Israeli Wineries Offer Wine-Tasting in Tel Aviv

Israel's wine industry reached a new milestone last week, when the country's first international wine expo was opened to the public in Tel Aviv.

Zev Stub, | updated: 15:17

The convention, which was planned in order to introduce Israeli wine makers to their counterparts in Europe and around the world, was yet another landmark event for a red-hot market sector that is winning the hearts of international critics and local shoppers alike. Israeli wine-tastings sponsored by the public and private sector have helped raise consumer awareness in cities across the US and Europe in the past year, and local events, like the wine festival at Jerusalem's Israel Museum in July, are becoming more commonplace.

Wine tastings are becoming more and more frequent in Israel, as the local industry continues to draw international attention. Last month, Israel's wine industry reached a new milestone when it hosted its first international wine expo in Tel Aviv.

The Tel Aviv convention, which was planned in order to introduce Israeli wine makers to their counterparts in Europe and around the world, was yet another landmark event for a red-hot market sector that is winning the hearts of international critics and local shoppers alike. Israeli wine tastings sponsored by the public- and private-sector have helped raise consumer awareness in cities across the US and Europe in the past year, and local events, like the wine festival at Jerusalem's Israel Museum in July, are becoming more commonplace.
People enjoying their wine tasting at the Israwinexpo 2006 in Tel Aviv. More photos: ISRAWINEXPO 2006

Why has wine become so hot in recent years? Its a combination of several factors, says Udi Kaplan, who manages Ella Valley Vineyards near Beit Shemesh.

"Over the past ten years, [as society grew more affluent,] Israelis started to travel around the world more, and tasted more fine wines in cafes and restaurants. At the same time, they also started to learn more and understand good wines. That led to a rise in local consumption. Meanwhile, more wineries started making good wine, and that raised awareness of wine and increased competition. These factors together have caused the industry to grow from every side," he said.

Presenting at the Tel Aviv fair were 35 of the country's estimated 150 wineries, with wines ranging from NIS 30 to as much as NIS 250 or more. About half of these were kosher, a statistic which misrepresents the actual market: All of the top five Israeli wineries have kosher certification, as do most mid-sized producers. Most of the small boutique wineries that dot the map, however, do not.
One customer speaking with a representative from the Binyamina Winery at the 2006 Israwinexpo

Kosher or not, it seems that everyone who speaks about the stellar growth of the wine industry, in the past few years, seems to use the same word: revolution. Since the domestic market has been growing at a breakneck pace of some 10% a year to approximately $150 million, a marketing consortium headed by Israel Export Institute and the Israel Wine Grapes Board was recently created to try and drive similar growth results for exports, which currently total $13 million a year. Among the consortium's goals are doubling wine exports to the US alone to $15 million within three years.

For Michel Murciano, director of the Hevron Heights Winery and the Noah Winery, achieving such international prominence would actually represent the beginning of local industry's fourth revolution in a history that traces back to the early days of modern Zionism.

Business at Rishon Litzion in 1906
“The first revolution was 130 years ago, when Baron Edmon de Rothschild invested in developing the first wineries in the Jewish Yishuv. He built the facilities in Rishon Letzion and Zichron Yaakov that would later be called Carmel Mizrahi, and monopolize the industry for 100 years.

“The second revolution was Golan Heights Winery's entry into the market in the early 1980's. Golan was the first to recognize that Israel is capable of producing world-class wines, not just sweet kiddush wines, and captured the attention of international wine critics.
The Ortal vineyard produces chardonnay, cabernet, and merlot grapes. This vineyard is part of the Golan Winery

“A third revolution started five or six years ago, with the sudden rise of the boutique winery phenomenon. They have changed the topography of the industry and raised it to a higher level.

“We are now working on achieving yet another revolution- bringing Israeli wines out of the Jewish consumer market and selling to the general population. That would take us to the next level.”

