Wine Route: The youngest vintner

Yoav Zaafrani plants the vines, picks the grapes and makes the wine, guides tours and critiques wines- and he’s only 13.

The youngest vintner (photo credit: Enzo Gosh)
The youngest vintner
(photo credit: Enzo Gosh)
Road 91 winds between Hatzor and Kibbutz Ein Zivan in the Golan. The green fields are dotted with basalt stone protruding from the ground; immense grasslands lie next to a fenced-in IDF training area; cows wander around freely in the expansive apple orchards. It’s easy to miss the sign marking the entrance to Kibbutz Ortal, one of the last remaining collective kibbutzim in Israel.
The vineyard is located near the entrance of the kibbutz, between the carpentry shop, the barn and the petting zoo. The grapes are also grown there, at the foot of Tel Shifon. The rows and rows of grapevines slowly soak up the minerals from the basalt stone. The snowy mountain tops of the Golan Heights loom in the distance.
It is quite chilly there in the mornings at 900 meters above sea level, so we hurriedly make our way into the winery. The strong smell of fermenting wine in oak barrels accosts our nostrils. A bottle is opened, and the red liquid is poured into tall glasses. Our guide arrives and expertly explains the production process to us, patiently answering our questions and describing at length the various types of grapes that are used in the successful blend we are sipping. Our guide’s name is Yoav Zaafrani, and he will soon turn 13. Yes, he is the youngest vintner in Israel.
“I love wine,” he tells us with a big smile and shining eyes. “I’m interested in the entire process, but I especially love the fermentation process – the grapes in the vats that bubble when you put them in your mouth. I love the strong smell that clears your sinuses, and the incredible flavor of our wine. I love the Syrah, which has a chocolaty taste and an extremely strong presence.”
Zaafrani was born for wine. He has taken his father’s dream and made it his own.
“I want to go to Australia,” he says, “to learn how they make wine, to understand where these grapes come from. It would be a trip to discover my roots.”
Zaafrani’s roots are planted firmly here, in the heart of the Golan. His father, Ilan, was sent to the kibbutz in 1986 as a member of an IDF Nahal unit assigned to help build the kibbutz. It was there that he met his wife, Anat, who was working as a kindergarten teacher. And it was there that his four children were born: Yoav, Omer (10), Yiftah (five) and Eitan (three).
Just as he was putting down his own roots, the kibbutz was also planting grape vineyards on 1,000 acres that were to grow grapes for wineries in the Golan. Zaafrani, who is a trained cattleman, got excited and began to produce wine in his house. Yoav was only two at the time, and milk was not the only drink that he imbibed.
“At the beginning, we would fill the bottles in a very primitive fashion, using gravity,” he says.  “Yoav was responsible for removing the excess wine with a pipette. But sometimes he would use his mouth and would tell me in his baby’s voice, ‘Daddy, it’s sour.’”
Yoav doesn’t remember the incident, but he definitely remembers the fun atmosphere at home. “Every Friday, my dad would invite over friends for wine and cheese. When they saw me, they’d say, ‘Here’s the boy who loves to drink wine.’ These days they appreciate me much more. My dad lets me work half a day all by myself. He trusts me to give tours to visitors and to give tastes of wine. This is a big responsibility,” he says.
In 2009, Ilan Zaafrani submitted a business plan to Ortal’s economic committee to realize his dream of building a winery. The committee gave him the go-ahead and allowed him to use one of the public shelters. He was the entrepreneur, the vintner, the electrician, the carpenter and the plumber for the winery, and he got all his family members involved as well. “In order to build a business, you have to reduce costs,” he explains.
The winery and visitors center are located where an abandoned tractor shed once stood. Yoav has been an integral part of the winery since the first vineyard was planted. He is always there, including Saturdays and holidays. Maybe that’s why he feels so connected to the winery. “These are our vineyards. We planted them, and we give them the highest quality care possible,” says Yoav. “It’s a wonderful feeling to stand in a place where you are responsible for everything – the table, the refrigerator, the wine, the bottle.”
