In 1986, I had occasion to go to Israel to observe first-hand a wine industry that, while not new, was struggling to establish an international presence. Except for Carmel, then one of Israel's largest wineries, few small Israeli wineries, kosher or non-kosher, had made a mark in the growing U.S. wine market.
Thirty years ago, if you wanted kosher wine in America, your choices were Mogen David, Manichewitz, Kedem and you might find Carmel in major markets. The image of kosher wine was sweet and innocuous and that's not what wine consumers wanted.
Aside: Kosher means "pure" and is central to all Jewish religious and family events. At the winery, the wine making process must be supervised by a rabbi and only kosher items, such as yeasts and fining agents may be used. Fining agents like isinglass, made from animal products, can not be used. Kosher wine is suitable for vegetarians and if egg whites are not used for fining, it can be vegan.
So things changed, thanks in large part to the Israeli wine industry.
Israel is such a small country (about the size of New Jersey), that you can easily get around it in one day. It is a mind boggling, for an American in Israel, to hear that records show evidence of wine being made 10,000 years ago, perhaps on the very land where you are standing.
My first stop was at the Golan Heights Winery, not far from Syria and the site of a major tank battle in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Imagine standing on an overlook, with a vineyard below you, sprawled along a flat plain where Israeli and Syrian tanks once faced off in battle.
"This area had to be cleared of derelict tanks and unexploded shells, before the vineyard was planted" explained our guide, a former major in the Israeli Army, who fought in the '73 war.
Today, most Israeli vineyards are planted to international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah, the mainstays of Israeli red wine. Carignan is also a popular red grape, both as a varietal and in blends. The best white wines are made from Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. There are a few native grapes, like Argaman, used mainly for blends that are sold in local markets.
The Golan Heights Winery is in the Galilee, one of the countries five wine regions. The others: Shomron, which includes Mt. Carmel; Samson, covering Tel Aviv and parts of Judea; The Judean Hills, in the foothills west of Jerusalem; and the Negev, in arid southern Israel.
On the day I visited Golan Heights winery, the Israeli Defense Force was running maneuvers, with army vehicles and tanks racing along the road beside the winery. Inside the modern structure, a small cellar crew was tending to the wines. The winemaker then was a young Californian named Peter Stern who provided a perspective on kosher wine.
"To be a kosher wine, all of the practices of kashrut (Jewish dietary laws) must be observed," said Stern. "Only religious Jews may handle the wine and the winery equipment from the time the grapes arrive at the winery."
Aside: Stern admits that the story of his hiring as winemaker was a little confusing and dramatic, but thinking back, he says it now seems amusing. "When I interviewed for the job (as winemaker), the requirements of kashrut in the winery were explained and I was asked if that would be a problem for me. I said no, but then I mentioned that I am not a Jew. The assumption was since my last name is Stern, that I was a Jew."
Despite the name confusion, Stern was hired as winemaker, but his appointment took some adjustment on everyone's part. In the early days, Stern says it was awkward at first having to tell his cellar crew, who were all religious Jews, what he wanted done and how to do it. " But in time we all got used to the routine."
Today, Golan Heights Winery, which sells wine under the Yarden brand, has an internationally trained Israeli winemaker and is one of hundreds of small and medium-size kosher and non-kosher wineries in Israel.
Availability of Israeli wines in the United States is spotty, mostly sold where there are large Jewish communities, live like New York. Golan Heights, Carmel and Barkan control the Israeli market today and are the brands mainly seen in export markets. Other Israeli wines to look for in your local stores include: Barkan, Binyamina, Domaine Herzberg, Ella Valley, Galil Mountain, Gush Etzion, Shiloh, Shiran, Tabor, Tulip, Yarden, Yatir.
Kosher wine is made in many countries and the quality rivals that of non-kosher wine. While it may take some effort, the search for kosher wine will pay tasty dividends.
Footnote. Wine tourism is not big in Israel but visiting Israel is high on the bucket list of those Christians and Jews wanting to see the Biblical land of Judea, walk the path of Jesus along the Stations of the Cross in Jerusalem, ending at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, mingle with the devoted at the Western Wall, visit the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and just revel at the opportunity to stand on the site of so much history. Of all the many countries I've visited over the years, Israel is the most memorable...of course, there's always Italy!
Next blog: My Life in Wine Episode 20
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