While on the recent visit of the New Orleans chef delegation, I had the pleasure of chatting with Liatte Nicole Miller at the Flam Winery. Liatte and I spoke a lot about the personal touch the winery takes care to include in every aspect of the wine-making process, and I could feel this even in our conversation as her genuine passion for the wines shined through her words.
Tell me a bit about the Flam Winery
Flam is a family-owned boutique winery that was started in 1998; we produce about 120,000 bottles each year, and all of the bottles produced since 2010 are Kosher. There are five vineyards throughout the country, three in the Judean hills area and two in the upper Galilee. The winery was founded by the brothers Golan and Gilad – Golan is the winemaker and Gilad is in charge of business development. Kami, their mother is the CEO and Israel Flam, the father, has been in the wine industry for 35 years and does the tours as well as consults throughout the process
Boutique is a very trendy word these days, what does it signify for the winery?
Boutique wine-making in Israel does not just mean "small", it is about being specialized. For us it means being particular and artisanal. We have a high-class product because of the care and resources that go into making the wine. At the big wineries you will find industrial processing, which has an obvious effect on the taste of the fruit and the results.
Golan Flam, the winemaker says that good wine starts in the vineyard. Just as with delicious food, it is all about the origins.
Golan goes to check the vineyards all the time to make sure that the vines are doing well and that the farmers are playing out his vision for the vines. He really treats the vines as his babies - making sure to give them attention and, in a way, training them. The large vineyards have automatic systems that water and treat the vines, but this does not maximize the potential of the vines. For example, if we know there is a heatwave coming, we will wait a few days to water the vines. The same mentality of personalization and care is how we treat all aspects of the process - human resources, technology (ie our high end bottling machine), tanks with cooling jackets, brand new American and French barrels that we only keep for 3 years. Even our labels are made by a wine label designer in Italy.
We would like to be able to keep everything local, but we just don't have oak, corks, or certain grape varietals - so we have to get some things abroad in order not to compromise on quality. Everything is based on making lots of careful choices and on trust and building foundations for this trust.
Even our blog is specialized - we focus our posts on what we believe to be relevant for our wine-appreciating audience. For example, we recently wrote about our testing of various corks and the differences between the corks - some seal better, some helps the wine breath better. This is information that we believe our audience can enjoy and will be of use to wine-lovers.
Are Israelis drinking more wine these days?
Only in recent years is the market in Israel expanding enough that people are really identifying themselves with a certain wine label or region. People are now going to restaurants and being able to say 'I want a Golan heights wine'.
I also hope for another trend in Israel will be learning to really appreciate the wine-making process. That when people are paying for their wine they will be able to imagine the long line of events and people that went into it. So many people work hard to make something that can be appreciated in Israel and abroad. We are not yet Australia or Napa but we are on the right track! Golan was trained in Italy and Australia and was influenced by his traditional Italian training, yet brings to the wine-making process many new techniques due to the hot climate we have in Israel.
You are very passionate when you speak about the wines, where does this love of wine come from?
Wine is an art that I can continue to learn about and figure out forever. I am an enthusiast because it used to be just a hobby and now I realize that the amount of knowledge and tastes are endless. There is something new about it yet it is also so primal. Wine-making started thousands of years ago when people picked grapes and just left them outside by mistake. It is a cool scientific process that we are refining.
Also, it is amazing the amount of energy and manpower and attention that goes into making the wine at Flam – we are making a product that I enjoy and respect. I wouldn't drive back and forth every day from Tel Aviv into the Judean Hills if I didn't feel this excitement.
Is Flam a socially responsible winery?
I make sure to only work in places that are socially responsible - for instance my last job was at the Farmer's Market. I believe that our society does not emphasize that we should learn more about what we are putting into our mouths and where it comes from. Although we are creatures of comfort and it is easier not to, it is our obligation to start asking where our food is coming from. If we do this, we can have a positive impact on everything from the soil we eat from to the bees we are destroying to global warming. Flam is socially responsible in the sense that our vine-growers and farmers can make a solid living with good wages and benefits. We could easily find cheaper labor, but this company will not compromise in that sense. Besides, farming is important in itself – keeping green lands, producing good Israeli products and recycling wastewater instead of just wasting it.
What is Flam's biggest hit?
The Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve. The wine was aged for 1.5 years in new French oak barrels, then another year in the bottle. This wine will be excellent until 2020.
The Flam Classico - it is about 60% of what we make. One of the reasons the Classico is such a hit is that it is an easy wine to drink without too much complexity. Perhaps there will be a trend in Israel for more complex wines.
What is the biggest challenge Flam faces in the future?
Our biggest challenges are in a few areas – in marketing we need to reach out to new international audiences and be recognized as a quality country for producing good wines. To continue to develop the highest quality vineyards, which is still relatively new here, finding new vine growing areas and making sheer wilderness into vineyards, and finding and inventing a high standard for Israeli varietals. There's always place for improvement – but just to keep making elegant Israeli wines, despite the heat.
When we are trying to think ahead and plan for 2013 and beyond, we have to consider that some of our vineyards may not be ours anymore [in part because of territorial disputes] - survival comes into every aspect of our story. We don't know what story we will be telling in a few years. In Israel we are telling a story of rich land and Zionism, and we really just can't predict what will be. It is an existential issue that Napa doesn't need to address.
In short, if you like our wine , buy it now and put it in your cellar, we don't know if the cab reserve will be available after 2010.