Pressing for broad recognition

Israeli wines have come a long way, but are still struggling for acknowledgment outside the kosher category.

Eli Ben-Zaken, founder and owner of the Castel winery, Moshav Ramat Raziel (photo credit: COURTESY CASTEL WINERY)
Eli Ben-Zaken, founder and owner of the Castel winery, Moshav Ramat Raziel
Robert Parker, founder of the Wine Advocate newsletter, is arguably the most influential wine critic in the world. A swirl around his cultured palate can make or break a wine; his pronouncements shake the entire industry.
Eight years ago, Israeli vintners asked Parker to taste their wines. They wanted to prove the world wrong about Israeli wine and prove it wrong they did.
“The region’s wines are getting better all the time, and some are superb,” Parker wrote.
Israeli kosher wines are no longer the cloying sweet wine that many consider Passover’s eleventh plague. You can’t argue with the numbers. A Parker score of above 90 points means an outstanding wine of exceptional complexity and character, and so far 23 Israeli wines have attained this rank.
Over the past two decades, Israelis have taken to winemaking with the same zeal they channel into high-tech startups. They planted vineyards, even in the desert, and founded hundreds of boutique wineries that have won prizes in international blind tasting competitions. Israelis study oenology in France, Italy, California and Australia, and invest in state-of-the-art equipment.
“Israeli wines are good, but that is not to say that the French and Italians are quaking in their boots,” Adam Montefiori, wine development director at the Carmel winery points out to The Jerusalem Report.
“Israel has world-class wines and it’s a very exciting, dynamic industry. I don’t think we have arrived. We are on a journey. It’s a miracle where we have got to today and it will be interesting in the next 25 years.”
Israel’s nascent wine industry has accomplished in the span of two decades what it took other countries centuries to do. In 2014, Wine Spectator magazine selected a Recanati Cabernet Sauvignon as one of the top 100 out of 18,000 wines.
“It will take the wine industry a long time to evolve,” Gil Shatsberg, a vintner at Recanati tells The Report. “It’s an ongoing, large-scale experiment, something they don’t have to do in Burgundy.”
He is pouring wine for the dozens that crowd the Recanati booth at the Jerusalem Wine Festival, which took place in August at the Israel Museum’s sculpture garden.
Thousands of aficionados, glasses in hand, tasted wines from more than 60 wineries under a crescent moon and with the twinkling lights of Jerusalem all around.
Last year’s edition of Hugh Johnson’s “Pocket Wine Book,” the world’s best-selling wine book, listed 30 Israeli wineries and gave three, Castel, Yatir and Yarden, the top score, putting them in the same league as some of the best in the world.
Le’chaim! Those are impressive accomplishments.
But can Israel break out of the kosher wine niche and be recognized as a serious wine-producing region? “At the mid-level, there are a lot of lovely wines that are just as good as many popular wines now sold in the world.
They deserve a market. If the label said “France” and not “Israel” they would have one. However, I’m not sure that the “upper level” of truly great wines really exists as yet. If you could make the argument for an occasional one, it isn’t many,” Mark Squire, a member of the Wine Advocate team assigned by Parker to do the tastings of Israeli wines, remarks to The Report in an e-mail response.
SQUIRE DOESN’T believe oenophiles will take Israeli wines seriously due to the “kosher” stigma.
“Let me repeat what I’ve said to many producers: Until you get to the point where Giancarlo from Naples, Italy… is interested in the wines because he thinks they are good wines at the right price, rather than because he’s Jewish or religious, and needs the wine for cultural or religious purposes, the region is never going to gain general acceptance as a serious wine region overall.”
“To me, progress in this regard has stalled. I don’t see anyone outside the ethnic base buying the wines. I’m sure there are some anecdotes, but I don’t see much evidence of non-Jews buying kosher wines on a regular basis. Most of the producers confirm this. It’s the industry’s most important problem. Although kosher Israeli wines are actually rather good now, that message is hard to send outside the ethnic and religious base of consumers.”
To be certified kosher, wine must be handled solely by Sabbath-observing Jews from the point the grapes are crushed until the wine is bottled. This has no effect on taste or quality.
It is mid-August, grape harvest time in Israel. In the yard of the Domaine du Castel winery in the Judean Hills, chardonnay grapes grown at an altitude of 740 meters hand-picked that morning are noisily destemmed and crushed. Orthodox young men wearing yarmulkes carry crates of grapes.
Dressed in jeans, a polo shirt and a dapper Panama hat he bought in Napa Valley, California, Eli Ben-Zaken, the softspoken owner of the Castel winery, takes stock. Here, next to his house in Moshav Ramat Raziel, 17 kilometers (10 miles) from Jerusalem, he planted the first vineyard.
There, in a former stable, the selftaught winemaker produced his first vintage of 600 bottles, a blend of merlot and cabernet sauvignon he thought to give to friends. By chance, one of the bottles was tasted by British expert Serena Sutcliffe, Master of Wine at Sotheby’s in London, who described it as “absolutely terrific ... a real tour de force, brilliantly made.”
Now, 20 years later, the winery, which produces 100,000 bottles a year, has won a slew of prestigious prizes, including 93 points on the Parker scale. Ben-Zaken has been knighted by the French government for raising the quality of Israeli wines to that of French wines.
The cellar of the Castel winery (photo credit: COURTESY CHILLAG WINERY)
Other winemakers have followed him to the Judean Hills, reviving an ancient wine industry that goes back to Biblical times. Judea exported wine to Rome as evidenced by ancient remnants of clay amphorae found throughout the coastal regions of France, Italy and Spain. Several thousand ancient wine presses have been unearthed in archaeological digs throughout Israel. Today, the Judean Hills region has more than 300 hectares of vineyards where there were none when Ben-Zaken planted the first in 1988.
