After the war, comes the vintage

Despite direct rocket hits and neglected vines, wine lovers need not worry.

galil winery 88 298 (photo credit: Courtesy)
galil winery 88 298
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Wine makers in the North are breathing more easily since the cease-fire, relieved that the rain of rockets and fighting on the Lebanese border subsided in time for the region's vintage season. Consumers can also rest assured that the supply of domestic wines in Israeli stores will not be harmed, nor should prices rise, the growers said. Once the wine harvested this season hits the shelves, amateur oenophiles will appreciate that 2006 was "one of the best vintages for Israeli wines in the past decade," said Dalton Winery CEO Moshe Haviv, noting the signs of greatness already visible in preliminary observations. "This is our modest compensation," he said. Golan Heights Winery spokesman Arnon Harel concurred, proclaiming that "this vintage is going to be one of the best ever," due in part to a relatively mild summer. Called the batzir in Hebrew, the grape harvest begins in the summer for wines in the Center of the country, in lower altitudes and for white grapes, but only in the late summer or autumn for grapes in the North, particularly reds at higher altitudes. For Dalton Winery's vineyards, the cease-fire could not have come much later. "Fortunately for us, the artillery batteries left [the vineyard] one day before the beginning of the batzir," said Haviv. "They were in the vineyards, between the rows of vines." Dalton began the harvest a solid two weeks later than its counterparts in the Center or South of the country, which made all the difference, Haviv said. "That's the secret - that we start late. If we had to begin [the vintage] like the whole Center [of the country], at the beginning of the month, we would have lost everything." The cannons pulled out of Dalton's vineyards on the evening of August 14 and workers began harvesting the grapes the very next morning, he said. All the workers called up for reserve duty to fight in Lebanon were already back at work, along with most of the foreign workers who had fled to central Israel during the conflagration, said Haviv. "It was a small miracle." Haviv already perceives the "exceptional quality" of the 2006 vintage, noting the "classic, wet wood fragrance" of the vineyard's Sauvignon Blanc and high quality of the Cabernet grapes ripening near Kerem Ben-Zimra in the Meiron area. Damage done At Dalton's Egoz and Safsufa vineyards a total of three dunams were burned following rocket hits, "and there might be more that we don't know about yet," said Haviv. Damage to the Dalton vintage was also caused by the growers' inability to tend the crop and administer sprays during the crucial month leading up to the harvest. Taken together, Haviv "cautiously""estimated that 7 percent to 8% of the vineyards' yield will be lost this year, leading the winery to produce 50 tons less wine than it had planned, meaning 50,000 fewer bottles on the shelves. Consumers will not notice the shortage, however, because Dalton was expanding its production to 800 tons of wine during this year's vintage from 700 produced last year. So the full effect of the efforts to increase production will simply be delayed until the next season. The damage caused by the war was not likely to push up prices, and costs added by the war "might show up on the margins," Haviv noted. Instead, upward pressure on the price of a bottle of wine in the immediate future is more a result of the growing costs of packaging - such as bottles and boxes - brought into the country by ship, which is also getting more expensive to do, he said. "But, for now, these costs will not be passed on to the consumer. We are trying to absorb them and fight the suppliers and not fall into the trap of raising prices," he said. "What we bought at the old price, we'll sell at the old price," Haviv pledged, but was unable to say if he would be able to keep the price down for next year, when the higher costs would be felt more acutely. Costs related to producing the grapes account for only about 30% of the cost of providing the final product, while additional costs include aging the wine in barrels and other handling costs. Expansion on hold The Galil Mountain Winery began harvesting its vineyards one day before Dalton, according to schedule, "despite the combat situation," and expected to continue activity into early October. The winery's vineyards cover 800 dunams on the Lebanese border - adjacent to the communities of Kibbutz Yiron, Malkhiya, Yiftah, Misgav-Am and Meiron - requiring the winery to begin the vintage in a state of alert and pay close attention to developments in the security situation. While the Galil Mountain Winery had planned to bring in a vintage of 1,000 tons of grapes this year - 30% more than last year - towards its aim of expanding production to 1,500 tons over the coming five years, the fighting likely curtailed those plans somewhat for the current season. "The vineyards did not receive the treatments they were supposed to receive during the month [of fighting]," which would lead to a reduction in the amount of grapes that meet the winery's standards, said Galil Mountain's CEO Ronit Badler. "There is damage. We had prepared to receive a certain amount of grapes at a certain level of quality. ... The damage will be visible when we see how much [of the harvest] does not enter [the wine-making process]," she said, but could not yet estimate what the extent of losses would be. Badler also said that the effects of the damage would be borne internally and would not affect prices or the quality of the wine on the shelves. "The wines will be the same wines, the product will be the same product, and the prices will be the same prices," she said, adding, however, that the winery's profit margin likely would be hurt somewhat, "since we'll sell less wine, but fixed costs remain the same." 