By Gamliel Kronemer, this article first appeared in The Jewish Week
With oenophilia running in his famous family, Adam Montefiore has quickly become the unofficial spokesman for Israel’s wine industry. Just don’t ask him to grade a bottle.
In a glass by himself: From London’s largest brewery to Israel’s wine giant Carmel, the journey of Adam Montefiore.
Some years ago, on a rather wet and dreary November day, I found myself at 6:30 a.m. in Tel Aviv’s Central Railway Station. I was there to meet Daniel Rogov, the late wine critic for the Israeli daily newspaper, Haaretz, whose popular Internet forum and annually published book, “Rogov’s Guide to Israeli Wines,” made him the world’s best-known writer on Israeli wines. Waiting for our train, and chatting over bad train-station coffee, I mentioned that the following day I had an appointment to meet Adam Montefiore, the wine development director for Israeli wine giant Carmel Winery (then Carmel Mizrachi), and their subsidiary, Yatir Winery.
At the mention of Montefiore’s name, Rogov, a self-billed curmudgeon who was not given to undo praise, told me that Adam Montefiore is generally considered to be “the nicest person in the Israeli wine trade.”
From Rogov, that was quite a statement. The following day at Carmel’s Zichron Ya’acov Winery I met a knowledgeable, well-spoken (and very nice) Englishman.
Since Rogov’s death last summer, Adam Montefiore has become perhaps the leading unofficial spokesman for the Israeli wine industry. Not long ago I sat down via telephone with Montefiore to learn more about him and his vision for the Israeli wine industry.
Montefiore, 54, was raised in the Kensington neighborhood of London. As a young man he was drawn to the world of beer, wine and spirits, and after attending Wellington College, “I joined what I thought was a very worthwhile business management program with Bass Charrington; it was then the UK ’s largest brewer, and was owner of 8,000 pubs and restaurants,” Montefiore says. “Bass Hotels [now InterContinental Hotels] was the world’s largest hotelier, and included Holiday Inn [hotels].” Montefiore ended up working in its wine division, eventually becoming the wine manager for the UK Bass Hotels Group.
While working for Bass Charrington, Montefiore studied wine at London’s Wines & Spirits Education Trust. “London is a wonderful place to learn about wine, probably the best place in the world,” Montefiore says. “Almost every wine-producing country is represented there, and it is the place where new trends in wine seem to begin. Furthermore, all the famous wine writers [except Robert Parker] are there, so it was a great place to get into the wine business.”
In his early 30s Montefiore found himself living comfortably in Oxfordshire, but looking to start a new life. “I think I’m probably the last Zionist,” says Montefiore. “I love the country [Israel] and had been a tourist many times. I loved the food [and] the culture. I wanted to work for a winery, and there were wineries in Israel. And I wanted my children to grow up in Jewish surroundings. … We decided to come, and six months later we were here. I came with a wife, three young children, and without any work. We started again.”
Montefiore is a great-great-grandson of Joseph Sebag Montefiore, who was the nephew and heir to Sir Moses Montefiore, the noted 19th-century Jewish philanthropist, and the first Jewish sheriff of London.
According to Montefiore, oenophilia runs in his family. “Moses Montefiore was a great wine lover, and used to literally drink a bottle of wine each day,” he says. “When he would take his trips in Palestine, people used to meet him and give him bottles of wine, which were probably of poor quality, but he would of course politely take it. … He was very keen on encouraging agriculture in Israel, and he purchased the first Jewish-owned land in Israel, including the first orchard. He was very Zionist, pre-Zionism.”
When the Montefiores first settled in Israel, it was difficult for Adam to find work. “I came to Israel and I went around to all of the wineries. I thought I was pretty good. I was an English guy. I thought I understood wine, and yet I could not find work for six months. … The company that eventually employed me was in fact Carmel.” Montefiore worked for Carmel for two years, overseeing sales development and training in hotels and restaurants. “In those two years,” he says, “I learned to be an Israeli, I learned to speak a bit of Hebrew, and that is where I cut my teeth.”
