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Secrets Come Out When Wine Goes In

Chananel Shapiro

William Fevre’s name is synonymous with prize-winning French wine. But what most connoisseurs don’t know is that the eighty-one-year-old Catholic-born vintner, whose fascination with Judaism has made him a patron of little-known Israeli wines, has used his own funds to uncover and reconstruct an ancient Jewish synagogue in Chablis — buried for five centuries in this village once thriving with Jewish winemakers.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Mention “Chablis” and the image conjured up is cocktail hour and clinking glasses filled with chilled white wine. But wine connoisseurs know that true Chablis is only produced from Chardonnay grapes around the town of Chablis in northeast France, and that the Grand Cru, the best vineyards in the area, all lie on one small slope just north of the village. And they know that William Fevre is the man credited with giving real Chablis wines the exclusive status they enjoy today.

While William Fevre’s name is synonymous with prize-winning wine, however, what those connoisseurs don’t know is that the eighty-one-year-old Catholic-born vintner is a lover of Judaism and has used his own funds to uncover and reconstruct an ancient Jewish synagogue — buried for five centuries in Chablis, an area empty of Jews for as long.

Five hundred years of Juif-rein. But on this upcoming Purim, thousands of bottles of kosher wine will be exhibited here in Chablis in the renovated synagogue cellar, courtesy of wine king Fevre himself.

William Fevre was born in Chablis to a famous vintner dynasty that goes back fourteen generations. When he was born, though, the phylloxera epidemic — infestation by the microscopic root louse — nearly destroyed the vineyards of France, and the villagers’ traditional source of livelihood was practically wiped out. His parents, wanting to give him a better chance at life, sent him to Paris for academic studies, but wine was in his blood. He says that when he returned to the vineyards, his father didn’t speak to him for several years.

But in the 1950s, William just knew that something great could be made out of the struggling Chardonnay vines in the abandoned vineyards of Chablis, and began to replant. His efforts were blessed, and until today, the grapes for prize-winning William Fevre wines are still hand-harvested and sorted. And as dedicated as he is to his superlative product, he has another fascination as well — with Israel, the Jewish people, Hebrew, and kosher wine.

While Fevre is a fine conversationalist and a man with vast knowledge, he can’t hear a word we say — he has been deaf from birth. Arye Cohen, a French-speaking Israeli tour guide who initially met Fevre on his 2007 visit to Israel, volunteered to translate.

“I first met Fevre about three years ago, when I received a letter from a Frenchman friend of mine who worked for the Jewish National Fund in France. He told me about a vintner who wished to visit Israel to investigate its wine production first-hand and was looking for a professional guide to take him around.

“I gladly agreed, but not being a maven on wines, I said I would require ten days to bone up on the subject. I bought some books on winemaking, immersing myself not only in the vineyards and winepresses in Israel but also those in France. I learned to my surprise that the name William Fevre, my future client, surfaced often throughout those books. I realized that my French tourist was celebrated throughout the world as the owner of famous wineries, one of which produced a unique white Chardonnay boasting his name on the label that is served in the classiest restaurants.

“During my crash course, it happened that the Israel Museum was holding a wine exhibit, which I visited in order to make contact with Israeli vintners. As soon as I mentioned the name of my client, many of them were flabbergasted. Some had even traveled to France at the beginning of their careers to learn the subject from him firsthand.

“Only then did I begin to realize whom I was dealing with,” says Cohen, “and I began looking forward to this famous vintner’s visit with heightened interest and curiosity.”

 

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