describe all but the very largest wineries.”

This misuse of the term ‘boutique’ comes to Israel from California  maintains Ben-Zaken.  “What it really means in Israel,” he explains, “is a small producer with quality in mind—which is not always the case [in terms of results], but it is the aspiration; the goal. This is what I think it means in the Israeli market.”

When Ben-Zaken first ventured into making wine, what he dubbed “some wine for my friends,” was only about 600 bottles. Last year, he notes by contrast, “we produced 300,000 bottles, but our purpose is still to make quality wine.”

Commercial success has allowed for growth and facility upgrades and expansion, but, Ben-Zaken notes, “we are quality driven.” Think of the Left Bank of Bordeaux, he suggests: “the Premier Cru are all making hundreds of thousands of bottles. Size is not really a significant aspect, rather what is most important is the philosophy behind the winery: ‘what is your purpose?’; ‘what do you want to do?’ Our philosophy hasn’t changed.”

“The main difference between a boutique winery and a commercial winery,” suggests Montefiore, “is that in a boutique, there is usually one person or one family central to the whole project. The wineries are generally personal expressions of a dream that has come true and their wines are illustrations of the individuality, character and style of the owner or winemaker.”

“I was running a successful Italian restaurant in Jerusalem [called “Mamma Mia”],” recalls Eli Ben-Zaken. “I started growing wine as a hobby because I wanted something homegrown decent enough to serve with food,” he says, “it was never a dream to become a major wine maker.” He planted his vines in 1988 outside his home in Moshav Ramat Raziel, in the Judean Hills, harvested his first vintage in 1992, and released his first commercial wine in 1995.

Due to the Ben-Zaken family’s hard work, good fortune in having invested in Judean Hills vineyards, and his uncompromising pursuit of excellence, Domaine du Castel has enjoyed tremendous critical acclaim, followed by significant commercial success. “Castel,” Ben-Zaken notes with satisfaction, “raised the quality of wine in Israel and has shown the big guys, the large wineries, that there is a market for this in the Israeli public.” Of course, he finds the winery personally fulfilling for another reason: “I’m a Zionist, and I’m very proud to show that we can make wines as good as those in Europe.”

All the Castel wines are dependably good. As I write this, I’m in reverie over a glass of a far too young (but still readily purchasable) sample of:

Domaine du Castel, Grand Vin, Judean Hills, Israel, 2013 ($75)

This fabulous but still too young blend of 62 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 22 percent Petit Verdot, 13 percent Merlot and 3 percent Cabernet Franc, aged in 50 percent new French oak barrels for 20 months, is full and concentrated, and lusciously coats the palate with fine, delectable fruit, poise and balance. The wine really needs time to mature longer in the cellar, but with plenty of aeration this elegant wine is hugely enjoyable and delicious now. Given its muscle and structure, I’ll hold off opening any more bottles until at least the end of the decade—I’m confident it’ll reward a little patience. Those without patience will not be disappointed in the least. Just give it time to breath, and enjoy it slowly over the course of your leisurely and hopefully suitably elegant meal. This is superb. L’Chaim!

Inset Image: Eli Ben-Zaken. Photo: Asaf Alboher

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