Wine has been made in Israel since biblical times. The book of Deuteronomy lists seven blessed species of fruit, including “the fruit of the vine.” Israel’s Mediterranean climate boasts many microclimates, which foster a diversity of wine styles.
The modern Israeli wine industry was greatly influenced by Baron Edmond James de Rothschild, owner France’s Château Lafite Rothschild. He started making wine in Israel in the late 19th Century, importing French vine varieties and winemaking knowledge, and founding Carmel Winery, today the largest wine estate in Israel.
By the late 1980s, most Israeli wine was low quality, used for sacramental purposes. But the 1990s saw a huge boom in the establishment of quality-focused boutique wineries that were taking an artisanal approach. Today there are hundreds of wineries producing in aggregate over 10 million bottles per year. Three producers are responsible for 80 percent of the production: Carmel, Barkan, and Golan Heights Winery.
We spoke to nine Israeli quality wine producers about the wines they make, their individual path into winemaking, and their terroir.
Irit Boxer-Shank, Barkan Winery
Irit Boxer-Shank: I’m a winemaker at Barkan Winery. Barkan is the second largest winery in Israel. It’s a huge winery. We do everything over there.
Christopher Barnes: How did you get involve in wine, Irit?
Irit Boxer-Shank: Well, it’s from the family. My father used to own the winery, Barkan. Now, he’s just the CEO.
Christopher Barnes: How did that change? I mean, you grew up with wine your entire life, and then it became not a family business but…
Irit Boxer-Shank: I started out as the owner’s daughter. I grew up there since I was 10, so I did everything in the winery from putting on the labels all the way to the vineyards, walking with the workers, and then the winery was sold to a bigger company. My father is the CEO. I’m the winemaker. We’re still there doing our stuff, and we love it, but it’s not a family-owned now.
Christopher Barnes: Tell us a little bit about the terroir where are your wines are made.
Irit Boxer-Shank: Well, because we’re a big winery, we do wines from all over the country, from the northest part to the south, including in the desert. We have all kinds of terroir. We have all the varieties. We do a lot of experiments. That’s what’s fun about being a winemaker in Barkan. I love it because I have fruit from all over the country. I have all kinds of varieties, and I can play all the time.
Christopher Barnes: How many different varieties are you making right now?
Irit Boxer-Shank: A lot of them, and we do a lot of experiments. We bring a lot of new varieties. There is now a Malbec that is brand new. We’re going to bring it to the States. Pinotage was the first different variety that we started growing in Israel, then we have Marselan and Caladoc from south of France. Well, we’re playing a lot with it. Some of them that are not as good, we’ll go back, and we’ll do something else, but we have a lot. Of course, the Cabernet Sauvignon is the king. It will always be the king, but we do a lot of varieties.
Christopher Barnes: I interviewed a winemaker in Australia who is using 60 different varieties in his wines. I said to him, “How do you keep track of it? How do you know what’s working and what’s not when you have that many?” Is it more of a challenge to make wine with a lot of different types of grapes?
Irit Boxer-Shank: I don’t think so. It’s like asking a person who has a lot of children. How do you keep up with them? It’s like you grow them from the beginning to the end, so you know each of the wines just like you know a person all the way very intimately.
Christopher Barnes: You mentioned Malbec. How do you decide if you’re going to try a new variety?
Irit Boxer-Shank: It’s a long process. We go and try it in different countries. We see the soil and the climate that they’re growing it in, and the best versions of them—like Malbec in Argentina, in the south of France. And then we go back home and see if there are very similar [conditions], as similar as we can in Israel, and then we plant just a small plot. If it’s good, we’ll plant more, and then there are trials in the winery to see how to ferment it and what kind of barrels to put it in. It takes us at least eight years to start an experiment on a variety and maybe take it to the market.
Christopher Barnes: Do you buy a lot of fruit?
Irit Boxer-Shank: No. One of the more interesting thing about Barkan Wineries that we grow everything ourselves. We are also the biggest grower in Israel because all of the grapes are ours which gives us full, complete control in the winemaking.
