There’s one industry in the Middle East that is proving we don’t need to put up walls between our borders—wine. It is a geopolitical paradox. Each bottle’s identify is inseparable from the place where its grapes were grown, known as terroir. A restaurant wine list is a global adventure, exhibiting viticulture traditions from a variety of nations. Even if, however, outside of the restaurant these countries act towards each other with ambivalence or even may be foes. The wine industry generally shies away from broadcasting these incredible accomplishments—for lack of proper language to discuss and/or fear of bringing wine ‘off of the table’ and broaching conversations that they are not normally participating in. Equally, wine drinkers have not been trained to look at the beverage in this way. Wine’s de facto work is its ability to transcend cultures and conflict as if the world existed borderlessly.
From the unremarkable, industrial complex in northern Israel’s Hefer Valley, Recanti Winery is making wines from native and almost forgotten grape varieties. They are doing so in an inspired collaboration with a Palestinian grower near Hebron, inside the West Bank. The wines’ labels include writing in both Hebrew and Arabic, suggesting harmony in what has been an over 60-year-long political stalemate. Could the search for a winemaking identity of two places actually bring them together? By using grapes endemic to both nations, it is a serious movement towards dialogue and, one can hope, reconciliation.
These ancient wines were not on the radar of wineries in Israel for winemaking, especially after Baron Edmund de Rothschild not only brought his financial support, but Bordelais grapes and expertise to Israel in the late 19th century. However, the Biblical Cannon wasn’t exactly resplendent with Cabernet Sauvignon and international blends. Dabouki is a local grape—whose Arabic name translates to ‘sticky’— that continually exists under the radar as a workhorse variety ideal for Arak distillation in Israel and Palestine. But others were near bygone, including Marawi (Hamdani) and it’s orchard fruit and honey notes akin to Chenin Blanc. Jandali, Bittuni, Baladi? Not exactly house hold grapes names known for winemaking.
Recanati began its heritage quest after learning about Ariel University professor Elyashiv Drori’s project to unearth native grapes. Out of 150 unique grape vine genomes, Drori’s lab determined that twenty might be suitable for winemaking. But there were no significant vineyards of native grapes within Israel. They learned that farmers in the West Bank—who never received outside council—quietly continued to grow these grapes that were forgotten or even unknown in Israel.
The risks of this partnership lurked at every corner. How would Recanati be received socially amongst Israelis and Jews by celebrating this wine? How severe could the backlash be for their Palestinian partner in his own community? He even continues to keep his identity concealed to his neighboring Palestinians, and the sale of his grapes to Recanati through a broker. However, both parties looked away from notions of anti-normalization and instead towards each other. Facing impossibility, they eked out the extraordinary by bottling the first vintage of Recanti Marawi 2014. It was released the following spring with great intrigue at Expo Milano—the contemporary version of the World’s Fair.
The internet buzzed: Is this the wine of Jesus? Sommeliers rejoiced! The wine was low in alcohol (around 12 percent), with vibrant acidity, ripe melon notes, and a finely textured mouth feel. Not only was this grape unique, but it was lighter and fresher than the heavy and extracted styles that most Israeli wineries were making. Further, it was a new and exciting experience, as sommeliers proselytize singular expressions of place. In October 2017, Recanati released an inaugural 200 cases of Bittuni, a rose floral and cranberry laden red wine with Pinot Noir character. Because of Marawi’s success over three vintages, they have now doubled production to 400 cases. Yet, only representing .0072% of Recanti’s total output, though small in number, it’s significant in cause.
British Master of Wine Jancis Robinson spent time in Israeli and the West bank during late 2017. She reported that some of the most interesting wines she tasted were from indigenous vine varieties. Robinson found the commerciality of native grapes intriguing as a strong way to differentiate in the global market, but also made special note regarding the cultural implications of shared place. She wrote to me, “I’m delighted that the recent rediscovery of indigenous Palestinian grapes is being celebrated by Israeli winemakers and featured on Israeli restaurant wine lists – a fine example of how wine can mend fences and transcend barriers political and cultural.”
