By RON FRIEDMAN
The maturation of the Israeli wine industry in recent years has led the Tourism Ministry to consider developing an Israeli wine route, similar to the ones found in the Napa Valley in California or the Stellenbosch district in South Africa.
A visit to the Carmel Winery in Zichron Ya'acov last week convinced Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov that promotion of such a route would be a draw for international tourists and help develop local businesses.
Misezhnikov, who visited the town and the surrounding area to learn more about the wine industry and its tourism potential, was impressed enough to call for a plan to be drawn up and over the next few weeks details of the project will be more fully developed.
Wine tours have just started to become popular among foreign tourists visiting the country and several tour operators have begun offering tours of Israel's wine regions to interested groups.
"If you go to Napa Valley in California, you travel 800 kilometers and see a whole range of landscapes and topographies. If you go on to the Golan Heights, in 40 kilometers you can see the same range of differences in temperatures and climates," said tour operator Zel Lederman, owner of the Israel Travel Company, who came to Israel from Australia 19 years ago.
Lederman said that it was the acute differences between the different wineries and the personalities of the different wine growers that make the tours particularly informative and interesting for people who want to get to know the country and its people. "In each area you really get a local feel and I think the winemakers themselves reflect that," he said.
Sagee Levi from Gateway to Israel, who also offers wine tours, thinks that they and gourmet food tours have great potential. "The food sector is very developed in Israel, but most tourists don't know about it," said Levi. "There's definitely enough out there to keep visitors fully occupied and we aim to expose that side of Israel, to tourists who come to us."
Levi said that the one impediment to developing this kind of tourism is that it often takes place far away from the established hotel regions on the coast and in Jerusalem. "If tourists want to go up to the Carmel or the Golan Heights, they'll have to find accommodations and so far, our bed and breakfast options are unknown and tend to be very expensive," he noted.
For Carmel Wineries wine development director Adam Montefiore, a regional or national wine route is the natural next step in the company's business trajectory. Carmel's rebranding process has in many ways mirrored Israel's wine transformation as a whole. From being a producer of a limited range of staple wines, Carmel Wineries (once Carmel-Mizrachi) now operates four wineries across the country, each with distinct features and different characteristics.
Aside from its two 120-year-old wineries in Rishon Lezion and Zichron Ya'acov, it also owns a state of the art boutique winery near Arad, a five-year-old winery in the Upper Galilee and an experimental micro-winery, also in Zichron Ya'acov. Similarly, Israel has gone from being known primarily for its sweet sacramental wines to gaining a reputation for mature wines enjoyed by sophisticated drinkers.
On his visit, Misezhnikov toured Carmel's new wine culture center, an upscale version of a winery visitor center, where guests are treated to 90-minute wine workshops and extensive tastings led by an Italian-trained sommelier.
Montefiore, a relative of the famous English philanthropist Moses Montefiore, said that the Zichron Ya'acov region was the perfect place to open a wine route.
"It is the one place in Israel where you can see wineries from the 1880s, 1960s 1980s and from the 21st century, so it's a perfect place for a wine tour. You can see big commercial wineries like Carmel next to specialty family owned micro-wineries," he said. But you can also do it in the Galilee, the Golan Heights, the Judea Mountains or the Negev, added Montefiore. "Each has its own particular winery groups, with a lot of potential."
Today Israel has more than 250 wineries that manufacture 33 million bottles every year. Of these, 150 are boutique wineries which produce less than 100,000 bottles a year and 90% of whom were built in the last 15-20 years. The Israeli Wine Industry is an NIS 850 million a year business, employing thousands of workers in the vineyards, cellars and offices.
A wine tour can be either the main purpose of a week-long visit or a day-trip for a family visiting Israel and looking for ways to spend a day outside. Learning about the history of wine manufacturing in the region is to delve into a 5,000-year-old story. For those who are concerned about driving after a day full of sipping vino, walking or bike tours are also available. And wherever there is a developed wine culture, good food is not far off.
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