Israeli Wine, From The Inside
Thu, 02/28/2013
Special To The Jewish Week
Adam Montefiore
Adam Montefiore

‘Israeli wine is an amazing story,” says Adam Montefiore, the wine development director of the Carmel Winery, Israel’s largest wine producer. “Jews came to this land, made the desert bloom, started planting vineyards, making wine, and in doing so began reclaiming their heritage and reviving this ancient wine producing region.”

This is, Montefiore notes, “partly the Zionist dream come true.”

To get a deeper understanding of the Israeli wine industry and the current state of the market, The Jewish Week approached Israeli wine industry insiders to hear their perspectives.

The Israeli wine industry is “on the most incredible journey,” says Montefiore, “and it’s happening very fast, and it’s onwards and upwards; the quality is getting better all the time.” Significantly, “the recognition that Israel is getting among international wine critics is getting better and better as well, and is a product of hard work and deep commitment.”

Uri Ran, general manager of the boutique Tzora Vineyards winery, agrees: “The first time Robert Parker [of The Wine Advocate] tasted Israeli wines was only in 2008. So what, before that Parker didn’t know there was a country called Israel that makes quality wine?” Building a regional reputation, Ran explains, takes time.

France has hundreds of years of winemaking tradition, he notes; they’ve had a long time to figure out what grapes work best with which plots of land. Israel has only begun to take this issue seriously since the early 1980s, after the Golan Heights Winery began what is now universally acknowledged as Israel’s wine “quality revolution.” So, comparatively, Israel is moving quickly. “Critical international recognition takes time; it’s generally a slow process, but we are getting there,” says Ran.

Industry insiders consistently say that retrospection and relativity are essential when considering the qualitative leaps the industry has taken. “When we began the wine quality revolution in Israel,” notes Victor Schoenfeld, chief winemaker at the Golan Heights Winery, “we were producing a product for a market that didn’t yet exist. There was no demand for it.”

Back in the early 1980s, just a few years before the “revolution,” the picture was very bleak.

Reflecting back to the start of his more than years in the Israeli wine industry, Ed Salzberg, chief winemaker for the Barkan Winery, Israel’s second largest producer, paints the picture starkly: In 1981, “the largest selling wine was Grenache Rose” he notes, “which was consumed in the Romanian tradition, mixed with soda water – a ‘spritzer.’” Back then the goal was quantity and volume, not quality, and certainly not premium Bordeaux type wines. “The demand for red wine was slight,” he notes, “except for sweet ‘sacramental’ wine.”

Then in 1983 the Golan Heights Winery began producing Bordeaux varietal wines, 100 years after the industry was first reborn in Israel, and things began to change rather quickly.

As Salzberg recalls, part of the great accomplishment of the Golan Heights Winery was not merely the creation of dry table wines that finally reached an internationally acceptable standard, but also the fact that it “created the perception of quality Israeli wine.” This, in turn, “forced the entire industry to follow suit,” planting better quality grapes in better matched locations, and to reinvest in production technologies. “Most remarkable of all,” adds Salzberg, this quality revolution “generated awareness among the general public that such a thing” as quality Israeli table wines “existed at all.” Between the producers making better wine, and consumers slowly wanting to drink quality, the industry changed.

A decade later, this same dynamic led to the so-called boutique wine revolution of the 1990s. “In short,” as Salzberg put it, “the growth of the modern Israeli wine industry went hand in hand with a transition from a society trying to build a state, to a society looking to appreciate the better things in life.”

“I was running a successful Italian restaurant in Jerusalem [Mamma Mia],” recalls Eli Ben-Zaken, “and started growing wine as a hobby because I wanted something homegrown decent enough to serve with food. It was never a dream to become a major wine maker.” He planted his vines in 1988 in the Judean Hills, harvested his first vintage in 1992, and released his first wine in 1995. Thus was born the Domaine du Castel winery, which is today generally credited with launching Israel’s boutique wine revolution.

Part of this revolution was the rediscovery of the Judean Hills grape-growing region. There are now dozens of Judean Hills-based wineries. Vineyard development has continued at a furious pace, and not just in the Golan and the Judean Hills. Excellent wine grapes are now grown in the Upper Galilee, Judean Foothills, Jerusalem Hills, and now well into the Samaria Mountains. Likewise, a lot of energy and resources have gone into trying to match grape varietals to vineyard locations in the hope of finding true terroir.

Not to be outdone by all this boutique wine activity, the industry giants answered the challenge. “In the 2000s, the big wineries began to pay attention and really came back,” notes Montefiore.

Carmel decided that it too wanted to make quality wine. As Montefiore notes, “They made incredible steps, including planting new vineyards, building new wineries and facilities, including Yatir, to kick-start a whole change of culture and to make truly interesting, high quality wines.” Since Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate began scoring Israeli wines five years ago, for example, 23 different Israeli wineries have had their wines awarded 91 points or more, with Castel and Yatir being the most successful.

Another significant trend is the increase of kosher certification. Within the last 10 years, a growing number of boutique wineries have gone kosher.

“After a decade of production,” notes Gilad Flam, owner and co-founder of the Flam Winery, “we thought, ‘We’re making good wines now; we can look at making it kosher.’” The decision was not, however, so simple for the Flam family. Not being religiously observant meant that the Flams would need to surrender the keys to their own winery and take a hands-off approach to production, a decision that took nearly five years to make.

In the end, the decision was purely financial. The economic argument is clear enough. Around 94 percent of the Israeli wine trade is dominated by the 10 largest producers, all kosher. The next 10 largest are also all kosher. “Not being kosher is a real limitation,” Gilad notes. “When you’re not kosher, you’re basically not operating in the free market — no access to [Israeli] supermarkets, most [Israeli] hotels, and export is very limited.”

Adam Montefiore takes it a step further, by arguing that “kosher” is not a burden: “I believe that Israel is making the best kosher wines and the best variety of kosher wines in the world today.” Israel making kosher wine, he says, is like the Champagne region of France making sparkling wine. “Israel specializes in kosher wine. We shouldn’t be ashamed of it. On the contrary, we should be proud of it.”

Besides, as Sasson Ben Aharon, chief winemaker for Binyamina Winery, dryly points out, “Something like 95 percent of Israeli wine exports is being sold to the Jewish community around the world. The wines are found on kosher shelves in stores, not by regional designation. So non-Jews probably don’t even see them.”  Tzora’s Uri Ran concurs: “Whenever I’m abroad showcasing our wines, people are always surprised by the quality of Israeli wines.”

One of the points of general consensus among industry insiders is that the Israeli wine industry represents some of the best attributes of Israel today: the energy, the vibrancy, the technology, the agricultural genius, the start-up nation ethic. “After all,” adds Montefiore, “30 some odd years ago Israel was known for Jaffa oranges and the kibbutz, and now it’s known for high-tech and wine, but you can’t give a bottle of high-tech as a present.”

“Wine makes sense for Israeli agriculture,” notes Ed Salzberg of Barkan, “because of its low water demand.” Over the last 20 years, he adds, “Israelis have learned how to grow high quality fruit” and make fine wine. For Salzberg, the future seems very bright: “Israelis are very competitive and I believe will hold their own, b’ezrat hashem [‘with the help of God’].”  ◆