About a year ago, at the end of January 2017, I went to the 2017 Sommelier Exhibition in Tel Aviv, Israel, on a wine press trip. I spent a couple of days tasting a wide range of wines made from various vineyards across the country that differed in altitude, humidity, temperatures, soil, etc. It ended up being a fascinating, and at times thrilling, wine tasting experience as there are many small passionate winemakers creating wines that we never see in New York City. But one person stood out… who kept coming to my mind… someone, I later found out, had a much more inspirational story than I could have ever hoped or dreamt up.
2017 Sommelier Exhibition in Tel Aviv
As we were running around to all of our tasting appointments at the exhibition, one person stopped me in my tracks – Ya’acov Oryah. But what is funny is that at the time, I wasn’t looking forward to tasting the winery he was representing at the exhibition because it was a medium-sized commercial winery called Ella Valley Vineyards – although they make quality wines, I was already familiar with them. I was looking to meet lesser known, smaller wineries.
Ya’acov was joined by one of EVV’s executives, who did most of the talking. But when Ya’acov did get the chance to talk, it became immediately apparent that I was not dealing with a run-of-the-mill winemaker. He had a soft, humble personality yet his warm smile and palpable desire to connect with others made him seem like a bright candle in a cynical world. Then, when he started to talk about white wines, I could see an explosion of joy in his eyes and he proceeded to talk about his obvious obsession with producing white wines in Israel. Even though Ya’acov himself had strong ideas about wine, he would thoughtfully propose a counter argument, after a couple of his philosophies, of what other Israeli colleagues would point out with regards to disputing Ya’acov’s opinions. And underneath his intellect, generosity of spirit, warmth and words filled with curiosity, I sensed a touch of sadness, which I would later learn why. Ya’acov had a profound transparency that is rare. Unfortunately, our time was too short with him and we were shuttled off to the next wine producer.
Reflecting on my Israeli Wine Trip
When I came back from Israel, I tried to organize my notes while catching up on work and life. There were many exciting stories to tell, and unfortunately, I did not have time to tell them all. But Ya’acov Oryah kept popping up in my mind. I wanted to know his journey and hear more about his thoughts, so I connected with him on Facebook. Through time, I realized that he juggled a couple of winemaking jobs with two medium sized wineries – the other being Psagot. Now, Ya’acov only works for Psagot and it seems to be working out… his presence at this winery has actually drawn attention from some kosher wine experts and connoisseurs, as Ya’acov has developed a cult following… a fact that I did not know until I started to research him.
Although Ya’acov Oryah was raised in an ultra-Orthodox family, and walked the walk of a devoutly religious Jewish winemaker, his touch was temporarily deemed to automatically make wine un-kosher. Ya’acov had spent a great deal of time delving into religious studies, and so when he researched the rule that indicated that only a religious person could be the only one to touch the wine in the winery, or turn on winery equipment, he wrote an article in 2010 that questioned kosher “law” regarding this matter. Despite Ya’acov not being personally affected by this requirement for kosher wines, he saw how unfair it was to many smaller Israeli producers who could not afford to hire a religious employee if they themselves where non-religious Jews. Also, when an Israeli winery is deemed un-kosher it makes it difficult, commercially speaking, to sell enough wines to stay in business. Well, after this article came out, he was punished by a local rabbinate that took away his ability to make officially labeled kosher wines. But some religious Jewish wine connoisseurs still continued to drink his wines because they knew him and trusted him as a person.
How did I come to find out the aforementioned information? I read a Facebook post from an Israeli wine teacher and guide, David Perlmutter, who talked about tasting an amazing Hunter Valley style Sémillon that was made in Israel… the only one of its kind… and it was made in small quantities by none other than Ya’acov Oryah himself. I was shocked. I couldn’t believe it. Ya’acov made his own wines, and not only that, he made a Hunter Valley style Sémillon… and then I found out he made orange wines too!!! I immediately started to search for articles that talked about him of which I found many… and through time I learned that I did indeed meet a very special human being that day at the exhibition.
