Israeli wine has always had a special place in its surrounding society. It has had the same relevance and prominence from the days of Ancient Israel in Biblical times, through the Pre-State period at the end of the 19th century, to the now, more than 60 year old, State of Israel. In ancient times wine was a major industry and vines, grapes and wine were frequently used as imagery that people could relate to.
In modern times, wine still plays a crucial role. The settling of the country, the planting of vineyards and production of wine has helped develop the country. Time and again the farming villages or settlements have set the political tone. Wine was at the forefront at every stage of Israel?s history.
It started with the founding of a modern wine industry in what was an outpost of the Ottoman Empire. This in itself was a surprise. The Turks were not in favor of the immigration of Jews to the Holy Land, nor was wine a desired industry for a Muslim protectorate.
Baron Edmond de Rothschild, the founder of Israel?s wine industry, had to move carefully. He kept a low profile. His managers and administrators had to be politically astute in dealings with the Sultan. They were only able to achieve what they did by strictly and painstakingly adhering to all the demands of an overblown bureaucracy and receiving all necessary approvals, one by one. Occasionally baksheesh had to be paid as was common in those times. However the fact that Rothschild undertook to improve the infrastructure of his farming villages, and fulfilled his promises, helped the Turks to turn a blind eye to the proceedings. Tension though, was never far away, and the Turks constantly thought the large winery cellars were to be used ulterior motives. More than once building was halted on instruction of the Sultan, so the officials could check that some sort of military fortress was not being built.
The wineries at Rishon Le Zion and Zichron Ya?acov and vineyards, in particular in the Shefela and Mt. Carmel regions, were symbols of the First Aliyah. The idea of working the land and making it your own was adopted by the so called Labor Zionism movement. The fact that David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister worked at the Rishon Le Zion Cellars and Levi Eshkol, Israel’s third Prime Minister, managed the vineyards surrounding the cellars, only underlined the importance of wineries as a symbol of the new Israel. When Theodore Herzl, the founder of Zionism, visited Israel in 1898 he was taken to see the Rishon Le Zion Cellars as an active example of the Zionist dream come true. He was impressed enough to become a shareholder of the Carmel Wine Co. branch that opened in Vienna.
Carmel Winery remains the largest winery in Israel until today. Its parent company is SCV des Grandes Caves. They own the historic cellars of Rishon Le Zion and Zichron Ya?acov and the modern wineries of Kayoumi in the north and Yatir in the south. Modern Israel had its roots in the success of the new farming villages, the vineyards and wineries. Carmel was the mainstay of Israeli wine for over 100 years. Carmel became Israel?s first brand and first exporter. As in Biblical times, wine was again the premier Israeli industry.
Wine was prominent enough an issue, to attract the intervention of politicians. When Joseph Seltzer from Hungary wanted to found a winery in 1952, he did so, on the site of a disused perfume factory in Binyamina. The company was named Eliaz, in memory of his son, Eliezer, who fell in the War of Independence. The initial approval was given only for a liqueur factory. When they started to produce wine, the SCV (Wine Growers Cooperative) was up in arms. There were disputes between PICA, the administrators of all the Rothschild colonies, who owned the site, Binyamina Council and the winery itself. The dispute was exacerbated by demonstrations by new immigrants who had been promised jobs.
When things were getting out of hand, David Ben Gurion, by then Prime Minister, became involved and convened a special arbitration committee, to resolve the situation. The application to make wine was retrospectively approved, on condition that their fruit was not taken from SCV?s vineyards. Eliaz still exists in the center of Binyamina, but under a different name. It is now marketed as Binyamina Winery. In 2008 was purchased by the Hezi Hinam Supermarket chain and remains today the fourth largest winery in Israel.
