Wine Talk: Women to the fore

One of the most prominent women in wine in Israel is Orna Chillag, not because of the size of her winery but because of the size of her personality.

Woman and wine (photo credit: Courtesy)
Woman and wine
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The whole process of winemaking, wine tasting and talking about wine is a very male thing, based on years of a tradition which, in many instances, excluded women.
Two new findings made people think again. Firstly, some serious studies proved that women are in fact better tasters than men. They have better natural palates.
Secondly came the realization that women purchase most of the wine sold in supermarkets, which is most of the wine, full stop! The breakthrough in the United States began nearly 40 years ago, to the extent that the exclusion of women is no longer an issue.
In Israel, things have taken longer. The hardest nut to crack was that of winemaker.
Women could not be part of the actual wine making in a kosher winery, as only Orthodox men are permitted to touch the wine, the plant and the machinery during the production process. However, women could be active in the vineyards and take the same managerial role in a winery like any winemaker of a kosher winery.
The pioneer in Israel was Tali Sandovski, who became a winemaker at the Golan Heights Winery in 1986, and then studied at University of California, Davis. She is the winery’s longest-serving winemaker and for many years was the one and only.
She is part of chief winemaker Victor Schoenfeld’s much-valued team.
In the last 15 years, other women were to pick up the winemaking route, each one following her father into the wine trade.
For instance, Na’ama Sorkin studied in California and Australia before taking over as winemaker at Dalton Winery in the Upper Galilee in 2002. Her father, Beni Sorkin, is a very well-respected viticulturist who worked for the Golan Heights Winery for many years.
Another is Irit Shank Boxer, who is the sixth generation in a family of agriculturists and vineyard owners. She studied oenology at Adelaide University in Australia and works at Barkan Winery at Hulda, which is the second-largest winery in Israel. She finds herself working for her father, Shmuel Boxer, the founder of the winery and its managing director.
Roni Saslove has been participating in the harvest since she was 14 years old.
Her father is Barry Saslove, one of Israel’s leading wine educators and founder of Saslove Winery, one of the country’s best boutique wineries. In 2002, Roni joined her father at the winery, and in 2008 she studied oenology and viticulture at Brock University in Canada. Gradually, she has taken over winemaking duties.
She has inherited her father’s talent for communication and his passion for all things vinous.
Tsina Avidan of Avidan Winery was a wonderful person and a talented winemaker, who founded the Avidan Winery to fulfill a personal dream. She died before her time, in 2012. However, her memory remains in the quality of the wines she made, in the highly original names she chose for the different labels, and the stylish look of the labels themselves. She managed to achieve some great scores from Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, which is the ultimate recognition.
Tsina Avidan was an inspiration to women in every walk of life, but particularly to those making their way in the wine industry.
Women also broke into management of the larger wineries. The first was Carmi Lebenstein, who was firstly sales manager and later marketing manager of Carmel Mizrahi in the 1990s.
The first female CEO of a top-10 winery was Ronit Badler, who managed Galil Mountain Winery in the 2000s.
Today, two of the three largest wineries in Israel are managed by women. Anat Levy has been the managing director of Golan Heights Winery since 2008. In addition, there is the recently appointed Dalia Sonnenfeld Mandelman, ex Strauss-Elite, who was appointed CEO of Carmel Winery in 2013.
One of the most prominent women in wine in Israel is Orna Chillag, not because of the size of her winery but because of the size of her personality. She was the first ownerwinemaker of a winery and sees herself as a role model for women, representing women.
When she left her post working at the Tel Aviv Municipality, she followed her heart to travel to Italy and immerse herself in learning about wine. She lived in a monastery (nothing conventional about Orna), studied in Milan and did an internship at Antinori in Tuscany, one of Italy’s most famous wineries.
In 1999 she returned to Israel and tentatively made a first wine, a Merlot, which was noticed by wine lovers. That encourwine talk Women to the fore January 16, 2014 7 weekend wine talk aged her to move from hobby to business and open a winery. For a while, she made her wine by renting space at the Saslove Winery at Kibbutz Eyal. A good review from the late legendary wine critic Daniel Rogov drew attention to her wine and encouraged her to continue.
In 2001 she was awarded a Knighthood of Castellina. This is awarded to women for their contributions to wine. She also became a member of Le Donne del Vino, the organization that celebrates women in the wine world.
By 2005, Chillag was looking for permanent premises and moved to Yehud, in the suburbs of Tel Aviv, which meant she had one of the wineries closest to the hub of the country.
The Chillag Winery is not kosher, but she was innovative enough to make a kosher batch at a kosher winery in 2003. Ironically, the wine was very successful in high-quality, non-kosher restaurants in the United States. However, she is not likely to return to making kosher wine because the touch and feel of the winemaking process is so important to her.
Chillag now makes a mere 20,000 bottles a year, which is the amount of a small boutique winery. She produces wines under three labels. Not surprisingly, considering her love affair with Italy, they are called Primo, Solo and Vivo. Primo is the first label quality-wise, and Vivo is more for value for money wines.
Chillag’s worldview is Old World as opposed to New World, and she espouses the slogan “Slow Wine,” which she interprets as giving the correct time to each stage of the winemaking process. People will be familiar with Slow Food, a movement that encourages authenticity and quality in ingredients and in cooking. It really started as a response to the Fast Food movement, as represented by McDonald’s.
Chillag’s beliefs come through in every conversation. She is animated, talkative and always slightly provocative. She does not mind being noticed, but all to the good of the overall message. The advance of women in wine, the importance of the Mediterranean in food and wine, all things Italian and her beloved wine are what matters.
She has dabbled in white wines and in exotic varieties, but I like her Primo Cabernet Sauvignon and Solo Merlot best. A wine represents the place the grapes are grown, the year they are made and the person who made them. Whatever one thinks, there is no doubt that these are wines that represent the character of the person. Drink the wines, and you have Orna – in a bottle! Thankfully, women feature strongly in all aspects of Israeli wine these days. This is thanks to Orna Chillag and those of her ilk. The wine trade here is more complete because of their presence and expertise.
Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine in Israeli and international publications. [email protected]