Christopher Barnes: Do you have a philosophy of winemaking? Is there something that you feel is your stamp in terms of the process and the styles of wines that you make?
Irit Boxer-Shank: Well, I discovered that we like using technology to do more of the Old-World style. We’re trying to have all the fun from all the different worlds, the New and the Old! That’s something that really characterizes Israelis. We do fusions—that’s what you call the Israeli kitchen cuisine: "the fusion." We take something from the new and something from the old, and do something from Israel. I guess in winemaking it’s also like that.
Mayer Chomer, Shiloh Winery
Mayer Chomer: Shiloh Winery was opened in 2005. That's when we started running operations. We started in a very small garage, making boutique, very selected wines. I think that we've been making good product, good wines. Now the winery has built up to ten thousand cases and we're growing, we're making—I guess we're getting a commission from our customers, and that's what we're growing and making.
Yossie Horwitz: Can you tell a little about the winemaker, the philosophy of the winery, what types of wines you're trying to make?
Mayer Chomer: So, we started wanting to make just quality wines. We're not interested in the volume business. We wanted to make very, very unique wines, quality wines, and obviously we wanted to distinguish ourself from the rest of our colleagues and competitors. So, our philosophy is really making no compromises in our process. Making and investing as much as we can in our equipment, and, obviously, trying to be and to make always the best wines possible based on our grapes, our varieties that we have available and, you know, we invest a lot of money planting our vineyards so we can really control our quality. We've been just—thank God, you know?—selecting good grapes based on a lot of research and making the wines that you see in the market. Thank God people are acknowledging it by its quality.
Yossie Horwitz: What types of wines do you make, do you make single varietals or blends?
Mayer Chomer: We do have several series. We have the Mosaic, which is our flagship, a blend of five different grapes. We have a series that we call Secret Reserve. We have a Merlot, a Shiraz, and a Cab—straight Cab. We also have the Shor series. Shor means bull in Hebrew, and the reason why we call it the Shor is because we inherited the lands of Joseph. It recognizes the bull that he slaughtered in the bible. We also have Barbera, Merlot, and a Cab. And we have a lower blend—we call it Mor. We have a white wine, we have a dessert wine—we have all kinds of range!
Yossie Horwitz: And what's special about the terroir where your grapes come from?
Mayer Chomer: I can tell you all the things about my terroir, but I'm going to answer you with a quote from the bible.
Yossie Horwitz: OK.
Mayer Chomer: The bible says that Joseph got an extra blessing from the patriarch Jacob. And with the command—you know, many of the people who comment in the bible, one of them was Rashi, who was very famous, he asked—"What is so special about this blessing? Why he got this land? Shiloh has an extra blessing?" And on this spot, Rashi answers, "Because the fruits are sweeter." So, we have a gorgeous, gorgeous place to grow and plant our vineyards. As a matter of fact, many of the wineries are planting vineyards in Shiloh because of this quality. Outstanding quality!
Yossie Horwitz: What are the plans for the future?
Mayer Chomer: Well, continue to do good wine keeping the quality at all costs. And we want to grow, obviously, but we want to grow as per the request of our customers. If our demand will grow, because people will continue acknowledging our quality, then we'll grow. otherwise we will stay where we are, always doing different things and new important things that can be attractive to our customers and clients. But always keeping proportions, meaning we want to be always a quality winery, as opposed to a mass winery.
Yossie Horwitz: Can you tell us a little about how you got started in the wine business, opening up a winery?
Mayer Chomer: To make this very long story short, I lived in Spain for several years. I was working and doing my Ph.D. I'm a lawyer by defect.
Yossie Horowitz: I'll have to use that!
Mayer Chomer: So I was there, and obviously Spain is a very important wine region. And every time I would have people over to my house for holidays or for the Sabbath, I was very frustrated that I couldn't get a good kosher wine. So back in the States, I was a little bit naive and I thought, "I'm going to change the world! And I'm going to have just good quality wines, and I'm going to go to Israel and make a good winery." And that was the beginning of it.
Yossie Horowitz: When was this?
