Monday, January 3, 2011

Binyamina Winery Tour

Having been inspired recently by the quality of Israeli wines at Dalton and Adir, we decided to visit the Binyamina Winery. The Visitor Centre is located just off of Highway 4 - about 10 minutes south of Zichron Yaakov in north-central Israel.

Binyamina is now described as Israel's 4th largest winery, producing somewhere in the range of 3 million bottles a year.

The Visitor Centre is housed in a circa 1925 building - that was used in the 1940s as a safe house and weapons storage facility for the Hagana (predecessor to the Israeli Army) before Israel was officially established.

The winery itself was established in 1952 though it has undergone a number of ownership and name changes - as well as rebranding. It now features a range of wines - from sweet, sacramental wine (used for "Kiddush") - to a complex line of high end wines that are aged in oak barrels in a special cave. The wines are all kosher but not "mevushal." (A technical term relating to its Kosher categorization).

We visited at a fairly quiet time. Busy season apparently runs from harvest time in August through to mid-December with the winery at its busiest around the time of Jewish holidays.

We were treated to an excellent tour with a knowledgeable and enthusiastic tour guide - who was fluent in English - as well as Hebrew. The winery has invested significantly in recent years in acquiring and maintaining up to date machinery - and the facilities were impressive. The tour (which runs 25 N.I.S. per person - about $7) includes a tasting of 4 or 5 wines.

The winery carries a Teva line - the wines of which are often sold in Israeli supermarkets. These are not usually used for the tastings - though they do come in many different varieties. We started with the next level up from Teva - the Yogev line of wines. We sampled a Muscat - which was tasty enough - though I'm not that much of a sweet wine drinker.

We then moved up to the Reserve line - the next line up from Yogev - and tried a surprisingly full bodied 2007 Chardonnay.

For the red wines, we began with a Yogev blend of a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Merlot. It was not particularly impressive - having a slightly off aftertaste. That may have been due to the fact that we were using a sampling bottle that had been opened for too long. We also managed to sample a bottle from the "Chosen" line - a line of wines named after various semi-precious and precious stones. Here we tried the Sapphire - a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and other grapes. These Chosen wines are Binyamina's second highest line. However, the Sapphire we sampled may have suffered from the same problem as our Yogev - having been opened some 5 days earlier, according to the notation on the bottle.

At this point, we were not exactly overwhelmed - but we managed to convince our guide to open a new bottle of the Chosen Syrah (Odem - or "Ruby"). This made the whole visit worthwhile. The wine was rich, complex and full bodied. It had numerous pleasant after-tastes which lingered nicely. The Chosen line of wines sell for 130 N.I.S. each at the Visitor Centre (about $37). We weren't able to sample any other Chosen wines (such as the pure Cabernet or the "Diamond" blend) (as hard as we tried to plead and cajole the management) but we were assured that they were comparable in quality to the Odem that we had so enjoyed. Surprisingly, the Visitor Centre was not willing to provide a discount on same day purchases - or apply the 50 N.I.S. tour fee that the two of us paid towards a purchase of a certain minimum amount (as other wineries will often do). So any purchases would have to be made at full freight.

Nevertheless - the Visitor Centre was worthwhile. Aside from the full range of Binyamina wines, it also featured a range of other products - including olive oil, skin products and liqueurs. The building and grounds were homey and well maintained and the tour was informative and fun. We can't say that all the wines we tasted were wonderful - but we look forward to trying the full range of Chosen wines and then reporting back.

Binyamina is not too far from Recanati, Tishbi and Carmel Wineries - all of which are future destinations....

For more information about the winery:

Friday, December 31, 2010

President Katsav Convicted

A three panel Tel-Aviv Court yesterday convicted former Israeli President Moshe Katsav of numerous counts of sexual offences including sexual assault, sexual harassment and obstruction of justice - all involving former work colleagues and employees. The Court found that Katsav's testimony was "riddled with lies" and accepted, almost wholeheartedly, the evidence of the complainants.

The case took four years to make its way to the Courts - during which time - the former President had reached a plea bargain deal - which he then refused to conclude, opting to try his luck with a full defence instead.

The Court has not yet released a full written version of its reasons - but has released excerpts. The Court held that Katsav raped one woman twice - and then embarked on a course of harassment after she rebuked him. He was also found to have repeatedly and improperly hugged and groped two other employees of the President's residence, creating an inappropriate and highly uncomfortable workplace environment.

The Court went on to hold that Katsav repeatedly lied to the Court, obstructed justice and even forged a diary entry.

Although it is expected that Katsav will appeal the decision - many commentators believe that he is highly unlikely to succeed, particularly since the Court provided such detailed reasons for its decision. It methodically dissected the allegations and Katsav's responses - and came to its conclusions. Overturning such a factually driven decision in an appellate court is a very steep challenge.

