The spirit of Israel: Countering wine-washing with wine

How Israeli spirits trump Israel-bashing.

 The courtyard at Psagot Winery (photo credit: PSAGOT)
The courtyard at Psagot Winery
(photo credit: PSAGOT)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

Once a harsh desert and thorny hill strewn with dirt and rocks, Israel’s landscape is now vine-covered – stunning, intoxicating and producing award-winning wine on an international scale. 

“Wine symbolizes biblical times and modern Israel like no other product,” wine writer Adam Montefiore told The Jerusalem Report.

Wine – and wine tourism – is booming in Israel, he said. 

But the industry is not just about wine tastings and the economy, it is about history, ideology and politics, explained Tel Aviv University Prof. Ariel Handel.

Welcome “wine-washing,” a coin termed by Handel in 2015 in a paper examining winemaking in the contested West Bank, known to the Jewish community in Israel as Judea and Samaria and to the Christian world as the “Biblical heartland.” 

 Inside Psagot Winery (credit: PSAGOT) Inside Psagot Winery (credit: PSAGOT)

The area was won by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War and has remained contested ever since.  An opinion writer for Al Jazeera recently was seen as hijacking Handel’s term when she claimed that “Israel is using its wine industry to distract from its other domestic pastimes like ethnic cleansing, apartheid and the periodic massacre of Palestinians.” 

Handel told the Report that “wine-washing is actually a version of white-washing and it talks about depoliticizing a situation using some kind of artifact – in this case, wine. Instead of thinking of the occupied territories as contested, a place of checkpoints and clashes and violence, it’s thinking about them as a place of good wine, tourism and a high quality of life.”

Zionist activist and wine advocate Adam Scott Bellos, the CEO of the Israel Innovation Fund who founded Wine on the Vine – a project to encourage Diaspora Jews to plant vines in Israel – admitted that wine-washing is “somewhat real.” But he said that much more so, the wine industry’s growth in recent years is simply the revitalizing and rebirth of the culture and practices of the ancient Israelites.

“They [those who use the term] wine-washing make it political. We are growing grapes and producing wine because that is the cultural heritage in the land of Israel, and that is what our ancestors did and we know that.”

Heritage vines, indigenous grapes

In recent decades, Israeli and Palestinian researchers and winemakers are looking to the find the Holy Land’s heritage vines and endemic vine species and to market the wines they make from them as the wine that Jesus drank or the wine from the Temple – “wine that has lived with us for 2,000 years,” Handel said. “It is interesting how people talk about indigenous wines but they are really talking about themselves. Because the wine reflects their own identity and has become emblematic of how people are related to their place.”

In a new paper by Handel and Prof. Daniel Monterescu of Central European University, published in August 2019 in American Ethnologist, the researchers note the work of Elyashiv Drori, a molecular biologist at Ariel University, who set up a research laboratory and experimental vineyard in the West Bank settlement of Ariel. Drori is trying to find connections between indigenous grapes and Jewish history. 

“For Drori, a Jewish settler and a major player in the scientific project of mapping and recovering native species, the goal of his project is no less than to ‘create an identity,’” Handel and Monterescu wrote.

“People ask me about the purpose of the research. I tell them that the goal was almost ideological,” they quote Drori as saying. “The goal was to create an identity for the Israeli wine industry, which is now struggling and debating and not knowing exactly what it is… Our scriptures are filled with wine and grapes. We have a very ancient identity, and for me it is very important to restore this identity. It is a matter of national pride.”

Handel and Monterescu explain that for the last decade, Drori has been collecting local grape samples and genetically mapping them, ultimately narrowing down 130 unique samples of wild grapes to around 30 “native Israeli varieties.” Then, they determine which of these varieties should be suitable for wine production. Finally, they analyze archeological macroremains, which means extracting DNA from the dried grapes found in excavations to determine which species were used 2,000 years ago.  

“At the end of the process, Drori hopes to ‘get an entire plant from a seed forgotten some 2,700 years ago,’” the team writes. When it is all combined, the ancient wine industry is effectively re-created and with-it what Drori calls the “story of indigeneity.”

