By deciding to live in Israel, we just knew we would have to give up many of our favorite things – the beautiful scenery of Southern California, quick day trips and weekend retreats up the Coast to Santa Barbara and the wine country – and one of our favorite pass-times: wine tasting (and buying). I had heard about several new boutique wineries that have sprouted up in our area (the Napa Valley of Israel), so when I found out that the 5th annual Galilee/Golan Wine Festival in Rosh Pinna was imminent, we knew we had to attend!
Rosh Pinna (the name is Hebrew for Chief Cornerstone) is the Santa Barbara of this country, although it is much smaller. About a 30 minute drive NorthEast, it is located in the mountains overlooking the Sea of Galilee to the South and the Golan Heights to the West – with the most spectacular views. Rosh Pinna is a picturesque little hamlet started in the late 1800s with narrow cobblestone streets lined with bougainvillea in all colors and towering cypress trees. It is now home to many art galleries, wineries, restaurants and boutique bed and breakfast inns. Talk about romantic!!! We got there early enough to beat the crowds and take in some sights before hitting the wine festival.
There were over 30 of the best wineries represented from across the Galilee region and the Golan Heights, along with artisanal cheese makers and fabulous artisanal bakeries. As a foodie, I was not disappointed. With a 50 shekel entrance fee – that’s about $12 USD – John and I each got a wine glass and unlimited samples (yikes!!) of food and drink. I must say, that as two spoiled California wine aficionados, we were greatly impressed. Ortal Wines surprised us right off the bat with a lovely Viognier: beautifully floral nose and great taste for summer picnics and backyard barbecues. Their Gosh Volcanic Cab/Merlot blend had a rich oaky smell, and a wonderful fruit forward, full body and soft finish. Getting to meet both the grower and the winemaster was a real experience, as we were learning new Hebrew words, as well as making new friends. John and I will be visiting this Golan cellar in the weeks to come! Odem Mountain Winery had a delightful cherry cordial, which I will be using in many new dishes from jams to glazes for duck and lamb (recipes to come), and at Ma’ayan Korazim’s booth we sampled exotic liquors made from lychees (my friend, Miri, grows the lychees) to figs and pomegranates. We ate so many different kinds of cheeses too. I loved many of the fresh goat milk cheeses, and some of the sheep milk cheeses were tasty as well.Trader Joes has nothing over this place. There were many kinds of dairy products I had not heard of – many cheeses mixed with herbs or fruits or veggies. Jars of fresh buffalo mozzarella and labneh in olive oil; semi-soft brynza; halloumi, a local favorite which is best served grilled (go figure); and many others. John sampled lots of bread, and I met a few young couples in the food business, including a young family of jam and jelly makers. They had baskets of fresh tree strawberries!! You heard it right: there are these strawberry trees growing in the mountains. The fruits are longer, darker, and skinnier than American strawberries, and have long stems, but the taste is the same as a very sweet, almost flowery California berry. Several chocolatiers and confectioners were present showing off their yummy truffles and chocolates – an amazing accompaniment to the wines.
By nightfall, the stepped vineyards were hopping. The place was packed and live jazz filled the crisp, mountain air. The arbors and trellises were all lit up to add to the romantic atmosphere. There were terraces with tables and chairs – cafe style and little, more remote spots throughout the vineyards with sofas and comfy seating for smaller parties. Waiters and waitresses came around with trays of sushi(Kosher!!!) and various organic dairy and veggie hors-d’oeuvres throughout the event. No one should say that they left hungry… After the jazz, a great 6-piece Latin combo played as people danced, and later a few singers from Opera Tel Aviv sang operatic arias with a sting quintet capping off the evening. We left after 11, but it seemed the place was just getting started.
In the past, when I thought of Israel, this is one of the last things I would have expected. The creativity, professionalism and friendly attitude of the vendors left us wanting to visit many of these new and growing businesses throughout the region. It should be a fun summer ahead! In Israel!! Who knew???