Wine Talk: A family, a place, a wine... and me

Moses Montefiore built his iconic windmill in 1857.

July 22, 2019 18:55
Wine Talk: A family, a place, a wine... and me

THE JERUSALEM Wineries dream team: (from left) winemaker Sam Soroka, marketing manager Carmit Ehrenreich and CEO Erez Winner.. (photo credit: SARA DAVIDOVITCH)

I was thrilled to be invited recently to Mishkenot Sha’ananim to give a lecture and tasting to foreign ambassadors resident in Israel. This meant a great deal to me because there is nowhere else where threads of family, wine, a particular place and my personal story, all converge in one place. So, forgive me for indulging myself.

Mishkenot Sha’ananim was founded by the Englishman Sir Moses Montefiore. He was a humanitarian, campaigner for Jewish emancipation, forerunner of Zionism and the world’s unofficial ambassador for the Jewish people. His coat of arms featured a lion holding a pendant with Jerusalem written on it... an idea since adopted by the Jerusalem Municipality. He traveled to Israel seven times, riding in his small carriage, the last time at the advanced age of 91!

Montefiore had purchased the land in 1855. The area was stony and bare, apart from olive trees and wild vines, so he named it Kerem Moshe v’ Yehudit – Moses and Judith’s Vineyard. (Judith was his wife.) This was to become the cornerstone of modern Jerusalem, being the first neighborhood outside the Old City Walls of Jerusalem. Kerem Moshe was renamed Mishkenot Sha’ananim in 1860, and the second, larger part was renamed Yemin Moshe in 1892.

Appropriately for someone born in Tuscany (Livorno) and brought up in London (then the center of the world’s wine trade), Moses Montefiore was a wine lover, who drank a bottle of wine every single day and lived to his 101st year! His preferred tipple was Port, the fortified wine from Portugal. The family folklore says that in the hours before he passed away, he drank three glasses of port. Seems to me the right way to go.

We know from their diaries that Moses and Judith were passionate tourists and their love of wine is quite apparent throughout. Everywhere they went in Israel, they were presented with wine. “Hebron wine” is mentioned a great deal. This was probably from grapes grown in Arab-owned vineyards near Hebron, using local varieties like Hamdani, Jandali, Dabouki, and made by wineries such as Ginio, Shor and Teperberg, amongst others. The Montefiores also purchased wine in small casks as souvenirs. This was before the world of glass bottles, brands, labels and kashrut certificates.

WINE LOVER Sir Moses Montefiore would be amused that his windmill has become a winery tasting room. (Credit: YAKIS KIDRON)

Montefiore was captivated by the scenery here, and mentions vineyards many times in his diaries. He wrote, “The mountains are cultivated in terraces and planted to the summit with vines and olives... it would be impossible to travel through a richer or more beautiful country.” This was about the same time Mark Twain called the Holy Land “a desolation!”

WAY BACK in 1839, Montefiore had said that the poor Jewish community should work instead of living off charity. He was the first to recommend a return to agriculture. The purchasing of both the orchard in Jaffa (now the Montefiore Quarter of Tel Aviv) and Kerem Moshe in Jerusalem, followed by the building of the windmill, were all part of this. David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, who once worked at Rishon Le Zion Cellars, referred to Montefiore as one of the father figures of Jewish agriculture in the 19th century. Interestingly, he also referred to the Damascus Affair of 1840, where Montefiore was one of the main players, as the true beginning of Zionism.

Montefiore suggested people should plant vines and olive trees to get a taste for agriculture and yet, the planting of Jewish vineyards only began in earnest from 1882. This was with the finance and expertise of Baron Edmond de Rothschild. Montefiore was the neighbor, business partner and brother-in-law of Nathan Mayer Rothschild and uncle of Nathaniel Rothschild, who purchased Chateau Mouton Rothschild, one of the world’s most famous wineries, in 1853.

Montefiore did not have any children. His chose his favorite nephew, Joseph, son of his sister, as his heir, and the Sebag Montefiore family was born. Sir Joseph Sebag Montefiore was my great-great-grandfather. He accompanied Moses on his last two visits here. When Yemin Moshe was founded, he was a signatory in the agreements for the new tenants.

As far as family roots are concerned, the Montefiores came from the Marche and Romagna regions of Italy, moved to Livorno and then to England. The Sebags hailed from Mogador, now known as Essaouira, on the western coast of Morocco. The word Montefiore means “mountain flower” (a Sephardi equivalent to the Ashkenazi “Blumberg.”) The word Sebag refers to the profession of dyers. When I made aliyah with my wife and three children, I was the first from my family to do so. I continued my career in wine, striving to advance Israeli wine. Two of my children, David and Rachel Montefiore, the sixth generation, also worked in the Israeli wine trade.

