Hoffman wine bar brings wine culture back to Rishon Lezion

3 weeks ago
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The legendary connection between Rishon Lezion and wine dates back to the days when local adventures included fascinating stories of pruning shears and vines.

The cornerstone of the Carmel Mizrahi Winery, Israel’s first winery, was laid in the settlement in 1889, encouraged by Baron de Rothschild and his determined emissaries from France. The vines are proudly intertwined in the city’s emblem, and its branding as the “City of Wine” still holds. Just ask around.

Decades later, the branding remains, but it is more a result of an effective marketing campaign than of a city steeped in wine culture. A drive at the speed limit and a glance at the right corner might meet you with a sign announcing an ancient Byzantine winepress, though its surroundings have succumbed to neglect, now showcasing mostly locked gates that block knowledge, heritage, and city life.

Similarly, the famous red buildings that housed the Carmel Mizrahi Winery are partly an unpreserved heritage site at the corner of Herzl and Carmel streets, partly a somewhat gloomy museum, and partly, inevitably, at perpetual risk from modern real estate plans.

But now, there’s Hoffman. Sometimes, a torch burns as brightly in a small candle.

Retem Lev-Ari’s dream of her own wine bar has been bubbling for twenty years, branching out and almost spilling over to the well-known crossroads of “now or never.” Until now.

Symbolically and fittingly, its realization takes place no more than a five-minute drive from that winery, but Carmel Mizrahi hasn’t finished its historical role. They emerge from the shelves with a charming tray that jumps out at you with its vintage charm, taking her back to her youthful days in the city (“I clearly remember walking down the street with the smell of grapes and wine accompanying me”) and almost protecting her and Hoffman, her maiden name. Protecting and freeing, though it seems she needs neither protection nor liberation.

Hoffman is a small, neighborhood wine bar, intimate in the old-fashioned sense of the word and above all very delicate. A small interior space that knows how to do everything – wine shelves for sale on the right, a small armchair in front, a few high chairs on the left – and a small street it spills into with all these, the bottles and chairs, glasses and pours.

Amidst all this, the design is almost non-existent, the kind that’s very hard to design (just try asking her how long it took her, an experienced graphic designer, to reach the final version of the “Hoffman” inscription on the glass). White walls, a single captivating picture on the wall, warm orange lights, and colorful labels creating a glass exchange party all around.

By the entrance, a photo board waits for your pictures. “The Polaroid works if you want,” she invites. We have countless places that force us to stare at pictures of their people. There aren’t enough places, if any, that ask visitors if they want to be part of it.

The place opens at 12:00 PM as a regular wine shop and continues until around midnight as a wine shop with an ideal added value – choosing, opening, and pouring almost in one motion.

Lev-Ari, who studied the field at London’s WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) and drank it up wherever she could, knew what she wanted. “To bring interesting things” and not to compromise on the 2-for-150 deals, as she defined it, to explore and strive but by no means to educate. “That’s very presumptuous to me, and a bit condescending,” she explained, “I just aim to open people’s minds a bit. It’s a field driven by a lot of pretension, and I’m just trying to dismantle it. You can babble about wine for years, but in the end, it’s all about whether it tastes good or not.”

The prices, accordingly, strike the hot balance aimed at value for money. Accessible, friendly, with the owner’s recommendation to go for a bottle, and at most take it home later. “I’m a bit more expensive than a regular store and much cheaper than a bar,” she described, “I think this is the right place and the right direction.”

Her passion for wine allowed for the inclusion of just one Aperol Spritz (“only for those who don’t drink wine, and even that because it’s essentially a wine-based cocktail”) and red, wintery, spiced sangria, sweet only at the edges. All these are accompanied by a food menu that isn’t a menu and barely food, yet simultaneously exactly the menu this place requires.

It’s a triangle of trays-plates whose sides meet and converse in the same language – one, of course, slices cheeses, Brie and Camembert, and even Brankit’s Sainte-Maure, for example, adding homemade cherry tomato jam. The second cuts charcuterie, Italian pastrami, goose breast, salami, corned beef, and bresaola, mediating mustard and cornichons. And the third stands between with smoked and pickled fish, crème fraîche, and a system of dilemmas wondering where to start. The answer, as usual in these cases, is another small basket, of bread of course, a knife that spreads and cuts and carries on the slice, then goes for another round to pile on more flavors, and into the mouth.

These, with wine, are not the cliché “it’s all you need.” They are exactly what you need. “I have no interest in dealing with a kitchen here, and as far as I’m concerned, let them order Wolt and eat with their bottle,” she emphasized. I think she’s joking, but she’s serious. Or maybe, actually, it’s the other way around. She’s the one laughing and I’m too serious.

Lev-Ari, 45, lives across the street with her three children, in what is probably a challenging walk along the abyss of balancing personal and work life. She opens doors in the morning and closes them at night, writes prices on bottles that arrived today, and writes on the green board what’s open for glasses. Hosting and guiding, advising and suggesting, and also, I tend to think despite the brief acquaintance with her, happy.

“I signed the contract five days into the war,” she recalled, “I signed and went into paralysis. For three weeks I did nothing. It seemed utterly idiotic to deal with this, to talk to people about wine. But when I came to my senses, I felt that people were just waiting for it. Every conversation of mine started with a disclaimer, but they actually told me the opposite, that it’s nice to talk about such things again, and that we can start.”

And so, it indeed began. A month of activity in the center of Rishon Lezion, a few meters from the more bustling Rothschild Street, and she is still trying to decipher her guests, her neighbors, her inspectors.

There are tables of 21-year-olds and older groups, Friday morning parliaments and the date she remembers best – a grandfather, granddaughter, and a bottle of wine. She talks about them with natural excitement because how could she not, and while it happens, you imagine vines and barons, the smell of grapes returning to the air and someone who manages to be the natural bridge between the grandfather’s generation and the granddaughter’s, with a stop in the middle, hers. Rishon Lezion, once again the city of wine.…Read more by By YANIV GRANOT/WALLA!

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