Wine Talk: Farewell, Freddie

The late Alfred Stiller was one of the people who made Israeli wine what it is today.

wine barrels 311 (photo credit:
wine barrels 311
(photo credit:
In this column, I usually find myself writing about wines and the places where they are made. What has been missing is the people who make the wine. It is the combination of wine and place with the human aspect that makes wine such a fascinating beverage. So with this in mind, I want to consider the career of a winemaker who was a central figure in Israeli wine for so long: Alfred Stiller, who died recently.
Freddie Stiller was born in Poland in 1930 and made aliya in 1950. He studied food science and technology at the Technion in Haifa. After completing his second year, he took a holiday job to earn pocket money. By chance, he chose Zichron Ya’acov Wine Cellars as the place to begin his working career, simply because Zichron Ya’acov was close to where he lived. He helped out during the harvest purely because it fitted in with his holidays.
In 1957 he began to work at Rishon Lezion Cellars in the laboratory and he progressed to become chief winemaker in 1973. In 1976, he became technical director and chief winemaker of Carmel Mizrahi, which included being responsible for production at both Rishon Lezion and Zichron Ya’acov wineries, which were the two largest in Israel. The combined harvest was up to 40,000 tonnes of grapes a year, which is similar to the total harvest of the Israel wine industry today! In addition to producing wine and grape juice, he was also the master distiller, responsible for producing five million bottles of spirits, including brandy.
In the same way an artist is remembered for his paintings, a winemaker is remembered for his wines. Stiller was responsible for the legendary Carmel Special Reserve 1976, arguably Israel’s first “fine” wine. It was made from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, sourced from three vineyards in and near Rishon Lezion. It was the first premium Israeli wine to be aged in small French oak barrels and then to be aged in bottle for release. The wine was still alive, shocking experts, over 20 years later.
The wines of Yarden, Castel and Yatir were to reach further and gain greater recognition for Israel as genuine world class wines, but Carmel was the first Israeli wine made to international standards.
The Selected label was created during Stiller’s tenure. It became the largest-selling brand in Israel, and remains so even until today. He introduced Grenache Rose and Emerald Riesling, which were the largest selling wines of the 1980s and 1990s respectively. He also developed Fantasia, a forerunner of today’s low-alcohol Moscato wines. Grenache Rosé, Emerald Riesling and Fantasia were responsible for introducing many people to the world of wine. He won a number of gold medals for his brandies, in which he had a special expertise. Carmel’s Brandies 777 and 100 all won major international gold medals. The biggest prize was the “Trophy for Best Brandy Worldwide” awarded to the Carmel 100 Brandy, nine years old, at the International Wines and Spirits Competition in London. This was an outstanding award for Israeli brandy.
In 1995 he retired, having devoted all his working life to Carmel. He will remembered as someone who straddled the technological revolution of Israeli wine. He was a Polish gentleman, always polite, kind and eager to help.
The number of Israeli winemakers who passed through his hands also says something. These include Israel Flam, ex-chief winemaker at Carmel, now part of the family winery Flam; Kobi Gat, retired winemaker, agronomist and wine educator; Mendel Gil, winemaker at Rishon Lezion Cellars; Philippe Lichtenstein, winemaker of Arza Winery; Arieh Nesher, winemaker of Tabor Winery; Arkadi Papikian, winemaker of Amphorae and winemaking consultant; Shiki Rauchenberger, winemaker of Teperberg Winery; Ed Salzberg, chief winemaker of Barkan Winery; Gil Shatsberg, winemaker of Recanati Winery; Zvi Skaist, winemaker of Jerusalem Winery; Amram Surasky, ex-winemaker of Binyamina Winery, now at Villa Wilhelma Winery; Chaim Wachtenchaim, winemaker of Rishon Lezion Cellars. This list is like a who’s who of Israeli winemaking.In 2009, Stiller was awarded a special award “for his lifetime contribution to the development of the Israeli wine industry.”
Thankfully Freddie Stiller was able to enjoy his eight grandchildren for a few years. He was happy to reminisce and talk about old times until the end. He appropriately lived in the place where the last vineyards of Rishon Lezion were situated before being grubbed up for real estate. His home was midway between Carmel Winery, where a modern Israeli wine industry was created in the late 19th century and the Gan Gatot, a garden of old genuine wine presses from Byzantine times, excavated and preserved in modern Rishon Lezion. A connection of the ancient, with the new.
Farewell Freddie. Thank you for your 40- year contribution to Israeli wine!
Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes on wine in Israeli and international publications.