Political intervention was also apparent in the founding of the Golan Heights Winery. The Wine Growers Cooperative was against it and they had a person of influence in the right position to lead the opposition. Pessah Grupper was the Minister of Agriculture, as well as being a veteran member of the Wine Growers Cooperative. A few years later he was to be made Chairman of SCV des Grandes Caves, a post he held for over fifteen years. This time the future of the winery was preserved only due the strong intervention and bulldozer approach of Ariel Sharon, who was then the Minister of Trade & Industry and was later to become the eleventh Prime Minister of Israel. He managed to secure the approvals and support for Shimshon Welner, the winery general manager, to help the development of the Golan Heights Winery and its move to its permanent premises in Katzrin. As with the case of Eliaz Binyamina, the final push was political.
Sometimes it was wine that put a region on the map. The Golan Heights Winery and its brands of Yarden, Gamla and Golan led the way to Israel producing world class wines. There were originally four moshavs and four kibbutzes from the south of the Golan overlooking the Sea of Galilee, to the northern Golan in the shadow of Mount Hermon, who combined to form the winery in 1983. The first vineyards had been planted on the Golan in 1976. Wine became the most visual export from the Golan and arguably contributed to the fact that the Golan was swiftly adopted by Israelis. The Golan Heights was a new area, which came in to Israel?s hands during the Six Day War. As a settlement project, it was a relative failure, judging by the number of people settling there. However the positive attributes of settlement pioneering, Israeli agriculture and advanced technology combined in the Golan Heights Winery. Its Yarden wines were Israel?s first world class wines. The Golan area came to be very much associated with the success of its wines.
Wineries have been pioneers of new regions right up until the present day. In 2000 Yatir Winery was founded at Tel Arad in the north eastern Negev. Their vineyards are situated in Yatir Forest. In the early 1960?s David Ben Gurion, this time the pioneer of the Negev rather than just a politician, demanded that a forest be planted in the meeting place between the Judean Hills, Judean Dessert and Negev Dessert. His experts returned and said ?the scientists are against it.? Ben Gurion retorted ?so, change the scientists!!? They did. In 1964 Israel?s largest forest was planted. Yatir Winery is the most prominent Israeli winery situated in the Negev Dessert and Yatir Forest is a whole new terroir for quality wines. The first vineyard in the Negev was planted at Ramat Arad in 1988 and the first vineyards in the forest were planted in 1996. Thus the winery, like the Golan previously, was a pioneer not only of the wine industry, but also of a whole new wine growing region. Yatir Forest is situated on the southern tip of the Judean Hills, bordering the ?green line?. All the Yatir Forest vineyards lie within undisputed Israel. Yatir Winery is one of Israel?s most exciting ?new? boutique wineries.
The area known as the West Bank or Judah and Samaria, was more politically fraught. The first winery moved there in 1988. The company WEST, which was associated with Stock, rented property for their new winery, in the Barkan Industrial Estate, near the West Bank town of Ariel. Companies opening businesses in the West Bank received favorable rates and inducements to encourage them to move there. Unfortunately, WEST became bankrupt before the move was completed. In 1990, the winery was taken over by investors led by Shmuel Boxer and Yair Lerner and renamed Barkan Winery. Barkan grew to become the second largest winery in Israel. In 2005, the winery entered a partnership with Tempo, Israel?s largest brewery, which led to Tempo buying them outright. Tempo is a beverage empire with brands such as Goldstar, Heineken, Absolut, Chivas Regal and Pepsi Cola.
Gradually Barkan was seen as one of the companies symbolizing the settlement in the Territories. There were threads of boycotts and black lists. This was made worse by the partnership with the global beer giant, Heineken, who shared 40% of Tempo Beverages Ltd. The Dutch company did not want to be associated with a company situated in the West Bank. Before this storm arose, Barkan had procured land at Kibbutz Hulda, near Rehovot. In 2007 Barkan were able to open a brand new winery there. Good news for business. Barkan became Israel?s largest exporter.