Mayer Chomer: This was in 1997. I was in Spain until 2001. So then when I moved to Israel, I was working for a couple of years and then I decided, "OK, let's make the dream come true!"
Yossie Horwitz: What of other regions inform your style of winemaking?
Mayer Chomer: I don't know if I can answer that. I love French wines as well as Italian wines, which are very different, although they are the Old World. I really respect the New World wines—New Zealand, California. I think it's important to have a combination of New and Old, just not be limited, but actually just making the best wine possible. We like to make wines that we know customers will appreciate, because customers nowadays start looking for something new, something interesting and attractive. At the same time, you always have that romanticism of good quality, classic wines.
Eli Ben Zaken, Domaine du Castel
Eli Ben Zaken: I am the founder and winemaker of Domaine du Castel, in the Judaean Hills just ten miles west of Jerusalem.
Christopher Barnes: When did you found the estate?
Eli Ben Zaken: There was no official foundation because I never thought of really making a winery. I planted in '88 a few vines in a small plot next to the house in the Judaean Hills, in Moshav Ramat Raziel. We made wine in '92, we bottled it in '95, it was a great success. Not many bottles—just about six hundred.
Christopher Barnes: How fast did you grow?
Eli Ben Zaken: We grew two thousand, three thousand a year, and then eight, and then twelve, fifteen, twenty. By the year 2000 we made eighty thousand bottles. Then we stayed around eighty thousand.
Christopher Barnes: Tell us a little about the terroir, the soils, and the climate in the area that you make your wine.
Eli Ben Zaken: It's a very good wine country. In fact, the region was making wine for the temple thousands of years ago. It's very good, it's clay and limestone, it's stony, it's well drained because it's hilly. It has a good influence from the sea compared to other regions which are also very good, but different, like Upper Galilee, and Golan Heights. They don't have an influence from the sea because they are more continental. The days would be much warmer, but the nights also much cooler. They will have maybe more color and more body, but certainly they will like the elegance that we have because of the influence of the sea, which is always keeping us at a balanced level of temperature. Usually the heat is not too hot, and the summer are less cool, it's true. Today we can know the difference.
When I was the first to plant vines, by mistake maybe, in the Judaean Hills in modern era, today we have in dunam—a dunam is a tenth of a hectare—we have about three hundred dunams, and the region has nearly three thousand dunams. That means all the industry has understood the importance of the hills around Jerusalem and have planted vines.
Christopher Barnes: How many different wines are you making right now?
Eli Ben Zaken: We were making, at the beginning, one wine. In '98 we added a second red wine. Our wines are blended wines with Bordeaux grapes, like Cabernet, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, they are always blended. The white is a Chardonnay, 100 percent, barrel-fermented, classical Burgundy wine method. We've made a rosé for the past four years, which is Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec—early picking, pressed like a white wine, and really it is very fresh and light, a nice summer drink.
Christopher Barnes: Tell us a little bit about the influences in terms of your winemaking. You mentioned that you made Bordeaux blends. Was that something intentional that you decided on, or how did you come about that?
Eli Ben Zaken: I really started making the things I like to drink. I was not bored drinking wine, and actually I didn't like it because I was given low quality wine to taste. When I got into wine I was already in my thirties, and got more and more into gastronomy and drinking wine. When I decided to make some wine at home, it was really as a hobby.
Christopher Barnes: How would you say your wines are unique versus the other types of wines that are made in Israel?
Eli Ben Zaken: I don't think I like the word unique in the sense that everyone is unique, not mine as opposed to the mass of the others. They're also unique. As I said, what is very, very interesting is the terroir of the Judaean Hills, the elegance of the wines. Someone was pointing out in an article I read lately that all the wines from Israel got top marks from Parker—the really "top top" were Judaean Hills wines. Somehow at the end of the day, this is what appeals most, but then I'm biased.
Christopher Barnes: Of course, of course. Is it a family business now?
