Urban Winery

Prize-winning Ben-Haim wines are crafted in a Ramat Hasharon warehouse.

Eli Ben-Haim (photo credit: MIRIAM KRESH)
Eli Ben-Haim
(photo credit: MIRIAM KRESH)
Say “winery,” and you think of the countryside and a charming building surrounded by green vineyards. That’s most often the case in Israel, but every rule has its exception, and the Ben-Haim winery is it.
Drive past the Hakfar Hayarok junction into Ramat Hasharon, turn into Hasaraf Street, past a plant nursery and into a construction area. Park in front of a warehouse and push the gate open. A small outdoor reception area hints at what’s to come: an urban winery. Enter the tasting room. Jazz is playing in the background. One wall is lined with old barrels. You begin to understand how much the winemakers love wood. Photographs of the family cooperage business (crafting oak wine barrels) in the Old Country compete for your attention with a shelf of international prize certificates. Indeed, Israel’s first wine to earn the Grand Champion prize in the international TerraVino competition came from this winery in 2013. It was their flagship Mythos wine of 2005, a blend of Petit Syrah and Merlot grapes.
Eli and Ruth Ben-Haim, the founders of the Ben-Haim winery, come from generations of businesses involved with wine. Ruth’s family were coopers (barrel makers) and winemakers from the vine-rich area of Moldavia, Romania. Ruth grew up with wine culture in her blood.
Following family tradition, her father established a similar business in Israel after making aliya. Eli’s father sold wines in France.
Eli recounts a chilling pre-aliya family story. Ruth’s father owned a large cellar in Romania, where he stored hundreds of full wine barrels for sale. In those times, families would often buy ready-made wine, sometimes buying two or three barrels to age and bottle at home. World War II broke out, and the Nazis invaded Romania. Ruth’s family suffered a shock when two German soldiers walked into their home demanding wine. They forced their way into the cellar, and finding that the barrels weren’t equipped with taps, they began shooting at the barrels to make holes in them.
“They drank and drank, straight from the barrels,” says Ruth with a shudder. “And they kept shooting at the barrels, so the wine kept pouring out. The Nazis got terrifically drunk, and the wine kept coming. Next morning, we found them face down and drowned in wine!” she concludes.
“I was 17 when I met Ruth and still in school,” reminisces Eli. “I was with my family on vacation near where she lived, near Haifa. My father’s business was selling wine, so naturally I was curious about this family who made barrels.
Ruth and I clicked right away, and we’ve been together ever since. We made our first wine in 1967. Ruth’s role was crucial, as she was the one with the winemaking experience.
And she had a special talent for knowing exactly which grapes were at their peak for harvest. All she had to do was go out to the vineyard and taste a few of them, and she’d know,” he marvels.
Ruth’s family’s barrel business lasted only a few years because at the time there was only one major winery in Israel that bought barrels, the Carmel winery. But it existed long enough to have attracted the young man whom she would later marry.
“We celebrate every harvest as we did our at our very first vintage, the summer we got married. We had only a little ‘garage’ winery then, a stone cottage in the garden.
Every harvest is like a new birth, a confirmation of our marriage. Wine is deep in our souls,” says Eli.
In Ruth’s family, the men provided the hard labor of making barrels and harvesting, but it was the women who made the wine, down through the generations.
“The women were always the connecting thread to the wine,” affirms Ruth.
“Our first important prize was won by Ruth’s Chardonnay,” Eli says.
Itai, their son and winery manager, appears from behind a piano set off to one side of the room. A sixth-generation winemaker, Itai is as passionate as his parents about their winemaking philosophy of prolonged barrel aging.
“It is said that there are over 200 discernible flavors in wine,” says Eli. “We can introduce about 25 through our manipulation of the flavors that the wooden barrels impart to the wine.”
There’s much folklore about barrels and wine, “the angel’s portion” being one.
Itai explains: “Every morning, we find a little less wine in the barrels than there was the night before. Custom says that angels come and take their portion while we’re sleeping. Of course, this is caused by very gradual evaporation and oxidation that takes place around the edges of the cork and the front seal of the barrel.”
“And do you notice,” adds Eli, “that the barrel looks like a pregnant woman’s belly? The wine inside moves like a living thing, like a baby, when we top it up. It settles in the winter and revives to ferment a little more in spring. That’s why we call it ‘growing wine’ instead of ‘making wine’ – because we give it the individual care and attention that a parent gives his child.”
But where do the grapes come from that make Ben- Haim’s prize-winning nectars? “We planted our vineyard – 40 dunams [10 acres] – at the foot of Mount Meron,” says Eli. “Our varieties are Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Syrah, Merlot, Chardonnay and Traminer. We use traditional French methods, planting the vines very close to one another in order to grow short vines with lots of roots. We prune the vines hard and thin out a lot. We harvest about 750 kilos per dunam. Others’ vineyards yield one to two tons per dunam. We use only 25 percent of the vineyard’s potential – less in order to produce the highest quality grapes. That’s our greatest secret. The terroir is high, 800 meters above sea level; we have 700 meters of mountain over us, so the winter rains are absorbed in our vineyard. We hardly have to irrigate; only on the hottest days – about 40 total over the year. In July we stop irrigating altogether,” he says.
“Our wines are made by hand, from the very beginning. Our grapes are very rich in flavor and aroma,” Eli continues. “Their juice demands long aging. We age our wines between one and three years in various grades of oak barrels. Our vintages are only sold three years after the harvest, and some between five and seven years afterward. They’re wines meant to drink after aging.”
Tasting the prize-winning Mythos wine, I agreed that all that careful, artisanal work creates a very individual, special product. I was glad to become acquainted with this urban winery, so accessible to the urban dweller and so good.
The visit to the winery includes a tour on the topic of wine and the installations of the Yarok Yisraeli agricultural farm. You can also book a vineyard tour and winemaker evenings, which include guided tastings.
Ben-Haim Winery
6 Hasaraf Street, Ramat Hasharon
Tel: (03) 534-6748
e-mail: benhaim@benhaim.co.il
Website: www.benhaim.co.il
Open Sunday to Thursday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Tags winery