A wine-lover’s life

A wine-lover’s life

Gabriel Geller traces his passion from Switzerland through Israel to New Jersey

Gabriel Geller (Tzvi Simcha Cohen Photography)
Gabriel Geller (Tzvi Simcha Cohen Photography)

Wine is a complicated thing.

It can be sweet, sticky, and reminiscent of seders long past; it can be complex, sophisticated, demanding both sensual and intellectual attention. It can make drinkers happy, it can help them let go of the top layer of self-consciousness that ties their tongues and depresses their wit. It also can make them  drunk.

Wine brings out all kinds of silly rhapsodizing. By the time people get through describing it — as tasting not only like chocolate and berries and the Caribbean at midday but also like charcoal and tar and dust and spitballs (I made that last one up) — sometimes it’s hard to want to drink something described with those words, at least without laughing.

And that would be a mistake.

Like any precious substance, wine is to be handled with care. When it is used properly, when it is drunk with care and reverence and attention and pleasure, it can give great joy.

Gabriel Geller, who lives in Teaneck, knows a great deal about wine. He’s now the director of communications and media management for Royal Wine, the huge Bayonne-based wine manufacturer, importer, and distributor that has changed the world’s impressions of kosher wine.

Mr. Geller’s background — this is the third continent he’s lived in, and his family’s history is as unusual as his job — is fascinating.

He was born in 1985, in Switzerland. As much as we know about Jews in Europe — and given that most of the local Jewish community can trace its roots back there — we don’t often think about Swiss Jews.

That’s because there haven’t been that many of them. The community’s hardy, but it’s not large. “What’s very interesting about it is that consistently over the past 50 or so years, there have been about 18,000 Jews in Switzerland,” Mr. Geller said. “Despite the fact that things have changed over the last few decades, that number has remained stable.” But it’s not always been the same people. “As of a few years ago, Switzerland had the highest proportion of olim to Israel per capita in the world,” he said. “I would say that the reason is Zionism. I don’t think that anti-Semitism is really a factor in it. There is some anti-Semitism there, of course, but not nearly as much as you see in other countries.” Instead, Swiss Jews make aliyah not to flee Switzerland — not to leave for any negative reasons — but instead for the positive good of living in Israel.

Gabriel Geller stands in Royal Wine’s conference room in Bayonne. He’s holding a three-liter bottle of Barons Edmond & Benjamin de Rothschild Haut-Médoc 2000. It’s kosher, of course. (Shira Hershowitz)

Before anyone could leave the country, however, they had to get there first.

Mr. Geller’s history there goes way back. “My paternal great-grandparents came to Switzerland from Galicia at the end of the 19th century,” he said. His mother, Anne-Marie Dreyfuss, was French; “she was born and raised in Paris, and moved to Geneva with her parents, Leon and Hélène Dreyfuss, in the 1970s.”

So how did Leon and Hélène get to Paris?

Leon’s family was from Strasbourg, in Alsace, which has moved between French and German control over history. Hélène was from Poland. “The Jewish community in Strasbourg was very racist,” Mr. Geller said. “It was anti-Sephardic and anti-Polish Jews.” (There were far more Polish Jews than Sephardim in western Europe at the time.) “It was worse for someone from that community to marry a Sephardic Jew or a Polish Jew than a goy. So my grandparents” — Leon and Hélène — “got married by themselves, with just the rabbi. No family would come, because she was Polish. My grandfather was put in cherem.” He was an outcast. A pariah. “They didn’t talk to him for years.”

Mr. Geller doesn’t know why his grandmother moved to France, but he does know that it was a wise move. “All of her family in Poland died in Auschwitz,” he said.

World War II started, and “my grandfather, Leon, was in the French army,” Mr. Geller said. “He was taken to a labor camp in Germany for French soldiers in 1942,” Mr. Geller said. His captors didn’t know he was Jewish. “My grandmother, and my uncle and my aunt, who were much older than my mother, hid in a house in the mountains in the south of France.” When the war was over, Leon Dreyfuss made his way back to France, and somehow he and Hélène and the children found each other.

Despite the drama, trauma, and tragedy of their lives, the family flourished. “My grandfather was an accountant, a CPA, but he worked mainly managing a foundation called Pica.” The foundation’s full name was the Palestine Jewish Colonization Association, and it “was the foundation of the Baron Rothschild, in France, that managed all the philanthropy that the Rothschilds did in Israel since the 19th century.

“They did a lot of work on the infrastructure in Israel, in agriculture, in academia, in so many areas.” Famously, and perhaps not coincidentally, the Rothschilds planted vineyards and established the winery called Carmel. Both Pica and Carmel still flourish today.

Given his job, it perhaps is not surprising that Leon Dreyfuss went to Israel often, even before the war. He’d travel there by boat, his grandson said.

