Succot, the festival for celebrating the grape harvest, is a time for touring Israel’s wine country. Many wine lovers will be planning visits to the Golan Heights, Galilee, Mount Carmel, Judean Hills or Central Mountains regions, but my mind is elsewhere. I recently discovered a fascinating tour of the ‘Jerusalem Wine Route’ by Dani Biran, under covering the hidden roots of Israeli wine in the mid-19th century. There is a misconception that from the time the Marmelukes ruled, wine was outlawed and there was no wine made in Israel or the Holy Land until Baron Edmond de Rothschild founded a modern Israel wine industry starting in 1882. In fact, the first call to plant vines and the first recorded winery were a long time before that.
Biran is a tall, slightly stooped tour guide, journalist and author, with a large floppy hat that all real tour guides should possess. He was one of the first ten paratroopers to storm the Old City under the command of Motta Gur in the Six Day War. His main claim to fame is that he raised the Israeli flag on the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount….and then was the one to swiftly remove it under the instructions of Defence Minister Moshe Dayan. More lately he has become infatuated about wine tourism and did important work defining wine routes for the Ministry of Tourism. His feeling for the Old City, love for wine and tourism have combined.
He wanted to take me on a tour that included names like Kerem Moshe, Ginio, Shor, Teperberg and Kerem Avraham, which focused on Jerusalem of the mid-19th century. Planning ahead, he then enthusiastically recommended focusing on the late 19th century next time. This would encompass stories about Rishon Le Zion & Zichron Yaacov Cellars, the old abandoned winery in Rehovot, the Templar winery of Sarona and the monasteries of Latroun and Cremisan. Something to look forward to. Both sounded fascinating to me.
We met at the entrance to the Jaffa Gate and swiveled around to look back at the beautiful Kerem Moshe. Everyone knows this place, but few will recognize it by this name. It is not that I needed an explanation, but I enjoyed hearing it from someone else! In 1855 Sir Moses Montefiore bought the first land for use in agriculture, an orchard in what is now the Montefiore Quarter in Tel Aviv, and also the first neighborhood outside the Old City Walls. This area was bare apart from stones, olive trees and wild vines and he named it ‘Kerem Moshe v’ Yehudit’, Moses & Judith’s Vineyard. (Judith Montefiore was his wife). It was divided in two and the first part was renamed Mishkenot Shaananim in 1860 and the second, Yemin Moshe in 1892. What was originally called Kerem Moshe was to become the cornerstone of modern Jerusalem.
To put Jerusalem in context in the early 19th century, it was crowded, dirty, squalid and rampant with disease. The earthly Jerusalem was under the radar and far removed from the romantic heavenly Jerusalem of dreams and prayers. No-one talked about it and very few people visited.
Moses Montefiore was the first person to conduct a census of the Jewish population in 1839. Without this, there would be little information about the Jewish inhabitants of the Old City at the time. However this and subsequent censuses by Montefiore were a rich source of information. For instance, we know from it, the number of people working in the wine and liquor trade.
Montefiore was also relevant to the story, because he was the first to recommend that Jews should not live off charity but should work in agriculture. He outlined his vision in 1839, forty years before Rothschild. Later he recommended that people should plant vines to get a taste for agriculture. He was a wine lover who drunk a bottle of wine every day and lived to his 101st year, an early tribute to the healthy properties of wine. Wherever hosted, he was presented with wine and bought small casks as souvenirs.
Whereas Mark Twain wrote later that Palestine was “A desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds… a silent mournful expanse…. a desolation,” Montefiore wrote in his diaries how beautiful the vineyards were: “The mountains are cultivated in terraces and planted to the summit with vines and olives…it would be impossible to travel through a richer or more beautiful country.”
Moses Montefiore’s Coat of Arms featured a lion carrying a flag with the word Jerusalem written on it. The City of Jerusalem later adopted this same image as their logo! During Montefiore’s time the Jewish population of Jerusalem began to grow and the status of the Holy City was revived. The focus he gave and his seven visits played their part in the revival.