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu reopens the windmill in 2012, with (fourth from left) mayor Nir Barkat, the writer and brother Simon Sebag Montefiore looking on. (Credit: Sharon Altshul)

Which leads me back to wine. The Shor family is Israel’s oldest wine-producing family. They are still making wine after 170 years. They founded their family winery in 1848 in the Old City of Jerusalem to earn a living. In yet another of the repeated coincidences that connect the dots of this story, the very first evidence of their new profession may be found in the census commissioned by Montefiore in 1849.

In the mid-1940s, before the founding of the state, their business was divided into two to accommodate the growing family. Avraham Meir Shor concentrated on wine and the winery was renamed Zion Winery, and his brother, Moshe Shalom Shor, founded Shimshon Winery, which focused on spirits and grape juice. Both were situated in the same building in the Jerusalem’s Beit Israel neighborhood. A wall separated the two wineries. Apparently, sometimes the all-pervasive smell of arak would seep through to the wine production area.

Moshe Shalom’s sons went on to found Arza and Hacormim wineries. His daughter, Tzippora Shor, founded a winery in 1951 with her husband Yona Mendelson, which they called Shimshon, using the name already in the family. In 1976, Shimshon Winery moved to Atarot in the northern periphery of Jerusalem. It was a winery focused on liquid religion, in other words, grape juice and kiddush wine. In 2006, Ofer Guetta, businessman and entrepreneur, purchased the winery and renamed it Jerusalem Wineries. By then, it was the last remaining winery in Jerusalem.

JERUSALEM WINERIES Montefiore Windmill Yemin Moshe, a prestigious Bordeaux style blend. (Credit: Courtesy)

Jerusalem Wineries grew to become one of the 10 largest wineries in Israel. However, this was not enough for Guetta. He decided to create a new team to bring the winery into the 21st century. He appointed the dynamic Col. Erez Winner as CEO. Winner was previously the assistant to former IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi. He chose Canadian Sam Soroka as winemaker. Soroka has made wine in no less than five different countries: Australia, the US (California), Canada, France and Israel, and is considered one of the best winemakers in Israel. He joined Jerusalem five years ago. Guetta also appointed the experienced and talented Carmit Ehrenreich, formerly of Golan Heights Winery and Galil Mountain, as marketing and export manager. This winning team has managed to put the winery on a new footing.

IN 2019, Jerusalem Wineries opened an innovative tasting room and visitors center at the Montefiore Windmill in Mishkenot Sha’ananim. The windmill was built in 1857 in theory to provide work on the premise: “there is no Torah without flour, and no flour without Torah.” It has become part of the skyline of modern Jerusalem. In 2012, it was renewed and refurbished. It was reopened by the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and my brother, historian Simon Sebag Montefiore (author of Jerusalem: The Biography) represented the family from England, and David, Rachel and I, represented the Israeli part of the family.

In the windmill, there had previously been a small but interesting museum about the life of Moses Montefiore, put together by my cousin. Now Jerusalem Wineries has opened this new wine attraction in the windmill itself. This has brought wine back to Mishkenot Sha’ananim. When I came to Israel, the Mishkenot Sha’ananim Restaurant owned by Moise Peer, was the first to have an international wine list and an extensive cellar.

To commemorate the opening of the tasting room, which must be one of the most unique wine venues in Israel, Jerusalem Wineries launched a series of rare, boutique wines called Montefiore Windmill, primarily for sale to wine lovers and connoisseurs visiting the windmill itself. There are two entry-level wines, a Sauvignon Blanc and Malbec; four Reserve wines: Chardonnay, Shiraz, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon; and finally, a prestige Bordeaux style blend, called Yemin Moshe. The grapes were grown in the high elevation Judean Hills vineyards, at up to 900 meters above sea level. Soils are thin, shallow and stony, on a deep bedrock of limestone. The Montefiore Windmill wines were made in tiny quantities. Each bottle is numbered and signed by the winemaker.

Since I was a child, I have watched how Mishkenot Sha’ananim has been developed in stages by the Jerusalem Foundation to become the cultural center of Jerusalem. It is the place I was starstruck to meet heroes of mine like Teddy Kollek, Yehuda Amichai and Amos Oz. The center is now managed so capably, with style and panache, by Motti Shwartz. There have been many highlights: the literary festivals, the symposium on Moses Montefiore and the reopening of the Windmill.

Now at the Montefiore Windmill you can learn about wine, and taste and buy, while overlooking the Old City Walls.  The story of my family, this particular place and wine are interwoven like the most intricate Havdalah candle. Six generations of the Montefiore family from Moses Montefiore onwards, the place ‘Kerem Moshe –Mishkenot Sha’ananim- Yemin Moshe’ and the wineries ‘Shor-Shimshon-Jerusalem’ span the history of both modern Jerusalem, Israel and Israeli wine.  You can perhaps appreciate how excited I was to tell the story which spans the last 180 years – from Moses Montefiore’s agricultural vision in 1839, to a glass of ice cold Montefiore Windmill Sauvignon Blanc served at the new Jerusalem Wineries Tasting Room in 2019. For me, it was like closing a circle.

The writer has advanced Israeli wines for more than 30 years and is referred to as the English voice of Israeli wine.

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