Israeli Wine Industry Leaving France and Italy in the Dust

Jerusalem Wine Club CEO Eli Poch says Israel has advantages that are allowing for unparalleled growth.

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Gedalyah Reback,

Wine (illustration)
Wine (illustration)
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In 1987, the Golan Heights Winery won Israeli wines their first major international award in competition with the 1986 Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon 1984 at the International Wines & Spirits Competition in London. Eli Poch, the Founder and CEO of the Jerusalem Wine Club and proprietor of the Club's full-service wine shop in Efrat, says the industry has never looked back.

In the nearly 30 years since the industry was revitalized by that one award, the number of wineries has gone from a handful to between 250 and 400. Mr. Poch said he could not give an exact number because new wineries on preparing to open their doors all the time.

Mr. Poch got involved in wines at a young age in Toronto, pairing up with a local wine shop as part of a pre-Passover fundraiser when he was in 9th grade. He later got a warehouse job with that business and then took his enthusiasm further when he started exploring the emerging industry in Israel.

“There is even an International Ambassador for Israeli Wines. There is also the consortium in Israel with Machon HaYayin whose entire focus is to specifically to aid in export capabilities and monitor levels of pH and alcohol levels in product.”

Tasting Adir Cabernet Sauvignon with Adi Bar Golan - Head of Adir Vistors Center Eli Poch

“Israel’s reputation has become much more world-renown. There is a focus on rebranding Israeli wines and pulling them out of the ‘kosher section’ and making sure they are mentioned with the likes of the Spanish, the French and Italians.”

As far as concerns about international boycotts, Poch says he has not heard anything about the idea in the wine circles he frequents, even in France or Spain. 

But why has the industry expanded so rapidly? Poch notes that unlike other rapid expansions that might sacrifice production quality, it is the quality itself of Israel's wines that have made expansion possible in the first place. As a result, traditional centers of the global wine industry like France, Spain and Italy are actually seeing Israel begin to corner elements of the market.

Blended wines are just one segment of that international market that Israel tackles better than other industrial centers. Given the example Bordeaux blends, which require a mix of five different types of grapes, Israel consistently uses high quality versions of each grape that challenge countries that might excel in one breed of vine but not the others.

The main reason is scientific. No country on the Mediterranean coast or in the northern regions of Europe has the diverse climate that Israel does contained in a single area.

“We're very, very much different in the capabilities of what’s in our soil and how that produces more varieties, duplicates them or does both those things together.”

Discussing wines with Gidi Sayada of Lueria Winery Eli Poch

Within a small space, the Golan Heights contrast with the beaches of Eilat, the sea-level regions along the coast are complemented by the Judean Hills and Jerusalem's valleys, and so forth. Even the composition of soil is extremely different place to place, including volcanic soil in the Golan, limestone, Terra Rosa (clay), basalt and sandy regions in the Negev.

“I can literally go to Kadesh Barnea and the sand will fall through fingers as if I were standing on the beach. We grow grapes in this! Each soil has different combinations of minerals that give different flavors to Israeli grapes.”

The soil variations themselves are enough to make the same breed of grape taste different depending on the ground in which it grows.

That variation is behind the idea of the Jerusalem Wine Club. Paid membership gets members between two and four bottles of wine per month - including from boutique wineries - that they might not otherwise have had the chance to taste with the popularity of the bigger wineries' products.

Israel's other advantages rest in its particular cultural and religious background. Israel's gathering of Jewish exiles from France, Italy, Spain, the United States, South Africa, Australia and other locations means that winemakers trained and experienced in very different wine-growing climates can consult with each other. Asked why this was a challenge for say, French and Italians, he said that each industry can isolate themselves.

"It's a matter of ego sometimes. In Israel, because the high-quality version of the industry is so young, people realize they will either sink or sail together in the same boat."

Israel's climate is also consistent. While rain might vary during the winter, the rain in the actual growth season from March through Rosh Hashanah is actually consistently nothing. As a result, Israel's drip irrigation is the only water source for the vineyards, giving Israeli winemakers the counterintuitive advantage of being able to control exactly how much water will be used for their vineyards.

At a wine tasting with Romi Saslove of Saslove winery Eli Poch

"With too much rain you might end up with grapes that are over-diluted, which waters down the taste. If it is too sunny, there might be extra sugar and high alcohol content. Zero rainfall during the growth season and drip irrigation allow growers to monitor the exact amount of water going into the vines."

He says that the reliance on technology has been a blessing in disguise. It is at the point that the Golan Heights Winery has machinery that will monitor the amount of evaporation off of any leaf on any vine in any of its vineyards. It is a scientific precision that other wine-growing centers are nowhere near matching.

What Poch felt was of note was along the lines of the oft-cited idea that Israel's greening reflects the Biblical prophecies that foresee a country that experiences its own rebirth when the Jews of the world return. He says that one section of the Torah implicates the wine industry is an even better indicator of this:

"If you look at Yaakov Avinu's brachah to Yehudah in Genesis 49:11-12, he blesses him with so much wine that 'he will wash his clothes in wine and his robe in the blood of grapes; red-eyed from wine and white-toothed by milk.' Yehudah's descendants will prosper by the vine. We are seeing that in the richness of Israel's wine industry. It is a literal blessing."

The Jerusalem Wine Club store is located in Efrat, Gush Etzion. You can contact them at their website www.jerusalemwineclub.com or at 02.625.2896.