We then walked to the Jewish Quarter and entered Yehudim Street. There I saw the plaque commemorating the first recorded winery founded by David Ginio in 1840. They produced wine and arak. The family operated in the wine trade until the fall of the Jewish Quarter in 1948. The Ginios were a Sephardi family, descended from Jews expelled from Spain. From there they settled in Salonica and came to Jerusalem at the beginning of the 19th century. The Ginios lived in the house at street level and in the basement was the winery. Today the house is a secondhand English bookshop run by a lovely, elegant, refined old lady, who showed us the secret entrance behind a moveable bookcase, and pointed where the trap door where grapes were lowered into the winery. “This house should be a museum” she admitted. Nearby was the Cardo, and it reminded me of Yehuda Amichai’s poem ‘Tourists’. Please excuse me if I paraphrase: “You see that arch from the Roman period? That is not important. To the left is a man making wine for his family….”
We later saw the site of the Ginio liquor store just inside Jaffa Gate, near where Allenby made his address on entering Jerusalem. The logo, a deer, similar to the one later adopted by Elite and Alouf Arak, was visible inlaid in the paving in front of the shop until it was carelessly destroyed in renovations in the early 1990’s. The family lived in Nahal Shiva until 1957, and their house, which we also visited, may be identified by a plaque, with the same family logo again in evidence.
Not far from the Ginio Winery is a car park, between Yehudim and Chabad streets. There is nothing externally visible, but this was where the Teperberg family founded their winery. The family saga began in 1827 when Avraham Teperberg fled Odessa, to avoid serving in the army, and arrived in Austria. There he came into contact with wine for the first time and picked up his German sounding name. In 1850 he made Aliyah to Israel and in 1852 began trading in wine and spirits. Amongst his customers were not only Jews looking for kiddush wine, but Christians and Templars looking for altar or communion wine ‘from the Holy Land.’ His son Zeev Zaide Teperberg decided to establish a winery in 1870. Nothing visible remains, but the purchasing agreement for the Old City property is evidence enough.
The Teperberg family were involved in distribution (once even representing Carmel), and retailing, with wine shops in Jerusalem and Jaffa. They were even partners in the initial founding of a distillery in the Templar community of Sarona. They also had a costly court case with Carmel over the logo of the Biblical image of two spies carrying grapes on a pole. In 1925 the winery moved to where the Egged Bus station was and they had a shop in Mahane Yehuda, then the winery went bankrupt and closed, only reopening as Efrat Winery after the founding of the State. The CEO today is Moti Teperberg, who is the fifth generation. He has been at the helm since the mid 1980’s. In the 2000’s he increased production and impressively improved quality. He changed the name from Efrat to Teperberg, hired an internationally trained winemaker and built a new winery in the Judean Foothills at Tzora. Today Teperberg is the third largest winery in Israel and the largest family winery.
Then we walked to the Muslim Quarter, where the Shor family made wine. Their story began when Rabbi Mordechai Avraham Galina made Aliyah to Safed in 1835. He came from the Ukraine where watery wine was made by steeping raisins but real wine had to be imported from Hungary. After a few years he was made head of the Tiferet Yisrael Yeshiva in the Old City of Jerusalem. The Jerusalem population was sparse, poor and they needed to make a living. They also needed wine for religious ritual. Therefore, his son Rabbi Yitzhak decided to start a winery. He married the daughter of Aaron Shor, who had a hard-to-come-by wine license from the Ottomans, so the family changed their name and opened a winery in 1848. It was situated in a cellar on Haggai Street within the Rand House compound, adjacent to the Temple Mount and Western Wall (Ha’Kotel Ha’Katan.) The family placed barrels along the wall so forgetful workers would not touch it by mistake.
In one of those wonderful coincidences, whilst visiting the site of the Shor Winery with Dani Biran, he received a telephone call from Rabbi Avraham Avish Shor, the historian of the family and the authority of the Karlin-Stolin Hassidic dynasty. He explained to Dani that the names of the Shor family members and their profession, was first recorded in the second Montefiore Census of 1849. Unbeknown to him I was standing next to Dani on Haggai Street at the very moment he called!
Of course, I later went to visit him. He showed me a rare and charming video of his father, Rabbi Shmuel Haim Shor, z”l, giving a guided tour of where the winery was. He even pointed out the room where both he and his father had been born. He paused on some steps and explained as a child he was forbidden to go further not only for fear of desecrating the Temple Mount, but also because his parents were worried the children may be snatched! He recalled the pogrom in 1929 which hastened the move from the Old City. The family had already made plans to move to Beit Yisrael, because the British prohibited any form of industry in the Old City. These personal reminisces, brought the family folklore to life.
