When Roni Saslove was 14 years old, she stood in her garage with her two sisters and stomped 100 kilos of grapes until her feet turned red. Remembering this, she chuckles and assures me that after that the production of Saslove Winery became much more professional.
The Saslove name is well known in Israel for starting the third boutique winery in the country. For 15 years, the family planted and maintained the winery organically themselves. Saslove recalls never being able to go to Burning Man in August because that was the time of their annual harvest. After years of pioneering wine in Israel, the family sold their winery to investors in 2013, and today, Roni Saslove is one of the country’s leading wine experts, educators, and still an occasional maker.
Life after owning and operating a winery has led to surprising new opportunities to spread the word about Israel’s growing wine scene. “Now I do other things within the wine industry, and I also became a body soul therapist, something I’ve been studying for 20 years and have ripened into treating as well,” says Saslove. “The therapy changed the way I looked at wine tastings and being around that kind of pleasure gave me another perspective. I wish for people to experience the beautiful things in life and wine is just simply one of them.”
Out of Saslove’s years of experience in the wine industry, and passionate approach to the subject, a new type of wine tasting has emerged. Saslove leads sensory enhancement workshops where tasters are blindfolded and asked to do different experiments like smell olive oil or a piece of fruit before drinking from their glass. This not only allows the wine tasters to encounter different flavors but makes the experience a lot more fun and exciting. “Wine is the most exquisite liquid there is. Each wine will have a story of why it’s there and where it came from. If you smell bell peppers in the wine it could be from a cool climate,” says Saslove. “I want people to become private investigators of the wine and also themselves.”
During a tasting, people may notice cherries that will transport them back to their grandmother’s garden giving them a more personal, nostalgic experience. Saslove hopes people will channel mindfulness into the wine tasting itself instead of just focusing on facts like where it’s from and the terroir.
When leading sensory enhancement workshops, the Canadian-born, Israeli-raised wine expert often focuses on wines from her home country. “A lot of what I do in Israel is tasting of Israeli wines and telling the story of the country and the culture through the different styles of winemaking and terroirs,” she says. “This way, people get to experience Israel through our wine.”
For such a small country, Israel has a fascinating and diverse variety of wines. “I do drink mainly local wines because I think Israeli wines can be so interesting, and they match the personality and the culture here.” For anyone who has visited, there is an intensity in Israeli culture, and Saslove feels the aromas of the wine often match that. “A wine tells the story of the climate and where it grew, so being in the climate is being part of a story. A Sauvignon Blanc here might have guava and many kinds of citrus in it which are local to Israel. I think there is a great connection to the aromas in the wine and where it was made.”
Saslove also champions female winemakers and viticulturists, of which Israel has many. On the top of her list is a viticulturist named Michal Akerman who focuses on ecological grape growing at Tabor Winery. Akerman looks to see what existed in the environment before the vines were planted, from animals to plants, and does the least amount to change that environment, usually leaving them right where they are.
Another impressive winemaker is Tali Sendovski, the first female winemaker in Israel who works at the Golan Heights Winery. Lori Lender is an American winemaker who owns a winery called Zafirirm or Tzafririm in the Judean Hills. “Together with her husband and their boys they make a beautiful array of wines, and specifically an excellent Zinfandel,” says Saslove. At Nana Estate Winery in the Ramon Crater, a winemaker named Dana Beny makes a beautiful Chenin blanc.
One of Roni’s favorite Israeli white wines comes from winemaker Nitzan Swersky “She’s a one-woman show making only one white wine called ‘Achat’, the feminine form of the word one in Hebrew.” The blend may be slightly different from year to year with the majority being Roussanne and Viognier-based.
There are almost 300 wineries in Israel, and the industry is on the rise with about 40 different grape varieties being grown in a multitude of climates. There are wineries next to ski resorts, steps from the beach and in deserts near the Red Sea. Saslove says, “It’s very interesting what’s going on here. The land is perfect for growing grapes and it’s attracting international curiosity. Wine has been made here for thousands of years, so it’s being made from ancient and indigenous grape varieties which is really fascinating.”
As for the future of Israeli wine, Saslove predicts it will reach more international markets with more indigenous grape varieties coming to the forefront. “It will never be a huge market because everything here is very small, but that is part of its charm,” says Saslove. “Most of the wineries are small and very personal ones made out of belief, creativity and the love of wine.”