Eli Ben Zaken: It is, yes. I have three kids. They aren't kids anymore, the youngest is forty-one! They're running the winery. I am the winemaker, but I have to ask for permission to do things. My daughter and my sons are in the business. I have a daughter and two sons. I let them make their own decisions.
I can say, at my age now I can look back. I was led in that path without intention. I was under no intention of becoming a winemaker or making a business of wine. I was led through that path by God, destiny—it's hard to tell, but certainly I did things which, by chance, were firsts: The revival of the Judaean Hills as a wine region, I brought the Petit Verdot first in Israel, I made blended wines when blended wines were the cheaper wines in the wineries in Israel and top wines were single varieties. I was lucky in the way I went, doing firsts.
Yoav Levy, Bazelet ha Golan
Yoav Levy: I am the winemaker of Bazelet ha Golan Winery. It's a boutique winery in the Golan Heights, near the border in the north. We make something like 80,000 bottles per year, mainly Cabernet Sauvignon, a little Merlot, and much less Chardonnay.
Christopher Barnes: How did you get involved in wine?
Yoav Levy: It is some kind of accident! We came to the Golan... and we make a lot of barbecue. We asked to have some wine to drink nearby. We have wonderful grapes in our village that we were selling to the Golan Heights Winery. I tried to make some wine and it was undrinkable in the beginning! I gave up, and asked the winemaker of the Golan Heights Winery how and what to do. He gave me the ingredients and the instruction.
Yoav Levy: We started 1998 as a business. Before, it was... a hobby. So when become a business, we have decided to call the winery Bazelet ha Golan. Bazelet is "basalt." All of the Golan is basalt land, from volcanic activities. We had to go call it ha Golan and the idea was people will be confused between us Bazelet ha Golan and Golan Heights Winery. It sounds maybe similar and maybe people will buy from us.
Right now it's a really amazing business—a winning joy for me. I'm telling you there is a God, because it’s a blessed place for sure. Weare selling everything. We are sold-out every year and we start to get medals.
Christopher Barnes: Okay. So tell us about the terroir.
Yoav Levy: The terroir in the Golan Heights is amazing to wine. I think one of the best in the world. I will tell you why. All the basalt that we plant our vineyard on—it's amazing land for the vineyard. The fact that have vineyard that belongs to us, we know how to control the quality, we know how to control the pH, the sugar. We're getting amazing grapes from our vineyard.
We are getting a lot of medals because when the judges are drinking our wine, they don't know where it's from, and they get shocked that at end of the competition that the Israeli winery gets the highest numbers. People have to try Israeli wine. It doesn't matter which one (but I really recommend you to drink my wine, Bazelet Ha Golan). You'll realize that Israeli wine is completely in a different position. We are going higher and higher every day, and we are producing amazing wine—and that's that.
Eran Pick, Tzora Vinyards
Eran Pick: I have been the winemaker of Tzora Vineyards for the last 7 years. I love wine. I studied winemaking in UC Davis and worked in a couple of places before coming to Tzora. I'm 39 years old.
Christopher Barnes: How did you get involved in wine, Eran?
Eran Pick: I started by just loving wine. I was a wine lover. I drank wine, loved wine, and I was introduced into wine in Germany when it first came into wine. I didn't grew up with wine. Once I drank good wine, I fell in love with it. After few years I decided ot make this as a profession. I went to study UC Davis to wine making.
Christopher Barnes: Tell us about the estate that you make wine for. It's one of the pioneers of win making in Israel.
Eran Pick: Tzora vineyards is a small winery. We produce about 7,000 cases a year. We grow our own fruit in the Judean Hills. Actually we are one of the pioneers in grape winegrowing in the Judean Hills. Basically up to 20, even 15 years ago most of the grape wards sold grapes to the biggest co-op Carmen. Ronnie James who was the founder of the winery decided to make his own wine in the early '90s, and he founded Tzora Vineyards. First it was in the Kibbutz in Israel, but no it's privately owned. It's estate wine.
Christopher Barnes: What type of wines do you make?
