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Stephan Celniker at the Yaffo Winery. Photo by Dan Peretz
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Dan Peretz
An imported Georgian wine cask at the Kadma Winery. Photo by Dan Peretz
Dan Peretz
Yaffo Winery. Photo by Dan Peretz

You can’t get enough of the large earthenware casks. They’re as tall as a man, they have the shape of huge eggs, like mythological creatures, and in a rather illogical way, stand on a very small and narrow base.

The 21 fat-bellied wine casks − hand-made by expert craftsmen who inherited the trade from their forefathers − were brought by the Slutzkin family from Georgia, the cradle of wine culture and one of the first places where grapevines were domesticated. Local experts on the history of wine claim that wine was fermented in similar casks in the ancient Land of Israel, and the fermented product of its vines became famous among the nations of the region.

In the southern Caucasus the huge casks are usually buried in the ground in order to maintain a fixed temperature during the fermentation process. In the hot climate of the Land of Israel, where the grapes are harvested earlier, the casks were left in the shade, wrapped in pieces of cloth, and vintners prayed to God to keep his burning fury in check.

Kvevri is the Georgian name for the ancient casks, called pithos in ancient Greek and dolium in Latin. The search for the etymological roots of the names used for the earthenware vessel in various regions and societies is like following the spread of wine culture from the Caucasus mountains to Mesopotamia and from there to the Mediterranean Basin and northern Europe.

Each cask weights almost 150 kilograms and when full of liquid weighs over a ton; in their native land of Georgia, vintners use casks that are double the size and volume. No cask is identical to the next, the long process of shaping the containers is carried out by hand without a potter’s wheel, and each is sealed with wax that bears the unique imprint of one of the last of the craftsmen specializing in this craft.

The huge casks are produced in the Surami region in western Georgia, and in the period predating the invention of modern transportation, they used to be rolled to the wine regions in the east.

“My journey to bring the jars from Georgia to Israel was no less complex,” laughs Lina Slutzkin, one of the owners of the family’s boutique Kadma winery in Kfar Uriah. “When I look back on that operation, whose absurd tribulations could fill an entire book, I find it hard to believe that I managed to bring the jars from the remote village in the Caucasus mountains, which looks as though it hasn’t been touched by time for hundreds of years, to the village in the Judean plains which is located in a traditional wine region thousands of years old. We don’t plan to produce Georgian-style wine, but rather to combine ancient production techniques − which were once practiced in this geographical area too − with new ones, to produce good wine.”

Slutzkin, who was born in Tbilisi and immigrated to Israel at the age of eight, is a software engineer who worked at Intel for almost 20 years. She came to Kfar Uriah with her family 16 years ago: “When we bought the farm we had no agricultural intentions. My husband and I continued to work in high tech, but eventually I began to feel that I was leaving the children in paradise every morning and going out to war in a different world; it wasn’t clear why.”

When she decided to open a family winery – which is kosher – she looked for a way to distinguish its product from that of dozens of other local wineries, she adds. “I went back to Georgia for the first time 36 years after my parents left it, and the childhood neighbors I met there helped me to get to the cask manufacturers in the mountains.”

The Slutzkins produced their first vintage in 2010, and in the same year they also planted their first vineyards ‏(“We don’t plan to produce wine from the grapes in our vineyards in the near future, we’ll continue to buy grapes from mature vineyards”‏). They receive professional guidance from Prof. Amos Hadas, an expert on the history of wine, and Arkadi Papikian, one of Israel’s leading winemakers. The liquid produced from squeezed grapes, which at this point comes mainly from the north of the country, is initially transferred for several months of fermentation in the earthenware vessels ‏(instead of modern stainless-steel containers‏). The two fermentation processes, one alcoholic and one malolactic, take place in the earthenware containers, and from then on the process continues, as in every modern winery, with aging in wooden casks.

It’s hard to express an opinion as yet about the quality of the wines that are produced and aged in the young winery. Although its creators speak of the special character resulting from fermentation in earthenware casks ‏(“A slow and harmonic fermentation process enables the wine to better absorb flavors from the fruit, and the special structure of the cask reduces the area of contact with sediment and is responsible for refining sharp flavors”‏) − it’s not certain that the differences, or the declaration of intentions, are evident to the palate of tasters, whether experienced or amateur.