In one respect - the decision is shocking and upsetting. To think that the President of Israel (a head of state position - largely ceremonial - like a Governor General position) would act in such obscene fashion - while holding office is unfathomable. It certainly tarnishes the image of the office and leaves many people wondering about the character of those who succeed politically (while the Israeli public is also thinking about Ehud Olmert, Arie Deri and others.

On the other hand, the conviction is a significant victory for democracy, the rule of law and for equality in Israel. It demonstrates, at least in this case, that even a President is not above the law. Despite putting tremendous resources into this fight and attempting to discredit the various complainants in every possible way, Katsav was still unable to defeat the judicial process.

The conviction is also a very strong message that victims of sexual harrassment, assault and other workplace impropriety can come forward and can have their voices heard - even if the process may take a while. Israeli Courts will take these matters seriously irrespective of the status of the accused. That is certainly a comforting signal for the enhancement of equality and the elimination of the scourge of these types of offences.

From a Canadian legal perspective, the criminal process here included elements that in Canada would have been considered criminal offences (sexual assault, obstruction of justice) and other elements that in Canada would have been considered civil matters - or the grounds for complaint under applicable Human Rights legislation. The idea of criminalizing sexual harassment - that is, making it a criminal offence to engage in quid pro quo and other forms of sexual intimidation - seems to make eminent sense.

It is expected that the Supreme Court appeal will likely take about 18 months. It is certain to be bitterly contested - as suggested from some of the comments released from the Katsav camp. Yet it may also be an opportunity for the Israeli Supreme Court to weigh in with its pronouncements on the standards for conviction in these circmstances - and the seriousness of these types of offences.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Indian Food in Israel

From a very young age, I have greatly enjoyed Indian food. No doubt influenced by the wonderful cooking of one of my best friend's mothers - who would often invite me to join the family for a wide range of vegetarian delights. With an ever growing Hindu community, Toronto is blessed with many fantastic Indian restaurants - many of which have a wide range of strictly vegetarian options.

Can you get authentic and worthwhile Indian food in Israel - that is suitable for a vegetarian or Kosher diet? I have recently tried to answer this question by sampling two different options - quite different experiences but both decent.

Billed as an "Authentic Indian Kitchen" - Sangam restaurant is located about 15 minutes north of Ra'anana off of Highway 4 in K'far Monash (a "moshav" - an agricultural settlement). In the middle of this farm like setting, (turn left after you pass the cows to get to the restaurant), one of the Moshav members has built a pine and oak cabin. The walls are adorned with Indian rugs. The seats are low mattresses. The plates are stainless steel - all intended to make the atmosphere as genuine as possible.

The menu is not extensive - about 10 or 11 dishes - all strictly vegetarian. Included on the list are pakoras (made much more like falafel balls), channa (chick peas), dal (lentils), aloo gobi (potatoes and cauliflower - one of my personal favourites), mixed curried vegetables and other dishes. The restaurant also serves chapatis (rotis) - which are the only bread item listed on the menu. The dishes were all flavourful - and well made - though not particularly hot (spicy). For added spice and flavour, we were provided with some cut up chile and jalepeno peppers - as well as yogurt and mint chutney.

The lentils and some of the other dishes were a bit mushy. The restaurant sorely lacks a tandoori oven - at least to make fresh buttery naans (soft pita like breads)But overall - the place was quite fun - particularly the atmosphere. We finished the meal with chai tea - and a very reasonable bill - just over 200 N.I.S. (less than $60) for 4 people. The restaurant is not under Rabbinical supervision - but it is closed Friday nights and Saturdays - and is vegetarian. Allow extra time to find it...and make sure to book in advance since it is a reasonably small place.

For a completely different experience - we also recently visited Kohinoor Restaurant - located in the Crown Plaza Hotel in Jerusalem. This is much more reminiscent of large commercial Indian restaurant that one might find in Toronto or London - though it is strictly Kosher, under Rabbinical supervision. Kohinoor- serves meat and vegetarian food - no dairy products of any sort.

Unlike Sangam, this is a much fancier place - with prices to match. The menus is much more extensive - featuring chicken, lamb, fish and many vegetarian dishes. The meat dishes can run around 70 N.I.S. each ($20) - and the vegetarian dishes around 50 N.I.S. ($14). You can start with authentic samosas, pakoras and other tasty appetizers. The wine and beverage list is extensive. The setting has more of dining room feel - with china and fine cutlery to match.

