Mosaic Magazine, an important American Jewish intellectual publication, has published a trilogy of articles about the meaning of wine in Jewish life and tradition, and about quality kosher wines for Passover.
Rabbi Meir Soloveichik offers a deep explanation of how the seder’s four cups of wine elevate the holiday, while “two enthusiasts” recommend their favorite wines from the great regions of Jewish viticulture.
Joshua London suggests wines from the US, Italy and Spain.
David M. Weinberg (me!) recommends a set of Israeli wines while explaining the deep Biblical and Zionist echoes that reverberate in every glass of good Israeli wine.
My article focuses on the Zionist “redemption” involved in Israel’s modern wine revolution, and specifically on the wines and winemakers of Domaine Netofa, Bat Shlomo, Tura, Teperberg, and Matar – which I recommend for the five (!) cups of seder wine, plus dessert.
Published in Mosaic Magazine, March 22, 2021.
Israeli wines for Passover, by David M. Weinberg
In 1890, Baron Edmond de Rothschild’s new winery in Rishon LeZion, one of the first agricultural communities to be founded by Zionist pioneers, took in its first harvest.
David Yudelevich, one of the winery workers, described the scene in his journal: “The bell rang at 4 am to wake up the army of young and old, men and women and children, armed with pruning shears. The carts overflowing with grapes began streaming into the crushing vats, . . . and we all sang: ‘Awaken oh people of Israel. Your youth has returned to the Land. Your redemption is near.’”
One hundred and thirty years after this dramatic and emotional first harvest, the wines that Israel is producing are excellent, even internationally acclaimed. One of the world’s top wine journals, Wine Spectator, devoted a 2016 cover story to Israeli wines with the headline “Surprising quality from an emerging region.”
Over the past decade, Israeli wineries have garnered top-flight international awards for their products. The Carmel 2006 Shiraz won the International Trophy at the Decanter World Wine Awards, and the Golan Heights Winery received the Gran Vinitaly award for best global producer of wine in 2011. For Israel, these are unprecedented distinctions in two of the world’s toughest wine competitions.
Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate magazine, highly regarded for its rankings, gave Yatir Forest and Domaine du Castel Grand Vin scores of 93 points or more. Six Israeli wines from the Golan, Gvaot, Psagot, Shiloh, and Tulip wineries won gold medals at the 2020 Decanter World Wine Awards. Two of these went to the Shiloh Winery, which also earned seven silvers and four bronze.
Another of the gold-medalists, the Psagot winery in the Binyamin region to the north of Jerusalem, received the highest Decanter score of any Israeli wine, with 96 points for its Psagot Peak (a blend of Rhone Valley varietals: Syrah, Petite Syrah, and Mourvèdre).
But it earned far greater recognition just a few months ago, when then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited it to celebrate U.S. recognition of settlements as legitimate expressions of Jewish rights in Israel. Its owner, Yaakov Berg, is a passionate fighter against European boycotts of “settlement produce” and a global marketer of biblically inspired packages of food and health products from the West Bank.
However, quality grape-growing and winemaking is more than simply another Israeli “start-up nation” agricultural innovation. To me, the Israeli wine revolution is a sign of Divine favor; what Jewish tradition calls a siman muvhak – an undeniable, stark indication of support from the Heavens.
Consider the following: In the heyday of King Solomon’s reign in the 10th century BCE, it is said that “Judah and Israel dwelt safely, every man under his vine and under his fig tree, from Dan to Beersheba” (1Kings 5:5). Wine played a central role in Temple libations and celebrations, and in all community festivities. And in recent years, Israeli archaeologists have discovered hundreds of ancient wine presses and wine-storage amphorae from the First and Second Commonwealth periods.
After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, Jewish agriculture and viticulture in the Land of Israel went into decline, and in the 7th century the Muslim conquerors of the Holy Land literally ripped every grapevine out of the ground. This put an end to wine production for hundreds of years, while the Land of Israel lay desolate and neglected. Just 150 years ago, Mark Twain visited the Land of Israel and noted how utterly barren he found it.
