This article first appeared in the Wine Talk column in the Weekend Supplement of the Jerusalem Post.
Assaf Kedem. He stands upright, with the posture of a guardsman. Bespectacled, he has a warm broad smile, with hair swept to one side like a schoolboy. The welcome is always warm, but quiet and modest. There is nothing he likes more to show his wines in the place he made them. However he won’t tell you how good they are. He lets the wines talk.
He is a man of the soil and salt of the earth. But not just any soil, or any earth. It is the Golan Heights where he put down his roots. At Kidmat Zvi, the agricultural village on the high altitude plateau, he cares for the vineyards amid the volcanic tuff and basalt stone, and has done so since 1990.
In 1998 he opened Bazelet Hagolan with Yoav Levy. It was the first boutique winery on the Golan Heights and immediately gained plaudits for its quality. Kedem studied at the Technion and Tel Hai College, gained practical experience at a Stellenbosch winery in South Africa and theoretical knowledge from the winemaker Peter Silverberg.
Silverberg was a charming person, who worked at the Golan Heights Winery, in the days I also worked there. Silverberg had studied winemaking at UC Davis in California. He looked the spitting image of a young Woody Allen and even his mannerisms sometimes seemed to ape the famous film director. However he could make wine better than Woody Allen that is for sure. Smart, savvy and up to date, he took the new winemaker under his wing and led him through the early learning years. Assaf Kedem takes every opportunity to give him the credit and thanks due.
In 2004 Kedem went out alone opening the Assaf Winery. He grew the grapes and made the wine. His British born wife Hadassah, looked after the visitors center and customer club.
Assaf Kedem always had a dream to create a wine village. How many dreams does one hear that people rush to tell you breathlessly, but more often than not they end up on the threshing floor. Sometimes one gets the impression that talking about something has the same weight as actually doing it. Here words can speak louder than actions!
My policy is usually to ignore tittle tattle until there are facts on the ground. So when I heard Assaf’s vision, I said out loud “great idea”, but inwardly thought ‘it will never happen’. However he was determined and steadfast enough to overcome the legendary Israeli bureaucracy and the Kedem Wine Village now exists.
His son, Oren Kedem aged 32, is the next generation. He worked the harvest in 2005, more out of filial duty than love for wine. He was prepared to assist his father, but the wine bug had not yet really hit home. Then he travelled abroad for a few years to see the big wide world. He worked in America, returning to serve in the Second Lebanon War, where he was wounded in action.
In 2009 he found work in California at the Michel Schlumberger Winery in the Dry Creek Valley region of Sonoma County as a cellar rat. This is a job that entails doing everything and anything whenever it is needed. He loved the pace of a stylish winery and quality of the wine life struck him. Why chase abroad what he had at home? In no time at all he realized this was where he his future lay and he returned to the family business.
His sister, Adi Kedem Alon, also had her own epiphany, but this was in the food world. She studied to be a chef in the French Culinary Institute but also returned home and opened a coffee shop called Adika.
Assaf & Hadassah’s other children, Shahar and Tomer, and Karen, Oren’s tall, slender, pretty Brazilian born wife, also contribute to the success of the winery. It seems that within the black basalt stone of Kidmat Zvi, there is a powerful magnet that drew this particular family back to its home base, close to its roots in the soil.
The wine village comprises the Assaf Winery and Adika Coffee Shop. They organize wine and culinary events, along with workshops based on wine, food and yoga. Their tastings and wine evenings are highly rated, giving the family the opportunity to show its strengths in all their colors. People travel from Tel Aviv to experience the Kedem hospitality, wine quality and food. Soon the first of the guest cabins will be opened allowing visitors to stay overnight.
Regular tours are also available for tourists. They cost 25 shekels. Visitors can taste a few wines and eat in the Beit Café. I always recommend taking the time to book in advance to avoid disappointment.
Assaf Winery produces 45,000 bottles a year and a large proportion of their sales is done at the cellar door. The wines are not kosher. They produce eight different wines under the labels Silver, Reserve and the rare, strictly limited Grand Reserve.
Assaf Kedem’s loyalty to South Africa is plain to see in that he specializes in two grape varieties that are very popular there. One is Pinotage, which was developed in 1925 by Abraham Perold. It is a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault and has become the signature variety of South Africa. In Israel, Barkan Winery is a Pinotage specialist, but it is not heavily planted here.
The other is Chenin Blanc, which is the staple white variety in South Africa, where it is often known as ‘Steen’. Of course, its most famous expression is in France’s Loire Valley,.’ Kerem Shvo and Sea Horse are other wineries leading the welcome revival of this variety in Israel.
It is the philosophy of the Kedem family that underwrites the whole initiative. Oren explains how wine helps people get away from the daily pressures. He says “we want to be simple, humble and modest. We are not chasing after marketing noise. What is important is the family and nature.”
I asked what plans they had, and he answered: “ to continue to do what we enjoy and to do it the best way we can.” How is that for a recipe of contentment, in the hectic, fast moving, instant gratification era of the 21st century. The Assaf Winery is worth a visit to sample the beauty of this particular corner of the Golan Heights and witness the perfect synergy between a family, their land and their wines.
The Assaf wines I tasted were as follows:
Assaf Chenin Blanc 2013
A dry white wine, with a yellow straw color, which was aged for 6 months in Hungarian oak barrels. It has an attractive flowery nose, prominent acidity and a slight bitterness on the finish, which gives it a refreshing quality.
Price: 90 ILS
Assaf Four Seasons Pinotage 2011
This is made 85% from Pinotage and the remainder from Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Shiraz. It is aged in American oak barrels for 20 months. The wine has red berry fruity aroma with a sheen of spicy vanilla, a mouth filling flavor and a good finish.
Price: 90 ILS
Assaf Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2009
This is a blend of 89% Cabernet Sauvignon and 11% Cabernet Franc. It is an aroma of overripe berry fruit contrasted with bell pepper notes from the Cabernet Franc. There is a prominent note of eucalyptus – as there always used to be in the Bazelet Hagolan. The wine has good length.
Price: 130 ILS
Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about winen both Israeli and international publications.