“When I go to France, I buy wines that are within our price range, and at that price range, we are usually better,” he says, sitting in the winery’s elegant tasting room pouring wines for a visitor. Works by Israeli artists decorate the walls and a heavy French brocade curtain trims the window.
Ben-Zaken, 71, doesn’t believe it is the kosher factor that is holding Israeli wines back. It’s the price. “The kosher thing has nothing to do with non-Jews buying an Israeli wine. It all has to do with pricing.
The low end of the Israeli production is not cheap enough and it’s not large enough.
We don’t have cheap wines that can be sold in the millions of bottles. The industry is not geared for a mass market,” he asserts to The Report.
Unlike other wine-producing countries, the Israeli government does not subsidize the industry.
With all that he has accomplished and with his three children working with him in the winery, Ben-Zaken still has a dream.
“Our ambition is to be in New York on a shelf that is not a kosher shelf and that people will pick up the bottle for the quality and because the price is competitive.
They will say, for this price, instead of drinking a bad French Burgundy I can get a really great Israeli one. But this will take time. We’re not there yet. It won’t be in my generation.”
There are some 300 wineries in Israel; 14 dominate the market and the rest are small, family-run boutique operations, according to Zahi Dotan, general manager of the Israeli Wine & Grapes Board.
Israel produces about 45 million bottles a year and there are some 5,000 hectares of vineyards under cultivation, a minuscule amount compared to France. Some 50 percent of Israeli wine is sold during Passover.
The Chillag winery is one of the few forgoing kosher certification. It is also one of the few wineries owned by a woman and the two facts are connected. Since only Orthodox men are permitted to handle the wine during its making, that would exclude Orna Chillag from the process and she won’t have it. The Chillag winery, which produces 20,000 bottles a year, is located in the town of Yehud outside of Tel Aviv in a nondescript industrial facility.
Orna Chillag, founder and owner of the Chillag winery, harvests grapes in Moshav Kerem Ben-Zimra, in the Upper Galilee (photo credit: COURTESY CHILLAG WINERY)
Making up for the location’s lack of charm is Chillag’s colorful, bigger-than-life personality. This morning, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, her blond hair tied back in a ponytail, Chillag is delighted. A truck filled with boxes of purple Grenache grapes has just arrived from Mitzpe Ramon in the Negev Desert.
“I’ve got to work,” she says and jumps up from her chair during an interview in her cluttered office, which also doubles as a tasting room. She grabs clusters of grapes by the armful and feeds them into the crusher.
“I think Israel is one of the greatest places to grow wine,” she enthuses to The Report. “The Mediterranean basin is the cradle of good wine. On average, we do better wine than the average French and Italian wines.”
Israel has good terroir – the term that describes how a particular region’s climate, soils and terrain affect the taste of wine. In fact, for such a small country, Israel has many growing regions ranging from the high altitudes and volcanic soil of the Golan Heights all the way south to Mitzpe Ramon, where a visionary had the audacity to plant vineyards in the desert.
The Chillag winery is considered one of the veteran boutique wineries.
“Sixteen years in Israel is considered an eternity,” says Chillag, with a slight shake of her head and a smile.
CHILLAG WORKED at the Tel Aviv municipality and was in Rabin Square the night prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. “At that point, I decided that politics is dead. I wanted to do something where I could plant my roots in the soil.”
She quit her job and left her husband and young daughter in Tel Aviv, and moved to Italy for two years to study winemaking, flying back and forth on weekends. She stayed another year to do an internship at Antinori in Tuscany, one of Italy’s foremost wineries.
When she returned, a good review of her wine from the late Israeli wine critic Daniel Rogov, put her in the spotlight. In 2001, she was honored with a Knighthood of Castellina, awarded in Italy to women for their contributions to wine.
“To have a winery in Israel, you have to be a little bit crazy and decide not to be a rich person,” she says.
“You see this bottle of wine?” she asks, and gets up to retrieve a bottle from one of the many cartons that clutter her office.
“Look at the year on the label ‒ 2009, and I’m selling it now, six years later, for about NIS 70 ($18). Waze started at about the same time as this wine and they got a billion dollars when they were acquired by Google.”
For Chillag, the problem with Israeli wine is that there is nothing particularly Israeli about it. It is grown from the same grape varieties available in Europe and California. “We are good. We are fabulous, but still we are not doing anything that anybody else cannot do,” she says.
The early winemaking industry in Israel ended when the Muslims conquered the area in 600 CE and uprooted the vineyards due to Islam’s prohibition of alcohol.
After more than 1,000 years, winemaking started again when Baron Edmond de Rothschild visited Palestine in 1887, purchased land and sent experts from France.
The grapevines also came from France.
“The sad thing is that we don’t have our special varieties that were indigenous to this area in ancient time,” she laments. We don’t know what the original vines were.”
That may change very soon.
Just a few months ago, in March, while digging in the ancient remains of Elusa, a city in the Negev region between Beersheba and Gaza, University of Haifa archaeology professor, Guy Bar-Oz, discovered hundreds of grape seeds dating back to the 5th century CE in an ancient garbage dump. “We know winemaking was a major part of the economy based on the fact that there are many wine presses and remnants of wine jars in the area,” he says.
“The next step is to do the DNA testing and decipher some of the genetic information, which will provide clues to the varieties that were grown here,” he says. “This is something new and very exciting.”
Meanwhile, in New York City, filmmaker Roger Sherman, who has just completed filming a two-hour documentary about Israel’s astounding gourmet food and wine revolution, has made a discovery of his own that is sure to delight Ben-Zaken and other Israeli winemakers.
“This year for the first time I have found four wines stores in New York City that have put Israeli wines outside of the kosher section and I think that is a big deal,” he says to The Report. “It’s a start.”