Alan Uchrinscko swirls the 2014 Flam Blanc in his glass, sniffs its aromas and bouquet and takes a sip.
It is a mild March evening, and Uchrinscko is on the patio of Poros, one of the newer restaurants in Market Square downtown, where he serves as assistant manager and sommelier. This is the first chance he’s had to sample the Flam Blanc, an Israeli wine from the Judean Hills region, although Poros has featured the Flam Reserve Syrah on its wine list since the restaurant opened last October.
Uchrinscko savors the taste of the Flam Blanc and then smiles slightly.
“That’s delicious,” he declares. “It’s fantastic. This is a great food wine. It will go nicely with halibut or Chilean sea bass or lobster.”
He tells his wine sales rep and consultant, Heather Abrams, that he would like to add this wine to the Poros menu, which already features three other distinct selections from the vineyards of Israel. In fact, anyone ordering riesling by the glass at Poros — which specializes in foods from the countries surrounding the Mediterranean and Aegean seas — will be drinking an Israeli wine, Gilgal from the Galilee.
While Israel has been promoting itself as a serious player in the wine industry for some time, its offerings are hard to find in mainstream restaurants in Western Pennsylvania. Salt of the Earth, a restaurant operated by chef Kevin Sousa in Garfield that closed last summer, featured three or four Israeli wines throughout its run. The upscale Nemacolin Woodlands Resort has also offered Israeli wines in its restaurants from time to time.
But Poros is one of the only local restaurants that is committed to making wines from Israel a mainstay of its distinctive wine list, which also boasts wines from such unexpected locales as Lebanon, Turkey, Greece and Morocco.
“When Poros was first conceived, we didn’t want it to be exclusively a Greek restaurant,” said Nicholas Rizzo, general manager of Poros, which is part of the Big Y Restaurant Group that also owns Perle, Sonoma, NOLA on the Square and Seviche. “We wanted it to not just represent Greece, but also the surrounding countries of the Aegean Sea and the greater Mediterranean.”
Wanting to feature wines from throughout that geographic area, Rizzo and executive chef and owner Yves Carreau tasted “a couple hundred wines over six months, from all over the region” and chose a varied selection that included wines from countries that are underrepresented on more typical wine lists.
The three Israeli wines at Poros are “selling well,” Rizzo said. “We don’t put a product on our list that we don’t stand behind.”
Uchrinscko has been in the wine business for a long time. Prior to joining Poros, he served as the wine director at Nemacolin, and before that, he worked in the wine business in Manhattan for about 10 years. He is a big fan of Israeli wines, particularly the Riesling, the Syrah and the Yarden pinot noir he offers at Poros.
“The riesling is a sommelier’s riesling,” he explains. “It’s not super sweet, and it’s incredibly food friendly; it goes well with the Middle Eastern spices we use. There is just a hint of sweet.”
The Israeli pinot noir he serves, he said, is “top of the line, made from the best grapes from the best vineyards.”
“The pinot noir from Yarden is outstanding,” agreed John Gratner, an account manager from the Wine Merchant, one of two companies that represent Israeli wines to restaurants in Western Pennsylvania. “It’s used all over the world and scores very well. The quality is so high, there is no reason for a restaurant to not give it a chance on the wine list.”
Looking to increase Poros’ wine offerings from Israel, Uchrinscko met with Abrams from Southern Wine and Spirits to try out a few more varieties last week.
In addition to the Flam Blanc, he was impressed with the Castel C Blanc du Castel, a 2013 vintage chardonnay, which reminded him of a white burgundy he favors.
“This is an exceptional wine,” he said after a few sips. Although it is on the expensive side, he said, he would nonetheless be adding it to Poros’ wine list.
“It’s pretty damn good,” he said.
Abrams liked the Castel too and later pitched it to Casbah wine directror Alyssa McGrath.
McGrath was equally enthusiastic about the Castel, and beginning this week, will be offering it at Casbah, a Shadyside restaurant that specializes in Mediterranean cuisine.
The Israeli wine, she said, is a good match for Casbah’s food.
“What goes together, goes together,” McGrath said. “This wine exceeds expectations.”
While the quality of Israeli wines can stand up to that of other top wine makers of the world, Abrams said, its generally higher price point is often a barrier.
“Israeli wines are underappreciated, but they are also not always cost efficient,” Abrams said. “To get the good wines, you really have to spend.”
Poros and Casbah are the only restaurants in town to which Abrams currently is providing Israeli wines (through the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board). At Poros, the Flam Riesling goes for $12 a glass or $48 a bottle, but the Israeli reds it sells are much more expensive. The Flam Reserve Syrah is $95 a bottle, and the Yarden Pinot Noir is $98.
While not all Israeli wines are certified kosher, the three mainstays on the Poros menu, and the two Uchrinscko just added, are.
“The kosher thing is one of the sticking points,” Uchrinscko said. “When people think ‘kosher,’ they think Manischewitz. They think sweet. But there is nothing about it being kosher that predicates it being sweet.”
In an effort to expand his Israeli selections and to learn more about better Israeli wines, Uchrinscko studies the wine lists of top restaurants in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, he said. He also has read one of the definitive books about Israeli wine, “Rogov’s Guide to Kosher Wines,” by the late Israeli wine expert Daniel Rogov.
Although local sommeliers are not yet flocking to the wines of Israel, Uchrinscko and McGrath are not the only ones on the local restaurant scene who appreciate them.
Sousa, who is primed to open a new restaurant in Braddock called Superior Motors, said he also is planning to offer Israeli wines, based on the positive experience he had when selling them at Salt of the Earth.
“They did very well,” he said. “My style is so eclectic, and I have a fluctuating wine list. Israeli wines will be in that mix.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.