Wine Talk: The pioneer

The story of Peter Stern, the legendary consultant of the Golan Heights Winery who changed the Israeli and kosher wine worlds forever.

makin kosher wine 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
makin kosher wine 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Behind the quality wine revolution in each country, there is usually a key figure who actually influenced and changed the way people thought about making quality wine. In California it was Robert Mondavi. In France it was the legendary Emile Peynaud. In Australia it was someone called Max Schubert.
In both Israel and the kosher wine world as a whole, it is clear that there has been a quality revolution of massive proportions, unless we have forgotten how bad kosher wines used to be! Now we take world-class kosher wines for granted. However, in the early 1980s, things did not look so rosy.
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The person who created change, setting new standards for others to follow, was a Californian by the name of Peter Stern. He deserves more credit than anyone for the Israeli wine revolution.
When in 1982 the first general manager of the Golan Heights Winery was looking for a trained winemaker from California for his new winery project, he was given the name of Peter Stern. As he had a Jewish name, it was presumed he was Jewish, and he was invited for an interview. It later transpired that he wasn’t Jewish, but it started off a relationship between Stern and the Golan Heights Winery that was to last 20 years.
Stern was invited to design the winery and to be the winemaking consultant. At that time he did not know what kosher wine was, but ended up becoming a world expert. He was intimately involved with all aspects of the new winery, including the clever choice of the Yarden brand name and the famous oil lamp logo. He was given the task of finding winemakers and brought a succession of young UC Davis graduates – all of whom went on to make a name for themselves in the wine world, after benefiting from his supervision and direction.
Stern was the first person to take Israeli winemaking to the vineyard. His aim was to “grow wine,” not just grapes. He imported New World winemaking technology to Israel and pursued new standards of excellence in the winery itself. The wines produced by his protégés won quick recognition – the Yarden and Gamla wines were immediately acknowledged as Israel’s first world-class wines. In 1987 the Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon 1984 won both the gold medal and the Winiarski Trophy as the best wine in the International Wine and Spirits Competition in London.
Then Yarden wines won three consecutive Grand Prix d’Honneur Trophies at Vinexpo in Bordeaux. Israeli wine was on the international stage.
It was appropriate that when Yarden Katzrin 1990, Israel’s first luxury wine, was launched, it was Stern who signed the back label. From the 1990s onwards, the Golan Heights Winery gathered together an internationally trained winemaking team under the admirable Victor Schoenfeld, who managed to continue Stern’s legacy of uncompromising quality.
When not visiting Israel, Stern was the winemaker for Herzog Wine Cellars, the California winery owned by Royal Wine Corp. and owner of brands like Herzog Reserve, Baron Herzog and Weinstock. The Herzog Reserves became the first kosher wines ever to receive over 90 points in the Wine Spectator magazine, a success they have repeated since.
In 2002, Stern became winemaking consultant for Carmel Winery and went on to further successes. He advised Carmel in planning the transition from mass market to quality. He assisted with the induction of a new winemaking team, and in the introduction of new standards at both Carmel and its subsidiary, Yatir Winery.
The subsequent achievements of Yatir Forest in receiving the highest score for an Israeli wine in Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate magazine, and of Carmel’s Kayoumi Shiraz in winning the Decanter World Wine Awards International Trophy, illustrate the extent of the turnaround there has been.
Stern lives in semi-retirement, but returned recently to Israel to make a private label wine on behalf of Royal Wine.
His visit made me think about his contribution to Israeli wine. Today, there are many Israeli wineries producing international- class wines today. They all have young Israeli-born winemakers who have studied at the major wine universities of California, Australia, France and Italy.
They make wine from the vineyards in the modern way and are up to date with the latest innovations and technology. This is such a far cry from the 1980s. Stern’s efforts, and the example he set for Israel and kosher wine, should not be downplayed today. We all owe him our thanks and appreciation.

Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine for Israeli and international publications. [email protected]