Wine Talk: Wine revival

Established by Baron Rothschild as a wine village in 1889, the youth village Meir Shefeya is now home to a small winery.

Winery in Meir Shefeya (photo credit: Courtesy)
Winery in Meir Shefeya
(photo credit: Courtesy)
More than 120 years ago, Baron Edmond de Rothschild created two farming villages east of the southern slopes of Mount Carmel. These were intended to provide homes and agriculture for the overflow from Zichron Ya’acov. After experimenting with every possible type of crop, they settled on planting vineyards and growing grapes for wine production. This was how the settlement of modern Israel began, echoing biblical times, where wine was at the dawn of the Jewish people and a mainstay of the economy of the ancient Israelites. How pleased the baron would be to know that both Meir Shefeya and Bat Shlomo are now producing wine again.
The land of Meir Shefeya was purchased in 1887. The farming village was founded in 1889 and then settled in 1890. Contrary to popular belief, the place is not named after a man called Meir Shefeya. The ”Meir” part of the name is to commemorate Meir Amshel Rothschild, the grandfather of Baron Edmond and founder of the Rothschild dynasty in Frankfurt. “Shefeya” is a leftover of the Arab word meaning “health,” by which the place was previously known.
Meir Shefeya was half an hour’s walk from the mother settlement of Zichron Ya’acov. The new inhabitants built terraces and planted olive groves and vineyards in the difficult stony soils because these were crops that would not need irrigation.
There are two famous wine-growing families associated with Meir Shefeya. First is the Zimnavoda family. Yehuda Zimnavoda was chairman of the Wine & Grapes Board for nearly 20 years. He was also chairman of the wine growers’ cooperative. He had some of the finest Carignan vineyards in Shefeya.
The other is the Chemilitzky family. In 1925 they were renamed Tishbi by the national poet, Haim Nahman Bialik. Tishbi is an acronym for the sentence “A resident of Shefeya in Israel” (toshav Shefeya b’Yisrael).
The current head of the family, Yonatan Tishbi, was a real trendsetter in the Israel wine revolution. In 1985 he became the first grower to decide to form his own winery. This created a trend that the new rush of boutique wineries were to follow from the 1990s onwards. Tishbi is now the seventh-largest winery in Israel, with an enchanting, folksy visitors’ center situated at the winery, between Binyamina and Zichron Ya’acov.
However, to say that Meir Shefeya was a success would be an exaggeration. The farmers found it hard, and the number of people prepared to move there was small. So in 1923, Rothschild donated it to Henrietta Szold’s Hadassah organization, which founded a youth village there. The place then blossomed and never looked back.
The youth village is situated in the southeastern foothills of Mount Carmel. It is a beautiful setting, totally secluded, pastoral and adorned with olive trees and vineyards. The old houses of the few original inhabitants and the Rothschild administrators still may be seen. The village overlooks today’s vineyards in the valleys of Shefeya.
It is home to 300 residential students and another 300 who come from the surrounding area. The students range from every background. Here there are no stereotype separations, as Ashkenazim mix with Sephardim, Russian immigrants with Ethiopian immigrants, and there was even an intake of refugees from Eritrea. There are extra-talented students, and it is also a haven for children at risk and children with difficulties. It is a special place that shows the very best of Israel.
The village succeeds because of the unique atmosphere and the wonderful people and dedicated teachers that run it. One of the objectives is for the children to get in touch with their surroundings. So the children work in the village’s dairy, chicken farm, fruit orchards and the vineyards.
In 2005 they took things a stage further and opened a small winery, initially with technological assistance from the Binyamina Winery. Only one wine is produced, and the brave initiative continues today. The students are responsible for every stage of the process, from pruning in the vineyard to designing the label to go on the bottle. They learn about agriculture and its connection with industry. They learn about technology, science in the laboratory and the process of marketing a final product. It is a most practical and valuable explanation of the circle of life.
Today, the wine is produced by winemaker Koby Arens, himself from a well-established family of growers. He studied in Australia and worked for Carmel for many years. The coordinator of the project in the vineyard and winery is Ruti Ben-Israel, a sommelier who studied in Italy and opened and managed Zichron Ya’acov Winery’s Center for Wine Culture.
The wine label is an attractive mosaic of fingerprints of the students who made the first vintage. The message is clear: The wine growers leave their imprint on the final product. The wine itself, a Merlot, is ridiculous value for money, showing quality way above its selling price of NIS 40.
Ben-Israel plans next to make a Carignan. That is really the grape variety that symbolizes the modern history of Israeli wine. It has been here more than 130 years, when the Mikve Yisrael Agricultural School first brought cuttings from the south of France. No doubt today many of the new international varieties are more fashionable, but none tells the Israeli story like Carignan; and the finest Carignan in all Israel is grown in the valleys of Shefeya.
Bat Shlomo was purchased by Rothschild in 1885. The initial settlement was established in 1887, and it was permanently settled in 1890. This was also named after the Rothschild family. Bat Shlomo was named after Baron Edmond’s mother (and Zichron Ya’acov was named after his father). Meander down the founders street of the moshav today, and you are transported back to the beginnings of modern Israel and those brave pioneers who left the well-established mother settlement of Zichron Ya’acov to start a new life. In those days, it took an hour to walk there from Zichron!
Fast forward over 120 years and a modern day entrepreneur called Elie Wurtman, decided to create the Bat Shlomo Winery. He wanted to honor the pioneers by bringing back winemaking to the village. He sees the winery as a living museum.
In those early days, Rothschild provided the finance, and he sent the first winemaker from Bordeaux. Today the project is Wurtman’s and the wine expertise is from Californian Israeli, Ari Erle. He has worked at many different wineries in the Napa Valley and has been at the sharp end of winemaking and the business of wine in California. However much the financing and expertise is current and up to date, they are going back to base, using the same historical soils of Bat Shlomo where Israel’s early wine growers first planted vines. 
So they planted grapes, with the objective of making a true estate wine. Their first wine was a Sauvignon Blanc, a wine perfect for the Israeli climate and a great wine to accompany food.
These are two projects with roots deep in Israel’s wine history, which warm the heart. Two examples of 21st century Zionism, echoing the pioneers of the First Aliyah. However, best of all, the wines are both genuinely very good and offer excellent value.
Bat Shlomo Sauvignon Blanc 2012
Aromatic, lime fresh white wine with excellent acidity, Crisp and refreshing.
Meir Shfeya Merlot 2010 (NK)
Deep colored, fruity notes of plums and ripe berries, with good structure and a nicely balanced finish.

Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine in Israeli and international publications.
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