Wine is best sipped outside, drinking in the view of the vineyard.
Forget the big fancy visitor centers, let’s check out three boutique,
small wineries that are real gems.
You don’t need to be a wine connoisseur to notice that the Israeli wine industry has undergone a revolution over the past 2 decades. Up until the late 90’s and even the beginning of the current millennium, most likely your search for wine would result in a sweet kosher wine - overindulgence on a Friday night would guarantee a pounding headache. In the army, we called these wines ya’ein patishim (hammer wines). Since then, the Israeli economy has thrived, terrorism declined, and the average Israeli enjoyed more disposable income. Israelis travelled the globe in greater numbers, exposed to the wines of the Mediterranean region, Australia, and of course California, and returned with a thirst to make good wines in the Holy Land.
I am going to take you on a virtual drive from north to south to visit 3 remarkable wineries that I feel are more than just places that produce wine, but are places where you can sit back, relax and take a break from the pressures of the rat race. Each of these establishments has a unique historical or agricultural aspect to their winemaking.
Harashim Winery (Galilee)
As you drive north and pass Haifa, the landscape gets greener and more mountainous. Now a days, you'll be surprised, the Galilee region is quite well populated, with lots of Arab towns and small Jewish communities. The Upper Galilee is slightly less inhabited as its landscape is dramatic with deep canyons running east to west. Harashim is a small Jewish community with about 350 residents, situated in the rainiest area in Israel. The drive to this little community is absolutely stunning: dense Mediterranean forest with limestone cliffs peeking at the peaks. To reach the winery, you have to park your car at the entrance to the community and take a 10 minute walk through the forest. Then, without warning, you reach this magical scene: a little vineyard with a few old oak trees nearby. Under the trees, a rickety wooden bar serves the local wines. No tours, no fancy building, just a bunch of benches and tables. This place attracts families and friends who want to drink a cold rose on hot summer day in a perfect outdoor setting. The founders of the Harashim Winery grew up in the Upper Galilee, and as kids jumped on the rocks, ran after snakes, and embraced every flower and weed as part of their environment. They bring their childhood into the wine growing: weeds, animals and natural pests are all invited to stick around. In more formal words, this winery embraces the principles of bio-dynamic agriculture – viticulture with soul.
Taybeh Winery (Palestine/Samaria)
Geographically in the very center of the country, politically very isolated, is the entirely Christian Palestinian village of Taybeh. If we were able to put politics and conflict aside, this winery is about an hour drive east from Tel Aviv, and 35 km north of Jerusalem. The Palestinians in the West Bank do rely somewhat on the tourism industry, but tourism’s full potential is yet to be developed. Whenever I drive to Taybeh, travelling through the West Bank, Palestine, or Samaria (depending on your narrative) feels like going back in time as the biblical stories come to life, while the sights recall you to the present. A young Bedouin Shepard herds his livestock in a wheat field, letting them eat the leftovers from the harvest while listening to Arabic music on YouTube. A teenage religious Jewish girl, wearing a skirt, hitchhiking back home to her settlement. A Palestinian family resting under their olive trees, taking a break from the annual harvest. It surprised me to learn that the Palestinian nationalism movement was actually ignited by mostly Christians Arabs in the region, somewhere around the beginning of the 20th century. Over the years, a significant portion Christians from the Middle East in general and Palestine in particular, have pretty much relocated to North America and Europe, hoping for a better future.
Following the Oslo peace agreements between Israel and the Palestinians, the Khouri family returned to their hometown of Taybeh in 1994, armed with optimism and motivated to establish the first Palestinian beer brewery and winery in the region, one that is based on sustainable farming techniques. And so they did. They built a beautiful modern hotel at their winery that also functions as a live art gallery, displaying the work of Palestinian artists from both the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip. There's one particular wine I think is really worth trying, the Zeini Blanc. The Zeini grape is indigenous to Israel/Palestine and some scholars believe these grapes were used to produce the wine that was drank here during the Roman rule. If that is true, then maybe this is the wine Jesus drank after a long day of teaching.
*Nadim and Canaan Khouri (photo credit: Taybeh winery)
Nana Winery (Negev desert)
I grew up learning that the Zionists came to Eretz Izrael (the land of Israel) and made the desert bloom. This was ingrained in the Israeli educational curriculum, as the young nation was in the making. Following the arrival of thousands of Olim (ideological immigrants) during the early days of the State of Israel, the land had seen a striking boost in the eyes of the
western industrial world. What I wasn't taught in school was that about 2000 years ago, the Negev region was home to a flourishing community of people known as the Nabataeans. The Nabataeans were expert desert dwellers, knowing how to manage and utilize the very scarce rainfall in the Negev, succeeding in maintaining towns, agriculture and viticulture. The Nabataeans located wide, flat valleys at an elevation between 500-900 meters and built little dams along them. That way, when it did rain in the desert, the dams slowed down the flash flood and helped the rain sink into the earth rather than running off into the desert. This simple but ambitious water management made it a pretty good terroir. Believe it or not, the Negev had an abundance of vineyards until the Muslim invasion in the 7th century.
The Nana winery is the classic example of the "making the desert bloom" narrative. Eran, known as Nana, moved with his family to Mitzpe Ramon, and purchased a large valley in the middle of nowhere. Before the creation of Israel, this land was under the control of a Bedouin tribe. I am mentioning this because for the first several years, Nana had to "get permission" to grow vineyards there not only from the authorities, but also from those who view themselves as the native people. This story probably sounds familiar to many of you westerners – if it's the aborigines in Australia to native Americans in the Americas, or the Irish Travelers.
Back to the wine. The best time to visit Nana's winery is in April-May, when it's pleasantly warm outside, and the grape flowers are blooming. The road to the estate passes through a large firing zone where the Israeli military practices all year round. Quite often you'll suddenly see a tank crossing the road as you drive towards the winery. Then, when the vineyard appears, it is a beautiful scene, the aesthetic green rows against a background of yellow unforgiving desert. Guess what? Nana was smart. He located his winery exactly where an ancient Nabataean vineyard once stood. Nana is, without doubt, one of the pioneers of Israeli desert viticulture.
*Photo credit: Nana winery.
Many of the prophets in biblical times were quite pessimistic. Similarly, what we see on TV today is always the bad news. But here, I want to quote a rare optimistic prophesy by Amos, a prophet who lived near Hebron, a popular region for growing wine grapes:
"And I will turn the captivity of My people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities, and inhabit them; and they shall plant vineyards, and drink the wine thereof; they shall also make gardens, and eat the fruit of them."