“The ancient wine press, the story and the native wine itself, all together, will tailor wine tourism to Israel,” Drori told Handel and Monterescu.

Bellos phrases it another way: “Cultural kiruv.” Kiruv is a term usually used to mean bringing secular Jews closer to Judaism. But in this case, it is about bringing young Jews closer to Israel and their Jewish heritage through the land.

“When you drink a glass of Israeli wine that is your history in a cup, our story in a bottle,” he said. “The land of Israel is a vineyard and the Jewish people are its grapes.”

The Jewish narrative writes out the non-Jews, focusing on the omnipresence of wine in the Bible and Jewish tradition, while claiming the Muslim prohibition against drinking alcohol meant that the Palestinians abandoned the craft. In contrast, the Palestinian narrative focuses on the unbroken tradition of family winemaking among Christian Palestinians, Handel explained. 

“Palestinians produce a discourse of indigenous rootedness that attempts to tip the uneven power relations,” Handel and Monterescu wrote. “Ultimately, for both Jewish Israelis and Palestinians, reconstructing indigenous wines is also a practice of reviving national identity and inventing tradition.”

Handel told The Jerusalem Report, “If I have a grove in Har Bracha or Psagot or near Hebron and my wine won a medal in an international contest or something, it means that I have proof of my relation to this place. If I made wine on this hill and it was acknowledged as mine and as a good product, that testifies to my connection to the land.”

 A signpost to two wineries in the Samarian hills. (credit: ADAM BELLOS) A signpost to two wineries in the Samarian hills. (credit: ADAM BELLOS)
The first indigenous grapes

The first Palestinian wine made from indigenous grapes was released in 2008 by Cremisan Winery near Bethlehem and made its international mark five years later when its Star of Bethlehem Hamdani Jandali 2011 won the top score in a wine from the Holy Land tasting in London. The wine is a blend of two indigenous grape varieties: hamdani and jandali.

Cremisan produces three native wines – baladi, dabouki and jandali-hamdani – and identifies as a Palestinian winery, though it cooperates closely with Israeli partners, Handel said.

A year after Cremisan won the London competition, the Israeli Recanati Winery began producing a wine from the same hamdani grape, which is got access to “from an anonymous Palestinian vintner in the Bethlehem area,” according to Handel and Monterescu. It called its wine “Marawi,” another name for the hamdani grape.

“Marawi 2014 was heralded by Israeli winemakers and wine critics as nothing short of a ‘revolution,’” the researchers wrote. However, they added, “given the charged intersection of history, space, identity, and politics in Israel/Palestine, the Marawi has gained notoriety not in the wine press but in the news and politics sections.

“The marawi or hamdani grape plays a role in this quest for the holy grail of indigenous authenticity in a colonial space inhabited by two populations fighting over the question of who was there first,” they said.

Israel’s ‘incredibly dynamic’ wine industry 

Israel’s wine industry has developed in its own right – an industry described by Montefiore, who has worked in the field for more than 30 years, as “technologically advanced with research and development unequaled by many other countries” and “incredibly dynamic” with wine professionals trained all over the world. 

Montefiore said that in the last three decades the country’s wine industry has changed in “incredible” ways. If in the 1980s there were 12 wineries, today there are around 350. 

The country exports around $50 million in wine, which is small compared to other wine-making countries but large for a state whose government provides less support than most wine-producing countries, Montefiore explained. 

The majority is sent to North America, followed by France and the United Kingdom. Thirteen large wineries produce over a million bottles a year and dominate 95% of the market. The other 300-plus wineries account for the remaining 5%, he said.

Montefiore does not talk politics. Rather, he said that when it comes to wine, those wineries located in the territories are producing some “very good wines.” 

He refers to Judea as the “central mountain region” of the country to describe its topography. “It’s a very good wine growing area: high altitude, good soil shadow… Two-thousand or 3,000 years ago, it was quite a big wine growing area,” Montefiore said. 

But it was not only Jews who were doing the planting, he added. “People don’t know, but Palestinian Christians have always made wine. They have been making wine here for a long, long time. And what is so interesting is that the woman of the house used to make the wine,” Montefiore said. 