Despite all this, modern Israel has become an internationally acclaimed wine center – just 150 years after Ze’ev Teperberg led the first Jewish grape harvest of modern times, and 130 years after Rothschild’s first harvest. How and why?
Some would start to answer this question by speaking of climate, soil conditions, and grape varieties – all of which are worthy topics. But I would prefer to look to the patriarch Jacob, who prophesied on his deathbed that, in the Land of Israel, the beverage would become so abundant that Judah “shall wash his garments in wine and his clothes in the blood of grapes” and that “his eyes will be shot red with wine” (Genesis 49:11-12). Centuries later, the prophet Ezekiel declared that in the days of redemption God would command the mountains of the Holy Land to “shoot forth your branches and yield your fruit to My people Israel; for they will soon come.”
It seems, then, that these biblical prophecies are coming true. Over the past century, the Land of Israel has awakened, giving forth fruit to its indigenous people as they return to, and renew, their ancient homeland.
I am overwhelmed with amazement at the “redemption” involved in Israel’s modern wine revolution. For me, there are biblical and Zionist echoes in every glass of good Israeli wine, and drinking it is a deep profession of faith. It is a celebration of the people, land, and God of Israel reunified.
It is noteworthy that halakhah, Jewish law, reflects the special status of wine made in Israel. Before drinking such wine, an additional blessing can be made in certain circumstances, known as ha-tov v’ha-metiv: Blessed is the Good One who does good—a blessing that is otherwise reserved for truly special circumstances such as the birth of a child. And only after drinking Israeli wine does one give thanks by intoning another special blessing: “Blessed is God, the Lord who gives us the Land of Israel and the fruit of its vines,” as opposed to the usual “for the land and the vine.”
PASSOVER MARKS the beginning of the Israelites’ journey from slavery in Egypt to sovereignty in the Promised Land. It thus seems appropriate to drink wine from Israel for the seder’s four requisite cups, which parallel the four phrases used in Exodus 6:6-7 to describe Divine redemption.
Below, I offer a selection of superb wines grown in very different Israeli terroirs—ranging from the volcanic Golan to the clay and terra rossa of the Galilee and the West Bank, and from the medium-heavy and loamy soils of the Sharon and Samson plains to the loess of the northern Negev.
For the first cup at the seder (kiddush), pour wines from Pierre Miodownick’s boutique winery called Domaine Netofa.
For decades, Miodownick was the chief winemaker in Europe for Royal Wines, overseeing kosher wine produced in five countries, including some of most rarified French chateaus like Rothschild’s Chateau Laffite. He began planting his own vineyards in the Lower Galilee around Mount Tabor in 2006, with an emphasis on varietals native to Spain, Portugal, and the Rhone Valley in southern France – such as Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah, Tempranillo, Touriga Nacional, and Roussanne. Pierre argues that these grapes are more suited to Israel’s Mediterranean climate than the classic Bordeaux or Burgundy varietals.
His winery in the town of Mitzpe Netofa (north of the Golani junction) has a stunningly appointed tasting room and is worth visiting. His flagship Dor Syrah is remarkable (made from grapes grown in the Ein Dor Valley), but this wine may be too heavy for the first cup of wine at the seder. Try the just-released Netofa Tel Qasser Moursyr 2018, an exhilarating medium-body Mourvèdre, blended with a small bit of Syrah.
For the second cup of wine (Maggid), pour wines from Bat Shlomo, a winery named for Betty Salomon (Shlomo), Baron Edmond de Rothschild’s mother.
The winery was established by an American immigrant and prominent entrepreneur, Elie Wurtman. Bat Shlomo’s Napa Valley-trained winemaker Ari Erle makes a velvety Chardonnay (scored at 90 points by Robert Parker), and a full-bodied, smooth Bordeaux blend called Betty’s Cuvée. If you prefer a lighter wine, try the winery’s rosé. On your next trip to Israel, make sure to visit the winery’s sleek new tasting room in a beautifully refurbished old home in the historic and quaint Bat Shlomo village near Zichron Yaakov on the coastal plain.
