At one time, the two-word phrase “Israeli wine” was synonymous with the sweet, sacramental wines that were ubiquitous in Jewish homes around the world. But in the early 1980s, the quality of Israel’s wines began to improve, the number of commercial wineries increased and the Israeli wine revolution was under way.
Today, that revolution is still going strong, and the number of quality Israeli wineries continues to rise. In the last decade alone, more than 100 wineries have opened all over Israel, from the Negev Desert in the south of the country to the Golan Heights in the north.
Behind the success of this Israeli wine revolution is a growing cadre of talented, innovative young winemakers and vintners, many of whom have given up more lucrative careers in order to follow their passion.
One of the lesser-known members of this group is Yaakov Berg, the 43-year-old vintner and winemaker at the Psagot winery in the Judean Hills. Berg, who trained as a lawyer, got his start in the wine trade after planting a small vineyard at the site of his current winery.
“The first year’s [crop] I sent to Barkan [winery]. ... I took the grapes there in a little truck and loaded it [into the grape crusher] myself,” Berg says. After selling that first crop, Berg decided “that for us it would be much, much more interesting [and] better to make the wine ourselves.”
In the following year, 2002, Berg started what would become the Psagot Winery, which is named for the settlement in which the winery is located. At about the same time, while the settlement was laying a road near the vineyard, “we found a little hole in the ground. If was full of mud and rocks and stones. ... So we dug for more than a month by hand and we found a lot of things, including a lot of coins, and at end we found a wine [press] from the time of the Second Temple.” Today, this cave is used as the winery’s barrel cellar.
While as a winemaker Berg is primarily self-educated, he did spend a year working at wineries in Australia, and has taken several courses on winemaking and wine chemistry in Israel. Berg sees his approach to winemaking as a combination of old and new world styles.
“We’re trying to combine between the new world — the best equipment, the best technology, the best barrels — and on the other side we’re taking from the old world the tradition. We’re trying to show you that when you taste our wines you can recognize the community [where the grapes are grown], that you can taste and really smell the land when you drink the wine.”
When he launched his business, Berg faced real challenges establishing his vineyard and winery. He chose to plant his vineyard on solid limestone, which required him to drill holes in the ground in which to place the roots of each plant. Also his vineyard and winery are located in the West Bank, and during the intifada this led to real security risks. In the early years of the winery “at harvest time we’d come into the vineyards, [and] when we walked into the fields [the Palestinians] would shoot. It was really a big problem to find workers [to harvest the vineyard], because everyone was afraid.”
Today, the vineyard is a bit more peaceful, and according to Berg it no longer has problems with snipers. In fact Berg, along with his wife, Naama, and their three children, now live in a World War II-era, U.S.- built cargo rail car, which Berg placed in the middle of the vineyard. “We like living there very much. When I open the door I see my vineyard, and I don’t have any neighbors. For me, it’s the best way to live.”
Currently, Psagot produces about 80,000 bottles of wine annually, primarily from Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Chardonnay and Viognier grapes, and the winery is in the process of constructing a $1 million visitors’ center. Yet for Berg, the winery is more than just a commercial enterprise, it’s the re-establishment of a millennia-old tradition.
“Two thousand years ago, Israel was perhaps the best wine exporter in the ancient world. And today we came back to our lands and believe we can recreate the best wines in the world.” This challenge, Berg says, has also become his life’s work.
Gamliel Kronemer writes the monthly Fruit Of The Vine Koser wine column in The Jewish Week. For more information about Yaakov Berg and the Psagot Winery, please visit the winery’s Web site, www.psagotwines.com. Psagot wines are distributed in the U.S. by the Royal Wine Corp.