You can tell a lot about a culture by the way the language develops. In this
case, you can discover a lot about both viniculture and the changes in Israeli
drinking habits by the fact that the Hebrew Language Academy recently produced a
dictionary of some 220 terms related to wine, from the way it’s grown to the way
There’s no doubt that when it comes to wine, Israeli
tastes have improved with age. In the not-so-distant past, the only real choice
for those seeking kosher Israeli fruit of the vine was the standard sweet
kiddush wine or basic grape juice. Now you can take your pick, with a huge
variety of wines to suit all palates (and budgets).
The “modern” Israeli
wine industry grew from the vineyards of Zichron Ya’acov, planted at the
initiative of the Baron Edmond de Rothschild, just over 150 years ago, but its
roots go back thousands of years. Grapes are one of the Seven Species,
agricultural products mentioned in the Bible as fruit of the land. Mishnaic
sayings include: “Do not look at the vessel, but at what is in it; there is a
new vessel filled with old wine, and an old vessel that does not even contain
new wine.” Rabbinic sages gave us precepts such as Nichnas yayin, yatza sod:
literally, wine enters, a secret comes out (similar to the Latin in vino
Since wine is an essential part of Jewish ritual, hence the
term yayin l’kiddush, rabbis had to be familiar with the process of wine-making
to rule on what could be considered kosher. Rashi, the 11th-century sage, was a
celebrated wine maker in northern France, and the 12th-century
philosopher-physician Maimonides also gave guidance on the subject.
words in the academy’s dictionary naturally reflect this history, including
biblical terms such as eshkol for a bunch of grapes, and mashpe, a word derived
from a term Rashi created from an old Hebrew root, for decanter.
result is a cocktail of terms and influences, although the academy would prefer
that you think of it as a mimzag (from the word lemazeg, to combine).
dictionary has been produced with terms in three languages: Hebrew, English and
French. If the French have a word for it, there’s no reason Hebrew speakers
can’t have one of their own.
Not all the terms sound foreign to
English-speakers; the academy believes that adopting outside influences is also
a part of the way a language grows (one of the reasons its members justify
keeping the name “Ha’akademia Lalashon Ha’ivrit”).
Thus, while aperitif
translates into akdam (from the Hebrew word kodem, first/before), digestif
neatly turns into eftar – which not only adopts the idea of “after,” but is
based on Hebrew root letters that signify being rid of something – and grappa
Some of the catchier terms include otzer yayin (literally
wine curator) for sommelier and besomet (from the Hebrew root letters for
perfume) for aroma.
The first taste of the new dictionary was released in
time for Passover 2009, with a limited batch of words.
(Batch, cuvee in
French, is called atzva in Hebrew). A wine taster, incidentally, is, according
to the academy, a to’em yayin.
Many of the phrases are too specialized to
be of much use on a regular basis, except for connoisseurs and wine snobs, but
I’m looking forward to dropping terms like earthy wine (yayin adamati), plummy
wine (yayin ribati) and elegant wine (yayin hadur) into my conversation at the
dinner table. I also like the idea of an honest wine (yayin
English-speakers who find the Hebrew letter resh hard to
pronounce with the correct rolling sound might find the word v’radrad not only
makes them “blush”; it might make them go red (adom). In fact, without a glass
or two to relax, they might be better off sticking with the more familiar and
I advise caution, also, with a muscular wine
(yayin shriri), and I wouldn’t want to say anything bad about an aggressive
wine. I’ll just note it’s officially known as yayin az and has a stronger body
and aroma than the ordinary table wine, called yayin shulhan in Hebrew (and
known as “plonk” to many of us).
Incidentally, in case beer drinkers are
feeling sour grapes, they can rest assured: Not only do many of the terms in the
academy’s dictionary relate to their favorite beverage, but the word “beer”
appears, keeping its already familiar form: bira.
THERE ARE some 250
wineries in the country, the biggest three being Carmel, Barkan and Golan
Heights, and the cups of local companies run over with praise.
wines are definitely on the map when it comes to international competitions and
guides. Prizes regularly go to wines from places ranging from the Golan and
Upper Galilee (Yarden and Dalton) to the Negev, home to Yattir wines. Not only
does international wine guru Robert Parker like the taste of Israeli wines,
Israelis are becoming familiar with his name, too.
There is a noticeable
change not only in the quality of wines being produced, but also where and how
Israelis are drinking. Wine festivals are now common – the Israel Museum, for
example, has turned its annual summer wine festival into an art form. Many
wineries offer tours and tastings.
American-born hi-tech entrepreneur
Elie Wurtman, who has lived in Jerusalem since 1977, when he was eight years
old, is not content with just observing the revival of Israeli viniculture, he’s
helping develop it through his family’s boutique winery, called Bat Shlomo after
the moshava near Zichron Ya’acov where it is located.
He likens the
changes in the industry to the hi-tech example, learning from Silicon Valley and
Napa Valley, whence Bat Shlomo viticulture and enology specialist Ari Erle
“Science has caught up with the industry,” Wurtman says. “It’s
become more scientific and professional.”
Nonetheless, the industry
relies on the personal touch. When asked how he got into it, Wurtman replies:
“It was a combination of a love of wine and Zionism – the desire to revitalize
the agriculture started by the Baron Rothschild by creating an exceptional
While he notes that Israelis on the whole are not big drinkers,
there is an emerging market for boutique wineries that can provide something
special. His Bat Shlomo label produced 14,000 bottles in 2011, focusing on white
wines – particularly Sauvignon blanc, which is the less usual choice of wineries
in the area.
Every winery has its own story. A couple of years ago, I
visited Tami and Babi Kabalo at the Bellofri farm on Moshav Kidmat Zvi on the
Golan Heights, near Katzrin.
The Kabalos run a tourism enterprise with
its own special flavor, part of which comes from the homemade cheeses and wines.
Among the peculiarly Israeli experiences was a visit to the wine cellar – an old
Syrian bunker now housing rows of bottles carrying the label Ein Nashut, the
name of the Second Temple-period synagogue whose remnants can be seen
It might not be turning swords into plowshares, but developing
peaceful tourism on the Golan Heights has to be better than growing the grapes
of wrath. Particularly in view of the civil war on the other side of the border,
I like to savor the biblical image of every man sitting under his vine and under
his fig tree, without fear.
If you want to drink to that, raise a glass
in the traditional toast: L’haim! To life!