Psagot winery accentuates its biblical roots

Wineries over the Green Line face opposition from local, but not international, customers.

Psagot winery (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
Psagot winery
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
Yaakov Berg tells a story about the Baron Edmond de Rothschild, who invested massively in wine production in Europe and Ottoman Palestine in the 19th century; his wineries produced top-quality product. But when asked which vintage was his personal favorite, his answer always returned to a time when he was 17 and sitting with a woman.
“Wine is connected to the experience,” says Berg, who established the winery with his wife, Na’ama, in 2003.
If experience is one of the major components of a good wine tasting, Psagot has pulled out all the stops. Perched 550 meters above sea level in the windswept hills of the Binyamin region, north of Jerusalem on the West Bank, the visitors center overlooks the rocky hills that pour out towards the Dead Sea. When we arrive on a recent Friday, a large bat mitzva event is taking place, so we are ushered into a small theater and shown a 25-minute film.
Surprisingly, the movie – perhaps in line with Berg’s own view that wine is not just about the libation, but the elements surrounding it – was not about the wine itself, but instead a somewhat hokey tale about the people and land behind it.
A city slicker who is about to move to London from Tel Aviv for a promising work opportunity must take over his father’s winery in Binyamin when the elder falls ill. He struggles through unresolved issues with an old girlfriend, who in keeping with her old- school, national-religious values has moved back to the area; and working the land, all the while having visions of Jewish history and biblical events. “Every stone has a story; every hill a view,” his old love reminds him. Wine is a theme throughout; at one point, our hero sneaks in a bottle and a shwarma for his hospitalized dad.
Later, he finds a 3,000-year-old urn near Shiloh, drawing parallels between Jewish settlement today and in the biblical period. There is something poetic in this, as in addition to the Book of Jeremiah’s parable of the potter and the clay, the urn is supposed to symbolize how the winery owner’s son rebuilds his own life.
As the film ends, we are ushered into a plush tasting room that seem suspended between a darkened hall full of barrels and another with vats of wine.
This is the essential element of any wine tour: getting close to the product.
A tasty coconut cake and coffee are brought out for everyone. A representative from Kedem, with his wife, is also at the tasting.
We begin with a 2011 Cabernet Franc, a grape variety widely planted in France but usually blended with Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon. Berg is proud of his Franc, and he should be – it is robust and spicy. “I could speak for days about wine; you can study to be a vintner and in this way it is a whole world, not just a drink.”
Berg is big on talking about the differences between old- and new-world winemaking, contrasting his experiences in California with those in France.
California vineyards are usually modern in structure and focused on the business end; whereas in France, each castle-like lot of land has been farmed for centuries and the focus is on the legacy of making the family wine, rather than making money, he asserts.
We drink through several more bottles, with their trademark Second Temple- era coin on the label, including a delicious and well-rounded 2011 Shiraz and Merlot. The 2012 Edom, which is a benchmark blend for the winery (75-percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 25% Merlot) harvested from vineyards in the Jerusalem Hills, was a gold-medal winner in the 2008 Terravino competition and silver winner in the 2009 Vinalies competition – yet it honestly did not seem as good as the others.
One of the winners of the series is their 2011 single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon; at NIS 220 a bottle, it is the most expensive as well.
One of the issues facing Psagot is not the difficulty of making a quality wine; producing some 200,000 bottles a year, it is well-regarded in the industry and produce an excellent product. Rather, the hurdle before them is the political situation. Berg notes that the main opposition to bottles produced over the Green Line comes from Israeli customers, primarily in the Center. “Restaurants in Tel Aviv won’t buy our wine, and many wine writers won’t cover it.”
But Berg is passionate about combating this problem, and bringing his vintages to Israeli palates. Despite leaps and bounds in quality over the last 20 years – which previously consisted of syrupy Manischewitz-type kiddush wines – he notes that outside the Jewish state, around 99% of Israeli wine is still stuck being sold primarily to Jewish customers. In a sense, one gets the feeling these Israeli wines, whatever their virtues, are not escaping the Jewish ghetto. Still, “we try to sell to people that have a heart for Israel.”
Is it a pricing issue abroad, with Israeli wines retailing for $50 a bottle or more while their American, Australian or South American competitors go for less? Berg doesn’t think this is a major factor, though he acknowledges that as a producer he must pay more for labor, land, supplies such as barrels, bottles and labels, and water.
As the tasting wraps up, he puts on another video describing the history of Jewish settlement and winemaking in Binyamin. One wonders if all the attempts to convince visitors of the Jewish attachment to the land and the importance placed on heritage and history are necessary – as the wine speaks for itself.
It is understandable that some will ask about politics, or will want to be part of the story of Jews reconnecting to their winedrinking biblical roots. For others, it is just about love of the vino.