For the third cup of wine (Grace after the Meal), pour wines from Tura, Erez and Vered Ben-Saadon’s winery in the town of Rechelim in the Samarian highlands.
This young couple started out growing grapes in 1997 on Mount Bracha, near Nablus (Shechem). That vineyard is now considered one of the finest in the entire country, producing bold and fruity grapes in excellent conditions of viniculture (2,800 feet above sea level: hot and dry during the day, very cold at night), and it supplies grapes to many wineries across Israel. After a while, it became clear to the Ben-Saadons that they should produce their own wines, and olive oil too.
Erez is the winemaker, and Vered the marketing and public-affairs manager – a job that she does with great flair and charm. Part of any visit to their tasting room involves hearing Vered’s remarkable personal story. Her grandfather was a Nazi. As penance for his sins, she, along with her mother and sister, converted to Judaism, inspired by the return of the Jewish people to their ancient homeland.
Like Yaacov Berg, Vered is a high-profile activist for Jewish communities in the West Bank. She was a driving force behind the publication of the Comprehensive Guide to Israeli Wines 2016, which makes a point of including Israeli wineries in the West Bank.
For Passover, drink the high-end Bordeaux blend called Tura Mountain Peak, or the peppery Mountain Heights Shiraz. These big, bold, and smooth wines from the heights of Samaria will beautifully accompany the hearty meat dishes traditionally served at the seder. If you are preparing lighter fare, pour the Tura Mountain Vista Snow, a dry white wine that blends Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay.
For the fourth cup (Hallel), pour the wines of Teperberg, the country’s oldest winery.
Teperberg produces over eight million bottles a year, including several hundred thousand high-end wines, under the auspices of its erudite and universally beloved winemaker, Shiki Rauchberger, who studied viticulture and enology at UC Davis and the Hebrew University’s faculty of agriculture in Rehovot. Everybody in Israeli winemaking consults with, and admires, Shiki.
You have at least three fantastic choices here, depending on budget. Teperberg’s Legacy series Cabernet Franc is world-class (Decanter World Wine Award score: 96!); the Essence series Malbec is unique (and less expensive); and the Inspire series Devotage (a Malbec-Marselan blend) is a quality-for-price star. They are great wines that should grace the table of any serious connoisseur and can grace your Passover holiday meals throughout the week.
For the fifth cup, drink the wines of Matar, the kosher label from Tal Pelter’s winery on Kibbutz Ein Zivan in the Golan Heights.
What? Drink a fifth cup at the seder? Well, yes!
The prevalent custom is to pour but not drink wine for the fifth cup, leaving it to Elijah the prophet to waft in the open doorway, “drink” from that centrally placed cup, and herald future redemption. But there is an Israeli custom, advanced by the great rabbinical scholar Menachem Kasher of blessed memory, to drink the “Cup of Elijah” in celebration of the establishment of modern Israel. This parallels a fifth phrase from Genesis 6:8, “And I will bring you to the land I promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”
In the Bible and in Jewish tradition, Elijah is known as the “Gileadite,” from the ancient name for the Golan Heights, so drinking Golan wine is most appropriate for this cup.
Try the elegant Matar “Cumulus” wine or the top-end “CB” – both of which blend Golan-grown Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot. They are finely tuned, complex masterpieces of winemaking.
Finally, for dessert at the meal itself (which usually precedes drinking the ritual third cup), try one of these wonderful, sweet dessert wines:
Golan Mount Odem Inbar Port (it tastes like a fine brandy with maple and toffee flavors), Netofa LBV Port, Tzora Or Gewürztraminer (it tastes like liquid honey), or Bat Shlomo Ice Wine. Best of all, try Ya’acov Oryah’s Old Musketeer 2008, a dessert wine barreled for twelve years and made from late-harvested Muscat of Alexandria blended with some Chardonnay. An absolute treat.