The more I started to learn about Ya’acov the more it became apparent why he made such a great first impression. He was raised in a very religious family yet he always had the desire to reach out to the broader and more diverse world. When he was young, he worked in construction while getting a degree in engineering, as well as stayed committed to his religious studies that mainly focused on Kabbalah – an esoteric school of thought that originated in Judaism. But he was always drawn to wine – he went from a thoughtful wine enthusiast to taking his first winery course in 2004, to currently making wines that have a strong cult following within the Israeli wine lover community.
Ya’acov has had more than his share of challenges… from experiencing financial problems when he had issues selling wine, as well as being unemployed for a year and a half, after his touch was deemed to make any wine un-kosher, to his former wife being greatly ill, finally passing away just when he was supposed to launch his personal wines, in November 2015.
No matter how many knocks Ya’acov has been given in life, it seems he finds his way to the light with his never ending curiosity and passion to connect to the world. He believes in a “culture of pluralism” and that an economic boycott of wines coming from controversial areas in the West Bank does no one any good, as it only harms small business owners and it does not add to progress. He believes that a better way is for people from different religions, or lack of religions, and cultures to reach out to each other. At one time, he applied for a winemaker job at the Palestinian Taybeh Winery, and although he never got it, he was open to a new experience. One of the main reasons he was drawn to wine is that it can be a vehicle to bring people together.
Obviously, Ya’acov is not afraid to question everything in life, and this extends to his winemaking belief. Before he even knew about others making orange wines, he wanted to use the skins in white wine making. He thought that it didn’t make sense to throw away something that could give the wine so much more complexity. Then, he happily found out that he was not alone in this mindset and that other areas, and winemakers, had been making orange wines as well.
Proof is in the Pudding
After reading all this information about Ya’acov, I decided to reach out to him on Facebook and asked him to please email me if he ever comes to New York City with his own personal wines. My wine writer’s heart ached that I missed seeing such a remarkable winemaker while I was in Israel and I did not want to miss another opportunity. Just like how Ya’acov came to the conclusion that he needed to work for a more commercially viable winery to financially support himself and his family so that he could continue to be true to his own wines, a wine writer has to find other ways to support himself/herself to finance their uncensored “true” writing that represents what authentically inspires him/her in the wine world. So meeting someone like him makes it all worthwhile for a writer such as myself.
Ya’acov responded to me to say that he didn’t think he would be able to get his personal wines to New York City anytime in the near future because of the tiny quantities he makes. He then shipped some samples to me (a few months ago during ideal conditions)! I could not wait to try them, but I made sure to give them almost a couple months to settle from their journey. Though my husband warned me that I needed to be careful of my high expectations for the wines as few wines could live up to such a lofty ideal, Ya’acov’s wines were even more than I could have imagined, and hands down topped the list of the most exciting wines I have had in a long time.
Enriching, Peaceful Life
It is easy to get down and feel like things are getting worse in the world instead of better. We search for examples of kindness, generosity, real beauty and things that will bring us together… but many times we are so inundated by negativity, divisive superficial labels, fear mongering, and just petty disagreements that we miss those people living quietly in the world, making profound, positive changes. While small and at times unnoticeable, these changes do add up and it is the only way that people will come together. To be able to be true to ourselves and know that others living in another way is not a threat to our way of life, as well as ours not being a threat to theirs, is the only way we can balance peace with enrichment from others. I am most grateful to know that Ya’acov exists. He is the example of hope that all of us need, right here, right now.
***Photo Credit of top picture: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Makhtesh_Ramon
I tasted Ya’acov Oryah’s wines from December 20th , 2017 until January 1st, 2018 and I noted which dates I tasted different wines before the different category of tasting notes.
Ya’acov makes his wines in very small quantities, so right now, they are only available in Israeli restaurants in the cities of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Currently, he doesn’t know if he will ever make quantities in the amounts where they can be exported, but if you are planning a trip to Israel and you would like to know which restaurants pour them, I would be happy to reach out to Ya’acov and get back to you. My email is damewine at damewine dot com
I just thought his story was so inspirational that it had to be shared.
