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Zimbalista Winery: Pirouetting through the Vineyards

The science of wine is a lot like ballet
Jerusalem Ballet School dancers performing in St. Petersburg. (photo credit: Rebecca Kovalsky/Courtesy Jerusalem Ballet School)
Jerusalem Ballet School dancers performing in St. Petersburg. (photo credit: Rebecca Kovalsky/Courtesy Jerusalem Ballet School)

With a fogged glass of chilled white wine in one hand and a burning cigarette in the other, Elena explained to me why she had no choice but to open a winery. “My husband said, ‘with the amount of wine that you drink, Elena, it’s more economical to start a winery than to keep buying wine all the time.’ So we started a winery.”

Now before I quote Elena even one more time, it would be a serious injustice to your inner reading voice if I didn’t tell you that Elena was born and raised in Italy, so be sure to add an elegant Italian “a” to the end of everything I quote Elena saying.

Like most little girls in Venice, Elena dreamed of pink tutus and satin pointe shoes, but when she enrolled in ballet school at the young age of six, she never could imagine that one day she would be a professional classical ballerina. Within a few short years, Elena started dancing for some of the most well respected companies in Europe, tip toeing her way into the spotlight night after night in different cities all over the world. After retiring from dancing and moving on to teaching ballet, Elena still kept in close contact with her fellow dancers.

Elena’s cherished relationships from ballet would bring her to a serendipitous night years later that would change her life forever. One of Elena’s old dance partners was hosting a dinner party with his wife, to which they also invited a charming Israeli friend of theirs named Ron. “As I walked into the room, Ron whispered to our host in Hebrew so that I didn’t understand, ‘you see that girl over there, she is going to be my wife,’” Elena recalled. Ron did not waste any time fulfilling his prophecy. By the end of the night, Ron had convinced Elena to come with him to Israel later that week to ring in the new millennium in Jerusalem. “Israel sounded like a far more exotic place for New Year’s than Rome,” Elena recalled with a smile, “so I said, ‘why not?'”

As they drank the last drop of champagne, and the sun rose over Jerusalem on the last morning of 1999, Ron courageously turned to Elena and asked her to marry him. Being that they had known each other for less than two weeks, Elena told him that she needed to think about it; but just a week later, she agreed. “Clank! My mother hung up the phone when I told her the news,” Elena remembered. “She was so upset, she didn’t talk to me for two months.”

Sure enough, the young couple married and moved to a moshav on the southern coastal plain of Israel. Because Elena first came to Israel in the winter, when the hot Israeli summer rolled in, she was quite surprised. Contemplating what to do with their ten acre backyard, Elena had a novel idea. “In Israel it is very hot,” Elena explained. “There needs to be quality white wine to drink on all of these scorturing summer days.”

After traveling to Sicily to research which varietals would work best in their area, the newlyweds decided to plant a vineyard of muscat and chardonnay grapes with hopes to produce quality white wine. Although now copied by several others, Elena’s Zimbalista Winery became the first winery in Israel to produce exclusively white wines.

“Good wine is the same as Italian cuisine,” Elena explained to me. “Italian dishes don’t have many elaborate sauces or creams. What makes Italian foods delightful is that they are made from the most fresh and vital ingredients possible. So too with quality wine, it can only be made with the best ingredients. This is why I see my job primarily in the vineyard and not at the winery.”

Although Elena had no formal education in wine-making, she soon realized that she had learned all she needed to know about growing grapes from her years of dancing ballet. “In ballet, it’s all about silent communication. It is art with your body — you don’t speak,” Elena described, “So too with my grape vines. We silently communicate with each other — they tell me where to prune, when to pick — we speak with no words.”

Elena believes that this artistic intuition is one of the secrets to the success of her wines. She trusts and stands by the messages received through her silent discourse with her vines adamantly. Even if an expert winemaker tells her that it is not yet time to pick her grapes, if she feels that the grapes have communicated to her that it is time, she will round up workers and start harvesting immediately.

Although remarkable, Elena’s relationship with her vineyard goes far beyond her inaudible dialogue with her grapes. Living only twenty-five kilometers from Gaza, rockets began raining on her moshav while Elena was deeply immersed in her daily pruning during Operation Protective Edge last summer. Horrified, Elena found herself seeking shelter amongst her vines, waiting for it to be safe to return home. There is no doubt that sharing those terrifying moments with her vines has brought them even closer.

“I haven’t worked a day in my life,” Elena exclaimed raising her arms in the air. “When you do what you love, it’s not called work. Be it ballet or wine-making, I have always loved what I do.”

Tasting: Chardonnay di Zimbalista 2013
Some people mistakenly think that the flavor of a wine must knock you over the head with bold aromas and spices. However, oftentimes some of the most exciting wines are those that are extremely gentle, subtle, and restrained. This unbelievably pleasant Chardonnay was born for the beach. As you pack up your suntan lotion, sandals, and towel, don’t forget to pick up this bottle on the way. On ice, with the calming sounds of summer breeze and waves crashing in the background, you will undoubtedly enjoy drinking this wine. If you are looking for first class Italian hospitality, be sure to stop by Elena Zimbalista in Moshav Avigdor.

About the Author
Born and raised in Chicago, Uri is now an Israeli farmer, living in Gush Etzion with his wife, Debbie and his daughter, Rakiya. When he is not farming, you can find him tasting wine with good food and even better company. Feel free to email me with any questions or comments you might have at:
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