There are more examples of wine crossing borders between Israeli and Palestinians. Former head winemaker of Israel’s Segal winery, Avi Feldstein, launched his eponymous wine label in 2016 with a Dabouki. He included Hamdani and Jandali from a Palestinian owned vineyard in Gush-Etzion for 2017. “I don’t believe in boundaries in wine,” Feldstein told me over lunch in Tel Aviv’s Lewinsky Market.
The West Bank’s Cremisan Wine Estate, a more than a century-old Silesian monastery and winery located in Beit Jala, began a similar project several years earlier. They’ve found enormous success with their Star of Bethlehem series, bottling native grape wines: Dabouki (white), Hamdani (Marawi)/Jandali blend (white), and Baladi (red)—the later reminiscent of Sangiovese from Italy.
But how do wine growers on the West Bank view this bi-national partnership? After two years of trying to communicate with Palestinian vintners, one grower in the Hebron region agreed to share his thoughts though with me brokered through Cremisan’s winemaker, Fadi Batarseh. He requested anonymity citing that it’s not about his name but the bigger picture, but part of me believes it’s due to him feeling skeptical with my intentions.
This man not only sells grapes to Israel, but his Christian faith permits him to drink the end product. “The Israelis can take grapes from me or anybody else,” he wrote through WhatsApp, “but the most important thing is that they mention the Arabic grape name and that they took the grapes from Palestine or a Palestinian farmer.” He’s proud that his hard work is transformed into a drink enjoyed around the world, and views the exchange as a movement towards peace. “I hope that my grapes will keep alive our culture and help the world see that!”
The borderless notion continues to restaurants where these wines are welcomed and surprising placements, especially on lists of Israeli Eastern Mediterranean restaurants. Cremisan is a staple at Michael Solomonov’s Philadelphia Zahav and New York City, Philadelphia, and Miami Dizengoff hummus stands. "What first drew me to the Cremisan wines was their concentration on indigenous varietals,” mentions Jeff Bartash, the company’s nations wine director.
Chef Solomonov also is proud of what the wine list represents, even though he’s very public about his alcohol abstinence due to previous abuse. “Excluding Palestinian wines is short-sighted,” he reasons. “At Zahav, we want to be inclusive and build bridges through food and wine.” This notion heightened at his flagship Zahav, where they amended a menu heading to read “Wines of Israel & Palestine,” drawing attention to this partnership.
Meir Adoni, the Tel Aviv chef who in April 2017 opened Nur in New York City, has Cremisan on its wine list. Underneath the wine, its place of origin reads, ‘West Bank.’
During a conversation I had with Israeli philosopher and author Micha Goodman, I wanted to know if he thought these soft power efforts in wine have any merit towards durable reconciliation. His recent best-selling book, Catch 67, brought scholarship to attempts at Middle Eastern peace. “There is a catch here. Problem is, because there is a power gap between Israeli and Palestinians, it is hard to build trust,” he discussed with me over the phone. It’s the same hesitancy I felt from the Palestinian grape famer.
Ultimately, he sees wine or other ways to humanize the experience between Israeli and Palestine as essential in building that trust. However, Goodman’s still skeptical. “We can only reach an agreement that will cancel the power gap, but we can only cancel the power gap if we reach an agreement,” he reasons.
If we can take a cue and listen to one of the most influential voices in wine and Middle Eastern thought leaders, then a shared business and philosophical interest can continue to draw Israeli and Palestinians closer. Along with wine, many industries are finding ways to speak out on social issues. So the next time you raise a glass, your choice of wine may have beautiful consequences for cross-border dialogue while unwittingly unleashing your inner peace activist.
Peter Weltman is a sommelier and entrepreneur based in San Francisco. He writes for global food publications, gives speeches on wine activism, and creates immersive experiences about his movement, #BorderlessWine. For all of his work, please visit barrelferment.com