“While those first two years were not always easy,” Montefiore took a special pride in working for Carmel. “Moses Montefiore and Nathan Mayer Rothschild [the first cousin, once removed, of Baron Edmund Rothschild, the founder of Carmel] were brothers- in-law,” he says. “I am proud to be at the Israeli winery founded by the Rothschilds. This is the world’s premier family of wine. They renewed the Israeli wine industry after 2,000 years. I think Moses Montefiore would be pleased to know that the first person from his family to make aliyah worked in the wine business, [and] in a winery founded by the Rothschilds!”
After two years at Carmel, Montefiore took a job at what was then Israel’s only other major wine producer, the Golan Heights Winery; he eventually became its export-marketing manager. Then in 2002 he returned to Carmel as part of a new management team that was determined to improve the quality of the winery and modernize its image. In the past decade these efforts have been surprisingly successful, with Carmel receiving international wine awards and exceptional reviews from renowned wine writers such as Robert Parker and Hugh Johnson.
“The changes at Carmel have been very systematic,” Montefiore says. “Slowly everything at the winery was reviewed … and in the end our approach was basically three-fold. We planted new vineyards in high altitude areas, mainly in the Upper Galilee. We’ve built three new boutique wineries, and have completely refurbished the Zichron Ya’acov winery [Carmel’s main winery] … and brought in a new wine-making team. The new management, of which I am a part, changed the strategy of the whole company from sacramental [wines] to single-vineyard wines.”
In addition to his work at Carmel, Montefiore is also one of Israel’s best-known English-language wine writers. “Up to about eight or nine years ago at least 90 percent of the wine that was exported from Israel was from either Carmel or Yarden,” says Montefiore. “By being the export manager for those two wineries, one after another, I found that gradually I was considered a sort of spokesman for the Israeli wine industry, and I got to know many of the distributors and many of the journalists who are interested in Israeli wine … And I was something rare in Israel — an English speaker who could write in English.”
In addition to occasional pieces in diverse publications such as Harpers, The Jewish Chronicle (of London), and The New York Times, Montefiore writes the weekly “Wine Talk” column for the Jerusalem Post. Montefiore admits that there is an apparent conflict of interest in working for a winery and writing about wine, but claims that he lives “two separate lives — by day I promote the Carmel and Yatir brands, and by night I promote ‘Brand Israel.’” Montefiore always requests that his publications indicate that he works for Carmel.
Although he writes about wine, Montefiore is very emphatic that he is not a wine critic. “I won’t give scores to wines. I am not going to say that this wine is a 89 and that wine is a 90.”
Regarding “Brand Israel,” Montefiore is very pleased with the progress Israeli wine has made. “When I came to Israel it was a wine desert, but in the last 20 years there has been a real food and wine awakening. The Israel of today is unrecognizable from the Israel of the 1980s. Today there is a dynamic, youth-driven, expertise-driven, wine industry.”
“One of the most exciting things about Israel as a wine country is that there are a lot of different microclimates, and it can produce wine grapes with a great deal of variety for a country basically the size of New Jersey.” Of course, says Montefiore, all these different climates lead to a rather large array of challenges for wineries: “In the Golan [for instance] the biggest threat to vines is wild boars, and in the Negev it’s camels!”
Despite all of Israel’s progress, Montefiore believes that the country’s wine industry still needs to grow: “Even though we’ve been making wine for more than 5,000 years, we’ve been making quality wine for a very short time … and we still need to find our identity.”
Montefiore expects that in general the Israeli wine industry will “go away from the traditional Bordeaux varieties [e.g., Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot] on which we built the wine revolution in Israel, and return more to its roots, to more Mediterranean varieties [e.g., Carignan, and Grenache], which are more suitable to the climate, and a lot more interesting.”
“We’re on a journey,” says Montefiore. “Don’t look at where we are. Look at where we were 20 years ago, and look at where we might be in another 20 years — and that is very exciting.”