A Dynasty in Wine, Intertwined With the History of the State

Zvi Segal came from a long line of distillers and winemakers. An album he compiled offers an intoxicating insight into the development of the local drinking culture.

Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
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Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered

2012 was a bad year for local gastronomes and wine lovers. In June, food writer Dr. Eli Landau died. Early November we lost restaurateur and critic Shaul Evron.

And later that same month many of the same mourners met once more, this time to bid farewell to Zvi Segal. Segal, who was 88, came from a long line of Jewish distillers who started in the trade back in the 18th century. Although, unlike his colleagues Landau and Evron, he’d lived to a ripe old age, that week Tel Aviv’s bars and restaurants were again filled with sad laments. At the graveside, friends bowed their heads and cursed this bleak year that had taken the last of this generation’s gastronomic greats. Then they continued on to Segal’s home to raise a toast to his life, and to let the drink sharpen memories and loosen tongues.

In the study we found his widow, Tamar, his children and grandchildren, rare signed bottles of various spirits produced by the family, and a thick, leather-bound album containing original documents and certificates, wine labels, old photographs and press clippings. In his last years, Segal worked hard compiling the album. In the absence of a worthy archive for the history of wine and spirits in Israel ‏(even the Carmel Winery has yet to establish an orderly archive to properly preserve old documents that could be used for research‏), this album offered a rare glimpse into the lives of those who have worked in the field, and to the Segal family saga.

On the first page of the album − in a script familiar to nearly all Israelis thanks to the “Segal Wine” label − Segal wrote the five first branches of the family tree: “First generation: Yankel Hirsch Segal ‏(born 1754‏), founded the distillery in 1787. Second generation: Yehezkel ‏(born 1791‏). Third generation: Shraga ‏(born 1829‏). Fourth generation: Zvi Hirsch ‏(born 1858‏). Fifth generation: Elhanan and Yehezkel ‏(born 1895 and 1897‏).”

At this point, the Israeli chapter of the family history − the subject of most of the album − begins. However, Segal did not add the members of the sixth generation − himself, his brothers Benjamin and Yaakov, or his cousins − to the list. Nor do his son, nephews and grandchildren, members of the seventh and eighth generations, appear. The women of the family are not mentioned at all. “It was clear from the start that this was an area reserved for the men of the family,” says his daughter Ella ‏(Segal‏) Etgar, a fashion designer, “and I didn’t rebel against it either when my turn came around. It was a different time.”

In 1787, two years before the French Revolution, an anonymous Jew named Yankel Hirsch opened a brandy distillery in the tiny town of Bobruisk, then part of the Polish Kingdom and a few years later part of the Russian Empire ‏(now part of modern-day Belarus‏). In terms of Jewish law and the rules of kashrut, brandy distilling is easier than fermenting wine, and was a popular occupation among Jewish families in Eastern Europe. Where Yankel Hirsch came from, his descendants couldn’t say. Nor did they know what flavor drinks he made or what names he gave to the various types of schnapps and vodka he distilled. The only documents left from the first three generations are birth and death certificates, but no more detail about the distilling skills passed down from father to son.

Zvi Hirsch, a devout, thick-bearded fellow ‏(also known as “Hirschel der Weiner”‏), is immortalized in photographs, and his heirs know that he died of a broken heart at a young age ‏(most of the males in the family lived long lives‏) after hoodlums cut off his beard during a wave of anti-Semitic pogroms that shook the Jewish community. After his death, fearful of what the future might bring, his widow and some of his children moved to Vilnius, and reestablished the family distillery there.

In 1924, thanks to the good reputation earned by the Jewish distilleries, a representative of the Templar colony from Sharona ‏(in Tel Aviv‏) came to negotiate with them with the aim of transferring the distillery to a vineyard built by the German-Christian community in Palestine. In 1925, three of Zvi Hirsch’s sons − Yerahmiel, Elhanan and Yehezkel − immigrated to Israel, together with their wives, children and mother, bringing their professional and valuable distilling equipment with them. Five other siblings remained in Eastern Europe, and the descendants of those who survived World War II now live in Belarus, Russia, the United States and Israel.

The first toast

“This would make the perfect setting for a movie called ‘Segal’s Last Waltz,’” Arik Segal − Zvi Hirsch’s great-grandson, grandson of Elhanan and seventh generation of the distilling family − says with a half smile as he gazes with awe upon the beautiful stone archways in the cellar of the Templar winery. About a month ago, Ella and Arik, Zvi’s children, first visited this place to which their elders came in 1925. “We never talked about that chapter of the family history,” they say in amazement to their guide, Avi Moshe Segal ‏(“There’s no family relation aside from an ancient forefather from the tribe of Levi. I’m from the Romanian Segals,” Avi explains‏).

