This article first appeared in the Wine Talk column in the Weekend Supplement of the Jerusalem Post.
Heard the one about the architect, carpenter, handyman and pastry chef? I know it does not go quite like the nursery rhyme, 'the butcher, baker and candlestick maker', but it does tell a story. What do these people have in common? They are all from one family and they founded a winery in 2001.
I am referring to Vitkin Winery. The architect, Sharona Paz-Belogolovsky owns the winery with her husband, handyman and jack of all trades, Doron Belogolovsky. The carpenter is Avraham Paz, the father of Sharona.
In 2002 they built a winery in the cowshed owned by Doron’s grandparents in the Vitkin Village, situated in the coastal Sharon Plain. Doron, the practical one, taught himself to make wine with the help and encouragement of the pastry chef.
I visited the original winery. There are some restaurants where a visit to the kitchen will put you off eating there again. It is exactly the same with wineries. A place that is tidy, orderly and with the mantra 'cleanliness is next to godliness', somehow enhances the feelings about the quality of the wine. Vitkin Winery was small, but immaculate and clean.
Fast forward to 2015, and they have moved to new premises, this time in a building which used to be a chicken coop. It is an impressive building. The architect designed the winery, the handyman built it and the carpenter made the furniture.
There is no single bit of bric a brac or even the smallest piece of furniture that does not have sentimental significance. It is either something handed down in the family through the generations or hand crafted by the talented members of the Vitkin family. The wines aren't bad either.
Vitkin is one of Israel's finest boutique wineries. It has a name for quality, originality and authenticity. Most of the credit for this is due to the pastry chef, who makes the wine. In fact, Assaf Paz, brother of Sharona, put down his spatula and rolling pin a long time ago. He studied wine in Bordeaux in the late 1990’s, travelled to California and Australia and became a winemaker.
I first came across him when I was working for the Golan Heights Winery. He contacted me because he wanted wine for a tasting of Israeli wines to be held in Bordeaux. I was reluctant to help. You have no idea how many requests one gets like this. Yet he was very confident of himself, very persistent and was not put off by my reluctance. He was a nudge, but in the nicest possible way. Charming and at the same time determined to follow through. In the end he got what he wanted!
He returned to Israel as the winemaker for Tishbi Winery. Then he worked with me at Carmel Winery (by that time I had moved to Carmel.) He was responsible for the boutique winery at Zichron Ya’acov Cellars. Later he moved to Binyamina Winery and was even for a short time at Segal Wines. This in itself must make him one of the more travelled winemakers in Israel. Now he is devoting himself full time to Vitkin.
He is a perky, optimistic character, usually smiling who likes to think out of the box. From the beginning he wanted to make Israeli wines rather than international wines. On his suggestion the winery decided to concentrate only on more unusual or exotic varieties. For him, ABC (the 'Anything But Chardonnay' movement), also meant no Cabernet Sauvignon, no Merlot and no Sauvignon Blanc. His was the first winery to make this choice and as such he became the main pioneer of the Mediterranean trend that now has many adherents.
He is like his talented father, who can look at a barrel and visualize how he can fashion furniture from it. Assaf has the ability to look at an old run down vineyard, with very high yields and envisage what he can get out of it. For instance looking at an old vineyard in the Zichron area, he thought what if I take only these rows and that plot, reduce yields and try and make a quality wine.
And that is what he did. He was able to make a silk pouch out of a sow’s ear by using fruit previously used for Kiddush wine to make a quality Carignan. It is amazing what can be done by looking at the same grapes in a different way, with the desire to make a quality wine and the knowledge and technology to back it up. Is there anything that symbolizes the Israeli wine revolution more than this? The move from sweet to dry, and from the most basic level to quality.
The Vitkin Carignan 2002 and Petite Sirah 2003 were sign posts for an Israeli wine industry as a whole. Just to make sure we got the picture, he encouraged the same focus at Carmel with support of the chief winemaker and they produced their first Appellation Carignan and Petite Sirah wines in 2004.
I recently did a tasting of all the country’s leading Carignans and the Vitkin finished in first place. Not for nothing is Assaf known as Mr. Carignan. His interest in this variety stems back to 1999 when, whilst still in Bordeaux, he was invited to a wine tasting of Priorat wines that blew his mind. Priorat, in the Catalonian region of Spain, is one of the few regions in the world where old vine Carignan is given respect. Later on, at a time when other winemakers were visiting Napa Valley, Bordeaux, Barossa Valley and Tuscany, he chose to visit Priorat, to learn the secrets of the canny Catalonians.
Today Vitkin Winery is a specialist of the more unusual varieties like Carignan, Petite Sirah and Cabernet Franc. He also makes a Pinot Noir (it is so Assaf Paz, that he would try!) and a Riesling, (Johannisberg, not Emerald) which is one of the better examples of this variety in Israel.
His entry level wines, branded with the labels 'Israeli Journey' are extremely popular restaurant wines. They are full of flavor, yet refreshing with good acidity. There is a red, white and rosé, and these are wines to drink whilst sitting outside in Jaffa or Acre, eating mezze, fish and grilled meat, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. It goes without saying they represent excellent value.
The prestige blend is a wine called Shorashim, which means roots. Not surprisingly, it is a Mediterranean style blend and it is made only in better vintages. This is a winery for whom roots, origins and family are of paramount importance.
Vitkin's wines are sourced from the Judean Hills, Mount Carmel, Upper Galilee and Golan Heights. In other words Paz tries to source from the best region for the varieties he works with. They also have plans to plant a vineyard in front of the winery.
So Vitkin Winery has progressed from the cowshed to the chicken coop. The new winery is well worth a visit. Furthermore, from the 2015 vintage, the wines will be kosher for the first time. The winery's high quality and good value wines are a lighthouse showing the way for the industry as a whole.
The Vitkin wines I recently tasted were as follows:
White Israeli Journey 2014
A white wine made from Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Viognier, Colombard and Gewurztraminer. Broad flavored with a nose of apricot, floral notes and a hint of cut hay. It has a refreshing finish.
Vitkin Riesling 2013
A fragrant, classic Riesling with delicate but complex aromas of citrus blossom, wild flowers and a petroleum note and a piercing acidity.
Pink Israeli Journey 2014
Crisp,strawberry colored rosé made from Carignan and Grenache grapes. It has a delicate berry aroma and excellent acidity. This is the year of rosé.
Red Israeli Journey 2013
A super drinking wine. It is a blend of Carignan, Syrah and Cabernet Franc. Ripe, fruity aroma, with a chewy flavor mid palate, and a refreshing finish that demands you take another glass.
Vitkin Carignan 2011
The aroma of this Carignan is reminiscent of plums, black cherry with a hint of Mediterranean herbs. In the mouth it has a complex dried fruit character and long balanced finish.
Vitkin Petite Sirah 2010
A deep colored wine, with an aroma of black fruits and a tantalizing hint of violets. The taste is meaty , earthy even spicy and the finish is long. This is a wine for carnivores.
Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and writes on wine for both Israeli and international publications. email@example.com