Vineyard in Israel
Vineyard in Israel Israel news photo: Flash 90

The world market and media continue to discover Israel as a land of fine wines as well as the"Land of Milk and Honey." The latest "discovery" by foreign media is Jerusalem area’s Domaine Du Castel winery, which the French news agency AFP highlighted to readers around the world although it has been written about in Israel National News as far back as 2006.

Like many of Israel’s best wines, the winery is relatively small--but growing quickly. It is operated by Eli Ben Zaken and has blossomed from a whim to a production line that makes 100,000 bottles a year. At approximately $40 a bottle, that represents revenues of $4 million. 

As the business took off, Ben Zaken realized it would be worthwhile to make sure his wines are certified kosher, satisfying both the large local market as well as wine-lovers from outside the country.

The growing wine industry in Israel traces its roots back to Biblical and Talmudic days, but the Muslim conquest that began in the 7th century caused an abrupt halt to growing grapes. The Islamic prohibition of alcohol spurred Muslim rulers to uproot vineyards, forcing Jews to start all over again centuries later.

Among the highest-rated wines are those from Yatir, in the Hevron Hills where the 12 spies traveled from the Sinai Desert to bring back proof that the Land of Canaan indeed was rich in “milk and honey.”

Wine presses from 2,000 years old have been discovered, including one near the Domaine du Castel winery run by Zaken, who lives on Moshav Ramat Raziel.

"When the Romans conquered Judea, they adopted the local viticulture know-how. This whole area was a productive area which produced very high quality wines," Ben Zaken told AFP.

The Castel winery is one of several in the Judean and Jerusalem hills that have added their names to Israel’s growing reputation for fine wine. The French wine guide, Bettane & Desseauve, rates Ben Zaken’s wine as one of the 365 best in the world.

He sprung into “wine fame” when a British wine expert came across one of his bottles and proclaimed it was “absolutely terrific.” Ben Zaken's wine is one of the 10 best rated by the Rogov Guide to Israeli wines, which also includes wines from grapes in the Golan Heights, the Galilee in northern Israel and Yatir.

Although Israeli wines used to be known for their sweetness, made for the American market, its concentration on dry wine is a return to ancient and Talmudic times when dry wine was a daily beverage.  

Ben Zaken said he went against popular thinking when he planted grapes in the area in 1988 but that his decision made sense because of the Biblical history of wine-making in the area.

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