Eran Pick: We're trying to capture the flavor and taste and character of the Judean Hills, so we don't make any varietals. We have some varietals—but by chance. We grow about 8 grape varieties, reds and whites, and we're trying to capture what's best for Israel's climate. Israel is a warm climate, and it's not easy to grow grapes for winemaking. Fortunately we're on the Judean Hills—very high elevation. We think it's very good terroir for growing wine grapes. We have many plots with different soils doing some plants from the Judean Hills.
Christopher Barnes: What type of grapes grow well there?
Eran Pick: That's a good question. I think we are just beginning to understand this. Back in the '70s, '80s, even '90s—and also today—the most-planted are the international grapes. The most famous is Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, but in the last few years, people are trying maybe more suitable grapes. Syrah is doing very well in the Judean Hills. Some people are trying to work with Garnacha, Mourvèdre. We think Syrah has a very high potential. We also grow some Oseleta, which is a minor grape from Northern Italy, which I think goes very well with Syrah, but it's very early to know. We just started growing it.
Christopher Barnes: Tell us a little bit about the terroir of the Judean Hills. What kind of climate and environment is it?
Eran Pick: It's moderate to warm climate. In Israel, you're trying to get to the highest elevation you can in order to moderate the hot climate. In the Judean Hills, our vineyard is situated in Shoresh which is in the Judean Hills very close to Jerusalem, actually at a high elevation about 700 meters above sea level—it's quite high. It's windy. It gets some sea influence, the Mediterranean Sea. It's quite amazing to be in July and August and get wind during the day. Because of the high elevation, you get cool nights, relatively, so you have 17 degree Celsius during the night which is quite good.
The soils are very interesting. They're very shallow. We call it Terra Rossa soil. They're rich in minerals. Because they're shallow, the vines are must strive to grow—very, very thin vines producing low yield. It's a very new region. Only about 15 to 20 years ago were the first vineyards planted, so we're just starting to find our best plots and understand how to grow on them.
Christopher Barnes: Do you have influences as a winemaker? Obviously you went to Davis, but are there other regions that you look at in terms of how you make your wines?
Eran Pick: Of course. It's very important for me to know what's going on in the world. We have actually a consultant who comes from Bordeaux, very well known, Jean-Claude Berrouet. He was the technical director of Petrus for 44 vintages. We worked with him not because his obviously great experience in Petrus, but also because of his experience and dominance in Napa Valley—his experience in trying to prodoce world class wines in moderate warm climates.
I always think of what's achievable and what's been done in other places in order to try to make the best wine possible. Of course the first thing for us is to think of what's the best—What do we want to achieve? What kind of wine do we want to achieve? Because if you take 10 different winemakers from the same plot with different philosophies, probably you will achieve different wines. We want to achieve restrained wines, quite elegant with complex aromatics, but without the heaviness that usually comes in warm climates. That's actually a very hard thing to do. We're trying to grow the best clones. We're trying to do some experiments with the way we grow the grapes. Of course, time of harvest, maturation of grapes, kind of fermentation, aging, and blending all influence the final wine. Because we're a new region, we're trying to understand what's best for the region.
Christopher Barnes: Talk about the Israeli wine industry. It seems to be really getting a name for itself on the world wine map.
Eran Pick: Yes. For me it's very exciting to be in New York—to go to restaurants, wine bars, shops—and see Israeli wine on the shelf. Unfortunately, it's not always in the place that is good for us. We are usually—even in the best stores—in the Kosher place. Kosher is good. We are a Kosher winery, and we are for it, but even consumers who know their wine don't really understand what Kosher is, and they think it has something to do with quality.
Good Kosher wine could be made in very high quality, and Kosher has nothing to do with quality. For me it's nice to see a lot of Israeli wines in wine bars not in the Kosher section, but in the Israeli section. In New York, in my experience, in this area, between this trip, I saw too much Israeli wine only in the Kosher section. Hopefully it will be something that will be changed and have an Israeli shelf or Mediterranean shelf. With Greece, Turkey, South of Italy—kind of capturing the niche market.
Justin Kohn, Tabor Winery
Christopher Barnes: How did the winery get off the ground?