Location of vineyards sourced below:
Some of the grapes for the wines below came from vineyards in the Negev wine region of Israel and points to Ya’acov’s belief in desert wines. Actually, some of the vineyards are in Mitzpe Ramon, a place with a very unique microclimate due to the Ramon Crater – the world’s largest erosion crater, or makhtesh, unique to Israel’s Negev and Egypt’s Sinai desert. And so the extreme diurnal temperature swings which are found in the Ramon Crater aka Mitzpe Ramon, from hot to cold, is moderated by strong winds all year round because of its location above the crater. Ya’acov has also sourced grapes from as far north as the Galilee, a classic wine growing area for Israel, and the closer proximity Judean Hills, the Israeli wine area known for the current wine rock stars.
Side note: The final ruling that made any wine touched by Ya’acov automatically un-kosher was finally overturned due to pressure from the Psagot Winery.
Both orange wines were first tasted on December 20th, 2017 over the course of 5 hours and then re-tasted two days later on December 22nd, 2017
-2014 Alpha Omega: A blend of white grape varieties, Roussanne, Viognier and Sémillon that were left in contact with their skins for 72 days or so. The name refers to the whole grape being used. It had a more golden color than orange or amber. My attitude is that orange wines should be treated like great red wines – decanted for at least 30 minutes before tasting and ideally left open for the rest of the day/evening (I tasted over 5 hours) and left it in the fridge to check back with it two days later. The wine evolved into delightfully different qualities throughout this time.
After the first 30 minutes, notes of honeysuckle and candied orange rind appear with an intense chalky minerality that has a tart, fierce finish with lots of structure – which is a quality I love in a lot of orange wines that make them so good with food. After 1 hour, the wine became more floral, and after 3 hours, notes of blanched almonds and lapsang souchong black tea revealed themselves while the palate started to round out and have more of a gentle tangy quality on the finish. Then, after 5 hours, it surprisingly became more brightly tropical with mango and pineapple, and the body seemed to have more weigh and viscosity… after two days of having it in the fridge under a vacuum sealer, it showed quince paste and candied ginger flavors, and had wet stones aromas with a full body that was layered with textural complexity that felt like strands of fine silk.
-2015 Jemma: 100% Sémillon. This wine is named after Tel Aviv’s Brut Wine Bar co-founder Jemma Naveh and available only at the restaurant. First of all, the color is a stunning copper color! Not as structural as the Alpha Omega, but more plush on the body with a broader shape. It gives flavors right off the bat with dried kumquats and smoky minerality. After 1 hour, it displayed enticing sherry and nutmeg notes; in its 3rd hour exhibited opulent crème brûlée, smoldering mesquite wood, forest floor and wild morels, and finally, the 5th hour went back to sweeter notes of candy covered almonds. After a couple of days under a vacuum sealer in the fridge, it showed a heavenly toffee note with a seemingly richer body, although the marked acidity still gave it an incredible lift on the end. The pairing possibilities with this wine are endless as you can imagine.
The Valley of the Hunters was first tasted on December 21st, 2017 over 4 hours and re-tasted again 9 days later on December 30th, 2017, after being placed in the fridge under vacuum sealer
-2009 Valley of the Hunters (Emek Ha’Tzayadim): 100% Sémillon. Unoaked. Grapes picked early yielding a final alcohol of 11% abv. Initially this wine was released earlier than intended in tiny quantities when Ya’acov had partners under another winery name, but he left due to creative differences and bought back the remaining stock of this wine to cellar it and release it when he thought it was ready.
I LOVED THIS WINE AND IT BLEW ME AWAY after 9 days of being open under a vacuum sealer in the fridge… it was bursting with lots of flavors: peach cobbler, lychee syrup, sliced dried mango and an intense smoky note like it was aged in charred oak, although there is no oak in this wine, and on the finish a real limestone quality.
Since this is a Hunter Valley style Sémillon, picked very early with fierce acidity, I knew I would need to taste it over several hours… also, it will age beautifully and this is why Ya’acov feels this wine is just starting to come into its own now. My first taste of this wine, after 30 minutes of being opened, showed flinty minerality, lime blossom, a waxy body, and sharp acidity with a hint of tar on the finish; 2nd taste was 1 hour later with richer citrus, key lime pie, lemon custard; 3rd taste was 2 hours later with dried grapefruit, lanolin, golden apple, fresh hay, salty finish; 4th taste was 3 hours later with more spicy white pepper notes; 5th taste 4 hours later with cinnamon, gun smoke, and intense slate across a very long finish.
