By David Rhodes
Sam Soroka, a Canadian native, has already had an interesting journey as an Israeli winemaker for over a decade. Sam first started at Israel's largest winery Carmel developing and implementing their boutique winery within a winery concept then went on to the be the sole winemaker for the growing Mony Winery. While at Mony he would also consult for the new boutique Montefiore Winery as well as launch his own label, The Fertile Crescent. Sam recently left Mony so it seemed a good time to catch up on where he's been and where he thinks he and the industry is going.
Rhodes: Like some other notable Israeli winemakers, you studied winemaking in Australia. Tell us a bit about that experience and how did you first become interested in wine? Do you remember the first wine that left an impression on you, your first love?
Soroka: Studying in Australia was a wonderful experience. The Australians are constantly searching for better ways to make wines of all styles. They are not limited to grow certain grape varieties in specific regions and that open approach has led them to experiment with any wine style in any region of the country. Their efforts have in turn influenced the old world (Italy, France, Spain and Portugal, just to name a few) where most winemakers take their influences. Furthermore, many wineries in the Old World have watched the quality of Aussie wine achieve great results and have led them to hire Australian trained winemakers to influence their styles.
My interest in wine originated from my roots in Montreal, Quebec in Canada which has traditionally been biased towards the wines of France and Italy. That being said, the day I turned 18 and could legally buy my first bottle (in Quebec) was a very mediocre experience. It turned out to be a bitter, astringent inexpensive Bordeaux that was very unpleasant to put it mildly.
My love of wine grew slowly while studying Food Science at McGill U in Montreal. While researching scientific papers for my regular courses, I began reading some of the latest scientific wine research that I found more interesting than my courses on protein, carbohydrate and fat chemistry. During this time I began to taste wines from all over the world.
The wine that flipped my world was an Australian 1991 Cabernet from Wynns of Coonawarra. It was beautiful red in color, showed intense fruit and balanced, rich oak notes with grippy tannins lots of fruit sweetness that went on forever. It was the first time I tasted touches of vanilla in wine. It was this wine that made me decide that I had to get to Australia and study or work in wine. In the end I did both.
Rhodes: How relatable is winemaking in Australia to Israel? How similar is the climate and the soil? Are the wine practices and vineyard practices that different and why? Are there varietals there you think might do well here that haven't yet caught on yet(like Grenache)?What's surprised you most working as a winemaker in Israel that you feel is unique?
Soroka: Australia and Israel have much in common in terms of winemaking. Australia is a huge and very warm country which is mostly desert like climate. Most of the winemaking regions at the “cooler” parts of the country are towards the southern part of the continent where most people live. Israel, like Australia falls into the category of warm climate winegrowing. Both regions require management of the vineyards in such a way as to protect the fruit from direct afternoon intense heat using the leaves of the vine canopy. This allows the soft light to allow the fruit to ripen, but protects the fruit from too much direct sunlight.
In terms of grape varieties, Australia is lot more adventurous and Israel has much to learn. In the last few years we have seen a good number of Israeli wineries enlarging their grape varieties from Bordeaux varieties of Cabernet and Merlot to more Mediterranean varieties such as Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Carignan as well as the Portuguese varieties Touriga National and Tinta Coa that are traditionally made into Port but more recently in delicious, full-bodied dry reds. However, the Bordeaux variety of Petit Verdot continues to grow in importance.
In terms of surprises, Israel has no shortage but personally, having made kosher wine (at Mony Vineyards) in a winery owned by Christian Arabs by a Jewish winemaker in a winery situated next to a monastery is the Jerusalem Foothills is among the most interesting.
Rhodes: How did you get recruited for the boutique winery at Carmel? It seemed Carmel was taking a big risk at the time with young winemakers on a few fronts. Were you set on Israel after Australia or did it just seem like the most interesting option? Tell us a little where Carmel was before the boutique program and how you think it developed before you left and what was contribution to it.
Soroka: I was recruited to work in Carmel’s Boutique winery by Peter Stern, the first winemaker of the Golan Heights. Peter Stern was working as a consultant for Carmel during Carmel’s revolution and was the Winemaking director of the Herzog Winery in California. During the harvest of 2002, I was working my first stint as winemaker at Chateau La Reze in the Languedoc-Rousillon in Southern France. After my arrival at the Chateau I found out that half the wine I would be making was kosher to be bottled under the Herzog brand which is connected to the Herzog Winery in California. When I finished my work at La Reze I sent my CV to Peter Stern expecting to work in California for harvest 2003. To my surprise, Peter mentioned an exciting opportunity at Carmel in Israel and not California. After meeting Peter in California he recommended that Carmel CEO David Ziv, hire me as the Boutique winemaker for Carmel. The surprises of life.
