While we happily drink and delight in the Israeli wines that grace dinner tables nationwide, many are unaware of how the origins of the country and the industry itself are interlinked.

Na’aman WineryThe lush Kedesh Valley terrain where the Na’aman Winery is based. (photo credit: NA’AMAN WINERY)

In recent years, the popularity of Israeli wines has surged. The success of many Israeli wineries in producing quality wines and winning international competitions has resulted in increasing attention from wine experts around the world.

But while Israelis happily sip away, many are unaware of the deep roots of the wine industry here and how closely it is intertwined with the origins of Zionism.

Wine (and grapes) have played a key role in Jewish history since its inception. In the Torah, vines brought to the Israelites in the desert by Joshua and Caleb testify to the fruitfulness of the land. Later in the Bible, vines attest to our strong connection to the land: “And Judah and Israel dwelt safely, every man under his vine and under his fig tree, from Dan even to Beersheba, all the days of Solomon.”(I Kings 5:5)

But centuries after the reign of King Solomon, safety gave way to destruction. The Temple was demolished; Jews were expelled. Rabbinical Judaism took shape in the dispersion to cope with exile. The yearning to return became a core theme of rabbinical Judaism, replete with reminders of the ancestral homeland.

Memory of the Temple was kept in the forefront by referring to Jewish places of worship as “little temples.” Jerusalem remained central to prayer, with all synagogues facing the direction of the city that was burned to its foundations by the Romans. Vineyards in our homeland were recalled when wine was used to sanctify Shabbat.

In the seventh century, remaining traces of the wine industry in the Holy Land were demolished. The new Islamic rulers of the region uprooted vineyards and destroyed wine-presses, in accordance with their religion, which forbids wine consumption. For 1,000 years wine production remained dormant.

In the 19th century, yearning for the ancestral land increasingly translated into action. When the people begun to return, so too, did wine.

IN THE small-scale return of the Jews in the early 19th century, the Shor and Teperberg families settled in Jerusalem, planting vineyards with the encouragement of philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore.

By the 1880s, Jews returned to the region on a much larger scale, purchasing rural land and establishing dozens of settlements (known as the First Aliya), which floundered economically. Another Jewish philanthropist, Baron Edmond de Rothschild, came to the rescue by injecting funds and restructuring the settlement’s economy. Planting vineyards was a central component of that plan.

Rothschild, an owner of wineries in Bordeaux, purchased additional land, planted vineyards, and imported coveted grape varieties such as Grenache and Carignan.

He established the first two large-scale Israeli wineries: in Rishon Lezion in 1882 and in Zichron Ya’acov in 1890.

The wineries played a key role in rescuing those Jewish settlements, and perhaps even contributed to the rise of Zionism and the establishment of the state of Israel.

When Theodor Herzl wrote The Jewish State in 1896, his call for the reestablishment of the Jewish homeland and the return of Jews to the land they left 18 centuries prior served as the opening shot for the establishment of the Zionist movement, which eventually led to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.

Historians still debate how Herzl conceived the radical idea to resettle the Jews in their ancestral homeland. The popular answer has been his reaction to the Alfred Dreyfus trial in 1894, and the anti-Semitism that followed the conviction of the French-Jewish officer for treason (Dreyfus was exonerated a decade later). While Herzl, covering the trial as the Paris reporter of the Neue Freie Presse, was no doubt affected by the Jew-hatred he witnessed, many historians agree that this was not the impetus that led him to write The Jewish State.

It is not only historians who ask what motivated him to write the book. Herzl himself wondered the same thing. Speculating on what triggered the idea for The Jewish State, Herzl had his own original theory: Israeli wineries! As he reflects in a letter to his close associate David Wolffsohn: “The man who first spoke to me of the Palestine colonies also offered me a taste of local Cognac [a spirit distilled from wine]. Perhaps the concept of the Jewish State was planted in this bottle.”

Herzl’s idea trickled through Jewish communities and world leaders. Only four years after drinking from this bottle, Herzl visited those wineries in person as part of his tour of Palestine. Enthusiastically welcomed in the settlements as “King of the Jews,” Herzl drank Israeli wine in a wine glass bearing his face alongside the verse “For Zion’s sake, will I not hold my peace.”

In the following 50 years, as more Jews came to Palestine, local wine production gradually increased. Perhaps ideas planted in those wine bottles inspired the country’s builders as they crafted the successful execution of Herzl’s vision. On May 15, 1948, when the Jewish state was established, Jewish fighters took a short break from battle to raise a glass of Israeli wine, l’haim – to life.

Once they put those wineglasses down, however, they were forced to fight a war of survival. Along with war, the early decades of statehood were characterized by economic hardship, international isolation, and focus on industries essential to the basic necessities of the fledging state and its citizens. Wine was simply not a priority. While the same wineries founded in the 19th century, most notably Rothschild’s wineries, continued to produce wine, it was generally considered mediocre. Grape varieties were limited, better grapes were mixed with inferior ones, and low-priced mass-production was the agenda.

