Thursday, December 6, 2007

In the Cellar at Capsouto Freres

My November edition of the "In the Cellar" column in the New York Sun appeared on Dec. 5. (Don't ask. Scheduling problems.) I was attracted by Capsouto Freres when I heard of the Tribeca restaurant's emphasis on Israeli wines, which, to my knowledge, is singular outside kosher establishments. I spoke with Jacques Capsouto, the world-weary but warm wine director. Here is the article:

An Ambassador of Israeli Wine

Read the wine list at any high-end restaurant in Manhattan and you'll get a good idea of the wine director's likes and dislikes, and perhaps a hint of what kind of food is being conjured in the kitchen. The wine list at Capsouto Frères, the breezily elegant TriBeCa restaurant, however, could be interpreted as a compact biography of its creator, Jacques Capsouto, who, along with his brothers Albert and Samuel, in 1980 installed the restaurant in a remote, former spice warehouse at the corner of Watts and Washington streets.

Jacques and his brothers were born into a French-speaking Jewish family in Alexandria, Egypt, fled in 1957 to Lyon, France, after the Suez War, and then immigrated to New York City four years later. Fittingly, the Capsouto Frères wine list is made up of bottles from only three countries: France, America, and Israel.

American and French wines can be found in almost every restaurant cellar in town, of course. It is Mr. Capsouto's collection of Israeli wines that has caught the attention of critics and imbibers. He doesn't just have a token red and a token white, as is often the case. His 150-bottle selection includes 20 wines from Israel, such as a Yarden Brut Blanc De Blanc sparkler and a Yarden muscat sweet wine, as well as a Dalton sauvignon blanc and Yarden Merlot. (In case you haven't noticed yet, Jacques Capsouto is a passionate advocate of Yarden, whose role in the Israeli wine boom he likens to that of Robert Mondavi Winery in California.)

"I actually had a Yarden on the list, a chardonnay, when it came to the New York market in the early '80s," Mr. Capsouto, who still retains an Old World accent and a certain air of charming Weltzschmertz to go with it, said. But it wasn't until a 2004 trip to Israel — his first in decades — that he discovered the strides the country's wine industry had taken in recent years.

When Mr. Capsouto talks of Israeli wine, he talks of "two evolutions." The first was spurred on by Edmond Benjamin James de Rothschild, a Zionist member of the famous French wine family, who traveled in the 1890s to Palestine and began buying plots of land from the Turks. The acres, mostly along the coast, were then given to local farmers, who planted vines. (Carmel was one of the wineries born at this time.) The second big movement came during the 1980s and continues to this day, paralleling similar drives toward higher quality wine in other countries across the world. Among the newer, generally smaller Israeli wineries now garnering praise and attention are Margalit, Domaine du Castel, and Bazelet ha Golan.

Mr. Capsouto makes it clear that, by supporting the country's vineyards, he's expressing his enthusiasm for the region's wines, not the particular style of wine for which that region is best known. "I'm representing Israeli wines," he said. "I'm not representing kosher wines." He points out that a number of the Israeli bottles on the list bear no hecksher, or kosher certification. "Of the boutique wineries in Israel, about 70 to 80% are not kosher."

The restaurant isn't the first business to bear the name Capsouto Frères. A sign with that legend once hung above a small women's accessories shop in Alexandria. It was run by the siblings' father and his brothers, who specialized in such delicate sartorial luxuries as silk stockings and scarves.

"When we were opening the restaurant, we were trying to come up with a name," Mr. Capsouto said. "My mother came out with this picture of the store and said, 'Why don't you call the restaurant Capsouto Frères?' That's why it's called Capsouto Frères instead of Watts on Washington." Black-and-white shots of the old shop now sit on a table near the restaurant's entrance; the store's wares are advertised on the façade in English, French, and Arabic.

Another bottle on the Capsouto Frères list betrays yet another chapter in the family's story. It's a wine from Gundlach Bundschu, a Sonoma Valley winery with an unwieldy Germanic name and a long history.

"Seven or eight years ago, the Bundschu family was looking at their records and they were trying to figure out where their New York warehouse had been," Mr. Capsouto said. "They had abandoned the warehouse after the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, when their winery got burned." The ancestors of Bundschu (a Bundschu married Gundlach daughter, thus the name) came to Jacques armed with a couple of king-size blow-ups of old documents and the conviction that the home of Capsouto Frères was none other than their long-lost warehouse. One of the documents was an etching of the 1891 landmark neo-Flemish building. Albert Capsouto pointed out a horse and cart laden with boxes in the foreground of the picture. "That looks like wine to me," Albert said.

Jacques Capsouto was convinced enough to host a tasting that re-introduced Gundlach Bundschu to the New York market a few years ago. He also put one of their wines on his list. Was he, perhaps, being sentimental? He pursed his lips ever so slightly, and replied: "If it wasn't good, I wouldn't put it on the list."

1 comment:

amechad said...

There was a great article in some Canadian press about how Israel is poised to become one of the top 10 wine-producing countries -- an amazing accomplishment.

The subject of your story has it right - Israel is making some technically excellent wine and has some top wine. Nothing necessarily innovative and not a ton of varietals, yet, but things are on the rise.

And, yes, it's time we started thinking about a category called "Israeli" wine instead of "kosher" or "kosher Israeli"

(For more info on Israeli wines check out my wine blog - the only blog in Enlish from Israel about Israeli wine - http://israelwine.wordpress.com)