Large US Seafood Restaurant Chain Legal Sea Foods Promoting Israeli Wines

Legal Sea Foods is a well-known chain of seafood restaurants along the eastern seaboard of the U.S. According to Wikipedia, as of August 6, 2014, the group operates 35 restaurants.

Legal, yes. Kosher, no…as their logo suggests.

But what they seem to be are good people. Israellycool reader David reports that he receives email ads from them once in a while, and this is what he received today.


The Negev is high desert, an unlikely place to see grape vines growing 3,000 feet above sea level among almond trees and olive groves.  Israel is full of surprises, but standing next to excavations of ancient stone crush pads near the town of Tel Arad dating back 2,500 years, and caves that had once stored amphorae filled with wine for shipment across the Roman Empire, constituted one of the great thrills of my recent wine tasting visit to the country.  There were similar sites I visited on the Golan Heights, one of which had the remains of a wine press thought to be over 6,500 years old. While I had been fully aware of the deep and abiding connection between the land of Israel, the identity of the Jewish people, and the sanctification of wine at religious ceremonies over the last several thousand years, I in no way expected the amazingly high quality of the wines I experienced.  For a variety of reasons, as I learned, the emergence of the Israeli wine industry in the past few decades has remained off the radar screen of most American wine enthusiasts.  Among the almost 200 wines I tasted throughout the country though, I rated the vast majority as equivalent, if not superior, in quality to what we experience from more familiar wine sources.  For most of the market though, this story is completely unknown, and the wines remain invisible.

It’s always a very exciting experience for me to discover such a wide gulf between perception and reality.  Finding new sources of quality is one way we add value to the dining experience at Legal Sea Foods, whether in our culinary or beverage offerings. Although the production of wine in Israel dates back to Biblical times (with a 1,250 year interruption when the area was under Muslim rule when wine production was prohibited), today when most Americans, even of Jewish background, think of Israeli wine they think first of domestic sweet, non-vinifera-based Kosher wines.  Brands such as Mogen David and Manischewitz, neither of which is Israeli, have traditionally been served in small quantities to bless the weekly Sabbath, and in somewhat larger quantities throughout the annual Passover Seder.  Automatic as they may be, these associations between Israeli and sweet domestic Kosher wines are completely inaccurate.

One question I brought to the country is, “How can a region at such a southern latitude, make high quality wine?” The short answer has to do with the high elevations of many of the vineyards, referred to above, which bring evening temperatures down dramatically in summer (the same reason, by the way, as in Italy, or Argentina).  Another mitigating factor is coastal breezes off the Mediterranean which moderate the heat (the same reason as with coastal California).  The soils, volcanic basalt in the Golan, limestone pebbles in the Judean Hills, are similar to what is found in other classic regions.  The dry climate but plentiful irrigation water encourages low yields (the same as in Chile). And the x-factor is a stubborn determination to find a way to make the desert bloom.  When advisers told Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion that the country’s best scientists felt there was no way they could revive the ancient wine industry and plant grapes in the Negev, his response was, “If an expert says it can’t be done, get another expert.”

Today Israel’s total vineyard area is only about half the size of Napa Valley’s: just over 13,500 acres.  From my tastings, I was most impressed with the grapes originating in the Golanand the Upper Galilee, although there are some fine wines being made in the Judean Hills and the Negev as well.  Most of the wines I tasted aren’t yet imported to the US, and many of those that are come in through small importers who are not distributed widely in the states where we have restaurants.  We chose the following three wines among the remainder, to showcase in our Massachusetts restaurants, and the response so far from diners has been very positive.

Yarden “Katzrin” Chardonnay, Galilee, 2013: Yarden is a brand of the ultra-high quality Golan Heights Winery founded in 1983.  It was Israel’s first winery to make an impact internationally and when the Wine Spectator recently featured Israel on its cover, many of its highest ranking selections were made here.  Yarden is named for the Jordan River (Yarden in Hebrew) which divides the Golan from the Upper Galilee. The vineyard where these grapes originate, in the village of Katzrin near the Lebanese border, is filled with limestone, clay and iron rich terra rossa.  The wine is made by California native Victor Schoenfeld, who immigrated to Israel after studying winemaking at the UC Davis.  The wine is very Burgundian in style, bone dry, with 9 months of new French oak barrel treatment.  It’s delicately smoky, with bread dough like aroma, and a smooth, round, spicy flavor of grilled nuts and citrus.  The lingering minerality makes it an ideal choice for our meatier, richer fish fillets.

Gva’ot Cabernet Sauvignon, Shomron, 2014: Cabernet is Israel’s most planted variety, with 20% of the country’s acreage; Many of the Cabernets that I tasted were disappointing: too hard edged, a bit musty, too much bell pepper.  But when they were good, they were outstanding. Gvaot means hills.  This winery is located again at very high elevations of 2,300 to 2,900 feet in the hills north of Jerusalem.  The summer nights here are cool, locking in great balancing natural acidity.  A small boutique making about 3,000 cases annually, Gva’ot was founded in 2005 by Dr. Shivi Drori (a PhD in molecular biology), this comes from dry farmed grapes, undergoes no fining or filtration and is among the most distinctive Cabernets I tasted. Definitely more Bordelais in style than Californian, it has a deep ruby color, with chocolate, cedar, black cherry aromas and flavors of baked, but highly expressive, ripe dark berries. Leafy, ripe, and somewhat flowery, with moderate tannins, this is a great choice for our tuna steak.

Tulip “Reserve” Syrah, Upper Galilee, 2013: Tulip was one of my most exciting discoveries.  Israel is planting more Syrah and Rhone varieties and some of the most delicious wines I tasted in the country are made from them. 25 years ago they had virtually none of these grapes planted.  High elevations are the key. Founded in 2003, the winery is focused on Syrah, and they make what I consider really delicious renditions in the two vintages I have tasted. Here’s what founder Roy Yitzhaki said about his workers “When I show up to work in the morning, they have a smile on their face and the first thing they do is give me a hug and say ‘I love you,’ so it’s never routine. Every day is filled with warmth and emotion.” Why? Tulip is made at Kfar Tikvah (the village of hope) on a hilltop overlooking the Jezreel Valley that used to be a kibbutz. The residents today are all special needs adults, and they comprise the winery’s work force. As for the Syrah Reserve, it incorporates a small amount of Petit Verdot and is based on two vineyards: Kfar Yuval in the Upper Galilee and Mata in the Judean Hills, both of which have stony clay soils.  After fermentation, the wine ages for 14 months in French oak. Crafted by winemaker David Bar-Ilan (see picture enclosed) the wine has a wild berry, “sauvage,” black pepper, meaty character.  Chewy and rich in texture, it has polished tannins and a lingering finish. Terrific with grilled salmon, this has been our most popular of the three Israeli additions.

The fantastic news is that David Bar-Ilan, Tulip’s winemaker, will be hosting a winemaker dinner for us at the Legal Sea Foods Park Square Wine Cellar as part of our monthly series, on February 9th.  The menu is still under development, but if this is something that interests you, please reach out to me at and I will provide you with more information.

Sandy Block

At a time when so many businesses are doing the wrong thing and boycotting Israeli products. it is truly refreshing to see a large one like this going out of their way to promote Israeli wines – especially those from the Golan, Judea and Samaria.

I can’t encourage my fellow Jews to eat at Legal Sea Foods since they are not kosher, but I do encourage all my non-Jewish ones to do so!


David Lange

A law school graduate, David Lange transitioned from work in the oil and hi-tech industries into fulltime Israel advocacy. He is a respected commentator and Middle East analyst who has often been cited by the mainstream media

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