Thursday, December 2, 2010

Jews, wine and Berkeley politics: an old Chronicle story

I really need to learn to let these things go.
Writing about Israeli wines this week in Food & Wine magazine, and correcting some of my own online mistakes, reminded me of the first time I wrote about kosher wine, and a politically inspired correction by a surprisingly spineless San Francisco Chronicle that I'm still pissed off about.

There are plenty of Jewish wine writers, but I'm not one. Yet in early 2005 The Chronicle gave me the nearly annual assignment of writing about wine for Passover.

Most writers would probably have given the story the distant, respectful treatment, figuring non-Jews weren't going to read it anyway. I'm not particularly proud today of the way I used "South Park" to jazz it up; the concept of using outrageousness to get non-Jews to read it was better than the execution. But I'm not ashamed of The Chronicle story either.

Food editor Miriam Morgan warned me when I got the assignment that we would get more than the usual number of angry letters, so I had to be beyond reproach. An outsider would be amazed at the vitriol sent to Chronicle Food & Wine. Vegans are the most mean-spirited; maybe they're not getting enough protein to control their emotions. Immigrant haters protest ethnic recipes. And random wackos  go off on things like a martini recipe different from theirs. Read the comments on Michael Bauer's blog and you'll get a taste.

But even more than recipes involving rabbits (they're a renewable resource, people), if you want to inflame the Chronicle readership, the way to do it is to support Israel.

Support for Palestinian liberation, and hatred of Israel, is probably stronger in Berkeley than anywhere else in the US. My story wasn't about Israel; most of it was about kosher wineries in California, and Israeli wine played only a small part. But Miriam reminded me every single day that the story was going to be picked apart word-by-word by people who couldn't care less about wine.

I spoke to rabbis, Jewish food experts and academics. I was super careful, and the story was edited with even more than the usual pre-downsizing care. I guess playing myself as Eric Cartman was a way of showing defiance from a story we were all uncommonly nervous about.

The story didn't turn out to be the problem.

As part of the package, my colleagues and I tasted 80 kosher wines and recommended our favorites. (I also did a sidebar comparing Manischewitz and Mogen David and was shocked by how nasty the most popular American passover wine tastes.)

We didn't have any bright ideas for art; fear of controversy vetoed everything we came up with (I'm still amazed I got away with such cheeky writing). So we chose the least controversial possible cover shot: a group of kosher bottles we recommended. Dull, but safe. Or so we thought.

Craig Lee, a great food photographer, shot the bottles. I gave him the bottles we liked -- from several different countries -- without any orders as to which to use. Visually, he liked a shot with three wines from Golan Heights Winery, which then as now made some of the most delicious kosher wines.

I didn't write the cutline, but saw it before publication and didn't object. It read: "Golan Heights Winery in Israel makes Moscato and Riesling wines recommended by The Chronicle tasting panel, plus higher-end wines under the brand name Yarden."

Sure enough, we got some lengthy, angry letters from Palestinians in Berkeley. But they weren't complaining about my 3-page story (still today, I'm proud that it turned out to be bulletproof). They objected to that 26-word cutline.

Because Golan Heights Winery, they said, is not in Israel.

Their position was that the Golan Heights is occupied land, and thus not Israel. The whole Chronicle Food & Wine staff lined up against this. Our policy was to use the official US government-approved label information. On the label, these wines said, "Produce of Israel." Our position was that the letter writers needed to complain to the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which approves every label on every alcoholic beverage sold in the US.)

I don't know who in Chronicle upper management caved in to the pressure of a few Berkeley activists, but here's the correction they ran -- which also went into my file, because corrections count against a writer, not that that matters anymore. Golan Heights Winery is NOT in Israel, according to the Chronicle.

Funny, when I visited the winery earlier this year I did so on a bus from Tel Aviv, and I didn't have to cross any borders. But what do I know? I'm not a Berkeley activist.

You can see from this link that even now, five years later, The Chronicle still maintains that Golan Heights Winery isn't in Israel. Contrast that to the way my story in Food & Wine handles its location. Golan Heights is "occupied," but it's "in the country." That's a realistic depiction of a large modern winemaking facility which isn't going to be packed up and moved.

To tell you the truth, Golan Heights head winemaker Victor Schoenfeld got weary of me asking him again and again about the political situation and not about winemaking, a fair complaint considering his winery was the leader in Israel's quality revolution and still makes some of the country's best wines. I was still feeling burned from the Chronicle correction of 5 years ago and didn't want to bring the black cloud of Berkeley zealotry to the offices of Food & Wine magazine.

Part of the reason I'm lifting the curtain on this old inside-newspaper story is to tell you something about how the Middle East is covered in the Bay Area. My story was an apolitical piece about wine and appeared in the Wine section, yet it made everyone who worked on it nervous and it made Chronicle upper management capitulate to outside pressure.

Keep that in mind the next time you read any news features from, er, occupied territory. Oh, and happy Hannukah to you folks there in Syria.


Anatoli Levine said...

Blake, Thank you for the great read!

Mark Cochard said...

What is an add for a cuisinart wine fridge doing here, But FWIW you cna get an 18 bottle fridge for around the same price if you look.

Blake, so how's your head feel since you've been banging it on the wall for the past 5 years. I don't see anything like that here in Philly oh except for the PLCB

Richard Shaffer said...

Actually, I've always thought of Berkeley as "occupied territory" ;)

Thanks for a fascinating read!