Israel is the place for start ups. It has become known as the ‘start up’ country. Now we have a start up winery. The first Montefiore wines were launched in 2013 and there has been swift success in terms of recognition and quality. I thought it would be of interest to interview the founding partner and CEO, Arnon Geva, to learn about how they have done it.
PREKER: Where did this dream start?
GEVA: I was brought up in Jerusalem, in the shadow of the Montefiore Windmill. My parents still live in Yemin Moshe. Montefiore is a name heavily involved in the history of Israeli wine and the roots of Zionism. I always had in mind that Montefiore would be a great wine brand.
PREKER: What is your background?
GEVA: I have been in the wine business for twenty years. I was a founding partner of Castel Winery, and have worked for Carmel Winery & Yatir Winery.
PREKER: Who are your partners?
GEVA: I chose good partners. They are the first Israeli Montefiores. Rachel Montefiore has experience in the on trade and in retail. She has been a sommelier and worked at Israel’s leading wine stores. David Montefiore has done harvests in Spain and Australia and studied wine at the WSET in London. Rachel is in charge of marketing, David is in a non active role, because he works for Tabor Winery. Our combined experience covers all aspects of running a winery.
PREKER: Where are you based?
GEVA: We work out of an address in Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv in a building devoted to start ups. It is in the center of the business part of the city and close to leading restaurants and exclusive boutique hotels.
PREKER: What is Kerem Montefiore?
GEVA: We registered the company as Montefiore Winery because in the future we will have our own winery. However we use the name Kerem Montefiore in Israel because the original land purchased by Sir Moses Montefiore in the 19th century was called ‘Kerem Moshe Montefiore’ (Moses Montefiore’s Vineyard.) This was later renamed Mishkenot Sha’ananim and Yemin Moshe, and became the cornerstone of modern Jerusalem. The winery tends to be referred to as Kerem Montefiore in Israel (in Hebrew) and Montefiore Winery in English, in export markets.
PREKER: What is the relationship with Mishkenot Sha’ananim?
GEVA: Our spiritual home is Mishkenot Sha’ananim, where Montefiore is best respected and best remembered. Our first wines were purposefully from the 2010 vintage, exactly 150 years after the founding of Mishkenot. We participate in some of their events and give occasional wine tastings.
We have dreams for the future of planting a vineyard there and having a visitors’ center on site. In the meantime, tourists can visit the windmill, and enjoy a glass of Montefiore wine in the Touro Restaurant, overlooking the Old City Walls.
PREKER: You don’t have your own vineyards?
GEVA: No. Actually it makes great sense. We are not committed to one strip of vineyard, which may have a bad year. We are not tied down. Instead we can be more flexible in looking for the best fruit or best components. Believe me you can be very choosy when you are only making 20,000 bottles!
PREKER: So where does the fruit come from?
GEVA: We only use vineyards in the Judean Hills and Judean Foothills, which rise towards Jerusalem. This was the most famous wine region in Biblical times and today is home to some of Israel’s finest wineries, like Castel, Flam, Clos de Gat and Tzora. To be true to Montefiore’s vision, we wanted to use vineyards as close as possible to Jerusalem and so won’t be buying grapes from the Galilee or Golan Heights.
PREKER: And you don’t have your own winery?
GEVA: We are a ‘negociant’ winery. This is not only smart, but thoroughly recommended for a new start up operation. Who needs the costs of building a winery in the first years? There are many negociant wineries in traditional wine countries and they are even more common in the New World. One of my partners, David Montefiore, worked at a winery in Australia which solely made wine for others. A custom crush winery. Many new wineries have started this way and there are many famous examples. Anyone, who knows anything about the world of wine, will know how common this is, whether in France, California or even in Israel!
PREKER: So where do you make the wine?
GEVA: We have rented space at Mony Winery in the meantime. Before choosing them we checked if they had capacity and the quality equipment we demanded.
PREKER: Do people think you are making Mony wine with another name?
GEVA: No, not at all, and if that was the case, we would not have publicized where we are making the wine. Believe me there are many, many wineries in Israel making wines at other facilities. Far more than people realize, because it is normally kept secret. We only publicized it because we have nothing to hide.
PREKER: But are your wines similar to Mony’s?
GEVA: No, you only have to taste the wines to see how different they are. Montefiore Winery has some unusual, innovative blends that are reasonably original. Incidentally, a disbelieving wine critic tasted our wines against Mony’s and found no similarity.