“He ran Pica until the late 1970s or the early 1980s,” Mr. Geller said.

Mr. Geller’s paternal grandparents, Hermann and Arlette Geller are in Lausanne, circa 1975.

Mr. Geller’s father’s family had been in Strasbourg for generations. His great-grandfather invested money, particularly but not only in real estate. He did well. “During the war, my great-grandfather sold many of his assets for jewelry,” Mr. Geller said. Jewelry is portable in a way that buildings and land are not. That allowed him to preserve most of his wealth.

“My mother owns a diamond bracelet that is one of the items that my great-grandfather bought,” he added. Has he ever seen that bracelet? “Yes. Once. At my sister’s wedding.” The rest of the time, it stays in a vault.

Mr. Geller’s parents, Anne-Marie and Bernard, met in college, at a Jewish students’ event in 1974. She lived in Geneva, and he lived in Lausanne, 50 miles away. Both are fluent in German Hebrew, but their native tongue, like their children’s, is French.

Bernard Geller was a lawyer. “He had a successful career from the 1970s until he retired on January 1, 2012,” Mr. Geller said. “My mother was a part-time teacher, who spent her entire career working at the Jewish school in Lausanne.” She also translates books, mainly but not entirely from Hebrew to French.” Her most successful project — a highly successful project — was “the first translation into French of Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed,” her proud son said.

January 1, 2012, was a day of transition for the whole Geller family. On that day, the day Bernard Geller retired, he and Anne-Marie made aliyah. “They’ve lived in Jerusalem for the last nine years, and my father decided to become a lawyer also in Israel,” Mr. Geller said. “It’s a very different legal system, so he had to start from scratch. He did. He passed the bar. He’s a licensed lawyer in Israel.” Now he works pro bono, “providing legal advice to new immigrants.”

The whole family eventually made aliyah, but not all at once. Hermann and Arlette, Bernard’s parents, went first.

Then Gabriel’s oldest sibling, his sister Esther, went to Israel when she was 15. She came back when she was 16.” But then, at 24, she made aliyah on her own terms, and she lives in Israel today.

“My brother, David, is six years older than I am, and when he was 15, he moved to Israel by himself, although our grandparents did live there too. He went to boarding school, so during the week he lived at school and on weekends he was with our grandparents.

“I wanted to do the same thing, and my brother encouraged me to do it when I was 14, instead of waiting until I was 15, the way he did.” That’s so he could start high school with everyone else, instead of trying to break into established cliques a year later.

Mr. Geller’s paternal grandparents, Hermann and Arlette Geller around 1960 in the Swiss Alps.

“And my parents agreed. So when I was 14, I moved to Israel.”

Mr. Geller and his wife, Yael, have a 3 1/2-year-old, a son named Shmaya. How would he feel if his son moved across the world in about 10 years, following his Zionist passion? Mr. Geller hesitated. “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know how I would feel if it came from a good place. But I don’t think that my wife would like it…”

After he graduated from high school, Mr. Geller went straight to college. Because he was not yet an Israeli citizen — that didn’t happen until 12 years later — he did not go into the IDF. “I studied business administration and marketing, and then I changed schools and studied and graduated in political science and international relations from the Open University of Israel,” he said. It’s a public university that works with students who want to work instead of being full-time students; even before covid many of its classes were online rather than in-person.

Because of the way the school operated, “I had a lot of free time,” Mr. Geller said. He’s entrepreneurial; when he was in high school, back home in Switzerland on summer break, he’d worked for a Swiss wine importer. That importer gave him a job when he was in college.

The importer was Jewish, but most of the wines he sold were not kosher. “But he sold a few kosher Israeli wines, originally as a service to the local Jewish community, and then he realized that the vast majority of sales were not to Jews. People were interested in it because the wines were of good quality, reasonably priced, and interesting.”

“That’s when I became interested in wine,” Mr. Geller said. “I went from just liking wine to growing my nose” — his ability to taste and assess — “and my understanding of wine.

“So they hired me to find Israeli wineries that would like to export wine to Switzerland. I went to all the wineries in Israel, all the professional tastings and trade conferences.

“That’s how I grew a lot of network connections in the Israeli and kosher wine industry. I was paid very well to do that work, and I really enjoyed it, and I learned.”

After he finished college, Mr. Geller spent a year in the United States, working in the Peninsula Hotel, a high-end hotel in Beverly Hills, learning about the hospitality industry. “It was very fancy, and had nothing to do with wine,” he said. “I did guest relations there. But I wanted to go back to Israel.”

Soon, he did go back; he and a friend opened a wine store in Jerusalem. “It was called the Wine Mill, because of the windmill in Rehavia,” the store’s neighborhood, he said. The store lasted for only a few years — his business partner got married and lost focus — but through his range of experiences, topped off by his time retailing wine, a bottle at a time, Mr. Geller realized that he’d found his professional home. It was in the wine world.