Justin Kohn: We're fourth generation growers, in the village by Tabor, right by the Mount Tabor. The Sela family were growing for about 100 years, and Oren Sela, company CEO, told his father, "Let's make our own wine. A lot of people are doing it now in Israel, and they've been very successful." They started up with 30,000 bottles, really to friends and a few critics, and word got out. Now 2.3 million bottles later, we're the sixth-largest producer in Israel.
Christopher Barnes: Talk a little bit about the types of soils and the climate that you have.
Justin Kohn: We're in the Mediterranean of course, so a lot of wine-producing reaches that area. But Israel has got a lot of microclimates within the small country that it is. Being located in the Galilee, where the winery is, we do get some nice cool nights and hot days as well, but the elevation is pretty good—right by the mountain, Mount Tabor, the elevation is 562 meters above sea level. So that's a good altitude to have.
We also have some vineyards in the northern part of the Golan, even some in the northern Galilee, and even some in the Golan Heights. So we really have the best selection of grapes coming out of the Galilee region. But unlike other large wineries, we only use 10 growers, which is unique, this helps us to really control the quality. Each grower is incentivized by an agronomist, who will evaluate the quality of the crop and therefore pay them more based on the quality. She'll visit each grower once a week and she has the ultimate say, not just when to prune, when to harvest, et cetera, but even which grapes to grow. There have been times she's ripped out vines and replanted new vines where she's deemed them suitable in that soil type.
Christopher Barnes: What would you say is unique about Tabor?
Justin Kohn: I think the most unique aspect of Tabor Winery is that we really allow nature take over and we try to step back. We let the soil do the talking, let the grapes do the talking. We don't try to mask it. The winemaking process is pretty simple but we take ultimate care in the growing. We really focus on the soil to make sure that we have the ideal varietal growing in a soil, and how to manage that particular varietal throughout the year.
Additionally, we started as boutique winery, we're now a producing two to 2.3 million bottles—we're a large winery—but as I mentioned as a boutique, our focus and our DNA has always been on quality. We're able now to continue producing quality but we don't have the pressure of producing volume. I mentioned we're the sixth largest; those ahead of us are about five times our size, some of them, number five is even two times our size.
So the attention to quality is there and yet the economies of scale to drive the price down per bottle really gives us an advantage over some other wineries.
Christopher Barnes: Anything else you want to bring up?
Justin Kohn: I think Tabor is in a very unique position in the market, in that we're making wines that are approachable and drinkable for what the consumer wants and at price points that are also approachable—everyday price points. Our main series are at $14.99, $19.99. We think wine is meant to be enjoyed by people with other people. Being able to come to that bottle every day is really what it's about.
Arnon Geva, Montefiore
Arnon Geva: I was born and raised in Israel, and live today in Tel Aviv. I've been in the wine industry for over 21 years. I used to be co-founder of a small boutique winery, Domaine Castel near Jerusalem. I was there 11 years. Then for five years, I was the International Business Director of Carmel Winery.
A year and a half ago, we started a new winery and called it Montefiore. Montefiore belongs to the Montefiore family and me. It's located in Jerusalem where they're making Mediterranean wines. They are trying to make wines from French Chardonnay, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Mourvèdre.
Christopher Barnes: Tell us a little bit about the terroir.
Arnon Geva: The vineyards are at 2,500 feet high, located west of Jerusalem; small yields, high density rotations. Some of the soils are Terra Rossa. We're using a very mild tasting American oak, maybe French oak; not necessarily all new barrels. We're trying not to over-wood the taste in the wines. The style is not New World; it's more of a Mediterannean style. This is right way to make wines in our region, which is very hot in the summertime. We're now in February and you see I have a suntan! It's so different than here.
Christopher Barnes: Tell us about the Montefiores.
Arnon Geva: Yes, the Montefiores are originally from Tuscany, Italy, and 160 years ago they came to Israel. At that time, the Jewish Orthodox people lived in the Old City of Jerusalem and he built Nehenot—which is Hebrew for "tranquil living"—outside of the Old City. He gave to each one who was ready to leave the Old City a house with a small vineyard. You could make wines for Jewish people—originally they made wines for Kiddush for Saturday night for Shabbas. They also established a winery in Israel called Carmel in the early 1920.