PREKER: Does the winery specialize?
GEVA: Yes, we focus on grape varieties that we feel are suitable for the Israeli terroir. We concentrate on Syrah and Petite Sirah amongst the reds and Colombard and Chardonnay in the white, all of which grow particularly well in the Judean Hills. We try and make our entry level blends in the Mediterranean style of new Israel. Our objective is to provide interesting blends which are good value, fruit led, with good refreshing acidity.
PREKER: You have a great winemaker!
GEVA: Yes, Sam Soroka is a very experienced winemaker having made wine in Australia, California, Canada, France and Israel. His wines have won awards at the highest level. He is a true artist. We felt it was particularly important to appoint a good winemaking consultant, especially as we don’t yet have our own vineyard or winery.
PREKER: What is Moses Montefiore’s signature doing on the back label?
GEVA: This is an artistic addition to add a personal touch. The winery is meant to honor Sir Moses Montefiore. This was the most personal thing we could have used on a label. Some have joked that he signed as the winemaker, but this is obviously not true, as he died in 1885! Don’t think we are the first to use a signature of someone no longer living as a decoration!
PREKER: Explain to me the winery logo.
GEVA: This was one of the later versions of Sir Moses Montefiore’s Coat of Arms, but not the final version.
The main parts are the cedar tree, the lion holding a flag with the word ‘Jerusalem’ on it, small hills of flowers and the motto ‘Think & Thank’. It features symbols of both Israel and Judaism. There is a hamsa or hand of Miriam, stars of David, and also a stag and lion. In fact, it is a family crest that takes something from Italy, Great Britain and Israel, mirroring the journey of the Israeli Montefiores.
PREKER: Anything special about the labels?
GEVA: The labels were designed by a graphic designer from Yemin Moshe. They are intended to give an impression of quality. They show old drawings or photos of the Montefiore Windmill and Mishkenot Sha’ananim. The writing is in grey instead of the normal black, and the wine’s name is at the top of the label, rather than at the bottom as is more usual. We also feature the word Jerusalem in Hebrew on the label, written as Montefiore used to write it. He had this word engraved on everything he owned.
PREKER: Is the wine kosher?
GEVA: Yes. Moses Montefiore was a religious, Sephardi Jew, so it is appropriate the hechsher is Beit Yosef. The wines are also under the supervision of the ‘OK.’
PREKER: How did you launch the wines?
GEVA: We had a modest, low key launch to restaurateurs and sommeliers, instead of making a big noise to the wine press, which is the more regular route. Despite this we have been well covered in the Hebrew and international press. Our policy in the first year was to sell only to restaurants, duty free and export. We also chose to keep the red and white blends at very reasonable prices for a winery of our size. We want to give good value.
PREKER: How have you done so far?
GEVA: As far as the wines are concerned, the Montefiore Red was judged to be one of the ‘Top 10 Israeli Wines’ in ‘The New Israeli Wine Guide’. The Montefiore White, Petite Sirah and Syrah have all achieved a score of 92 points. The Montefiore Syrah has been selected to be Wine of the Month in El Al, Israeli Airlines.
PREKER: So the wines have been well received?
GEVA: The wines have been listed in some of Israel’s leading wine restaurants like Toto, Herbert Samuel, Mul Yam, Messa, Social Club, Manta Ray and the restaurant deli, Delicatessen, as well as in luxury hotels like King David, Mamilla, Blue Sky (Carlton), and the new Ritz Carlton. They are sold in Duty Free, will be in El Al and are already exported to the USA, UK, France, Belgium and Canada. We have also conducted tastings in the Far East including China. Seventy percent of the wines are exported.
PREKER: Can someone buy the wines without visiting a restaurant or travelling abroad?
GEVA: We have only recently started selling to the retail market and the wines may be purchased at the Avi Ben Wine Store in Jerusalem and at Wine Depot in Ramat Hayal, Tel Aviv. Or, of course, in New York, London or Paris!
PREKER: So you are a real start up winery, with no winery and no vineyard, but so far, you have been successful?
GEVA: Listen, we have what I would call a dream team, a great story, a good presentation and most important, the wines are good and original. There will be a winery and vineyard in the future, but we are humble and learning all the time and advancing step by step. I firmly believe our approach has been the right way to go when you are starting.
PREKER: This is certainly a case study that new wineries may wish to follow in the future. In the meantime, we will be watching the progress of Israel’s start up winery with interest.
Le’Haim and good luck from www.wines-israel.com