The natives would grow vines to shade their homes, he said. They would eat what they could and then preserve the fruit by making raisins, molasses or wines. The families would drink the wine in the winter months and when it soured in the spring, would turn it into araq.

Making wines for generations

This is the story of Canaan Khoury, who has been running Taybeh Winery since 2013. His family, however, has been making wines for generations in Taybeh, located near Ramallah.

“Taybeh is a small village of around 1,000 people and it is the only remaining Christian town in this area,” Khoury told the Report. “Part of the culture in Taybeh is that many families have vines outside their homes that produce large quantities of grapes. We eat some of the grapes and turn the rest into wine, which is usually ready to be consumed around Christmas time.”

He described how on the holiday people would visit their extended families and taste their wine.

Khoury said that he has found 21 varieties that are only available in the territories and he makes wine from two of them: zeini and bitouni - the names of the grapes and the wines. But unlike Cremisan, which works closely with Israelis to market and sell its product, Taybeh Winery says the situation in the West Bank is integral to its terroir narrative. 

“It is impossible to be apolitical. You must be political,” Khoury told Handel and Monterescu. 

“Israeli confiscation of Palestinian lands, the disparities in water access between Palestinians and Jewish settlers, the military checkpoints that prevent grape transport and wine export and ultimately Israeli attempts to erase their indigenous ties to Palestine – all of these realities are part of the brand’s story and identity,” the researchers wrote.

Khoury told the Report that as a Palestinian winemaker, he is not wine-washing: “We are normal people trying to live and enjoy our lives, like every other people in the world.”

‘We came back to our homeland’

Not too far from Taybeh, a Jewish Israeli shares similar sentiments. 

“We came back to our homeland and the land waited for us and there was nothing in the land,” said Yaakov Berg, founder of Psagot Winery. “There was desert. No one was here. The Jews lived in Israel and always dreamed of living in Israel. After the Holocaust we established a new state in our homeland. If someone thinks this is not OK or that they have more of a connection to Israel than the Jewish people, it just does not make any sense.”

Berg founded Psagot in 2003. He started by producing only 3,000 bottles. Today, the winery makes 700,000 bottles a year and has won some of the world’s top wine awards. It exports 50% of its product around the world.

Berg said what makes his wine unique is the terroir – the area is the most ancient wine-making area in the world. It was known for producing the highest quality grapes during the reign of Julius Caesar (46 – 44 BCE). 

When he started the winery, his team discovered an ancient winery just under their building dated back to the time of the Second Temple and with it an ancient coin on which was written “For the Freedom of Zion.” Psagot uses that coin on each of its bottles to tell the story of its wine. “A lot of people are really attached to that part of our story,” he said.

The winery recently made headlines when a bottle of its wine was served at US Vice President Kamala Harris’s Passover table. Berg does not know how it got there, but said either her staff was looking for “very good wine” and the wine store recommended it or maybe because freedom is discussed during the Passover Seder the bottle was chosen for its coin. 

“They know that we finally came back to our homeland and I hope they talked about that at their Seder,” Berg said. 

He prides himself on employing around 25 Palestinian workers who he says make three times as much per hour as they would working for a Palestinian company. 

“They benefit from having our winery in the area and the rest is politics,” Berg stressed. “If someone wants to use politics against us - I really don’t get it.”

Wine in the Bible

Montefiore confirmed that the Bible – Jewish and New Testament – is flooded with wine. He cited stories from the first Five Books of Moses through the Prophets. 

Moreover, he said archeological finds have helped verify biblical stories, including 1,800-year-old wine cellars, presses and factories found across Israel. 

“One of the most amazing things in this country is that Israel is both ancient and modern and that shows through its wine more than anything else,” Montefiore said. 

“I am sure there are many people who feel the need to plant vines to claim the land,” Bellos added. “Others are simply planting because Israel is one of the best places in the world to make wine.”

What is next?

According to Montefiore, the Israeli wine industry is expected to grow. 

Christians will continue to buy Israeli wine because it is from the Holy Land. Jews will support it because they are Zionists. 

And the rest of the world will want Israeli wine on their list because it represents the best of the Eastern Mediterranean, Bellos said. 

“It is an incredible miracle how far we have come in 30 years,” he concluded.  ■