Christopher Barnes: You mentioned some grapes that, from what I understand, are slightly unique in Israel. Is that the case, or is there a lot of Petite Sirah? I tend to see a lot of Cabernet.
Arnon Geva: No, no. Most of the wines in Israel are Cabernet. If you're looking for different varieties like Syrah and Petite Sirah, which we think [belongs in the] Mediterranean following climate and the terroir. We run small tests in the terroir in Israel, and we found that Petite Sirah, Syrah, Malbec, and even the white French Columbard are very, very good.
Christopher Barnes: Is there a region that you try to emulate in your winemaking?
Arnon Geva: The Rhône region, which is Mediterranean. We're very close to the Mediterranean Sea, and we get blowing winds coming from the Mediterranean into the vineyards 50 kilometers from Jerusalem.
Yes, we are influenced by the Rhône style of winemaking, due to the similarity of the climate. We are located on the Jerusalem mountains and we get the winds coming from the Mediterranean Sea on one hand, but on the other hand, we're close also to the Jerusalem desert, south just of Jerusalem, so we get a very dry climate coming from the desert, which adds a very nice fine point. There's a big change in the vineyards of temperature between daytime to nighttime.
Gilad Flam, Flam Winery
Gilad Flam: We are a family wine estate. We established the winery in '98. It's myself, my brother—who is the winemaker—and my mother. All the family is working in the winery. Our father was the first Israeli who started and graduated UC Davis, in '68. He was the chief winemaker of Carmel Winery. So we are, as you said, the second generation of winemaking in Israel.
Yossie Horwitz: Your father is probably one of the winemakers in Israel with the oldest history. Is he involved with the winery today?
Gilad Flam: Today he is retired. Involved, of course, because he is our father. He has a lot of experience—40 vintages of his own. Of course he has a lot of ideas to give us.
Yossie Horwitz: Where is the winery located?
Gilad Flam: The winery is located in the Jerusalem Hills near Beit Shemesh. The philosophy of the winery comes from the European philosophy, the European model, in that we have our own vineyards, we control everything for planting, for bottling. The idea is that we grow wine at the vineyards—we don't grow grapes. We took the best models of the chateaux from Bourgogne, from Bordeaux, from Tuscany and wanted to make it in Israel. Quality: this is what we are focusing on.
Yossie Horwitz: Initially most of the great wines were coming from the Northern Part of Israel, from the Golan Heights and the upper Galilee. In the last few years, the Judean Hills have become a very upscale, high-quality terroir in Israel. Can you tell us a little about why that is?
Gilad Flam: There are a couple of reasons. The altitude first of all. Israel is a hot-climate country. Our vineyards are all at 650 meters above sea level. We have cold nights in summertime and hot days, so the temperature will give us a very good acidity to the grapes. I think also the soil. Limestone it's very unique and special. We're working with low yields.
Yossie Horwitz: Can you tell us a little bit about the philosophy of the winemaking? What types of wine you're trying to create, and how do you go about doing that?
Gilad Flam: We took the European model of small estate wineries. First of all, everything starts in the vineyards. We have to get the best fruit that we can. We work all year long in the vineyards to reach the best fruit. Then Golan is searching for the personal fingerprint on his wine, a more elegant wine to express the uniqueness of the vineyards. We don't buy grapes at the general market. The idea is to express each vineyard's uniqueness and to bring it into the bottle.
Yossie Horwitz: You mentioned that you guys are a family winery. Your father provides advice. Your brother is the winemaker. You help run the winery. Your mother works there. What is it like to have a family winery? What makes that different? How does it make it more special than some of the commercial or larger wineries?
Gilad Flam: When your family name is on the bottle, you commit to the quality of the wine. When you are a family winery you also look for the long term, for the generation ahead. It's also a commitment to the consumer, to the wine drinker, that we are going to be here for the long term. For this we will make the best wine that we can for all the generations.