Of course, wine-making is not really a new industry in this ancient land. Israel's extraordinary wine-producing capabilities are already alluded to by our forefather Yaakov's blessing to Yehuda before his death in Egypt, and mentioned frequently among the land's praises throughout scripture. Mishnaic and Talmudic literature is filled with detailed references to wine harvests, production, and consumption, and archaeologists are constantly unearthing the remains of ancient wine presses at digs around the country.

An ancient wine press located near Beit Shemesh at the Ella Valley Vineyards
For many, this is part of the mystique of Israeli wine. Ella Valley is one of the wineries that has integrated this historical connection into its corporate identity after archaeologists discovered an ancient wine press in their farmland. The company's logo features a picture of that press to impress the historical link upon consumers.

"This helps us really feel the connection to history, that we are making the same wine our forefathers did thousands of years ago," says Kaplan. "Marketing wine is very psychological. People buy for the story, the myth behind it."
Ripe pomegranate with a scale at the Rimon Winery

For most people at the Tel Aviv expo, however, the emphasis was not on history, but innovation. Among the most interesting aspects of the exhibition were the new ideas- new teflon-layered screw-top bottle caps that are replacing traditional cork on quality wines from Tabor and Binyamina; the use for several years of oak chips at Saslove (no kosher certification) in casks to supplement the oak taste imparted by barreling; and the new Pomegranate wines produced by the Rimon Winery near Tzfat, which claims to be the only maker of high-quality wines of this type in the world. (Also of note are excellent blackberry and cherry wines made by the Gush Etzion Winery.)

The Binyamin and Bet El hills where the grapes are grown for their cabarnet and merlot wines
The Beit El Winery has its biblical connection through its very name and the fact that it is built next to an ancient wine press that dates back to the times of the ancient temple. The Beit El Winery is also a small boutique winery which produced between 5 and 7 thousand bottles of wine in 2005.

Does Israel have what it takes to become a dominant player in the international wine scene? The experts would say "probably not."

The Ben Zimra Vineyard at the Ricanti winery
Marketing is a major obstacle for Israeli wineries, notes Amir Sarig, an assistant wine maker at Recanati . "Most of the boutique wineries in Israel are very small, and don't have the capital to really market themselves abroad. They are also lacking the large networks needed to handle distribution, which is the key to actually selling wines."

But even if the logistics could be streamlined, economies of scale are enough to prevent Israel from competing with other “New world” wine producers, Murciano says. “People ultimately want inexpensive wines, and Israel doesn't have enough vineyards to compete on price with up-and-coming producers like Chile, Argentina, and Australia. The general populace can get wines of similar quality cheaper elsewhere.”

But Israel still has a natural market abroad for its kosher wines. "You have to recognize that the biggest buyers of Israeli wines are religious Jews," says Eli Ben Zaken, the chief winemaker at Domaine du
Winter at Castel Winery: Its vineyards are covered with snow
near Jerusalem. Castel, a boutique outfit considered one of the best producers in the country, obtained kosher status in 2003, more than ten years after it was opened, to reach this market. Ben Zaken says the decision to market his wine has only improved profitability for the company, which now has no problems selling out its 100,000 bottle-a-year output. Tzora, another highly regarded winery located on a kibbutz near Beit Shemesh, also went kosher in 2002 with similar results.

Wine consumption among both religious and non-religious Jews has risen in Israel to an average of 6.5 liters per person annually, compared with 3.9 liters a year at the time of the State's founding. It has been estimated that consumption could reach as high as 12-15 liters per person when Haredim and Muslims are not counted. That would rank Israel higher than the United States' 11 liter-per-year average, although it remains much lower than the 60 liter-per-year consumption found in France, Spain, and Italy.

Shoppers for Israeli wines today are dazzled by the wide array of kinds available on the shelves, made with traditional grapes like the red Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, or the white Chardonnay and Reisling, along with a colorful plethora of varieties like the Syrah, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Sangiovese, Muscat, Sauvignon Blanc and others. Competition among the top producers is heating up, and, as the local industry achieves milestone after milestone, one thing seems certain: the best is yet to come.