The Golan Heights Winery burst onto the Israeli wine scene in 1983, created a whirlwind in Israeli wine and thirty years later is still there, maintaining the same standards.
??The winery brought a number of benefits to the Israel wine industry. Firstly they imported winemaking expertise and new world technology from California. Secondly, they elevated the importance of the vineyard and vineyard management. Previously vineyards were not considered that important. Today it is understood one makes the wine in the vineyard. Thirdly, they considered the issue of altitude. Israel is on the same latitude as North Africa. High altitude is important for growing quality wine grapes here, because the climate is cooler and the growing season longer. Finally, the decision making process in the vineyard of how to prune and when to harvest, for the first time passed from the grower to the winery. These changes taken together created a wine revolution in Israel.
When Yarden & Gamla ?wines were first produced and exported to America, they were referred to as ?Israel?s first world class wines.? In 1987 the winery won its first major international award. The Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon 1984 won the Winiarski Trophy and Gold Medal at the International Wines & Spirits Competition in London. Since then the winery has been the Israel flag waver at international competitions winning major awards all over the world. The last two were perhaps the of all. In 2011 the Golan Heights Winery won the Trophy for Best Winery in the World at Vin Italy due to the quality results received in their prestigious competition. In 2013 the winery was awarded with the trophy of Best New World Winery by the Wine Enthusiast in the United States, making all Israelis proud.
The reason for the success has been the place and the people. The Golan Heights itself is a volcanic plateau rising from the Sea of Galilee to the snow covered Mount Hermon, with vineyards up to 1,200 meters above sea level. The relatively cool climate, the basalt and volcanic tuff soil make this a unique and special winegrowing area. This was recognized by Professor Cornelius Ough from the University of California at Davis who visited in the mid 70?s and recommended the ?Golan as ideal wine country. The first vineyards were planted in 1976 and the winery was founded in 1983 by a partnership of four kibbutzes and four moshavs.
The pursuit of excellence was fuelled by some special people. The wily, feisty Shimshon Welner was the first manager. He was smart enough to aim high, in an effort to make the best wine possible in a country that did not yet appreciate wine. He brought in expertise from California to raise the bar in Israel. He muscled into a conservative, static wine scene, created waves and put quality wine out there.
The next managing director was Segev Yerovam. He changed the wine culture in Israel by aiming for style and quality. The attention to detail, professionalism and pursuit of excellence elevated the Golan Heights Winery in every aspect whether wine quality, vineyard management, wine marketing or even wine related events. He introduced Pras Yarden (The Yarden Award – a wine waiter competition) and Golan Vintage (a culinary festival) that still exist today. He also launched Israel?s first icon wine, the Yarden Katzrin. Yerovam?s winery became the beacon and example that encouraged others to reach out and try to emulate it. The winery did a similar job in Israel in the 1990?s to what Robert Mondavi Winery had done in California.
Shalom Blayer took over from Yerovam in 1998. He took the winery into the big league, ensurimg wines were also sold in the mass market. He increased production, set up the company?s own distribution and sales network in Israel and formed Yarden Inc, a wholly owned subsidiary as an importing and marketing company in New York. The winery also became partners in the formation of the Galil Mountain Winery in the Upper Galilee. During his tenure Yarden Mount Hermon Red became the largest selling wine in Israel. Also Yarden was invited for the first time to the prestigious New Work Wine Experience, a gathering by invitation only for the finest 250 wineries in the world.
The current managing director is Anat Levi. She is the first woman CEO of one of the big wineries in Israel. This is a notable achievement because the wine industry in Israel can be regrettably macho. She was the first not to be new to wine when taking over, having previously been marketing manager both in Israel and export. She certainly left a marketing mark on the winery. She created the Eretz Ha?Yayin (Land of Wine) campaign that celebrated the special and unique terroir of the Golan. She revitalized the Gamla brand and lately has introduced the Hermon brand as individual wines, separated from Yarden. ?She also launched the Yarden Rom, a venture shared by the winemaker Victor Schoenfeld and the current consultant, Zelma Long from California.
The winemaking credit is mainly shared by two people. Initially, Peter Stern from California was the pivotal figure. He was the winemaking consultant for twenty years. Stern?s contribution as was particularly crucial in the first 15 years. He raised the standards of viticulture and vinification in Israel. During the frequent changes of winemaker in the first 10 years, he provided the direction, stability and guidance and he advised the first permanent winemaker, Victor Schoenfeld.
When Victor Schoenfeld took over and settled in, Stern had done his job. Schoenfeld joined the Golan Heights Winery in 1991 as assistant winemaker and took over as chief winemaker in 1992. Since then with a changing winemaking team over the years, he has managed to steer the winery to be technologically the most advanced in Israel, maintaining standards of wine quality, despite increasing production. ?It is an extraordinary achievement to have won major international awards for white, red, sparkling and dessert wines. The fact that they have done this for thirty years illustrates perfectly the quality, versatility and consistency of the winemaker and his winemaking team.
Finally, last but not least, the wines. The Golan Heights Winery today sells four main labels, Yarden, Gamla, (divided into ?Gamla? and ?Gamla Shmura?), Hermon and Golan. The rare Yarden Katzrin and Yarden Rom are the flagship wines. Mount Hermon Red is the largest selling wine. The main award winning wine over the last 30 years has been the peerless Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon. Other major award winners over the years have been the Yarden Blanc de Blancs Sparkling Wine, Yarden Odem Chardonnay, and Yarden HeightsWine .
Wines-Israel owes the Golan Heights Winery a debt for raising the bar, setting the standards and maintaining them over 30 years.