Wine in Israel, from the Bible to modern times

Holy Land filled with wine-making facilities from every period of habitation - from the Cannanites to the Greek and Roman periods to the mid 19th century.

Winery 521 (photo credit: Aaron Hecht)
Winery 521
(photo credit: Aaron Hecht)
The Bible is saturated from beginning to end with references to vineyards, grapes and wine, so it is little wonder that the winery business is one of Israel’s best growth industries today.
Melchizedek brought bread and wine to Abram in Genesis 14:18. Jesse sent a gift of bread and wine to King Saul in the care of his son David in I Samuel 16:20. Jesus performed his first miracle by turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana in the Gospel of John, chapter 2. Vineyards were also the settings for many of his best-loved parables. And the Apostle Paul even advised Timothy to add wine to his water for health reasons in I Timothy 5:23.
A visitor to the Holy Land today can see the archeological remains of hundreds of grape presses and wine-making facilities from every period of habitation, starting with ancient Canaanite structures to the Greek and Roman periods and on through the Byzantine era right up to the mid 19th century.
Thus, it should come as no surprise that the modern state of Israel is dotted with wineries producing excellent vintages from thousands of acres of vineyards which produce delicious grapes known for their sweet taste and rich texture.
Wine played a central role in the early years of the Zionist enterprise, as the first Jewish immigrants to what was then the neglected Ottoman province of Palestine attempted to revive the ancient industry in 1892, starting in the tiny village of Zammarim. Many of them sought work in Zammarim, but the soil was poor and the immigrants did not know how to farm.
They turned for help to Baron Edmond James de Rothschild, who owned the world famous Château Lafite winery in Bordeaux, France. Rothschild had his doubts about the economic viability of the project but he supported it anyway, buying land and equipment, and sending his own experts and plant samples from his French vineyards to help the pioneers get started. He continued to support the enterprise financially through the inevitable early years of failure and disappointment.
Calling his new business “Carmel,” which is Hebrew for “God’s vineyard,” Rothschild’s first grape vines were planted near Rishon Lezion, southeast of Jaffa. Later, another winery was started at Zichron Ya’acov, just south of Mount Carmel near Haifa.
The Carmel wines soon attracted positive notice in Europe and America and in 1900 they won a gold medal at the Paris World’s Fair.
Thousands of dunams of former swamp lands were drained and converted by the pioneers into well-tended vineyards. The Carmel winery owns over 3,750 acres of vineyards in Israel – mostly in the Galilee, Golan Heights and northern Negev regions.
At the Center for Wine Culture in Zichron Ya’acov, Carmel Wines maintains a museum and visitors’ center as well as an active winery and cellar. The facilities include a world-class wine shop, restaurant, two specialist tasting rooms, a small cinema, and a barrel room in one of Rothschild’s historic underground cellars. There is a short movie about the history of the Carmel winery, and the opportunity to taste some of the delightful wines with the help of an expert guide.
“We produce 15,000,000 bottles of wine a year,” explained Valerie Hecht, the manager of tourism for Carmel Wine & Culture. “There’s no other industry that’s been working since 1890, so it’s got a lot of soul.”
In addition to the massive operations of Carmel, there are now dozens of smaller boutique wineries popping up all across Israel. Clusters of private family boutiques like those in the Eila Valley have banded together to offer tasting tours to Israeli and foreign tourists – becoming an instant hit with many.
The small specialty winery at Kibbutz Sde Boker, deep in the Negev, is run by Zvi Remak. Located far away from the large cities in the center of Israel, Sde Boker is best known as the retirement home of Israel’s founding leader, David Ben Gurion.
“I started to make wine in 1999,” Remak recently told The Christian Edition. “I started the project in 1996 when I moved to California for a year to study winemaking and to work in the wine industry. Most of the wines are made from grapes grown at Sde Boker.
“The original idea was to grow wine grapes using brackish water, to replace the orchard crops that we were growing at the time, such as peaches, plums, and pistachios. Then I decided that I wanted to make wine as well, not just produce raw materials for someone else.”
Whether it is produced at a massive Galilee winery with deep Zionist roots or at a small specialty shop on an isolated Negev kibbutz, wine in Israel is sure to give Israelis and visitors alike good reason to raise their glasses!