The Israeli wine trade is a tough business to break into these days. While there were once only a handful of wineries in the country, there are now hundreds, and in that crowded field, the likelihood of a new winery surviving are little better than those of a new restaurant surviving in Manhattan.
Those odds don’t scare Jacques Capsouto, the septuagenarian restaurateur-cum-vintner, whose winery, Côtes de Galilée Villages, which is located six miles from the Israel/Lebanon border, has recently released the first wines from it inaugural vintage.
If Capsouto’s name sounds familiar, it’s probably because he was one of three brothers who owned Capsouto Frères, Tribeca’s long-time landmark French restaurant, which closed after it was flooded by Hurricane Sandy. During his years at the restaurant, Capsouto honed his knowledge of wine, becoming one of the most respected sommeliers in New York.
After decades of selecting and serving other people’s wine, Capsouto decided that he wanted to make some of his own. “For years I’ve been saying that for my retirement that I wanted to make wine, so I started looking for a place,” Capsouto told The Jewish Week in a recent interview. “California is saturated and France on the Spanish/Mediterranean side is a very nice area for what I wanted to do. But I lived in France as a youngster, and being in France is not a very good idea [for a Jew] … and I am a Zionist.”
Capsouto’s goal became to start producing what he describes as “old-world Mediterranean” kosher wines in Israel. “I want to make new blends in Israel in a different style.” In particular he wanted to get away from the long oak aging common at many Israeli wineries; of the four wines he produced from the 2014 vintage, only his Grand Vin was aged in oak. “I use oak to oxygenate the wine, not to give oak flavor,” Capsouto said.
Wanting to find a location that was not already oversaturated with wineries and vineyards, Capsouto spent five years looking for the right site, and eventually selected a property in the western Galilee. In 2011, he planted what amounts to roughly 30 acres of terraced vineyards with nine varietals, all from the south of France, and some of which have never been planted in Israel before. He is particularly proud of his Counoise, an obscure black grape with a peppery flavor, from Châteauneuf-du-Pape: “Even in France [many] don’t know how to handle the Counoise,” he said, “but it came out very good for me.”
So far two of his wines have been released in the U.S., and both of them are named for his late mother Eva, who “had always wanted me to do something in Israel.”
Côtes de Galilée Villages Cuvée Eva Blanc is a light-bodied blend of 60 percent Grenache Blanc, 19 percent Roussanne, 14 percent Clairette, and 7 percent Marsanne that was aged in stainless steel tanks. Crisp and refreshing, this pale-straw colored wine has flavors and aromas of apricots, peaches and grapefruit, with a pleasant mineral note. Drinking well now, this wine should be consumed within the next year.
Score B+ ($18. Available at Taste Wine Co., 50 Third Ave., Manhattan,  461-1708.)
Côtes de Galilée Villages Cuvée Eva Rosé is a light-peach-colored, light-bodied blend of 58 percent Cinsault, 22 percent Grenache and 20 percent Mourvèdre, which has a floral nose, flavors of strawberry, watermelon and citrus, and a light woodsy note towards the back of the palate. Well structured, with a good level of acid, this wine should be consumed within the next eight months or so.
Score B/B+ ($15.99. Available at Mr. Wright Fine Wine and Spirits, 1593 Third Ave., Manhattan,  722-4564.)
In the next few months Capsouto will be releasing two more wines: Cuvée Samuel, a blend of Grenache, Mourvèdre, Counoise and Syrah; and Grand Vin Rouge Marco, a blend of Grenache, Mourvèdre and Syrah that was aged in old oak — he describes it as “my Châteauneuf-du-Pape.”
Capsouto produced 28,000 bottles in the first year, but he plans to more than double that number by next year. While the wine is thus far only available in a few stores in the New York area, Capsouto has used his connections in the restaurant world to get the wine on the menu at quite a number of non-kosher restaurants there. “No one has ever done that before,” he said.
While running a new winery may not seem like much of a retirement, Capsouto said he could not be happier.
Please note: Wines are scored on an ‘A’-‘F’ scale where ‘A’ is excellent, ‘B’ is good, ‘C’ is flawed, ‘D’ is very flawed, and ‘F’ is undrinkable. Prices listed are the prices at the retailer mentioned.