In the last ten to 15 years, there are a number of new wineries that have opened in the Central Mountains, comprising Judea and Samaria, otherwise known as the West Bank. These include the Ramat Hebron Winery in Kyriat Arba and the Gush Etzion Winery, south of Jerusalem and Shilo and Psagot, north of Jerusalem. Daniel Rogov, the late, famous wine critic, used to sum up the situation very well. He said: ?There are domestic and overseas customers who simply won?t buy the wine because it comes from the occupied West Bank.? He went on: ?In contrast there are many others who lean towards the right wing orthodox Jewish side, who will look out those wines precisely because they come from there.? Most of the wineries there are not commercial operations, but rather domestic businesses, producing a few thousand bottles only. Together they are reviving wine production in this Biblical region. Many of these new wineries are geared towards tourism for commercial reasons, but also for public relations purposes. It is in their interest to show the Israeli settler as placid farmer types planting vineyards and growing wine. Again, wine is at the center of the political issues of the day.
Some on the far left have caught on about the success of the Israeli wine industry and seek to portray that all Israeli wine is sullied because it comes from disputed territory. Actually, this could not be further from the truth. Israel?s largest ten wineries have more than 92% of the Israeli wine production. The leading wineries are Carmel, Barkan, Golan, Teperberg, Binyamina, Tishbi, Galil Mountain, Recanati, Tabor and Dalton. Not one of them is situated in the politically charged West Bank. If one of them buys wine from a borderline West Bank vineyard, 99% of their vineyards are in Israel proper.
The same is true of the best wineries. The top ten quality wineries according to Daniel Rogov?s Guide To Israeli Wines are: 1. Golan Heights, 2. Yatir, 3. Margalit, 4. Castel, 5, Clos de Gat, 6. Flam, 7. Chateau Golan, 8. Pelter, 9. Carmel, 10.Galil Mountain. Not one of them is situated in the West Bank or sources wine from West Bank vineyards.
It is true that the wine appellations of Israel can be confusing. However this is not new, and is not intended to blur reality. Israel?s wine regions were registered in the 1960?s before the Six Day War and the start of settlement in the West Bank, and they have never been updated. Vineyards referred to as being in the Shomron Region, are mostly concentrated in the Mt Carmel and Ramat Menashe coastal area, which are in undisputed Israel. Likewise by far of the majority of Judean Hills vineyards lie in the corridor towards Jerusalem and in the foothills west of Jerusalem. Again, in undisputed Israel.
The Golan is another issue. It is a prime region for wineries and vineyards. However, only the most fervent, anti-Israel campaigners categorize the Golan as politically problematic. After all, there are no Palestinians on the Golan. The adjoining country is Syria, not Jordan, and their regime is controlled by the tyrant, President Assad, not a mensch, like King Hussein. It is like comparing apples and oranges. The situation is just not the same.
Daniel Rogov, a confirmed leftist, observed: ??I think most left oriented people do not consider the Golan as occupied territory and purchase these wines with no compunction whatever.?? Daniel Rogov was someone who would visit wineries on the Golan, but would refuse to step in to the West Bank. Not with standing this view, the Golan Heights Winery has been in the front line for those who wanted to target Israel. This was probably because as a very successful, visible winery, it was an easy target. In the early 2000?s Selfridges, the prestigious store in London, delisted Yarden wines under pressure from Palestinian demonstrations outside the store. In 2006, Systembolaget, the alcohol buying monopoly in Sweden, refused to write ?Made in Israel? for a Golan wine. In this way, forces against Israel were using wine to make a political point.
Most people in the wine industry believe wine should be separated from politics. You don?t need a flag to grow grapes and wine should be judged on quality. In other words it should be above the fray.
After 130 years of pioneering, from the time the first Carignan was planted in Zichron Ya?acov, it is still wineries and vineyards that are in the center of the Israel discourse. These have contributed to raise Israel?s profile. Wine is one of Israel?s finest quality exports and arguably Israel?s finest ambassador. Wine continues to be attraction for the full spectrum of political views, covering every corner of the disputed and undisputed land. And those that want to glorify or vilify Israel, may still do so, through its wine.