Old and new; cheap and expensive; large and small; north and south: This is a list of contradictory opposites, right? Well, kind of. But there is a place where all of these elements come together: the Carmel Winery. First established in 1882 by Baron Edmond de Rothschild, the winery opened in Zichron Ya'acov in 1892. Its grapes come from local vineyards, and from vineyards around the country - from Kayoumi in Upper Galilee to Yatir in the Negev. And though it is over 100 years old, it uses the latest technology along with the oldest, from stainless steel tanks to wooden and concrete barrels. The winery produces mass-market labels, like Selected, and it makes premium wines, like Carmel Limited Edition.
And now, the Zichron location offers a full wine-based experience, from education to tasting to touring. Instead of its old visitors' center-based model (like many wineries have), Zichron has installed a Center for Wine and Culture. It includes a wine shop, a restaurant, two tasting rooms, a small movie theater and a barrel room in a historic underground cellar.
To take a tour, guests have to make arrangements in advance; the tours are for groups of about 10 to 20 people and are run by trained sommeliers.
I recently went to check out the new offerings - and I dragged some friends along. We all left the winery with a newfound appreciation for the old brand. While Carmel earned a rather unfavorable reputation over the years - with its sweet, boiled (mevushal) wines and poor varietals - the winery has turned itself around, to which a number of international awards attest.
We began our tour at the onsite Bistro de Carmel restaurant. Its kosher, dairy, Mediterranean-flavored offerings are served in the building that used to house Carmel's winemaker - it was in use as a home until the 1970s. The restaurant has a wooden deck with a stone oven, plus there are many rooms indoors where diners can sit. Historic photographs grace the walls, and the whole place has a rustic-yet-sophisticated feel. Even if you aren't in the mood to do the full-fledged wine thing, the restaurant is worth a visit if you're in the area.
Bistro de Carmel also has a wine bar where visitors can sample the winery's products (three tastes for NIS 25). We were given a basic rundown: The menu explains each wine in terms that even a novice can understand, with phrases like "rich and complex" and "light and fruity" to describe the various vintages.
After our brunch at the restaurant, we were led to the winery itself. Many places are off-limits to visitors for kashrut reasons - a very conscientious supervisor (mashgiah) is present at all times to make sure no one touches any vats or barrels, which could render the wine not kosher. During the harvest season, the winery can process some 750 tons of grapes per day, which might explain Carmel's annual 15 million-bottle yield. The best fruit is used for Carmel's higher end products, while the other produce goes into the more mainstream juices and wines.
Our guide taught us about Carmel's history, from Rothschild's Chateau Lafite in Bordeaux to his empire in Rishon Lezion and Zichron Ya'acov,
along with its developments through the years.
Some interesting tidbits we picked up include the fact that despite wars and changing regimes - Turkish, British and Israeli - the Carmel Winery has never missed a harvest in all its 130 or so years. Also, three prime ministers worked for Carmel at some point in their lives: David Ben-Gurion, Levi Eshkol and Ehud Olmert. Plus, it turns out that the Hagana hid a weapons cache on top of one of the huge old tanks in Zichron.
Each tour is constructed based on its participants. So for the uninitiated, the basic process of winemaking is explained, from harvest to aging. For people with more background, more detailed explanations are provided about the wines and their individual characteristics.
There is one cellar where visitors are welcome to roam, since its barrels contain brandy - which isn't subject to the same kashrut rules as wine. Some sessions are even held in that barrel room for an authentic feel. The other option for tasting sessions is in a slightly more modern-looking room, with a long table and air conditioning. Each wine is presented with an explanation before guests taste it.
Across from that modern tasting room is a small movie theater. If it is arranged in advance, a wine-themed movie (like Sideways) can be added to your experience for a bit more flavor - though flavor is something that the Wine & Culture experience does not lack. How could it, considering the winery's colorful past and historic location? n