Yossie Horwitz: You established the winery in 1998, and you became Kosher in 2010. Can you tell us if it changed anything—most importantly did anything change about the winemaking itself? Was it the same wines with no real difference?
Gilad Flam: We felt after 12 yeas that we are old enough, ready enough to make this move. We made this move, but the way of winemaking, there is no change. Our wines are not cooked wines. By the way of winemaking, there is no difference. Everything as it used to be. We are happy because we are getting to more people who like our wines, drink our wines, and celebrate.
Yaakov Berg, Psagot Winery
Yaakov Berg: I started it as a hobby, with 3,000 bottles. Every year we make double—now we're producing around 200,000. It takes time; it's a long-term business.
All our prophets talk about the fact that when the Jewish people came back to the homeland, they would plant vineyards, they meant the same thing. In other words, when you come—when you plant vineyards, you're going to see the results only in seven, eight years, until you can bring in the wine. In other words, it is for the long-term, and I think that's the idea to say that the Jewish people came back to the homeland and they are there forever, for a long time.
Christopher Barnes: Tell us a little bit about the terroir that you have where your wines are.
Yaakov Berg: Okay, the terroir, I think it's maybe the best area for quality wine grapes in Israel. On one side it's the land is—everything is limestone rock. In order to plant the vineyards, we need to drill the rock, it's a very soft rock. So when you drill the rock, you put the plant in, and slowly, slowly, the roots can find little cracks in the rock, and then find their way. They can go deep, like about 30, 40 meters long from the roots. Then they can find the sources—their minerals, their water, everything that needed to grow the vines. On the other side, the climate of the area—we are just very close to the desert and we are very high, 900 meters above sea level. It's maybe one of the highest areas in Israel.
The climate is very interesting because in our area it's snowing almost every winter, but we are also very, very close to the Judaean Desert. During the day it can be very hot, very warm, 30–35 Celsius. But by night the temperatures drop more than 20 degrees below the day. The day can breathe, it can recover from the heat.
Christopher Barnes: Tell us about the types of wines you make.
Yaakov Berg: We produce six or seven different types of wine. I can say that generally our wines are very elegant, very fruity. The balance is the most important thing. We keep a lot of our wines in a new oak so you can feel the oak side. The other idea is to balance between the acidity and the fruit, between the barrel and the fruit, everything together, that's what makes our wine so unique and, I think, easygoing.
Christopher Barnes: Is there a specific region that you look at in terms of influences?
Yaakov Berg: I really think that Israel has her own terroir. To say that we want to be like the Bugundians—I don't think it's right, because it's in France, it's really on the border for making good wine because it's very cold there. Sometimes when you are on the border, it can be very nice year and can be terrible year, like the last two years. But in Israel, year after year, after year, after year, I think we are producing very nice wine. The difference, of course, it's nature.
Christopher Barnes: Tell us a little bit about how your wines have evolved. How did you go from being a hobby winery to making a commercial wine? That's a big jump, right?
Yaakov Berg: Yes. You're right, usually it's not like that. Usually you decide to own establish a winery. You take a lot of money, you build a winery, you buy the grapes and you do so. I actually came from a different perspective, and it really grew with the success in the market. All our wine sold, I produced more, it sold again, I produced more... We've been able to change with the times—that's important, very special.
Now we're facing, in the last few years, the old story of boycotts of Israeli products and Israeli wine. And especially our wines. We believe that the best way to fight against it, against the BDS Movement, would be by showing the whole world that we are going to sell two times more, five times more,10 times more. Because I believe that we have a lot of friends, a lot of allies all around the world, Jews and non-Jews who appreciate our wine. They appreciate what we do because they appreciate the fact that we came back to our homeland to produce wine in exactly the same place that our great, great, grandparents produced wine.
If you come to my vineyard, you will see we kept our best wines of a single vineyard in a cave. Again, our fathers used to make wine from the days of the temple—to bring it to the temple. It's a deep and interesting story that gives you something more, a tradition that gives you faith, gives you something more than just a good life.