To learn the profession, Ilan signed up for a winery course at Tel Hai Academic College. “At the end of every school day, Yoav would sit me down at the table and grill me for hours about what we learned that day. He would ask endless questions, wanting to learn everything. He was like a sponge and, to my delight, he remembers many things that I have managed to forget. And as his father, I am not embarrassed to ask him which vintage is located on a certain row,” he says.
The child is definitely very patient. “I can spend an entire day pushing buttons on the machine that puts the corks on the bottles. My brothers would tire of this after an hour. They have no patience,” he says.
And what does this young vintner do? The real question is what doesn’t he do. He is involved in planting the vineyards, pruning them and in harvesting. He crates the grapes and brings them to the winery, transfers them to vats, weighs and adds the yeast, corks and tastes, gives tours, and infects everyone around him with his enthusiasm. Everything, though, is done under the supervision of his father.
“This year I almost made a huge mistake,” says Yoav. “I went to check the pH level of the wine, and instead of rinsing the pipette in the type of wine that I was checking, I rinsed it in water, and the results came out bad. Luckily, my dad was checking everything,” he recounts.
Yoav is still upset about the mistake, but his father knows that he can depend on him. “I let him do everything himself and just check the results,” he says.
There is only one thing that Yoav is not involved in: the special night-time tastings. “There’s quite a bit of alcohol in the room,” Ilan says, “and it’s really not the place for him.”
Sometimes it is not clear where the separation between father and son lies. They admire each other and display perfect synergy. “Me and my shadow,” people on the kibbutz call them.
Four years ago the young winery had its first harvest, and those bottles are just now being opened. They are fruity, with a light woody flavor and a long finish.
Father and son learned about the secrets of wine together, and their joy in these discoveries is endless. “We learned about astringency, what sparkling wine is, dry and semi-dry. We wondered whether the color was good enough, whether it has a wood taste or not,” Yoav says.
And as a result of these numerous tastings, Yoav has learned to taste, smell and appreciate wine, as well as give his opinion without mincing words. Because of his vast knowledge and young age, he is well recognized in the local wine industry. At a recent wine exhibition in Tel Aviv, Yoav was called over to one of the booths to taste the wine.
“I said exactly what I thought: that the wine had not undergone enough fermentation and its flavor had not had time to fully come out. It tasted like the wine had been bottled as soon as the sulfur dioxide level was high enough. They said to me, ‘Kid, you’re right.’”
Yoav’s name has become well known, and people go to the kibbutz winery requesting a tour by Yoav. He loves it and never tires of giving the same explanations over and over again. If a sommelier, a wine steward, shows up, Yoav is extra happy. “Sommeliers get so excited about the wine. They buy bottles and say they must have our wine for their restaurants. It’s like a dream come true!”
However, Yoav prefers to partake in the winemaking process and not in the tasting. “If you drink good wine, you don’t appreciate the wine only, you appreciate the person who created it,” he says.
Yoav loves every single day, but he loves the harvest the most. “Before the harvest, we check the sugar and pH levels so the wine won’t be too ripe or too young, but exactly like we love,” he says. The sun is usually high in the sky when they pack the crates, carefully cut the large clusters of grapes with small pruning shears, put them in the large containers and transport them to the nearby winery. It is hard work that must be done carefully and with love. In the evening, they clean the winery for the next day of work.
Yoav has no problem with responsibility. In fact, the more tasks he’s given, the more he thrives. A rare occurrence in this world of children who try to get out of helping and prefer to look at screens rather than be outside. Maybe it’s kibbutz culture that made the difference.
This year Yoav is preparing one barrel of wine that will be his alone. “I want to leave the grapes on the vines just a little bit longer, and then cut them down and dry them in the sun. They need to be flipped every six hours, which makes the wine heavier. I can’t wait to get started, and I’m curious to see the results. But my biggest dream is to invent my own method for making wine,” he says.
“I think that in the end, Yoav will progress in a different direction,” says Ilan. “You never know; he may even become a philosopher.”
Translated by Hannah Hochner