Israel is the original “old world” wine region. The Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean was the cradle of the world’s wine culture thousands of years before the vine reached Europe.
Wine has been produced in the Land of Israel since Biblical times. Whether you call it the Tanakh, Hebrew Bible, or the Old Testament, surely you are familiar with the story of the spies, Noah’s ark, or other Biblical stories that hark back to the original story of Israeli wine.
Ancient wine presses and wine making equipment are frequently found in archaeological digs. Often, these finds have even occurred at new wineries that have opened up only in the past decade.
In fact, wine making is thought to have originated in the area between the Black Sea, Caspian Sea, and Sea of Galilee. Noah was the first recorded viticulturist who, after the flood, “planted a vineyard.”
As the vine traveled throughout the Middle East and Mediterranean, the Jewish attraction to wine was shown in the developing literature. In 1800 BCE, there was a communication that the land of Israel was “blessed with figs and with vineyards producing wine in greater quantity than water.” The prophet Micah’s vision of peace included every person sitting “under his vine and under his fig tree.”
In the book of Numbers, the story is told about how two men sent by Moses to scope out the land of Israel returned with a great cluster of grapes that they had to carry together. That image is now used by Carmel Winery and the Israeli Tourism Ministry.
The Bible also speaks of the Israelite kings have vast vineyards. King David’s wine stores were so vast that he had a special official just in charge of his wine. The vineyards of ancient Israel are mentioned throughout the Bible.
Excavations frequently uncover ancient presses and wine storage vessels from the Golan Heights to the Negev Desert. Grapes and vines were frequent motifs on coins and jars in ancient times.
During the period of the Second Temple period winemaking was at its peak. It was a major export and economic mainstay. However, upon the destruction of the Second Temple and the dispersion of the Jews, the wine industry was forsaken. The Arab conquest in 600 CE further weakened the wine industry, due to Islam’s prohibition on alcohol. The wine industry in the Land of Israel lay dormant for another thousand years, until the return to Zion.
Rabbinic texts also speak of good wine. In fact, it is a mitzvah – a sacred commandment – to drink good wine on the Sabbath and Festivals.
Despite the Babylonian exile, there has always been a small but continuous Jewish presence in the land of Israel. But the wine industry was tiny, producing just enough to satisfy Jewish religious needs, until the nineteenth century. But, in the late nineteenth century, there was an exploration of wineries, along with the beginning of Jewish immigration and the Zionist movement.
Wine was an important part of the Zionist movement and European philanthropists like Sir Moses Montefiore (an ancestor of Carmel’s Adam Montefiore!) and Baron Edmond de Rothschild encouraged the harvesting of vineyards.
Despite its well-known brand, Carmel Winery is not Israel’s first winery, but is its best known brand and Carmel’s Rishon LeTzion winery, opened in 1890, is the longest continually-operating winery in Israel. The first recorded winery opened in 1848 by Rabbi Yitzhak Shor. Shor’s family remains in the wine industry today and Rabbi Shor’s descendents own the HaCormim, Arza, and Zion wineries.
In addition to the wineries owned by the Shor family, one of the earliest wineries was founded by Rabbi Avrom Teperberg in 1870. Efrat Winery (now known as Teperberg 1870) was founded in the Old City in Jerusalem, and has since been in several locations. The same year, the Mikveh Israel Agricultural School was founded southeast of Jaffa. Under French patronage, its wine school was the first to use European varietals.
In 1882, Baron Edmond de Rothschild commissioned a study to explore agricultural possibilities in the Land of Israel and two years later, those who turned to him for help, began producing grapes. This was the beginning of the Carmel Winery. In 1890, the winery in Rishon LeTzion was built. Two years later, a winery in Zichron Ya’akov was opened. Shortly after, huge underground cellars were built to ensure that the wine was stored at the proper temperature. But, it was not until 1895 that the Carmel Wine Company was formed to market the wines of Rishon LeTzion and Zichron Ya’akov Wine Cellars.
Since Carmel’s founding, it has been the “big boy” of Israeli wine and the best known international brand. In 1900, Carmel No. 1 won the Gold Medal at the Paris Exhibition, along with some of the finest chateaux of Bordeaux. Three prime ministers – from David Ben Gurion in 1907, Levi Eshkol in 1915, and, decades later, Ehud Olmert – have worked in Carmel’s wineries and vineyards.
With the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, numerous improvements were made. By 1948, vineyards only covered 17,000 dunam and there were fourteen wineries. Shortly after Israel’s independence, the Eliaz and Askalon wineries were founded. New areas were planted and, with waves of immigration, drinking habits changed. In the 1960s, advice from California was saught and new planting of varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc were made. It was not until 1971 that Carmel released Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc for export.
In the 1960s, Carmel controlled over ninety-percent of Israel’s vineyards. Red wines were based mostly on Carignon and Semillion. Yet, things were changing… thanks to some professors from the University of California Davis and the newly acquired Golan Heights.
In the early 1980s, the three biggest wineries were Carmel, Stock/WEST, and Eliaz. Yet, Carmel was suffering from financial difficulties and, by the end of the decade, Stock/WEST went bankrupt. Yet, thanks to some advice from one University of California professor a decade earlier, the wine world was about to change.
In 1972, a visiting UC Davis professor suggested that the Golan Heights, acquired a few years previously in the 1967 Six Day War, would be a great place to grow quality grapes. Kibbutzim and moshavim then planted the first vineyards in 1976.
Yet, there were many difficulties in the 1970s and 1980s until Israel would begin making truly fine wines.
By the end of the 1980s, Carmel had been struggling with serious financial losses that threatened the winery, but later resulted in a drastic turnaround. By the end of the decade, Stock/West went bankrupt.
Yet, others were just starting to innovate. The Golan Heights Winery was founded in 1983. They brought in experts from California, including the UC Davis-trained Peter Stern and others, initially also trained at the University of California Davis. Later, Israelis began to study winemaking abroad in places like California, France, Italy, and Australia.
In addition, families that had been involved in growing grapes for other wineries soon started to build their own wineries. This started with Jonathan Tishbi, whose great-grandparents began supplying Carmel and others in the 1880s, who opened up Baron Wine Cellars – now ‘Tishbi’. A few years later, other vineyards — most notably Ronnie James from Kibbutz Tzuba, and Dalton – followed suit.
In the 1990s, Barkan took over Stock. Israeli wine, most notably from the new Golan Heights Winery, also began winning international awards. The revolution was starting.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, individuals began opening their own wineries. Dr. Yair Margalit, a chemistry professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, opened up Israel’s first boutique winery in 1989. Margalit also studied winemaking in California. Today, Margalit is recognized as making some of Israel’s best wineries.
Restaurateur Eli Ben Zaken, self taught, began making wine in the old chicken coop near his home on Moshav Ramat Raziel, just outside of Jerusalem. Initally just making wine in small quantities, Zaken was noticed when, in 1992, a bottle of his wine made its way to Serena Sutcliffe, MW, the the head of Sotheby’s Wine Department. Sutcliffe’s reply changed the course of Israeli wine.
She called it “absolutely terrific” and “quite unlike other Israeli wines,” recalled Ben-Zaken. With that response, Ben-Zaken knew he had a winning wine and decided to take a risk and pursue winemaking professionally. He planted more vineyards, converted the ramshackle chicken coop into a beautiful winery and sent his son, who had been touring in Europe, to France to learn the art of wine making.
“Nobody believed that Israel was a country where you could get the price that allows you to invest in wine, so Israel was out of this game [producing high quality wines],” noted Ben-Zaken