In the 1980s, a shift began to take place. Evidence began to emerge that the Land of Israel could be prime terrain for vineyards. Experiments were conducted with new varieties of grapes imported from Europe. New winds begun percolating throughout the industry carried an ambitious goal: to make top-quality wine in Israel.

Skeptics argued that with its socialist influences and anti-luxury mentality, there would be no demand in Israel for high-quality wine. Audacious wine makers proved the naysayers wrong.

In 1983 the newly established Golan Heights winery produced its first bottles. Soon after, boutique wineries began to emerge, vineyards got replanted, new grape varieties imported, and wine regions began to form, thus effectively ushering in what came to be known as the Israeli “wine revolution.”

As the 21st century dawned, the revolution accelerated, supported by social trends in Israel. Israelis begun studying and living abroad in increasing numbers; some studied wine making, worked in vineyards, and brought their expertise to Israel. The rise of hi-tech and agro-tech industries contributed to the development of the wine industry. In addition, a culture of entrepreneurship began to take root. Like their fathers and grandfathers, a new generation of Israelis rebelled against their past. Socialist values and norms of the previous decades were out, and Israeli wine pioneers were eager to raise a glass to the burgeoning industry.

TODAY, MORE than 200 wineries in Israel produce in excess of 20 million bottles a year. Israeli wines regularly win international competitions, and while not yet broadly adopted by wine consumers worldwide, the high quality of Israeli wines is widely recognized by the world’s leading wine experts.

The Jerusalem Post spoke to a couple of the winery owners at the forefront of this revolution.

Rami Na’aman feels that he is part of an ancient tradition: “More than 35,000 wine presses were found by archeologists in Israel. That huge number means this was a massive industry. Many of those wine presses were found in the Upper Galilee, and in particular in the Kedesh valley.”

A film director from Ramat Hasharon, Na’aman and his wife, Bettina, an artist, decided to move to the Kedesh Valley area in 2001 and purchased an estate in Ramot Naftali, the wine capital of Kadesh Valley.

Na’aman was planning to teach film at the local college in Tel Hai, and as a hobby, planted a small vineyard on his estate. “I thought I was just planting the vineyard in the ground, but I soon discovered I was planting it also in my heart,” he recalls.

Na’aman abandoned his film career plans, completed a series of wine-making courses and even persuaded the college where he had intended to teach film to launch a wine-making program. Graduating from its first class, he established Na’aman Winery in Ramot Naftali in 2004, and turned his hobby into a successful award-winning winery. Since then, Na’aman’s wines have won more than 20 medals in competition worldwide.

Na’aman reflects on the early days where “we planted mostly Bordeaux style grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot. But unlike the wine makers of Bordeaux who must blend those grapes and are subject to all sort of rules, we can do what we think is right.” After some trial and error, Na’aman settled on eight types of wines, and now produces 10,000 bottles a year of both varietal wines and blends. Combining his passion for music with his passion for wine, he named his blends after favorite bands such as Black Velvet, Pink Floyd and Deep Purple.

Na’aman is particularly proud to raise the Cabernet Franc grape in his vineyard. “There is fascinating scientific research currently conducted in the winepresses to determine what the grape varieties of ancient times were. But the one grape we know for sure was grown here is the Cabernet Franc,” he explains. “Thanks to French documentation, we know that when the Romans were here, they took the Cabernet grape and brought it with them to Europe. It made its way through Gibraltar to today’s France, where it later acquired the name Cabernet Franc.”

Through the twists and turns of history, Na’aman traces the Cabernet’s journey: “About 300 years ago it was popular in France to experiment with different grape varieties. One such experiment was a fusion of the Cabernet Franc grape with the Sauvignon Blanc grape, which gave birth to the Cabernet Sauvignon.”

Over the years, the Cabernet Sauvignon became more popular than its parent, the Cabernet Franc, and was planted in Israel in the early stages of the wine revolution.

Reflecting on the rows of Cabernet Franc that he planted, Na’aman feels he is coming back to his roots: “The Cabernet Franc is an original Israeli grape. It was away for hundreds of years and is now making aliya. It is coming back home.”

The Cabernet Franc is not the only item returning to its roots in northern Israel.

Na’aman’s father was a regional commander in the Galilee when Israel was established and his mother fought alongside in the 1948 War of Independence.

Continuing in his parents’ footsteps, Na’aman served as a major in the paratrooper brigade and volunteered to stay in the military reserves well beyond the retirement age. His two sons and daughter are also officers in the IDF.

As a volunteer reserve officer, Rami took part in the Second Lebanon War in 2006. A barrage of Iranian missiles, mortar fire and rockets fell on northern Israel during that war, burning, among many other things, acres of vineyards.

“The war broke out at a particularly sensitive time for our winery. We were in the process of planting our new vineyard,” he recalls. “The war prevented us from getting field workers, but the planting needed to be done.”

Na’aman used the short breaks he had from his military duties to plant those seeds himself: “Rockets were falling by my side,” he recalls.