'Peacetime' problems Barkan Winery-Segal Wines' 720 dunams of vineyards in the North account for nearly 30% of the company's vineyards spread throughout Israel. Damage was primarily in two vineyards on the Lebanese border - at Dovev and Dishon - which are the main sources of Segal wines. The 200-dunam Dovev Vineyard was located directly under a Hizbullah position, and was thus subject to disturbances, special army permits for all work in the fields and security problems even during "peacetime." "Not all of the incidents were reported in the media, but there always were problems," said Barkan-Segal marketing and strategy director Carmi Lebenstein, noting that the vintage period itself has yet to come under threat. Barkan-Segal's wines in the area are harvested particularly late, "only sometime in October - not beforehand - and occasionally continuing into November," said Lebenstein. "We were lucky. If the war had occurred in October, we wouldn't have been able to harvest at all," she added. But the winery's grapes would have tolerated a slight delay - since they are located in cooler regions. For white grapes in warmer climates, on the other hand, "the difference of a day or two can be a matter of life and death for the quality of the grapes, affecting the balance of acidity and sugar," which in turn influences a wine's "crispness" and alcohol level, Lebenstein noted. Only rain presents any sort of threat to slightly overdue reds in cooler climates - and has been known to severely waterlog crops in France - but even in October or November rains are rare in northern Israel, she said. As it is, the moderate damage caused by neglecting the vines during the fighting should be largely corrected before picking time comes. The bulk of the harm to the company therefore will be the effect of direct rocket hits on vineyards and accompanying fires. Grapes exposed to the heat of nearby flames, even if not directly hit or charred themselves, suffer damage that cannot be corrected during the wine-making process, noted Barkan-Segal agronomist Michal Akerman. Generally, the winery sells about 300,000 bottles of Segal wine each year from the Dovev and Dishon grapes alone, which produce high-quality red wines, but the 2006 vintage now appears likely to be short by "at least" 50,000 to 60,000 bottles from these grapes, Lebenstein said, but assured that this would have no practical effect for consumers. "Competition is so strong that even if we wanted to we couldn't allow this to influence our output. It is up to us to absorb the effect," she said. "We won't raise the price, and we'll make sure that there will be enough wine for everyone," she pledged, but added that they might be forced to export less of the Segal wines in order to serve domestic customers first. Barkan-Segal's exports generally account for 15%-20% of the yearly production volume. Barkan vineyards in the North suffered significantly less from rocket fire, since they are concentrated primarily in the southern Golan Heights, where no vines were struck. 'In proportion' With between 10% and 15% of the grapes used for Carmel Wineries' wines originate in Israel's far North - whether in the Upper Galilee or the Golan Heights - Carmel is the biggest grower of grapes in the Upper Galilee, according to Carmel head winemaker Lior Laxer. "Most of the grapes for our highest quality series originate in the Galilee and the Golan Heights," said Laxer. Carmel sources grapes from a total of 1,200 dunams of vineyards throughout the country, from the northern Golan Heights to the Negev's Arad region. Given Carmel's size, damage suffered from the conflagration was negligible. "When a rocket falls, several dozen vines are damaged. There were hits, and that is certainly not cause for joy, but things have to be kept in proportion," Laxer said. Qayumi Vineyard in the Meiron area produces a "very special Cabernet Sauvignon," said Laxer. "If , halila, it were to be harmed, we wouldn't know how to replace it. It has no match among all the vineyards of the Carmel Wineries." Between August 15 and 16, Carmel's growers began to harvest the grapes on the company's northern vineyards. "No delays occurred at all," Laxer said. "The grapes will be harvested as planned according to schedule." Although Carmel's growers have experienced losses from the rocket hits and from failing to treat the vines during the fighting period, "we were concerned that there would be much more damage," said Laxer. "We were happy to discover that things are alright. … The impact on the vintage is certainly within tolerable limits," he said, but could not yet quantify the damage. The specific growers who suffered direct hits on their vineyards - which he estimated to total between seven and 10 dunams among Carmel's growers - will receive compensation from the tax authorities like all others suffering direct property damage, he said. Any effect would be nil by the time the bottles from the current vintage hit the shelves six or seven years from now, he said. The geographical position of the Golan Heights Winery allowed growers to continue treating the vineyards throughout the fighting, said Harel. "It didn't stop the work." Neither the vast majority of the winery's vineyards that are located in the Golan itself, nor the lone vineyard west of the Hula at Ramat Naftali, near the Lebanese border, suffered damages, he said. Additionally, due to the altitude and climate of the winery's vineyards, the bulk of the vintage takes place in September or early October, and only 15% of the grapes are harvested in August, further distancing the vineyard from wartime impacts. One effect of the war that the Golan Heights Winery was not immune to, however, was a tangible drop in consumption among a depressed Israeli public, reflected in 40% less wine sold in the first 10 days of August than the same period last year. "A reduction was felt in Tel Aviv, as well. The mood was not there," Harel noted, "but that has stopped and people are going back to full routine both in the North and in the Center."