The prices of the wine, as is usual in local boutique wineries, are too high for most mortals to use it as a table wine. In addition to the small selection of red wines − of varied species, production dates and periods of aging − there is also port and chacha, a traditional Georgian distilled liquor made from grape pomace, which is produced in a small home distillery in the back of the winery.

The sight of the casks, with their ancient glory and elegance, and the interesting historical information conveyed by members of the family ‏(all of the Slutzkins participate in the work‏) are sufficient reason for a visit to the winery, and in addition there are generous breakfasts served on the premises, facing a landscape of green hills. On weekends, especially during the Mateh Yehuda food festival ‏(being held on weekends through March 16‏), the Kadma winery joins forces with village baker Reuben Grafton. Grafton, a chef and baker born in England, bakes a selection of health breads on weekends − sourdough and other varieties from special flours − and sells them next to the moshav grocery and at a stall in the winery’s backyard. By advance appointment you can combine tours of the winery with meals of wine, bread and cheese.

Winery from the big city

Moshe and Stephan Celniker, a father and son, are sitting in the backyard, drinking a glass of Syrah-Merlot 2010 produced in the family winery, and enjoying the beauty of nature and their good fortune. The sun sets over the Ella Valley, turning the satellite dishes nearby into huge white sculptures; pink cyclamens and wild fennel burst from the low green hills surrounding the winery.

“We wanted to start an urban winery,” says the older Celniker, shrugging his shoulders, “but in the end the Yaffo winery found a home in the Ella Valley. Never mind. I believe there’s poetic justice here. Jaffa, a cosmopolitan gate of entry, was a port city that exported and imported a wine culture. There’s nothing more suitable than a winery bearing that name, even if it’s located now far from there.”

Following is the history of the Yaffo winery, here and abroad: It was established in the city of Jaffa in 1998, in a small room adjacent to the famous Abu Hassan hummus place, by Moshe Celniker, an Israeli native who lived for seven good years in Strasbourg, France. In the Alsatian capital he met his wife Anne, scion of a veteran family of winemakers ‏(“Anne says that if I hadn’t met her I would have continued drinking cheap Kiddush wine all my life. She’s right”‏). The two had a vision of a winery located in the historic Jaffa port ‏(“The Tel Aviv municipality actually expressed interest in that, but informed us that we could get a permanent place at the port for only a year or two. After that, who knows. In the wine business, that is a time period that’s equal to a hundredth of a second”‏). For lack of choice, the winery moved to the cellar of the couple’s home in Tel Aviv’s Ramat Hahayal neighborhood. In 2006 its first vineyards were planted in the Ella Valley, and in 2008 the winery moved to the entrance of Moshav Neveh Michael.

The rounded building of curved metal was purchased from the manufacturers of airplane hangars; the stainless-steel containers are a wonder of modern technology, and all the romance in the world is provided by the Yaffo wines themselves − some of the best and most interesting produced here, and far removed from the sweet and heavy taste of the usual Israeli wine.

The son, Stephan, has been the oenologist at the family's kosher winery for some time now. After receiving a master’s degree from the Hebrew University Faculty of Agriculture in Rehovot, he went to France for a two-year internship at wineries in Bordeaux and Burgundy.

“When I arrived there I thought their wines were flat and tasteless,” he says, “and they in turn, when they tasted the wines from our winery, repeatedly said that it was ‘hot wine’ [meaning made in a hot country]. It took me time to understand what they were talking about, and an even longer time to learn to moderate the effect of the powerful climate on our wines.”

During the local food festival this month the Celnikers will join Ayana Ben Shoham, a cook and baker who lives in Moshav Nes Harim, and the backyard of the winery will boast her pizza, baked in a wood-burning taboun, live jazz music and good wine.

Kadma Winery, Kfar Uriah, www.kadma-wine.co.il, 054-9195156

Reuben’s Bread, www.lechemreuven.co.il

Yaffo Winery, Neve Michael, yaffowinery.co.il, 054-4523201

Rural Food Festival in Mateh Yehuda,

www.touryoav.org.il