Published in The Jerusalem Post, March 25, 2016
For Shushan Purim, meet ten top Israeli winemakers: Shiki Rauchberger of Teperberg, Dr. Shivi Drori of Gvaot, Vered and Erez Ben-Saadon of Tura, Pierre Miodownick of Domaine Netofa, Jacques Capsouto of Capsouto, Eran Goldwasser and Ya’acov Ben Dor of Yatir, Eli Ben-Zaken of Domaine du Castel, Yisrael Flam of Flam, Ya’acov Berg of Psagot, and Sam Soroka of Jerusalem Winery.
The Purim punch line is venahfoch hu, turning things around; transforming the base and boorish into something sublime and spiritual. This applies also to wine consumption.
We imbibe wine not to get insanely drunk and commit debauchery, but to elevate ourselves to a higher level of consciousness and connect to Divine whispers in our history and our current reality.
Moreover, wine metaphorically has the power to take us back to the Garden of Eden, before the sin (which was wrought with grapes/wine, not an apple – according to one Talmudic view); to a state of being where there is no confusion between good and evil; no need for embarrassment; and no hiding from G-d.
In our generation, the Land of Israel is bursting with agricultural bounty, giving forth magnificent fruit to its indigenous people after 2,000 years of desolation and neglect. More than 55,000 dunams (15,000 acres) are now under grape cultivation – in the Galilee, Golan, Samarian and Judean mountains, in the Sharon and Samson plains, and in the heights of the northern Negev. As a result, there are excellent wines being vinified in Israel, to international acclaim.
Behind the 40 million bottles produced each year stand a few fascinating individuals: artisanal winemakers who trained here and abroad, and seek to stamp Israeli wines with their unique personal character. Please meet ten of them.
* Shiki Rauchberger has taken the oldest family winery in the country, Teperberg (founded in 1870!), into the modern era, producing over five million quality bottles a year. He studied viticulture in Rehovot and oenology at UC Davis, and is today one of the most respected winemakers in Israel who generously shares his expertise with many young vintners. Everybody in the industry knows and loves Shiki, for his wisdom and warm collegiality.
Teperberg’s Legacy Petit Verdot, Essence Malbec, and Inspire Meritage are world-class wines that should grace the table of any serious connoisseur.
* Dr. Shivi Drori of Gvaot Winery in Givat Harel near Shilo sources his grapes in vineyards that are 800 meters above sea level in the Ephraim and Samarian mountains. His flagship wine, Masada, is a Cabernet, sometimes blended with Merlot and Petit Verdot. Grab a bottle of the newly-released 2012 vintage, if you can.
Shivi is also the agriculture and oenology research coordinator for Samaria and the Jordan Rift. He runs an experimental micro-winery at Ariel University and a study group with winemaking colleagues. Through archeological and agricultural research they seek to rediscover local, indigenous varieties from ancient times that are suitable for winemaking in this country. The group has thus far cultivated six long-forgotten grapes: Marawi, Jandali, Dabouki, Balouti, Zeituni and Karkashani. This effort could yet revolutionize the whole industry and change Israel’s wine narrative.
* Vered and Erez Ben-Saadon established Tura Winery in 2003 in Rehelim, based on vineyards they planted in 1997 on Mt. Bracha, near Nablus; now considered one of the finest vineyards in the country, producing full-bodied, super-flavorful fruit. Their boutique winery is a highlight of any tour in Samaria, and has earned many enthusiastic fans in the global wine world. Tura’s 2013 Mountain Peak and 2015 Rose are great finds. Vered is the exquisite face of the winery, with an emotional personal story to tell, and great passion for the mountains and grapes of Judea and Samaria – davka!
* Pierre Miodownick was for decades the chief kosher winemaker in Europe for Royal Wines, overseeing wine produced in five countries, including some of most rarified French chateaus. Pierre began planting his own vineyards in the lower Galilee around Mt. Tabor in 2006, with an emphasis on Chenin Blanc, Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrah, Tempranillo, Touriga Nacional and Roussanne. These grapes are native to Spain, Portugal and France’s Rhone Valley, and Pierre argues that they are more suited to Israel’s Mediterranean climate than the classic Bordeaux or Burgundy varietals.
