Eli Ben-Zaken lives and breathes his daytime job. That's not to say he's a workaholic, it's more a matter of a labor of love and hard-earned success.
Ben-Zaken is founder of the award-winning Domaine du Castel winery at Moshav Ramat Raziel. While, at 65, he no longer bears the title of CEO - that was conferred on his younger son Ariel a few years ago - when I arrived at the winery on a rainy morning earlier this week, Ben-Zaken was carefully overseeing the destemming process as freshly picked grapes arrived from nearby Kibbutz Tzova.
"Top of the line," Ben-Zaken informed me simply, referring to the sleek Italian machine that separated the fruit from the stems. Typically the man wasn't seeking to impress, just providing enlightenment on the way things run at the winery. "We knew we wanted to invest in good machinery from the start. You don't want to leave the stems in because that would add a bitter taste to the wine, and you don't want to crush the pips either, for the same reason."
As we chatted over cappuccino in the pleasant visitors' room, Ben-Zaken spoke about the winery and recounted a life story that seems tailor made for a Hollywood drama or even a Broadway musical.
Consider the bare facts. Ben-Zaken was born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1944. His mother was born in Italy, and his father was of Moroccan and Syrian extraction. "Although my father was second-generation Egyptian, he wasn't recognized as Egyptian because he was Jewish. I believe the Syrian side of the family was well known," Ben-Zaken notes. And the cosmopolitan plot thickens. The Italian-Moroccan-Syrian mix was further seasoned by some Slovenian and Austro-Hungarian influences on Ben-Zaken's maternal grandmother's side.
Like other "non-Egyptians," Ben-Zaken and his family had to leave Egypt in the wake of the Suez Canal showdown in 1956. "Things were getting bad," Ben-Zaken recalls. "Anyway, there were no good teachers left at my school. All the French had already packed up and gone. My father was thinking about emigrating to Australia, so he moved me to an English school with Irish teachers, who were terrible."
Milan was the next stop for the family and 13-year-old Ben-Zaken, an only child, was soon dispatched to a boarding school in Haslemere in southeast England, where the young teenager took some knocks and learned a few things about life. "There were some hard kids from council-house backgrounds there. I wasn't particularly interested in the studies, but it made me tougher and also, I think, more of a closed person. I survived - with a few punches," he adds with a chuckle.
And there was the not-so-small matter of commuting home to Milan and back to England several times a year. "I did that on my own. In those days, the trip took 24 hours. But, as an only child, I became independent at an early age. I didn't see much of my parents even when I lived with them. When I was 14, people thought I was 18. It made me grow up quickly."
Rather than something to be endured, Ben-Zaken actually reveled in his UK-Italy runs, which also introduced him to liquor. "It was like going on holiday. You had eight people crammed into a second-class compartment, with Italian workers going home. The booze got passed around, and I took a few slurps too. At 15 I was already smoking and drinking."
After a couple of years at Haslemere, Ben-Zaken moved to Whittinghame College in Brighton - aided by a scholarship from the Joint Distribution Committee - where he met his first Israelis en masse. It was an enlightening and sobering experience. "There had been an Israeli boy at Haslemere, but he was a quiet kibbutznik. The Israelis at Whittinghame were loud and rich. I didn't like them very much. It was pandemonium."
An abortive attempt at gaining a degree at the school of economics in Milan followed, which Ben-Zaken describes as "a mistake," although adding, "I didn't go to classes very much, but I learned how to study on my own then, and that has helped me in my subsequent life."
Ben-Zaken imbibed a good dosage of Zionism in Brighton and, when the Six Day War broke out, he got the first plane here, landing at Lod the day after hostilities ended. He spent three months volunteering on Moshav Beit She'arim. Three years, a wedding and the birth of his first son later, Ben-Zaken came back to Israel for good.
The young Ben-Zaken family had a short stay at an absorption center in Haifa before moving to Kiryat Moshe in Jerusalem, but that also proved to be a brief interlude. "I initially wanted to live in Jerusalem, but then I realized an apartment could be an apartment anywhere, so I began looking for a house, a place where I could put down roots."
Ein Kerem was a preferred location but that was too expensive, so Ben-Zaken scraped together loans of $20,000 and bought the six-dunam plot where the winery and his home now stand.
"My friends thought I was crazy to live so far out of town, but I wanted to live somewhere that I knew would stay in the family, a real family home. I had wandered around so much in my life before then."
The Ramat Raziel plot came with a chicken house, but the poultry business didn't go too well; and a later horse-riding school foundered when the Yom Kippur War broke out. "I was called up and fought in the Sinai. We didn't even have money to buy feed for the horses," he said.
After enduring some tough years, the Ben-Zakens opened the Mamma Mia restaurant in Jerusalem. The business went well, and it was during this time that Ben-Zaken began to develop an interest in wine.
"I didn't know anything about wine making, but I had land here and I learned everything from books. Ben-Zaken also went to the effort to get a first-hand look at how things are done in Bordeaux, France.
The first vineyard - "the first vineyard in modern Israel in the Judean Hills," Ben-Zaken observes - was planted in 1988, and four years later Ben-Zaken produced his first two barrels of wine. Success was as unexpected as it was instant. Through connections, Ben-Zaken sent a bottle from his debut yield to Serena Sutcliffe, head of the wine department at Sotheby's in London, one of the world's top experts in the field.
"A while later I was driving through the center of Jerusalem when my wife called me to tell me we'd received a fax from Mrs. Sutcliffe saying how good the wine was. I was so overcome, I had to pull over; I couldn't drive with tears in my eyes."
The hobby gradually became an all-consuming passion and full-time money earner, although there were some lean times eight years ago when Ben-Zaken decided to double the winery's annual output to 100,000 bottles just as the second intifada erupted. "Things were so bad then that even selling the house wouldn't have helped. My son Ariel saved us. He did, and still does, a great job."
Today, Domaine du Castel produces three prestigious kosher wines - C Blanc du Castel, Castel Grand Vin and Petit Castel - sold in Israel and across the globe.
"Eli does a very good job," commented Tunisian-born Marc Sarrabia, vineyard supervisor at Kibbutz Tzova, 160 dunams of which provide Domaine du Castel with grapes for its wines. "He makes excellent wine, and this is a wonderful area for that. The terroir - the mix of man, land and climate - makes for some very interesting grapes and wines," he said.
"I feel I am very lucky to have come to this sort of activity, which is very rewarding and very special," said Ben-Zaken. "I always knew this had to be a family enterprise and a long-term venture. You have to be patient if you want to make good wine. I only passed my driving test at the fourth attempt because I was always overconfident. But I think, over the years, I have learned to be a bit more patient."
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