I recently met Haim Spiegel, the Director of Food & Beverage and Procurement at Dan Hotels, one of the stalwarts of the Israel hotel industry. These days, F& B Managers in Israeli hotels seem younger and the job has changed with time. It seems to be more a fire-fighting role than it used to be. F & B Managers can be seen rushing from crisis to crisis wielding big bunches of keys, in order to keep the show on the road. The F& B Manager today seems to be a stop gap before another stepping stone up the greasy ladder. Today F & B, tomorrow Front of House. The old style Food & Beverage Manager, equally at home in the kitchen and wine cellar, with a lifetime’s experience is not only rare but a threatened species.
I say this not to denigrate a whole new generation of F& B enthusiasts, but by way of introduction to Haim Spiegel, We met in a café, but as always, he was dressed immaculately. He always wears a dark suit, usually with a white shirt and always with a tie. If you saw him at the Old Bailey Law Courts he would not be out of place. I have known him for over 25 years. During all that time he has been the address for all things food & beverage in the Dan Hotels, setting and maintaining the standards for their hotels all over the country. I often sometimes feel he is the Food & Beverage guardian for the country, for he is a true master of his craft.
Haim Spiegel is stylish in all he does. An absolute and total perfectionist, he is the ultimate foodie, immersed in the history and folklore of gastronomy, yet as up to date as tomorrow regarding the latest trends. He is quietly spoken, but misses nothing. Rather like the wise owl in children’s books. (Do you remember: “The wise old owl who lived in an oak; the more he saw the less he spoke…”) He is the antithesis to the usual Israeli that knows something. He does not raise his voice to draw attention to himself, but when he does speak it is normally brief, pithy, smart and of value. In other words, worth waiting for. He is a Food & Beverage expert through and through.
He is also pretty sharp on wines too and has played his part in advancing Israeli wines to the outside world. Not for nothing, he is invited year after year to play a crucial part at the annual Eshkol Hazahav (Golden Cluster) Wine Competition, organized by Studio Ben Ami. This is the Oscars of Israeli wine. Haim Spiegel oversees the tasting and the competition to ensure it is held to the highest moral and professional standards and then presents the awards. He is seen as the credible figure to do this important job by the wine industry, being totally above board and with no conflict of interests.
Normally as people become older, or have been around in a job for a while, they tend to become more conservative. Furthermore the hotel world can be as conservative as you can get. So I was surprised, delighted and excited to hear Haim Spiegel’s views on wine service and about his campaign to advance the accessibility, service and sales of wine in Dan Hotels. The Dan Hotels Group is the oldest, most prestigious hotel chain in Israel. It comprises 14 hotels and it is the most recognized name in the Israeli hotel industry.
The whole idea revolves around the idea of creating what Spiegel call ‘Wine Friendly Hotels’. King David is the first, and others such as Dan Tel Aviv, Dan Accadia and Dan Carmel may be next on the agenda. Of course, the King David Hotel is the most famous hotel in Israel and known throughout the world for its rich history.
This pioneering idea was dreamed up and is being implemented by Spiegel. He realizes wine is Israel’s number one ambassador. Today we are more known for Hi Tec, but you can’t give a bottle of Hi Tec as a present. He appreciates that a bottle of wine is prohibitive item to purchase. It is expensive and many people do not want to drink a whole bottle. So he believes that the future is serving wine by the glass.
The focus is on variety, attractive prices, accessibility with helpful, knowledgeable assistance. The grand Oriental Bar of the King David Hotel has been relaunched as a Wine Bar. Wines are carefully chosen to show the finest of Israel as every price point. A number of wines are made available by the glass at attractive prices. A Eurocave dispenser is used to ensure quality is maintained. You don’t have that awful feeling of buying a glass when you don’t know how long the bottle has been open or how it has been kept.
You can purchase by the glass, or in a most praiseworthy innovation, buy smaller glasses in flights of two, three or four wines to sample one against the other, or simply to broaden the tasting experience. Prices by the glass range from 30 to 54 shekels, unheard of in most hotels. The wines by the glass in the Wine Bar are divided in to two categories. There are the ‘Classics’: Carmel Kayoumi Riesling, C Blanc du Castel, Maia Mare Nostrum and the Flam Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve. Then there are Wines of the Month which include the Binyamina Unoaked Chardonnay, the Kishor Savant Riesling, Montefiore Cabernet Sauvignon and Recanati Wild Carignan. The range is chosen to be of interest to the wine expert and to educate the curious. In the other food and beverage areas there are a further six wines by the glass, making fourteen in all.
The King David Wine Bar not only champions Israeli wines, but also Israeli beers and spirits. The hotel lists beers from the Alexander and Herzl boutique breweries and also spirits from the Pelter and Julius artisan distilleries. So if you want to glug the Alexander Blonde or Herzl Dolce De Asal or nose and sip the Pelter Gin or Julius VI Brandy, you can. The bar menu, carefully chosen by celebrated chef David Biton, offers a few snacks to compliment but not dominate the wines
Then comes the product knowledge aspect. The hotel has appointed a sommelier who has grown in the job and is learning and developing his knowledge day by day. I met him dressed in a spotless white tuxedo. After all this is the King David! His name is Daniel Gidey. He made aliyah from Ethiopia in 1986 on his own, leaving his family behind. He had learnt to speak English and so was immediately drawn to a life in hotels. He started working for Isrotel as an 18 year old and spent his time as a bartender and waiter in bars and restaurants. He took the bar courses and got his F & B diploma at Hadassah College and ended up as Assistant Manager of La Regence, the prestige restaurant of the King David. Today he has climbed his greasy ladder to become the first sommelier of a hotel in the Dan’s Wine Friendly Hotel program.
He is backed by a good support team, hand selected by Spiegel. Gal Zohar, an international sommelier, wine consultant and author of the New Israeli Wine Guide, is the consultant who helped select the wines, develop the concept and train the staff. He is the leading light of the next generation of Israeli wine experts. The Food & Beverage Manager, Elie Fischer, is far from the type of F & B manager I described, but an experienced Frenchman from Paris, who has been imported for his experience, expertise and for his dynamic, youthful approach to energizing service and encourage ever improving standards.
The bar is open from 17.00 hours until 12.30 am. Guests are tourists, residents of the hotel and the hotel is pleased to encourage walk-ins from outside. This represents marvelous opportunity to sample the Middle Eastern grandeur of one of the world’s great hotels, which won’t cripple you financially. You don’t need a mortgage to buy a glass and a snack.
We in the wine trade have spent a lifetime building ivory towers of wine expertise which are elusive to the usual Joe or Yaacov. We have made wine exclusive. If you don’t understand and can’t compete with knowledge, how on earth can you enjoy it? Wine has become like opera. It is only for those who understand. If you can’t give fluent tasting descriptions containing baskets of fruit, you don’t belong and cannot be part of the club. This is fundamentally wrong and it is important to rip up the pretension, and to take a lead in making wine more accessible. There are many progressive outlets, but what makes the King David initiative interesting is that it is the King David & Dan Hotels, which would normally be a byword for formality in wine service.
King David, the man, employed someone to look after his vineyards and another person to look after his vineyards. These were maybe the first Jewish viticulturist and sommelier. How appropriate it is that King David, the hotel, is bringing wine sales in a formal setting into the 21st century. Looking forward for more hotels to join the pioneering Wine Friendly program.
Adam Montefiore has been advancing Israeli wines for over 30 years. He is known as ‘the ambassador of Israeli wine’ and the ‘English voice of Israeli wine’.