Irene Sharon Hodes is a writer, wine connoisseur, and trains and manages the many wine stewards nationally for the Golan Heights Winery. She spends her days and nights working on her stories, her novel, and leading dozens of wine tastings in stores, exhibitions, and events all over the country. Her hometown is Chicago, and she lived in London, Dublin, and Paris before making aliyah in 2007.
How does Israeli wine compare to others you have tasted?
I think Israeli wine is generally much richer and fuller bodied than most other wines I’ve tasted. Our wines as a rule almost always have a higher alcohol content because of our specific climate which I think is one factor. That said, I think a good term for many of our wines is “jammy,” and I really like how it feels in the mouth. Many of the wines here are excellent and have been winning international awards for decades, so despite the specific character, or perhaps for it, we’re turning heads all over the world.
What is the last restaurant you have been to that you recommend?
Stern 1. It’s a beer and sausage bar/restaurant in Florentine (the address is Stern 1). They have a couple dozen beers on tap, and it’s an impressive selection. They have almost the same number of freshly made sausages (a real rarity here in Israel). They come with homemade sauerkraut and some sides, one of which were some perfectly fried panko-coated onion rings. Never had such good ones in Israel. I had a simple bratwurst, and I was quite, quite satisfied – and that’s saying something from a Chicago girl.
What wine book(s) do you most frequently consult?
Wine by Andre Domine. It’s an outstanding reference book. The first 150 pages or so provide an overview of wine history, culture, winemaking, and wine etiquette. The rest of the book is an in-depth geographical review of all the world’s wine regions, varietals, and specific viticulture methods. I love this book – both to browse a bit, and when I need to look something up.
Daniel Rogov’s annual Israeli wine guides are also a useful reference to the local wines, both when I shop for wines, study up, and plan winery visits.
What is your favorite food and wine city in Israel, abroad?
There is nothing like Tel Aviv for the urban wine experience. There are dozens of wine bars, and restaurants really go out of their way to have well-designed wine menus. In general, I think haut cuisine hasn’t gotten here yet, but the chef’s are always improving. All in all, the best collection of “better” restaurants in Israel can only be found in the Tel Aviv area. There are certainly excellent food experiences to be had around the country, but Tel Aviv is hands down the center.
Abroad – my favorite is probably Paris, with Rome a close second. I’m a bit biased, as I spent some time growing up in France, and a lot of classic French dishes are essentially comfort food for me. Italian cuisine is so fresh and colorful, but I have to go with the passionate, butter, decadent French. I just got back from a short trip to Paris, and no matter how stressful or bad the day was (it’s the middle of the overwhelmingly annoying tourist season), all I had to do was walk into almost any eatery, whether it be a neighborhood cafe, modest brasserie, or elegant restaurant, and my day was instantly transformed – Burgundy-style escargot (snails swimming in butter and garlic), a simple Chateaubriand (thick cut of tenderloin), some Camembert and Roquefort, fresh slices of baguette bread, (dare I say) fois gras and other luscious meat terrines, and of course my favorite profiteroles for dessert (puffy choux pastry ball stuffed with whipped cream and/or ice cream and covered in melting chocolate). Add a carafe of Bordeaux (yes, free flowing Bordeaux, almost cheaper than water) or a Normandy cidre (intense rich alcoholic apple cider) and finishing off with “une tasse” (small cup of French-style espresso – more like our long espressos), and it’s absolute heaven. Street food is even better with sweet and savory crepes sold fresh to order on many street corners, ice cream flavors like prune and Armagnac, and creme de marrons (candied chestnut), and in the winter, hot roasted chestnuts presented to you in newspaper cones. Now imagine all of this with the vista of the Eiffel tower or the Louvre or the ancient courtyards of the Latin quarter or the Saint Germain church before you, and it’s pure culinary heaven. During this visit, out of nowhere a real parade with marching bands and stilt walkers even appeared right before my table. No joke.
What is the hardest part of your job?
Convincing Israelis to drink wine. Any wine. It might sound like a fairly stupid answer, but it’s true. I lead wine tastings, and you wouldn’t believe how many people turn down free wine and a professionally guided session. Israelis drink 6-7 liters of wine per person per year. In France it’s more than 50. In Italy it’s higher, something like 60-70. We’re producing amazing wines here, and so many people don’t know it. And even when they do, many don’t partake because they don’t know anything about it. Many are prejudiced and think they can’t possibly like wine, thinking it’s something sour that they hated as children. My deep desire is to educate the public about wine, and I’d like more Israelis to give it a chance, whether they buy my winery’s wines or some other wine – domestic or otherwise. It’s about developing the palate of a rather simple beer-and-vodka-red-bull drinking culture into a more sophisticated discerning one.
What does Israeli food mean to you?
Fresh ingredients and international cuisine at its best. I’ve never lived in a place with so much diversity in the fruit and veg market. I’m very proud that Israelis are the top vegetable-eaters in the world. And I’m so thrilled by the fact that I can eat an Arab-style breakfast in the morning, have an Ethiopian lunch, and then have Georgian for dinner – and it’s all technically Jewish cuisine that has been brought here and is proudly thriving here.
What are the perks working in your profession?
The excellent wine, of course. But it’s much more about the people I meet in the process. From the winemakers themselves, to the people who fill the barrels, to the wine enthusiasts who come again and again to my tastings and events, to the person off the street who takes a chance, drinks a glass, listens, and likes it. I’ve met so many interesting souls along this journey, very kind people. It has really been my gateway to liking it here, feeling at home in Israel. It took a long time, but it’s the wine world that welcomed me to this country.
What do you think is the most overrated wine in Israel, abroad?
I don’t think I’m authority enough to answer this with a very thoroughly thought-out answer, but even if I were, I wouldn’t. Israelis are trying very hard to make excellent wine, and in a way, I’m proud of every one of them for it, whatever their reputation.
Abroad, I could also toss out some names, but again, I won’t. But a word to the wise: it’s best to ignore trends and keep an open mind. If something is trending, it’s probably very overpriced, anyway. Just because something comes from a well-known place doesn’t mean it’s good. I’ve drunk plenty of horrific European wines with fancy labels.
What do you think Israel’s next wine or food trend will be?
I can hope for martini bars, karaoke clubs, literary-inspired restaurants, and old-fashioned supper clubs with orchestras and dancing, but I don’t think these will happen until I transform myself into a restaurateur.
Do you meet any interesting people on your job?
I’ve met world-famous wine critics, winemakers from the finest French chateaux, and some well-known chefs. That said, I also enjoy the precious little encounters with the random people I meet who stumble upon wine tastings – a little old man who happened to illustrate one of the first books on wine in the 1970s, a young religious guy trying so hard to start a winery on his family’s land, and young people from all over, dancers, teachers, lawyers, engineers, who try sometimes their first glass of good wine and find themselves pleasantly surprised. I enjoy these conversations.
If you could have any bottle of wine, what would it be?
Not telling. It would jinx it. But I will admit that it’s French.
Connect with Irene Sharon Hodes
blog: Irene Sharone Hodes