Carmel’s decision to hire young winemakers and open the Boutique was a result of Carmel’s decision to bring in fresh ideas, modernize its winemaking style and maximize the great potential of its vineyards. The Boutique program was a very exciting opportunity to make single vineyard, single variety wines from Carmel’s best vineyards.
It must be emphasized that working for Carmel was working for a large winery with many talented people. The success of Carmel, the Boutique and its new direction was a result of many years of planning. A bold new vision of the CEO David Ziv, his decision to hire Peter Stern, the internationally known wine consultant, marketing, winemakers, and above all to the winery as a whole.
Rhodes: While at Carmel you worked under another Senior winemaker before leaving to be the sole winemaker at Mony. How was that experience? Did your choice of vineyards change dramatically? Did you start working with a whole new group of varietals? How did it feel to become the frontman for a winery instead of the guy behind the scenes?
Soroka: At Carmel I had the pleasure to work with Israel Flam as Chief winemaker and then with Lior Laxer.
Carmel sourced fruit from all major vinegrowing regions in Israel from the Golan Heights, the Galilee, Binyamina , Zichron Ya’acov, the Judean Hills and finally to Yatir and Arad. Elevation of the vineyards went from approximately 850 meters above sea level to sea level, with a very large variation in terroir and resulting fruit flavors .
At Mony, the vineyard selection was much more local to the Judean Foothills, namely the vineyards surrounding the winery, grown by the Artul family. Yes, the change in vineyard selection was dramatic with less variation in terroir.. Vineyard elevation was from approximately 180 to 250m elevation.
The number of different grape varieties at Mony were surprisingly similar to the number at Carmel. However, whereas Carmel’s vineyards were from all over the country with many varying terroirs eg., the fruit from Mony was limited to a the Judean Foothills.
The role I played as sole winemaker at Mony was very different and allowed me to be involved in all winemaking decisions as well as vision for the wines.
Rhodes: At Mony, you started working as a consulting winemaker for the new Montefiore Winery but the wines were made and aged at Mony. How would you describe the differences in how those wines were generally different than Mony's. What did the Montefiore team want differently from their wines that you weren't already doing at Mony?
Soroka: The vision of the Montefiore Winery winery is based on the producing wines with a Mediterranean style, accentuating varieties like Syrah and Petite Sirah. In addition there was also more a focus on blends such as the Montefiore White (Colombard and Chardonnay) and the Montefiore Red (Malbec, Syrah and Petite Sirah). These were blends that did not exist before at Mony.
Rhodes: You started a now small project of your own called The Fertile Crescent with the 2011 vintage. Do you have other vintages in the pipeline? What's your vision for this project? Why did you choose Petite Sirah for the varietal? Was it the best grapes you had available that vintage? Do you have a plan to stick with a particular grape or are you open each year to make changes?
Soroka:The Fertile Crescent is based almost entirely on Petite Sirah from a wonderful vineyard in the Judean Foothills. It was my favorite wine of the 2011 vintage and a very fine example of great fruit from the region. There are no plans to necessarily remain only with Petite Sirah and I am open to changes. However, it is a variety with such a strong personality and expresses itself very well in the Judean Foothills. There are no other wines in the pipeline at this moment.
Rhodes: How do you think Israeli wines have changed since you first started? What changes would you like to see at the wineries or vineyards or the wine culture at restaurants and wine shops? What are your goals/aspirations as a winemaker in the future?
Soroka: There is seems to be an understanding of the limits of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in many areas of Israel. Winemakers realize that Bordeaux varieties can work in Israel but these varieties are better suited more to the northern Israel at higher elevations. There is much more of a push to make wines from varieties typical to the South of France such as Grenache, Carignan, Syrah/Shiraz, Petite Sirah and Petit Verdot which are better suited to the Israeli climate.
Another very important change that has occurred in Israel is a growing appreciation of well-made, elegant, dry white wines.
My goal as a winemaker is to keep learning with every harvest.
David Rhodes is a California trained sommelier who has worked at wineries and restaurants in California and Israel and can be reached at email@example.com