Settler Celler: Wine made in an illegal Israeli settlement outpost

Esh Kodesh, which is today home to 50 families, was established in 2000 after the murder of Esh Kodesh Gilmore, 25, who was killed in a Palestinian terror attack.

 A glass of Settlers Cellar wine. (photo credit: HENRY STRAUSS)
A glass of Settlers Cellar wine.
(photo credit: HENRY STRAUSS)

A.Y. Katsof looks more like a cowboy than a winemaker but says that opening a winery surrounded by vineyards has been his dream for almost 20 years. Today he lives in the settler outpost of Esh Kodesh near the large settlement of Shiloh, surrounded by six dunams (1.5 acres) of vines he planted himself (with a little help from his wife and six children) and makes some very good wine.

“My oldest daughter is 18 today, and I have a picture of her at six months standing next to crates of grapes that we bought at three shekels a kilo in the market in Jerusalem,” he told The Jerusalem Report at a tasting of his wines in Jerusalem. “We crushed the grapes, and the wine was a failure. But I had a vision, a dream of living in the vineyards.”

Katsof and his family moved to Esh Kodesh in 2011 and built the first permanent home in the settlement and planted vineyards. He said that part of his motivation is ideological, and part is for “quality of life” reasons.

“If we are not there (in the area of the northern West Bank that he calls by its biblical name of Samaria), then no place in Israel will be safe,” he said.

But his reasoning for moving to the settlement is more for the type of life he is now living.

 A.Y. Katsof presents one of his fine wines. (credit: HENRY STRAUSS)
A.Y. Katsof presents one of his fine wines. (credit: HENRY STRAUSS)

“I wanted clean air and green space and a good place to raise my kids,” he said. “Every night, we watch the sunset.”

Esh Kodesh, which is today home to 50 families, was established in 2000 after the murder of Esh Kodesh Gilmore, 25, who was killed in a Palestinian terror attack while working as a security guard at an Israeli government office in east Jerusalem. As an outpost, it is illegal even according to Israeli law, although the current hard line government has legalized some of the nearby outposts. The US and most of the international community say that all Jewish settlements are illegal, and the West Bank, which Israel has controlled since 1967, should be part of a future Palestinian state.

Katsof says that this year he will make close to 10,000 bottles of wine, most of which is sold through his Settlers Cellar wine club. At a recent tasting at a friend’s house, I was impressed with the quality of the wines, several of which we tasted right from the barrels.

There was a low-alcohol fruity rosé, an excellent Gewurztraminer that was not too sweet, and a very well-structured Cabernet Sauvignon that had spent 26 months in oak barrels and came in at 16 percent alcohol. That is quite high, although the wine didn’t taste high in alcohol and had soft round tannins and fruit balanced with complexity.

Israel's quality wineries in West Bank settlements

There are dozens of wineries in Jewish settlements in the West Bank which, along with the Golan Heights and the hills around Jerusalem, are some of Israel’s best areas for winemaking. Days are warm, and nights get cold in the winter. The higher elevation is good for making wine.

In fact, some of Israel’s West Bank wineries, such as Shiloh and Gvaot, both very close to Esh Kodesh, have won prizes in international competitions. Both have also built new visitor’s centers and, along with Settlers Cellar, are trying to encourage wine tourism to the region, partly for political reasons.

Some settlers look to the Golan Heights as a model. Like the West Bank, Israel occupied the Golan Heights during the 1967 war. But unlike the West Bank, the Golan Heights had  few people, and Israel officially annexed the area. Today, tens of thousands of Israelis vacation in the Golan Heights each year, and there is no talk of a withdrawal, even in exchange for a peace treaty with Syria.

The situation in the West Bank is more complicated. About 2.5 million Palestinians live there, mostly in large West Bank cities like Ramallah, Nablus, and Jenin. Palestinians say the entire West Bank must be part of a future Palestinian state. Close to 500,000 Israelis also live there in hundreds of Jewish settlements and outposts like Esh Kodesh.

Winery visits and wine tasting has become a popular activity for Israelis, especially on the weekends. Kosher wineries are closed on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath, so that leaves Fridays. Many wineries offer special brunches and tastings on Friday. The more Israelis come to the West Bank, they hope, the more they will become attached to the area.

The issue of wine from the West Bank, like everything in Israel, has become political. Some Israelis refrain from buying wine that is made in the West Bank, saying that it encourages Israeli control and makes a Palestinian state less likely.

“I try not to buy products or services from the settlements because I don’t agree with normalizing settlements as part of Israel,” said Timna Seligman, a museum curator who was invited to the Jerusalem tasting. “So, I won’t knowingly buy wine or produce from the settlements. At the same time, if it’s a social situation I won’t make a big drama over it. In this case, I didn’t realize until I got there that the wines were from the settlements and that, in fact, is part of his marketing. But it was a reunion of friends, so I didn’t say anything.”

For others, the location is precisely the point. Ilse Strauss, a Christian volunteer with the organization Bridges for Peace, got up on a recent morning at 3:30 to travel to a vineyard near Esh Kodesh to help pick Pinot Noir grapes that will become a sparkling rosé.

“In the Book of Jeremiah, God promises that vineyards will flourish in Samaria, and they were right there,” she told The Report. “We went with our two-year-old daughter, and it meant so much that we could take her to see this. It was actually very spiritual for us.”

She said that she grew up on a farm in South Africa and loves being outdoors for the sunrise as she was. She said they arrived at around 5:30 a.m. and picked grapes for about three hours before going to the winery for breakfast.

“It was spectacular,” she said. “Who would have thought that an Afrikaans girl from the farm would pick grapes where the Tabernacle stood?”

According to the Bible, the Tabernacle was in Shiloh, today a large settlement of hundreds of families.

In fact, Katsof partners with Hayovel, an organization that brings Christian volunteers to Israel to help during harvest time. In the next few weeks, dozens of Christian volunteers will come to his vineyards and pick grapes.

“Winemaking is chemistry plus art,” he said. “And when they come together, it’s magic.” ■