Hélène & Léon Dreyfuss, Mr. Geller’s maternal grandparents, are in Lausanne around 1990.

He returned to consulting. He also joined an online English-language forum about kosher and Israeli wine run by Daniel Rogov, “who was basically the Robert Parker of the Israeli and kosher wine world,” Mr. Geller said. Mr. Rogov, who had written for Haaretz, died in 2011, “and the forum he had slowly died too.” But that started him thinking about the power of online groups.” (And speaking of Robert Parker, the famous wine critic and reviewer began to include Israeli wine — and rate it highly — in his Wine Advocate in the mid 2000s. Since then, other popular wine reviewers also include Israeli wines in their lists.)

“The turning point was about seven years ago, when I opened a Facebook group about kosher wines called Kosher Wine Sharing and Experiences,” Mr. Geller continued. “The goal was to discuss kosher wines, provide opinions, and share information with a like-minded group. It was for centralized crowd-sharing information.

“The group grew very quickly. In a year, we were up to a couple of thousand members. I had two groups — one in English, and one in French — and together we had 11,000 members. It became the largest online forum about kosher wine.

“In 2015, I noticed a girl on the Facebook group,” Mr. Geller continued. “We started communicating via private messages. We went through many conversations, and then I told her, ‘If you’re really serious, let’s meet up.’

“She was based in New York, and I lived in Israel, and I wanted to do this seriously and with a long-term vision. So I managed to get myself a wine consulting gig for an Israeli winery in New York for a few months.

“I moved here in 2015.

“We’d never met in person, so I asked her out on a date and we met for real.” Yes, readers, of course the girl in New York was Yael. “We went to a restaurant in Queens, and it clicked. Maybe six, seven weeks later we got engaged, and three months later we got married.

“So we met through wine.”

Yael has a master’s degree in public health and has worked for medical practices at Mount Sinai and for the American Association for Tourette’s Syndrome. Since she had Shmaya — and of course since the pandemic — she’s worked from home, as a freelance wine writer and social media manager.

Gabriel had come to the United States working for a winery, but “Royal Wine, which was the importer for the winery, said, ‘Why are you working just for that winery, when you could work for all of them?’ So they made me an offer. That was more than five years ago. Since then, I’ve worked for Royal Wine, and we live in Teaneck.”

Arlette and Hermann Geller are in Netanya in 2000.

He’s enthusiastic about Royal Wine and he’s always promoted Israeli wine, “first to the Jewish world, and now to the world at large,” he said. “Israel is an emerging wine country, with interesting wines.”

Israel also is a small country that nonetheless seems to include an almost ludicrous number of microclimates, kinds of soil and amounts of sunlight, and wind and rain and snow and blistering sun. That means that all kinds of grapes can be grown and wines can be created there. At least until recently and perhaps still today, Israeli wine-drinkers have to grapple with the incorrect assumption that its country’s wine is the sickly sweet rot-gut that might be found on Skid Row. It also has to deal with all kinds of notions of how wine is made kosher — no, it’s not boiled until its flavor vanishes and it becomes hot grape juice.

So there’s a lot going on there, both good and bad.

Mr. Geller knows all about that.

“My goal is to promote wine as a culture, as it is understood in France, Spain, Italy, and many other countries around the world. It’s not just something that you drink at a party, but something that is part of culture and history.

“The goal is to democratize wine, as a cultural beverage. Not to drink it to get drunk — although you can get drunk — but because it is a complex beverage the represents the culture and history of wherever it comes from.

“Israeli wine has a rich, multicultural history. The ancient roots of Israeli wine go back thousands of years, and I think that every wine shares a little bit of that culture and history.

“Daniel Rogov used to say that when you open a bottle of wine, you open 5,000 years of culture and history.

“Wine should not be just a luxury. It is something that you can integrate as part of your daily diet. If you believe that drinking wine in moderation is good for you — some studies say that it is, others do not — then you can do that. There are a lot of good wines, including Israeli and kosher wines, that you can drink every day, and other wines that are more expensive, for special occasions.

“It really is a drink like no other.”

Arlette and Hermann Geller are in Jerusalem in 1995.

That true thing said, it also is true that it’s unlikely that the wine that biblical characters drank would be either recognizable or palatable to us, he said. “It probably had little in common with the wine we have today. The way they it was made then doesn’t sound particularly appealing.”

Mr. Geller explained how kosher wine is made. “From the moment the grape is crushed until it is wine, it can be touched only by Sabbath-observing Jews,” he said. If it then is made mevushal — if it is flash heated and pasteurized — anyone can touch it. “Mevushal wines used to taste terrible, but with modern techniques that has completed changed,” Mr. Geller said. “The vast majority of those wines are very good. And no one could tell that they are flash pasteurized just by tasting it.”