I was eager to try this restaurant since I had never eaten meat at an Indian restaurant (there are no kosher Indian restaurants in Toronto). We tried a range of dishes including tandoori chicken, chicken vindaloo, curried lamb and some others. The dishes were nicely spiced and some were quite hot. We also tried a range of vegetarian dishes. Here, due to strict Rabbinical supervision - the range of vegetables is limited (for fear of eating veggies infected by microscopic bugs). As result, you can't get Aloo Ghobi (with cauliflower) or some other very important veggies. I would say that the vegetarian dishes were quite lacking as a consequence of these relatively new restrictions (relatively new to the Kosher world - not to this particular restaurant - but this is all a topic for another time...). For this, you have to blame the Rabbis rather than the restaurant...

The Naans were tasty enough - though obviously drier than usual since you cannot use ghee (Indian butter) or yoghurt in a meat restaurant. There may be a non-dairy alternative that the restaurant has not yet tried. But some of the meat dishes were big hits (we were a large group), particularly the tandoori chicken. The range of available desserts and beverages was wide - and the menu even included some non-Indian childen's dishes - such as shnitzel - to ensure that the whole family can enjoy the experience.

Kohinoor is nice for a special occasion. It is also quite unique in that there are few Kosher Indian restaurants that serve meat - anywhere. For the most part - as tasty as it was to try the curried meats - I am happy to continue eating only vegetarian Indian food. Nevertheless - I would still say that visiting Kohinoor was a treat.

The real challenge for me is to try to learn to make some of these great dishes at home. Haven't been able to do that yet - but until I get there - it's nice to know that I have some real options here in Israel. I have heard of two or three other places - and I'll try to make it to those as well to complete the survey.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Winery and Sightseeing Tour in the Golan

The weather in Israel around Chanukah time can be hit or miss. Some years, it is rainy - with temperatures varying anywhere from 15 to 20 C or even as high as 24. Some years, you can simply have a streak of beautiful days - 20-25C and sunny.
This was one of those warm, sunny years. So with the beautiful weather - and my Dad visiting - our family set out to see some of Israel's fine wineries.

Our first stop was the Adir Winery. This is a family run boutique winery which produces some delicious wines. It is situated in northern Israel in the upper Galilee - not too far from Kiryat Shmona - off route 886. Established in 2003 - the winery uses grapes from vines that were first planted in the 1980s and 1990s. We were able to taste a number of Cabernets - from 2008, 2007 and 2005. We also tasted Shiraz, Merlot and one white wine. The wines were exquisite and we wound up buying our share to take with us.

The fun thing about the Visitor Centre at the Adir Winery is that it is a joint project with the Adir dairy farm - a goat dairy farm. Adir raises hundreds of dairy goats and produces a variety of cheeses, yogurts, ice creams and other dairy products. This makes for a fine combination when enjoying the wines. Kids can enjoy the dairy side of the visitor centre. Non-drinkers can get a coffee / cappuccino- or a yogurt while the others are sampling the wines.

Adir has been increasing its production though it is still relatively local and not yet widely distributed outside of Israel.

From Adir - we drove over to Dalton Winery - which was very close by and stopped at the visitor centre. Dalton is a much larger winery with a wider selection and range of wines. Some of Dalton's wines - like the "Canaan" lines - in white and red - are easy drinking blends. But Dalton also has some much more complex, aged Cabernets - that you can taste in the visitor centre. The staff are very knowledgeable and enthusiastic. We worked our way up to some of the finer wines that Dalton stocks at the centre - and some of these complex wines were irresistable- such as the Cabernet - Meron - Single Vineyard. So we added some Dalton to our collection...Dalton is more widely available - sold in the U.S. and Canada as well as various parts of Israel. Dalton was established in 1995 and now produces more than 800,000 bottles of wine a year.

Both Dalton and Adir wineries produce kosher wines.

Two wineries were enough for this trip - though I could easily spend weeks visiting the various up and coming wineries that have been sprouting up in many parts of Israel. The quality of Israeli wine has been steadily increasing - as has the appreciation in Israel for these products.

While in the north - we were also able to try another exciting activity. We travelled to the Hula Nature Reserve - which is just south of Kiryat Shmona in the upper galilee. The Nature Reserve is a huge park - which includes an enormous bird sanctuary. Many different birds stop here in the course of their migratory routes. Some decide to stay though most are "passing through." We were able to see thousands of cranes - as well as many other kinds of birds.

To travel through the park - you can rent a 3 or 6 person bicycle, a golf cart - or you can use you own bike. We used two different 3-person bikes. So we were able to get some exercise, enjoy some nice weather and also pedal through the park enjoying the views. (Make sure to take your binoculars or rent a pair from the visitor centre). The best time to come is apparently early spring - particularly March or April - or early Fall - late September/early October - as these times are when you find the largest collection of birds.

