Photo Feature: The Old Winemaker

A meeting with one of Israel's oldest winemakers on the eve of Purim, his favorite day of the year.

Ezra HaLevi,

Isaac Herskovitz, the old winemaker
Isaac Herskovitz, the old winemaker

Yitzchak Herskovitz may be the oldest winemaker in Israel, but his enthusiasm for Judaism’s holiest beverage was a part of his heritage before he was even born.

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His grandfather was an innkeeper and used to make wine for his guests in the Carpathian mountains, near the Hungarian-Czechoslovakian border. After immigrating to the United States, his father, a rabbi, continued to make wine in his home. He even supplied the wine for the needs of his congregation during the Prohibition.

Fixing a vat in Beit El


Herskovitz likes to trace his winemaking back to the Bible’s Noah, who after being tasked with rescuing his family and specimens of all the world’s animals from the flood “planted a vineyard and made wine.”

The old winemaker at his desk
Baruch Nachshon's custom made Leviathan scene (note the Gefilta Fish carrot-garnish)


The Old Winemaker, as he is referred to in his home town of Kiryat Arba, is at the same time legendary and virtually unknown. He has no web site and the bulk of his wine is purchased by loyal customers directly from his storage room on the outskirts of Hevron. But local connoisseurs like artist Baruch Nachshon and a handful of Hassidic rebbes speak of Herskovitz as the embodiment of the righteous joy that wine is supposed to bring to the Sabbath and festivals.

But Purim is the winemaker’s day.

Herskovitz works tirelessly at the Beit El Winery, a tiny facility at the foot of the Artiss Outpost (Pisgat Yaakov) that he uses together with Hillel Mann, who produces a line of Beit El wines. There, the old winemaker monitors his fermenters, tanks, vats and oak barrels of wine, each labeled by grape, vintage and location of the vineyard.

Tools of the trade


“Merlot, 2003, Shilo,” reads one, made from grapes grown, cared for and harvested by Jewish farmers living in the revived town that hosted the Tabernacle and the Holy Ark for hundreds of years prior to the building of the Temple in Jerusalem.

“Cabernet Sauvignon, 2005, Dolev,” reads: “Grown in the unique vineyards of Dolev, among the mountains of Benjamin 700 meters above sea level. Light garnet in color, this medium-bodied wine shows strong tannins and intense flavors. This wine will age to mellow and become something special and unique which will reflect the terroir of the vineyard in which it was grown. Le Chaim [to life]!”

Herskovitz worked for some of California's biggest wineries before moving to Israel in 1988. “The hard part was that I could never taste the wine, as it wasn’t kosher,” he recalled. "I was in charge of the fermentation room and had to stop the fermentation before the sugars of the grapes fermented out. I was making some of the best port wines in the US. They were made from old growth Zinfandel grapes full of intense flavors. I got to learn all the latest winemaking techniques, which I brought with me on Aliyah.”

An Oak barrel
A ton of wine


The winemaker studied in yeshiva during the year and made wine during the grape-harvest, until the fermented fruits of his labor made a name for him among Jewish wine enthusiasts. Now friends, acquaintances and a grand hassidic rebbe or two track Herskovitz down on the eve of holidays to find out what his latest project is.

A semi-dry Muscat, made from grapes grown in the northern Jerusalem neighborhood of Pisgat Ze’ev, sits on his workbench. “This was a one-time project that a certain rabbi asked me to do for him,” he says. “I am not so into sweet wine.”

A merciless critic of his own wine, he insists an excellent-tasting Merlot has a hint of acidity. “It is all my fault,” he cries. “I should have taken better care of it. A winemaker’s job is to constantly monitor his wine. I didn’t watch it closely enough.”

With the grapes hailing from all over Israel and the winemaking process taking Herskovitz from Hevron, through Jerusalem to Beit El on a regular basis – Herskovitz says that the reward of hearing that someone, somewhere on the globe loves his wine makes it all worth it. “I like to think that it is a rectification for the sin of the spies, who came back from the land with a large cluster of grapes and dampened the Jews’ will to conquer the land.”

The old winemaker hopes that when people taste his wine, they will hop on the next plane to Israel – “or at least know that the best wine in the world comes from the Land of Israel.”

HaKerem (meaning The Vineyard) wine can be purchased through Mendel’s Wine Shop in Tel Aviv (218 Ben Yehuda), ordered online or arrangements can be made through Wine@NachshonArt.com. For US orders, email: IsaacLevi@DSLextreme.com

Herskovitz can be reached in Israel at: (02) 996 1120 and 050-852-6096

(Photos: Ezra HaLevi - see sidebar for entire series)





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