But the planting was done and harvest of his older field of Cabernet Sauvignon was due shortly after the war was over. While that field was spared the fire, upon tasting the grapes, he realized that the grapes had to be rejected. The surrounding fires, smoke, rain, and weeks of collateral destruction made the grapes smoky. He was ready to discard the grapes, but in consultation with his wife and friends, he decided to make do with what he had. The result was a 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon that was adored by wine drinkers for its deep smoky taste. “One particular client from England has been ordering it regularly ever since. The only problem is that I am about to run out,” he says.

Na’aman is not only well rooted to the land, but also sensitive to its people and their religious practices. Na’aman, who does not have a kosher certificate from the rabbinate, explains, “The rule that whoever touches wine needs to keep Shabbat is not in Halacha [Jewish law]. It was a rule that was invented 20 years ago,” he says.

Proud to be producing wine from kosher grapes and following kosher rules, he has spoken to rabbis and views this matter in a historical context. “I am a Jew making wine in Israel. My predecessors centuries ago could touch their wines. I must do the same.”

SUCH HISTORIC context is central to the experience of many wine makers. For Vered Ben-Saadon, who along with her husband, Erez, owns Tura Winery, going back to the roots was the primary drive to establish a vineyard: “It is a special feeling to be fulfilling Jeremiah’s prophecy – to plant vineyards in the Samarian mountains.”

Ben-Saadon was born to a family of Holocaust survivors on her father’s side and of Nazi collaborators on her mother’s side.

Some of her great-uncles were convicted after World War II for crimes they committed during the war, and served jail time.

Ben-Saadon is very much in tune with her past on both sides. “My mother made a correction by converting to Judaism. I am continuing to make that correction by living in Israel and having my children serve in the IDF, the Jewish state’s military. I tell my children that we must have the courage to look back at our past without feeling guilty, but by responding with deeds.”

Cultivating the land of Israel and producing wine here is one way in which Ben-Saadon makes good on her promise to herself. Like Na’aman, Vered and Erez did not initially plan to built a winery. They started by planting a vineyard in the 1990s on Samaria’s Mount Gerizim. “The terroir of Mount Gerizim is conductive for grape growing. In particular, the Merlot thrives in this terroir.” She explains: “The 850-meter elevation and wide temperature swing between day and night produces a unique Merlot that is heavier and more full-bodied, very fruity, and with balanced tannin. To many, our Merlot feels more like a Cabernet Sauvignon.”

The Ben-Saadons’ success in selling their Merlot and other grapes to Israeli wineries hit a hurdle when some wineries, responding to pressure from Europe, stopped buying their grapes in fear of boycott.

“Those Europeans who might have wanted to cause us harm gave us the greatest blessing we could ever imagine,” Ben-Saadon recalls. They decided to make better use of their grapes by establishing their own winery in 2003. Today, Tura Winery makes 56,000 bottles a year, 40% of which are exported. Tura’s success allowed Vered and Erez to expand their vineyard from two hectares to 56 hectares, selling grapes to 30 wineries in Israel. “We pick the best grapes for Tura, but still the grapes we sell command one the highest price on the market – NIS 8 per kilogram – reflective of their high quality.”

Ben-Saadon is aware of the controversies of having her winery in the West Bank. But just as she chose to engage with her own past, she chooses to engage with the controversy rather than attempt to ignore it: “Pro-Palestinian groups come by the winery frequently and are very much welcomed – the same with ambassadors and diplomats who are on their way to Nablus or Jenin. If our wine can facilitate dialogue, then we have done something right.”

Ben-Saadon feels that her visitors from Israel and abroad contribute to better understanding: “It is so important for people to come and see the other side.” She says, “Most people who come are surprised, since they had a particular vision of the life and views of settlers. There are very strong differences of opinions, but they are usually discussed civilly. Only once did we have violence; Jewish American college students filled our charity box with sand and sabotaged our barrels.”

About her Palestinian neighbors, she says, “I am sure that if we meet, we will agree on 90% as people to people, mothers to mothers, humans with similar values. But the environment of fear and lack of trust does not permit it.”

With 27 medals under its belt, political disagreements don’t prevent Tura Winery from winning competitions in Europe. Most recently Tura’s Mountain Peak and Merlot won silver medals in the prestigious decanter blind-tasting competition in England.

Wine makers like Vered Ben-Saadon, Rami Na’aman and dozens of others who returned to their roots give the Israeli wine industry promising prospects. While the quality of Israeli wines is widely recognized, broad access to the overseas market is still lagging.

During the same period that the Israeli wine revolution was taking place, another wine revolution in another part of the world also began to bear fruits. Another little-noticed wine region with limited overseas exposure slowly began to win competitions in Europe, collect medals and become one of the premier wine destinations in the world. That once little-known region was Napa Valley, California – which now attracts 4.5 million enotourists a year.

Napa Valley took about 120 years to achieve break-out success since its first vineyards were planted. Today, roughly 120 years after the first vineyards were planted by Rothschild and since Herzl was inspired by those wineries, one wonders: will Israel be the next Napa Valley? Sip after sip, the fascinating journey of Israeli wines continues.

The writer is chairman of the America-Israel Friendship League think tank and founder of the Jerusalem Wine Salon.

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