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A conversation with Avi Ben, oenophile

by simone July 13 2008
InterviewFoodJerusalemite newsThings to do
Avi Ben and his wares

Avi Ben, owner of the Avi Ben Wine Shop chain, is helping bring the "nectar of the gods" to Jerusalem mortals with the Israeli Wine Festival, an event held each summer at the Israel Museum. The festival, which attracts wine connoisseurs, wanna-be wine connoisseurs and those just looking to get loaded, runs from July 15-17 and offers attendees the chance to taste hundreds of top-shelf bottles for a flat fee.

How did you first get into the wine business? I started 25 years ago, working in my family's business, which was wholesale alcohol distribution. I soon realized that I was more connected to wine than to alcohol and that the type of people that enjoy wine are a bit different than your regular alcohol drinker, so I decided to develop this aspect of the business.

I opened my first store in Mahane Yehuda as a wholesale distributor. Then I opened a wine store in Talpiot in the mid-1980s. When I opened a second store in Nachalat Shiva in 1993 people thought I was crazy. That I was opening specifically a wine store and not an alcohol store – a store with tastings and courses in wine appreciation. It was definitely different, but it succeeded.

On July 3 we opened a new store in the shuk, right across from Rachmo. I've completed the circle, returning to the same place where my wholesale distribution store used to be. Today people say to me, "What? You're opening a store like this in the shuk?" But people said the same thing to me when I opened my store in Nachlat Shiva, and I proved them wrong.

All across Israel, the wine culture has changed, it has developed, and I was one of the pioneers of this development, one of the people at the forefront of this change, because of my own personal affiliation with wine, my personal taste for wine and the wine business.

You are one of the organizers of Jerusalem's annual Wine Festival. How did the Wine Festival come to be? What was the impetus behind it and when did it start? The first festival was held five years ago, in 2003. It was a time when bombs were going off regularly in Jerusalem and we noticed that business was slacking off - especially in the summer, when many of our regular customers went on vacation.

It was a bad time for Jerusalem in general, so we decided to organize a fair that would bring wine distributors to Jerusalem. We picked a great location, the Israel Museum, and once they agreed to house the festival, all the planning became easier. People loved the location, they loved the idea, and it was a huge success. We're now in our fifth successful year.

Israel's wine culture has really taken off in the past few years, with Israeli wines earning accolades in both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal as of late. When and why do yWine Festival ou think the tide has turned? Have you noticed a difference in the tastes and standards of your own customers? Of course. I've been in this business for 25 years. The Golan Heights Winery opened in 1984, around the same time I opened my first store. When they started making wine, the quality of wine in Israel improved. At the same time, people were traveling more and learning about wines and wine culture on their travels.

Once the Golan Heights Winery began producing quality wines, simple market forces, competition, led other wineries to improve their standards as well. Wineries across the country began improving their output. When I opened my second store (in Nachalat Shiva) people thought I was crazy, but at that time people all over the world people were beginning to talk about wine more, drinking more wine, etc. and that consciousness spread to Israel as well. People have become more aware of wine, more aware of the wine-drinking culture.

There are wine tastings and festivals across the country throughout the year. What is it about this one that makes it only possible in the city of Jerusalem? It's true - people everywhere are hosting wine festivals and tastings. It has become a trend. We're very professional at the Israeli Wine Festival, so that helps our popularity, as does the fact that it's held in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. You can't even move in the summer in Israel's coastal plane, let alone enjoy a nice glass of wine. Here in Jerusalem, we have cool breezes and an appealing atmosphere in which to drink, the sculpture garden of the Israel Museum. The enjoyment of wine depends a lot on atmosphere and weather and the combination of the cool Jerusalem nights and the view from the sculpture garden all help to create a winning combination.

In Jerusalem you have people that really love wine - not posers. Here, people really come to enjoy the wine. The combination of Jerusalemites, the museum and vendors all contribute to the event. We have wineries here who display their wares all over the country, and they say it's different here. The air is magical here in Jerusalem - there's nothing you can do about it.

The wine festival appeals to everyone from proper wine snobs shopping for cases to supply high-end retailers to young adults just looking for an economical way to get blitzed. What's your take on the phenomenon that the event has become? This is one of the appeals of the festival, that young people come too, people that don't really know wine, they come to the festival and learn. These young people mix with the wine snobs, religious mix with secular, students with businessmen and lawyers. It's this type of kibbutz galuyot (ingathering of exiles) which makes the event really special. It's not just for those that know - it’s a festival for all people. People come to enjoy and to learn, not just to drink and leave. There are some people that come back every night of the festival. All different types of people, that are connected by wine and by the festival's magical atmosphere. This, by the way, is also what makes the festival unique to Jerusalem, because in other places, only the snobs would come. Here everyone comes and is greeted witavi ben with big bottle.jpgh blessings.

What Israeli wines are you recommending for summer 2008? It's always easier to drink pink and white wines in the summer. In Israel, everybody used to drink white wines, but then as the wine culture spread, people began to think only red wine was acceptable. Now people are once again beginning to appreciate white wines. Especially in the summer, you need these lighter white wines, roses.

The best wineries for me right now are Ramat Hagolan and Yatir; they get better every year. There are some new wineries such as Agur and Telter that have great Sauvignon Blancs for the summer. Psagot is also very good. Recanati and Binyamina are always putting out new things. Even the big wineries are constantly making new wines and new blends; their wines aren't the same as they used to be.

Which Jerusalem bars and restaurants have the best wine lists in your opinion? I don't want to say because I don't want to make problems. All of them are learning how to make a professional wine list. Wine offerings are improving in restaurants throughout the city, as restaurants begin to see the wine list as the customer sees it. Wine is still more expensive in Jerusalem than in restaurants in Tel Aviv, but the proprietors are starting to understand that if they lower their wine prices, people will buy more and drink more.

Photo of Avi Ben showing off the wines in his Nachalat Shiva store (Rivlin St. 22; 02-622-3018) by Ben Jacobson for Jerusalemite; Wine Festival photo courtesy of Orly Segal Communications.

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