Biran and I visited the cotton market where the indomitable Rosa Shor had opened a wine store in 1870, said to be the first of its type. It was almost like a pub. She sold arak to Arabs and wine to Jews. She was a strong character and kept the 19th century equivalent of a baseball bat nearby. Woe-betide to anyone who caused trouble!
Later the Shor family grew and split into four wineries, each of which still operates. The Arza, Hacormim and Zion wineries continue to be owned and managed by the seventh generation of the Shor family. Each is situated in the same street in Mishor Adumim. The fourth, Shimshon, continues with new ownership and a new name. Arza and Zion wineries are now respectively the 5th and 6th largest wineries in Israel (based on the harvest of wine grapes.) In the 2000’s they have developed to keep up with the times, respectively launching Hayotzer and 1848 wineries devoted to premium table wines.
We then left the Old City and visited Kerem Avraham (Abraham’s Vineyard) where the British Consul, James Finn, a confirmed Zionist, planted a vineyard in Jerusalem. Grapes were usually delivered to the Jerusalem wineries, carried by a drove of donkeys from the expansive Arab owned vineyards in Hebron. Finn’s vineyard was planted by Jews and was for use by Jews. It was the first Jewish vineyard in Jerusalem. The rather grand house he built is still standing.
The tour ended at the Montefiore Windmill in Mishkenot Sha’ananim – Yemin Moshe. This was built by Moses Montefiore in 1857 to encourage work. (‘If there is no flour, there is no Torah; If there is no Torah, there is no flour.’ Pirke Avot. ) The windmill is a symbol of modern Jerusalem and part of the Jerusalem skyline. The neighborhood also has a wine past. The famous Mishkenot Sha’ananim Restaurant owned by Moise Peer, was the first Israeli restaurant to have a wine list of international standards. The cellar was referred to as being the finest in the Middle East. The restaurant was frequented by celebrities, prime ministers and presidents from Israel and abroad, and the iconic Mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek, was a regular visitor.
Today wine has returned to the neighborhood. The Montefiore Windmill, refurbished and reopened by Prime Minister Netanyahu in 2012, is now the official tasting room of the Jerusalem Vineyard Winery, another historic winery with roots in the Shor family. Yona Mendelson married into the Shor family and naturally, made wine. When the Shor family divided up into different branches, the aforementioned Shimshon Winery was founded by Mendelson and his Shor partners. In 1976 it moved to Atarot in the periphery of Jerusalem. Today Jerusalem Vineyard Winery is owned by Ofer Guetta, who purchased it in 2006. It is the only winery remaining in Jerusalem and has grown to become the seventh largest winery in Israel. You can visit the Jerusalem Vineyard Winery Tasting Room at the Montefiore Windmill. There you can taste a full range of wines at every price point and purchase some rare wines not sold elsewhere.
Jerusalem Winery’s talented Canadian born winemaker, Sam Soroka, has made a rare, limited handcrafted range of wines, under a new Windmill label. He must be one of Israel’s most experienced winemaker having made wine in five countries! I particularly recommend the deep, characterful Windmill Merlot, which comes from the Central Mountains where Merlot seems to thrive and the rich, complex prestige Bordeaux style blend, called Windmill Yemin Moshe. These wines are only available at the Montefiore Windmill.
That is not all. The Tasting Room is managed by the renowned sommelier, Jamie Sellouk. If you are fortunate, you may be received by him. He is a tall individual, prone to wearing a waistcoat, with the upright gait of a John Cleese. He is a sweet talking bard with the gift of the gab and a poetic turn of phrase. What is the bonus to all visitors, is that he also has immense knowledge. He was runner up in the prestigious competition ‘Pras Yarden’ (the Yarden Award) for Best Sommelier in Israel. He is a great communicator and educator. I know of no other visitors center in Israel with someone of this caliber hosting visitors and his tasting workshops have proved popular. They are usually sold out. Therefore booking in advance is highly recommended.
So, Dani Biran gave me a day to remember as we explored the beginnings of modern Israeli wine. I must say, it is a perfect end to the day to sit, glass in hand, at Mishkenot Sha’ananim in the shadow of the Montefiore Windmill. You can sip a Jerusalem wine in an historic setting, overlooking the Old City Walls, where Israel’s wine story actually began nearly 180 years ago!
Adam Montefiore has advanced Israeli wine for over thirty years. He is known as the ambassador of Israeli wine and is the wine writer of the Jerusalem Post.