“Sorry, it’s moving day,” apologised the light haired guy at the door with sunglasses resting atop his head. My heart dropped. Dragging your girlfriend to a winery just to be sent home at the door is not a particularly exhilarating date. He must have noticed the look of disappointment on my face. “But come on in anyway,” he said, motioning cordially with his hand, “I’ll show you around.” Man, was I relieved.
That was about five years ago. I was a student in the Tel Aviv area and was most pleasantly surprised to find a winery that could be reached with 5.60 NIS on an inner city bus. I paced up and down the street looking for the address I had scribbled on a torn off piece of a cereal box. I was searching for an industrial building with some wooden barrels and machinery outside, but I couldn’t seem to find this place anywhere.
I couldn’t find the place because Yaffo Winery was in the Celnicker family’s basement. “It’s moving day”, the guy with the light hair and sunglasses who now introduced himself as Stephon had said. After a nearly a decade, the Celnickers were finally transporting their thrifty winery from the crowded Tel Aviv basement of their family home to a spacious new spot in the Ella Valley “closer to where the grapes are grown,” Stephon explained.
I reminded Stephon of that moving day as we met again recently to talk and taste his newest releases, he with his modern new winery that produces 45,000 bottles annually, and I with my now wife and new baby girl. He smiled, letting out a chuckle that blended a deep sense of accomplishment with a touch of nostalgia.
Stephon is the second generation of Celnicker winemakers at Yaffo Winery. His father, Moshe, who established the winery in 1998, quickly put the then teenaged Stephon to work. He sent his young son to a winemaking course at Hebrew University, and although Stephon had been raised with wine pumping through his veins, “it was only after that course that I began to understand the fine art and complexity of wine,” he explained. It became clear that after his IDF service and post-army journey to the east, he would return home to become a vintner.
Years passed since this initial epiphany, yet after returning from India and Nepal, Stephon voyaged to the land of his French mother’s roots to learn from the masters and live amongst their luscious vineyards. Upon his return to Israel some years later, Stephon knew that he could not simply imitate the wines that he had learned to love in Burgundy and Bordeaux. Israel’s hot, erratic climate naturally produces bold and rambunctious wine grapes, whereas French wine grapes are far more elegant, reserved and sophisticated.
Stephon’s mastery soon became evident through his gift of synthesis. Trying to tame and civilize Israeli grapes by stuffing them into a classy French tux simply doesn’t work, yet “allowing Israeli grapes to run wild can create wines that are much too heavy to drink,” Stephon explained. At Yaffo Winery, Stephon doesn’t try assimilate the sabra into a foreign French culture, but rather nurtures his wines to combine the seemingly opposing qualities of both worlds.
I strongly relate to Stephon’s winemaking philosophy, and I identify its relevance spanning far past Israeli grape varietals into our interactions with Israeli society as well. Often times we feel the erroneous urge to transform this land and people into something more comfortable and familiar, rather than accepting it for what it is and productively fostering it to make it our own. Perhaps by adopting Stephon’s creative approach to our everyday Israeli lives, we can develop an exciting new way to see our own shades of blue and white.
Tasting: 2011 Hommage Syrah Merlot
“I want my wines to be accessible,” Stephon expressed. “I want people to be able to simply drink and enjoy them without feeling the need to describe them pretentiously.” So that is what I did. Because Stephon compares his personality most closely to the temperate yet mischievous style of the Syrah grapes, I chose his Syrah to share with you.
Before I pen my tasting notes, I want to explain a little about this style blend and why it works so well here in Israel. Syrahs are like old retired Jewish men. When they live in cold climates, they are pale, tired and wear as many layers as possible, always asking why the front door is open. When they live in warm, sunny climates, they are fiery and audacious, often spotted in inappropriately tight swimwear. Since most parts of Israel enjoy fairly warm weather during the grapes’ fruiting months, Israeli Syrahs are more akin to a Jerry Stiller than a Woody Allen.
Merlots, on the other hand, are like that tie-dyed friend of yours who you can’t ever seem to get a hold of, but when you do, you know you’re gonna have a good time. He’s not the guy you sit down to discuss the purpose of life with, but he’s always up for an adventure.
Finding the perfect balance between the strong, dominant personality of the Syrah and the free spirit of a Merlot is no simple task, but Stephon nailed it. The most pronounced flavors and aromas include Ben and Jerry’s “Cherry Garcia” Ice Cream, freshly cut grass, and that flavor you get after you’ve kept a pencil in your mouth for a while.
This is a robustly vital and romantic wine. I suggest sharing it with someone you can slow dance with. Don’t drink this guy indoors. Wait for a clear, mild night, and enjoy it under the stars. I would crank up either Eric Clapton’s Unplugged album or Simon and Garfunkel’s Bookends. Both should set the mood right and represent a lot of what is happening inside this bottle.
I strongly recommend trying this wine and visiting Stephon at Yaffo Winery on Moshav Neve Michael. If and when you do, I’d love to hear about it. Feel free to email me about your wine drinking experiences and with any questions you may have at firstname.lastname@example.org.