His Domaine Netofa Winery has the most stunningly-appointed tasting room (in Mitzpe Netofa north of the Golani junction), and is definitely worth visiting. The flagship Netofa Dor Syrah 2012 is remarkable (made from grapes grown in the Ein Dor Valley). Try also the fresh 2013 Chenin Blanc, and the Latour Netofa Syrah-Mourvedre blend.
* Jacques Capsouto is another believer in planting Mediterranean-climate varietals in Israel. The Egyptian-French-American entrepreneur closed his famous Capsouto Frères restaurant in Tribeca, New York City, and founded the Capsouto Winery in Moshav Hosen near Pekiin.
He has released a unique white wine blend of Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Roussanne and Clairette; a Rose made from Cinsault, Grenache and Mourvedre; and a red made from Grenache, Mourvedre, Counoise and Syrah.
* Eran Goldwasser and Ya’acov Ben Dor are the duo behind the incredible success of Yatir Winery. Eran is the celebrated Australian-trained winemaker. Ya’acov is the founding CEO of the enterprise, who oversees the vineyards in the southern Hebron hills with the passion of a true expert in the flora and viniculture of the Land of Israel.
Ya’acov is also the marketing soul of the winery. He gives the most exhilarating, knowledge-packed tours of the Yatir forest and vineyard areas, laced with Biblical, Zionist, and botanical scholarship; followed by an erudite wine-tasting experience.
Go out and buy as many bottles possible of the Yatir 2011 Cabernet and the flagship 2012 Yatir Forest (a Bordeaux-style blend).
* Eli Ben-Zaken’s Domaine du Castel Winery, based at Yad Hashemona and Ramat Raziel in the Jerusalem mountains, is at the top of the game. Eli was born in Alexandria and educated in England, Italy and Switzerland. His cosmopolitan background is reflected in his old world winemaking.
I recently enjoyed a vertical tasting of the 2008-2012 vintages of his flagship Grand Vin wine, a perennial masterpiece, along with insightful personal commentary from Eli and his daughter Ilana (the winery’s export manager). The winery’s second-tier offering, Petit Castel, is no less outstanding, and its Chardonnay “C” is one of the driest and best in the country.
* Yisrael Flam is one of the grand figures of Israeli winemaking, having led the gigantic Carmel Winery for years. In “retirement,” Yisrael joined his sons Golan and Gilad who founded a classic European family estate winery, not-surprisingly called Flam, in the Jerusalem foothills.
The seven Flam wines are all outstanding, ranging from the entry-level Classico, to the reserve series Cab, Merlot and Syrah, to the very expensive and rare “Noble” (a blend of Cabernet, Petit Verdot, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc; kosher since 2010). It’s well worth a visit to the Flam tasting room in the Kedoshim Forest, just south of Shaar Hagai; and you should on insist on meeting the affable Yisrael for an expansive conversation.
* Ya’acov Berg founded Psagot Winery in Binyamin, north of Jerusalem, in a beautiful stone structure overlooking Wadi Kelt and the mountains of Edom. He is a passionate fighter against European boycotts of “settlement produce” and an excellent global marketer of Biblically-inspired packages of food and health products from Yesha.
Berg ages some of his wines in a nearby cave, where a seal was found from winemaking in Temple times. A replica of that seal now graces some of the Psagot bottles. I recommend the Cabernet Sauvignon Single Vineyard and “Edom” Cab-Merlot blend.
* Sam Soroka is a Canadian winemaker-oenologist with winemaking experience in France, Australia and the US, who has worked for Carmel, Mony and Montefiore wineries. He is now chief winemaker at Jerusalem Wineries in Atarot, working with the new CEO Erez Winner.
The winery’s grapes come from all over the country: the Shilo region, coastal plain (Zichron Ya’acov, Karmei Yosef and Lachish), and the Gedera-Mazkeret Batya area. The Jerusalem Winery 2013 Reserve Gewürztraminer is excellent, with aromas of orange jam and yellow peach, and a tangy freshness on the palette.
Pour some outstanding local wine this Purim weekend, in celebration of Israel’s strength, creativity and spirituality!