Mr. Geller gave a quick history of Israeli wine. “It started taking off in the early 1980s,” he said. “There were a few wineries, like Carmel, established in the 19th century, but for the most part until the late ’70s they made sacramental kiddush wine. It was sweet and syrupy, like Manischewitz and Kedem. At the end of the ’70s, Carmel made the first dry cabernet sauvignon, aged in barrels, following modern wine-making protocol, and it was very successful.

“At the same time, they were not very successful in following through and keeping the momentum going. Just a few years later, in 1983, the Golan Heights winery was founded, with equipment and knowledge and winemakers from the University of California at Davis. They started winning awards right away.

“This is how modern Israeli winemaking started. There were many wineries started in the following years. There was a big boom in the early 2000s, and now there are more than 300 wineries in Israel.

“About 100 of those wineries are kosher, and those 100 wineries make about 95 percent of all Israeli wine.”

He talked about the country’s many microclimates. “They’re within a short drive of each other,” he said, and offer winemakers the opportunities to experiment with exactly what grape grows best exactly where, and which style to produce. “They have had a lot of success already, and they’ve made a huge amount of progress in a short time. It’s still a very young industry, and there still is a lot of room for improvement, but there is a lot of good stuff already.”

Israel is known for its science and technology, and the wine industry uses it. “That’s a big part of Israeli winemaking,” Mr. Geller said. Some of it is in the service of religious observance. “There are interventions that have to be made to the wine during the wine-making process, and sometimes it would have to be done on Shabbat, but that’s not possible. So now winemakers have been able to use technology to make it automatic, and to schedule operations that can be done by robots, so there is no need for human intervention on Shabbat and holidays.”

Kosher winemaking has taken off around the world, at least to some extent the result of the growing sophistication of kosher-keeping wine drinkers. There are now almost 4,000 different kosher wines made every year.

“Kosher wine consumers have become used to the fact that kosher wine can be very high quality, and there is demand for it from every well-known region — not only Israel, of course, but also from France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, and Germany; from California; from New Zealand and Australia; from Argentina, Portugal, and Chile; from South Africa.”

Gabriel Geller perches on a carton of wine at Royal Wine’s warehouse in Bayonne. (Shira Hershowitz)

Why is Bartenura kosher, and why is there so very much of it? Because Bartenura, which is made in Italy, started as an inexpensive kosher wine, Mr. Geller said. It became extremely popular; of the approximately 700,000 cases it sells each year, most go to people who do not keep kosher but like the wine for its taste, its price, and its availability.

One the other hand, “some of the greatest wineries, in France, Italy, California, and Argentina, among other places, produce kosher versions of their wine,” he added; those wines include Châteaux Giscours, Pontet-Canet, Malartic-Lagravière, Padis, Marciano Estate, Riglos, Tassi, and Flechas de Los Andes.

How does that work? “The idea for it usually comes from Jewish wine makers, who say ‘Let’s make kosher wine together. We will bring the logistics, and we will make it happen.’”

Those logistics include people — they must be shomer-Shabbat Jews, remember — and the supplies they need. “It is very labor intensive, and very expensive,” Mr. Geller said. “It’s very complicated — but they have been doing it for 30 years now, and they’re doing great.”

Overwhelmingly, the kosher wines taste like their non-kosher counterparts. “In the vast majority of the time, it is very similar,” Mr. Geller said. “Someone who is not trained could not tell the difference.

“I can tell differences, but they are very subtle. Sometimes it seems like the kosher wine is better; more often it seems like the non-kosher wine might be a little bit superior, but in a very subtle way, that no one without training could notice at all.”

One of the many changes this pandemic year has forced is the migration online of what until now have been densely packed in-person meetings, conferences, and celebrations. That includes Royal Wine’s Kosher Food and Wine Experience, which has offered food, wine, and community for 15 years. “We decided to do a virtual event instead,” Mr. Geller said. “People had the opportunity to order tastings of 25 different wines — small samples, 100 milliliters each, which is two or three small pours — of the greatest kosher wines from all over the world. Most of the stuff is high end.” The package — which is sold out — was sent to buyers’ homes.

“And there will be a live show broadcast, with a lot of surprises, as well as videos about the wines and cooking demos with famous chefs.” Tickets are free. Information and free tickets are online at thekfwe.com.

The show is on Sunday, February 21, and begins at 5:30 p.m.

“I hope we won’t have to do it like this again next year,” Mr. Geller said. “But we’re trying to make up for the lack of an in-person show this year.”

And of course, whether or not you’ve bought the official testing set, viewers are invited to open a bottle of wine, relax, and watch the show.

What: Royal Wine’s Kosher Food and Wine Virtual Experience

When: Sunday, February 21 at 5:30 pm

Information and free tickets: Online at thekfwe.com

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