Tulip: Good wine and good deeds

“I work in bottling the wine,” he said with a big grin. “I really like it.”

THE VINEYARDS of Tulip Winery and some of the people who work there (photo credit: SAGUY MORAN)
THE VINEYARDS of Tulip Winery and some of the people who work there
(photo credit: SAGUY MORAN)
Nathan Can’ani, an adult with special needs in his late 60s, has worked in the Tulip Winery since it opened in 2003. On a recent morning, he sat down at a table loaded with wine glasses, bread and fancy cheeses, and helped himself to some breakfast. He clearly feels at home here in the Tulip Winery in Kfar Tikva, the “Village of Hope,” about 20 km. southeast of Haifa. He also has the distinction of being the very first resident of the village, which today has 240 residents.
“I work in bottling the wine,” he said with a big grin. “I really like it.”
Nathan is just one of 45 adults with disabilities who work at the winery picking grapes, bottling the wine, and working in the visitors’ center, which welcomes thousands of guests each year.
“Nathan is very connected to the Yitzhaki family,” Rebecca Levy, the director of development for Kfar Tikva said in an interview. “He is sort of a big part of the winery. He considers everyone there family.”
The winery is an integral part of Kfar Tikva, which began as a kibbutz, but became a residential village for adults with all kinds of special needs. Some of the adults live in nearby apartments, while some live in housing in the village, which is funded by the Israeli government. As much as possible, all of the residents have some kind of employment.
“The idea is to give the people with special needs the ability to live a normal life,” said Lital Roth, the customer relations manager for the winery. “Here they are part of the community.”
As if on cue, a young man with special needs comes in, and gives one of the workers behind the bar a giant hug. The two men are clearly good friends. A minute later, the young man wanders out.
Tulip CEO Roy Yitzhaki from the neighboring town of Kiryat Tivon says he grew up in a wine-loving family, but he disliked wine as a child and teenager.
“We would go to wine exhibitions, collect wine and, until I was 16, I really hated it,” he said.
But in 2003, at age 25, he said he was “bored” with his studies in economics and business, and decided to open a winery, almost on a whim. He opened it in Kfar Tikva, where he wanted to combine good wine and employment for adults with special needs.
That first vintage he says, was 7,000 bottles. Today, Tulip, which turned kosher in 2010, produces some 330,000 bottles per year, almost a third of which are exported to 14 countries around the world.
TURNING KOSHER involved a series of challenges, including a question of whether the workers from Kfar Tikva could continue to be employed at the winery. Many of the workers are not religiously observant, and Jewish law mandates that in order for the wine to be kosher, only religiously observant Jews can touch it from the time the grapes are crushed. Yitzhaki, who seems to rarely get angry, said that this issue infuriated him.
“I brought one rabbi on bottling day and told him, “You see these guys? This job is the only reason they wake up in the morning,” Yitzhaki said. “The rabbi said, ‘Fire them and hire religious people,’ and I told him, ‘This is the door – and you can leave,’” adding that it was the only time he ever threw someone out of the winery.
Yitzhaki said he met with more than 50 rabbis from Israel and abroad, looking for a way to keep the employees and still make the winery kosher.
“I’m not religious, but I like Judaism, and in this case my religion disappointed me,” he said.
Eventually he found a haredi rabbi, Rabbi Shmuel Vozner, who came and visited. Vozner, who has since passed away, was one of the leading halachic authorities in the ultra-Orthodox world.
“It is so emotional for me to see what you’re doing here,” Rabbi Vozner said, according to Yitzhaki. “I’m crying because of the conflict here,” referring to the conflict between observance of Jewish law and providing meaningful work for adults with special needs.
In the end, Rabbi Vozner, who also gave kosher certification in the US, found a way that the adults with disabilities can do more than three-quarters of the jobs they were doing before. Yitzhaki said that not one employee was fired, but several did have to switch jobs.
Yitzhaki says that some of the repetitive jobs, including sorting the grapes, putting empty bottles on the machine, and wrapping gift packages, are especially well suited to the employees with disabilities.
“After two hours, I would be going crazy,” he said. “But they are happy and enjoy doing this work.”
Tulip Winery is known for interesting blends of varietals of wine that don’t often go together. The White Tulip (NIS 75 per bottle) is a refreshing blend of 70% Gewürztraminer (a semi-dry grape popular in Germany and Austria) with 30% Sauvignon Blanc. It’s floral, light and well suited to Israel’s hot summers.
An especially unique wine is the White Franc (NIS 79). It is a blend of 75% Cabernet Franc grapes and 25% Sauvignon Blanc. Cabernet Franc is a red wine grape, and this is a white wine, so it’s made in the blanc de noir style in which the skins are removed from the grapes before they are pressed.
The reds are also unique. The Tulip Espero (NIS 109) is a blend of Syrah (Shiraz), Merlot and Cabernet Franc that come together beautifully. The flagship Black Tulip (NIS 240) is an intense Bordeaux-style blend that changes each year.
As yet another example of the winery’s commitment to inclusion, Yitzhaki held an art competition among disabled adults for the label’s design.
Tulip has recently launched a second label called Maia for Mediterranean style wines, made from Carignan, Syrah and Mourvèdre grapes. Maia currently produces 30,000 bottles per year.