December was also quite nice. In case you are wondering - we did not tour the wineries and the nature reserve - on the same day... That would not have been a good scene - given the number of wines we were able to taste. For more information about the park -

These three things are a very small sample of the activities in the Upper Galilee. We'll canvas some more shortly.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Ice Hockey in Israel

Well - I finally did it. Laced up some skates and equipment (that I had brought from Toronto) to play Ice Hockey in Israel. There is only one real ice arena - in Metullah - the northernmost point of Israel - right at the border with Lebanon.

My son and I drove 2 1/2-3 hours to the arena last night. We put on our equipment and joined the Israel Recreational Ice Hockey Association - a group of guys who play every second Thursday night.

I hadn't played in 27 years. I've been wanting to play - but have been pretty out of shape - something I have been working on over the past few months. Fortunately for me - they divide the shifts into three different skill levels - so I was able to play on the third line which was somewhere near my level. My son even scored a goal. Me - well maybe an assist or two.

It seemed like a great bunch of guys - who have been playing twice a month for years now. Most were Canadians - now living in Israel - though there were some Americans - a few native Israelis and a few Russians. The main thing is the commitment. The players drive from distances of at least 2 or 3 hours to get to the arena every second week!

The goalies were well equipped and were quite solid. There were a few very high calibre players - particulary on the 1st line - which made for some entertaining, fast paced hockey.

After the game, most players stopped in Kiryat Shmona - a northern Israeli town for a shawarma. Then we had a 3 hour drive back - including areas of construction that we had to pass through.

My son and I both hope to play some more. (He was the only 12 year old playing...even though he had to wake up and go to school the next day after getting home at 2:30 a.m.)

I'll have to work on my skating though..I probably looked like a pylon even on the third line...

For anyone coming to Israel - who feels the need to play while here - players can email athe association and try to book a spot.

Overall - as Canadians well know - no matter how far you drive - you realize how great it is to be on the ice. Even though many of these players have been living in Israel for years - you can't take that part of Canada away from them.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Forest Fire in Israel

This is a very serious situation. This major fire is spreading throughout Israel's north. No confirmed reports yet of what has caused it though there is a clear suspicion that it was arson based on the fact that it has spread from three different directions at the same time.

The fire continues to spread rapidly and has completely obliterated some Kibbutzim (communal settlements) and other areas in Israel' north.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Air Canada or El Al?

Over the past year or so, I have flown a number of times between Toronto and Israel on both Air Canada and El Al - the only two airlines that currently fly direct between these two cities.

While there are positives and negatives about each - here are a few comments.

Aeroplan (Air Canada's loyalty program)is a huge plus in favour of Air Canada. You can collect more than 10,500 points on a round trip flight - 2/3 of the way to a short haul ticket. After just about 3 flights in a year - you get upgraded to Elite Status - and you wind up with a range of benefits - including being able to take 3 bags instead of 2, bypassing most line ups, and getting some upgrade certificates. Many of these benefits can be used with any Star Alliance airline - not just Air Canada. El Al's loyalty plan, "Matmid" is much more limited, has fewer partners, and generally requires you to fly much more often to obtain the benefits of the program. You even have to pay to join it!

Air Canada has personal video/tv screens on its Toronto-Tel Aviv route - with a wide selection of movies and audio entertainment. The seats feel more comfortable and the overall experience is somewhat more easy going. El Al has a few portable units available for rent on each flight - but most passengers are stuck trying to watch the communal movie.

El Al currently has much better flight times. You can leave Israel late at night - just before or just after midnight, depending on the time of year - and sleep for most of the 12 1/2 - 13 hour flight. Flying from Toronto to Israel, you can also fly in the early or late evening. This is a huge plus for El Al - since the flight times also affect how easily you can adjust between time zones. Air Canada recently changed its flight times to travel at 12:45 p.m from Israel for all of its flights. This means a 13 hour, daytime flight. It makes for a very long day.

El Al has its own security system, which is generally more sensible, thorough and comforting than that of any other airline. Recently, Air Canada added in supplementary security for flights leaving Toronto to Tel Aviv - but the advantage here goes to El Al.

Pricewise - they are usually about the same - though occasionally you can find a better deal with one or the other which can make a difference of as much as $500.

With El Al, all the food is Kosher. So if you are interested in a Kosher meal, the food is more likely to be fresh, properly cooked and properly thawed - than Air Canada - where you usually wind up with frozen fruit pieces for breakfast.

In the area of "intangibles" - well it's Canadian service versus Israeli. Air Canada would probably be more attentive and polite; El Al - less formal - and sometimes friendlier - though often much less attentive.

One other option (aside from the various flights available with transfers in Europe and New York) is to fly through Philadelphia with US Air. You can still get the Aeroplan points - but you can get the evening flight back from Tel Aviv. The hassle is dealing with U.S. customs - including checking back through in Philadelphia.