Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Thinking about drinking in Jordan

I just spent 6 great days in Jordan -- the kingdom, not the winery -- and while I didn't drink much there, it's a lot easier to find wine, beer and liquor than you might imagine for an Islamic country.

A few general observations:

* The only restaurants that serve alcohol are oriented toward tourists. However, you can sit outside at these with a bottle of wine, and nobody appears to take offense.

* Towns of decent size have openly operating wine and liquor shops, with signs in English and contents clearly visible from the street. This is a big contrast to Egypt, where I bought booze from the back door of a pharmacy and was treated with open disdain by the men selling it; probably like what buying condoms was like for married men in the 1950s. In Jordan I felt no stigma.

* That said, I did not personally observe any Jordanians drinking. But I didn't see any scorpions in the desert either; that doesn't mean they're not there.

* Whiskey is the main imported spirit, and you can get it from all the major countries: the US, Scotland, Ireland. The local spirit is Arak, a rather rough anise liquor, but I also tried a pretty decent Jordanian whiskey that was a bit on the sweet side; it reminded me of a sweeter Irish whiskey.

* There is a Jordanian Christian winery, Mt. Nebo. Sorry folks, I didn't try it. It didn't seem more available at tourist restaurants than cheap Chilean or French wine.

* US wine was reasonably well-represented; Gallo was there, and so was Wente (go Wente!) You could easily buy cheap wines from France, South Africa and Chile. I did not see any Aussie wines, surprisingly.

* Of course, the best wine country closest to Jordan is Israel. Israeli wines are quite good these days (I learned this tasting scores of them at the Israeli wine expo*), the country is at peace with Jordan, and it has to be cheaper to truck wine over the border than to ship it from Chile. Yet I did not see any Israeli wine -- or for that matter, any Israeli food products. There are food products from all over the Arab/Islamic world: figs from Turkey, dates from Saudi Arabia, sardines from Morocco. But I saw nothing written in Hebrew.

* I'll be writing a lot here about Israeli wines very soon. One disadvantage for bloggers like me who sell articles to publications is that I need to figure out what angles/stories I want to get paid for. There's probably a meta-article in that, but I'm not the one to write it.

* That said, Jordanians accept Israelis in a way that Egyptians don't seem to, even though they've been at peace a lot longer. Israeli bus tours go to Petra every day but I also ran into several Israeli backpackers who said they felt like Jordanians had gone out of their way to be friendly to them.

* Jordanian food, while safe and competent, didn't exactly make me crave wine. With the exception of one nicely grilled and spiced fish I enjoyed at Blue Bay in Aqaba, I had mostly the same stuff over and over: stale pita bread, hummus, grilled second-rate meat, fool (a bland bean dish, not the object of Mr. T's pity), falafel. The one thing that shines there are the sweets: variations of baklava, with some interesting versions with sweetened cheese. But those call for cardamom-laced coffee, not wine.

* I did my part for Israeli-Jordanian wine relations by quaffing a bottle of Yarden Galilee Syrah 2005 in the Wadi Rum desert out of plastic cups that had previously held sweetened sage tea (the Bedouins are not big on glassware). I can't offer reliable tasting notes under the circumstances, but I will tell you that few bottles of wine have ever felt more special.

I shared the bottle with three people. Taylor is a not-religious Massachusetts Jew who had just spent several weeks touring Israel for free as part of a program to encourage American Jews to emigrate. He had never been outside the US before and had never spent more than $10 on a bottle of wine (the Yarden sells for about $30 US). Suzanne is a drifter from Alaska whose degree is in anthropology and is finding herself through travel and odd jobs. She also could not remember having a $30 bottle of wine. Elsa, from Sweden, is just 20 years old and is in Jordan teaching the Bedouin how to farm organically. This is ironic because they already farm organically, but they learned to apply for volunteer labor from an organization called WOOF. Elsa had just arrived and her duties were mostly washing dishes. She's young and beautiful and one of the cousins of Zedane, the Bedouin whose camp I stayed at, is attempting to recruit her to work for him, irritating Zedane. She was feeling guilty about causing a rift and really welcomed a couple calming plastic cups of Yarden Syrah. She was the only one other than me who had had a $30 wine before.

We sat on bedding that we dragged out of the tents, staring up at the stars while I tried to answer questions about what made some $30 bottles of wine taste so much better than the cheapest wine in the store (this had always been Taylor and Suzanne's previous purchase strategy). One of the Bedouins observed us but declined our offer of a cup; he was satisfied with a hookah in his hookah tent. We discussed hopes, dreams and trails followed. It was just such a bottle in France more than 20 years ago that sparked my own love of wine, and I could hear my youthful self in their appreciation of this one.

Please forgive my selfishness in writing this, but part of my pleasure in writing about wine is the thought that maybe somebody out there will read something I write and enjoy wine more for it. I am so jaded about the actual bottles of wine, though; it's nothing for me to open 25 bottles of wine for a tasting and then pour all but one down the drain. Here, with one good bottle selected almost at random -- a gift/sample from Golan Heights Winery winemaker Victor Schoenfeld, but not necessarily the wine of his I would have bought -- I could see and hear a new appreciation for wine develop in some people I shared a tent with. I have to say it was better than writing.


goma@sf said...

I'm glad you had good time there.
Thank you for nice story.

Jim Caudill said...

Being a little selfish is not so bad, especially when you're self aware. Great read, it's appreciated.

Irene Sharon said...

A lovely story. I never tire of traveling tales, odd communing of strangers. I'm sure you and the wine made an impact. Hope it was a great a trip.

Unknown said...

a great notes to read about it ... a passionate winemaker from jordan is willing to share his views on his wine - Zumot's Winery.

try a few varitels which he has producing and pen down the note.

Very interesting technique, elegant and mouthful as well.....