She Doesn't Stop at Red
The curator of the Wine & Plenty Festival wasn't born with a spoon of red wine in her mouth, but after 22 years as an officer in Israel's Air Force -- among other things, as the deputy commander of the Tel Nof Aviation Squadron -- Ruti Ben-Israel was drawn to the magical world of wine. Today she is among the few Israelis who hold the prestigious title of Sommelier. As the Festival approaches, we met with her for a short interview, and we were left with a stiff jaw, the result of too many smiles, and an urgent need for a shot of Ritalin.
Read on, and you will also find a few myths quashed...
In short jeans and Blundstone shoes, with an elegant Coccinelle bag hanging from her shoulder, Ruti Ben-Israel, 54, barged into our meeting like a storm.
That's Ruti, full of complementary variety and contrasts in a complex character: an opinionated and fascinating woman with a sense of social mission and values, who connects passion to wine and its pleasures, the folksy to the glittery.
At what age did you discover the world of wine?
'I was born to a pair of parents who immigrated from Morocco, and grew up in Kiryat Yam's Joseftal neighborhood. Wine and gourmet meals were not a part of our 'life-style'.
Generally we did drink at home, mostly Arak. As a young woman, my first tastes of wine were Fantasia, a bubbly drink that no one would even define as wine nowadays.
When I joined the Air Force I was exposed to "life style" and through that, to good food and wine too.'
You describe yourself as hyperactive. How does that sync with spending 22 years' service in high-level positions in the army?
'When you're deeply immersed in your interests and overwhelmed with problems of concentration, one of the ways to deal with it is to build a framework and personal habits that will create internal and external order. So over time I developed fine administrative and logistical abilities, which helped me advance up the army's professional ladder.
When I was 32, the Air Force sent me to university in Beersheba to study management and human services, and the pupil from Kiryat Yam with mediocre grades completed her university studies with honours'.
During her army service, Ruti met her husband-to-be, Benny Ben-Israel, a kibbutznik from Shuval, whom most Israelis remember as one of the competitors in the third season of 'Master Chef'.
'Benny is the opposite of me in many ways: He is an Ashkenazi kibbutznik from the south of Israel (where there's no sea!)', she says with a smile that emphasizes their differences.
They married and had three children, Neta (25), Gal (23), and Or (18). Towards the end of her army service, the family was dispatched to Italy for a four-year mission.
They lived in Rome, and Ruti worked translating articles from Italian to Hebrew for the Prime Minister's Office. Meanwhile, she also studied Italian film and art.
So it was in Italy that your love affair with wine began?
'Absolutely. One day Benny and I went for a tour of the wineries in the Chianti region of Tuscany. I got turned on instantaneously by this world, not just by the wine itself but by the people, the agriculture, the connection to the region and its history.
It all enchanted me. Wine connects people. You meet individuals, drink with them, share secrets, and the conversation heads in different directions.
'After this visit, I decided to join a wine course sponsored by the Italian organization FISAR. It was a difficult course, and I was the only foreigner there. A complete world of terms and concepts that I didn't know, and all of them in Italian.
Imagine: How can you communicate feelings and scents and tastes in a language that's not your mother tongue. What enabled me to survive and succeed in the course and its exams was a very strong will -- and the fantastic people.
When I completed the course I was awarded the title of Sommelier (wine curator)'.
Upon their return to Israel, the family settled in Givat Ada, and in 2008 Ruti Ben-Israel began working as the director of Carmel's Centre for Wine Culture in Zichron Ya'akov. There she expanded her activities in the field of wine tourism.
'Together with Adam Montefiore, and with the full backing of Carmel Winery's director, the late Israel Ivzan, we transformed the Carmel Winery -- which in those days was considered a popular, old-fashioned brand -- into a leader in the field of wine tourism, which combines history, heritage and a passion for wine. We renovated the cellars and opened workshops and sold a variety of tourism products related to wine.
So, it was a short road from the Carmel wine cellars to the regional wine fesisval at Ramat Hanadiv?
'A few years ago the Carmel Winery sent me to one of the summer events at Ramat Hanadiv, where we served wine. The place and its history, the wonderful views and the atmosphere bowled me over.
I went up to Hugo van Trago, the director of Ramat Hanadiv, whom I had never met, and said to him, 'Let's do a wine festival together'. Hugo apparently thought that I'd drunk too much, and didn't really take me seriously.
But when I'm thrown out of the door, I go through a window. The idea didn't leave me, and eventually I managed to convince Hugo.
And that's how, together with Ramat Hanadiv and the producer Hagit Lehrer, we set out. And now we're already doing the Festival for the third year'.
Alongside her entrepreneurial activities in the private sector, Ruti Ben-Israel is also involved in viticulture education.
Today she coordinates the Vineyard and Winery branch of the agricultural youth village, Meir Shefaya, where she initiated and led a full high-school course for pupils matriculating in agriculture: a specialization in grape growing and wine production. Her program recently got the Ministry of Education's stamp of approval, and will be instituted this autumn.
And in conclusion: When we asked Ruti Ben-Israel which she prefers, red wine or white, she destroyed one of the widespread myths among wine connoisseurs.
'I'm going to freak you out. I like rose the best. Its advantage: one drink embodies everything, the combination of red and white.
They make it with red grapes but use the techniques for producing white wine.
Rose wine is served at relatively warm temperatures (15 degrees C.), which makes it possible to experience the fruitiness and complexity of red wine, and when it's served cold (6 degrees C) it gives you a pleasant, tartly refreshing feeling befitting a fine white wine.
'And when you talk about rose champagne, you definitely raise the experience to another level...'
Did we already mention that she doesn't stop at red???
To the festival website: https://www.wine-ramathanadiv.co.il/en/