The Light from Darkness was tasted on December 30th, 2017
-2016 Light from Darkness (Or m’Ofel): A white wine made from using Rhône red grape varieties: Grenache, Cinsault, and Mourvedre. These grapes were harvested early for lower alcohol (11.5% abv) and red grapes where chosen for a fuller body. The grapes were pressed off their skins and so there is very little skin contact like a white wine. The lemon color had a slight pinkish hue to the rim which was part of its charm. A rich body yet exhibited thrilling acidity with fresh red raspberries, white cherries and wild flowers.
A general impression of Ya’aov’s wines is that they seem to all have such generosity in weight or texture, as well as a complexity of flavors, but they are just so alive with acidity… everything is lifted so you have a decadent experience but instead of it being heavy, it is refreshing with new subtle complexities always revealing themselves on the next sip. His wines are certainly unique… they have a lot of great Old World charm but that title seems to not do his wines justice as they are unique.
All of the below Reds were tasted over the course of two hours on December 31st, 2017
-2011 Iberian Dream Reserva (Chalom B’Aspamia Reserva): A blend of Tempranillo, Grenache and Carignan with 1 year in oak barrels. This Reserva and the below Gran Reserva is Ya’acov’s homage to Rioja and a study in barrel aging. I like the slight grip from the fine tannins as it gives this wine a lovely shape on the palate. The layers of dark fruit beckon you into this glass revealing riveting notes of Herbes de Provence, incense and iron, with nice weight on the body that makes this wine an intriguing pleasure. Despite having cult status in Israel for his orange and white wines, his reds do not disappoint – they have that same elegant complexity with electric zing.
-2011 Iberian Dream Gran Reserva (Chalom B’Aspamia Gran Reserva): This Gran Reserva is the same wine as above but it has been aged in oak barrels for 3 years. This wine has an addictive truffle and exotic spice nose with well-integrated tannins that have become more velvety… the palate is both round and crisp with hints of cigar box and fresh leather on the finish making your heart want more.
-2014 Eye of the Storm (Ein Ha’Se’ara): This wine is a GSM (Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre) single vineyard field blend. A beguiling bouquet of violets, charcoal BBQ with layers of black and blue fruits, and has gravelly rocks along the long length… it is rounder and warmer than the Iberian Dream and has much more of a Mediterranean soul to it, yet there is still an underlying linearity and brightness that gives an energetic edge to this wine.
-2014 Pandora’s Riddle (Chidat Pandora): 50% Pinot Noir with 50% of Eye of the Storm (Ein Ha’Se’ara) see above. This wine transformed with more smoky cedar with sautéed cardamom seeds, deeper purple fruits, dried thyme and a fuller body that had a mint-y note that gave more vitality to the wine as it evolved.
The Old Musketeer was first tasted throughout the day on December 31st, 2017 and again on January 1st, 2018
-2008 The Old Musketeer: Late harvested Muscat of Alexandria spent 8 years aging in oak barrels and blended with 6% 2015 Chardonnay to add acidity with a final alcohol of 15.9% abv. This is Ya’acov’s study in oxidation as after 8 years in barrels, he only bottled two barrels and left the rest to continue in their oxidative environment. The nose is amazing with salt water taffy, brunt sugar, caramel, apricot preserves and dried rose petals. The body is viscous and lush yet it has that wall of acidity that gives this sweet wine so much vitality… initially tasted at refrigerator temperatures and as it warmed up it displayed aromas of golden raisins and toasted coconut. The next day, there was an enticing grilled fig note that came out and it was smokier in character. The complexity of flavors in combination with the overall zeal and enthusiasm created by the acid makes it one of my favorite sweet wines… and it is from Israel. Who would have ever guessed?!
The idea that he is able to keep the acidity well integrated throughout all of these wines is extremely impressive.