Their grandfather and his two brothers spent seven whole years in Sharona setting up the distillery and getting it going, and hardly anything is known about that obscure period in the family history and the history of wine and liquor in Mandatory Palestine. Circumstances conspired to blur the details. For years, Israeli society was reluctant to acknowledge the Templar chapter of its history; documents and other historical material was discarded and destroyed in wake of the Templars’ expulsion from the country; any serious interest in wine and liquor was neglected in favor of building the nation and the pioneer ethos; and the Segal brothers, who arrived here from Eastern Europe with high hopes, traditional knowledge and a considerable sum of money, had seven years of strife and conflicts with Jewish partners ‏(including the Teperberg family‏), eventually leading to bankruptcy and the sale of the distillery equipment.

We drink a shot to the memory of the dead and the good health of the living, and listen to Avi Moshe breathe life into the vintners and distillers who walked amid these thick, cool walls in days past. Even Shai Farkash, an expert on the documentation and preservation of frescoes and paintings, and perhaps the most knowledgeable person about the history of the Templar winery, cannot add much to the picture. “The descendants of the Templars aren’t familiar with the Segal family’s part in the winery’s history,” he says. “We know about the family coming, from the document that was signed in Vilnius and from testimony from members of the Segal family, but there is no mention of it in the press of the time.

The first winery building was built by the Templars in 1875 and the wine produced there was from German varieties of grapes that were planted in the coastal plain region. The initial success led to the construction of a second winery building within a decade, but then in the early 20th century the Templars began to lose interest in wine-making.

“The soil isn’t suitable for the grapes,” Farkash continues. “Legend has it that even the foxes and jackals refused to eat the bad grapes. The competition, against makers of kosher wines who marketed their product abroad, was tough and not profitable, and the Sharona Wilhelma vintners’ cooperative gradually began to sell off lands to Tel Aviv residents or to plant fruit orchards instead of grapevines. When the large area of the two wineries emptied out, they leased it to the Segal family, who brought with them equipment and knowledge from Europe.”

Among the few wine and drink labels that survived from the winery and the distillery is an arak − it’s likely that the knowledge of the distillery technique originated with the Segal family, but none of the experts is prepared to commit to this theory.

The Sharona Templar compound, with its two impressive winery buildings, is now a closed construction site, from which huge clouds of dust waft into the air. A few months from now, the prestigious Sharona project will open here, and members of the Segal family look with bittersweet amusement at the cellar where a wine bar is due to operate ‏(“Will they save us a place of honor at the bar?”‏) and at the spacious hall that is slated to hold a food market and stalls for street vendors.

As soon as we begin to walk ‏(to the light of cellphones rather than lanterns‏) through the tunnel quarried in the rock in order to connect the two wineries, an awed silence descends upon the group. Everyone eagerly sniffs at the walls, which once held the scent of the drinks produced here. “The Templar descendants didn’t know about the existence of the tunnel, which was sealed up after some years,” Farkash explains. “Aside from moving the wines at a cool temperature, according to the European model, they also used it as a place to hide valuables at the time of the expulsions from the land.”

In one corner stand some original wooden barrels and bottle crates. Arik and Ella are beside themselves with joy at the sight of these familiar objects. “From the time we could walk we helped our parents and grandparents in the family store. During summer vacations and before the holidays, we helped to prepare the holiday packages. Solel Boneh was the first company that ordered holiday gift packages. And our father and grandfather would stand behind the wood counter and, from barrels like these, would pour out drinks for the merchants in the Carmel Market.”

The second toast

It’s afternoon on the streets of Kerem Hateimanim in Tel Aviv. On the ground floor of a three-story building at 1 Gedera Street, where the Segal brothers had their residence and wine shop in the 1930s and 1940s, there is now a jewelry design studio. Across the street, in the building to which the family business moved in the 1960s, there are now a gift shop and real estate office. Someone has put a table out on the sidewalk, to be used for romantic gestures by drinkers and passersby, and now the Segal children and friends place one of the bottles that Zvi left behind − a “Grand 41” brandy that’s more than 40 years old − on the table.

Drinks are poured into glasses, similar to the ones in which the Segal family used to pour chasers to buck up the bodies and spirits of local merchants, and we drink to the memory of the dead and in honor of the living.

On the day the Segal family left the winery in Sharona, they were practically penniless. Uncle Yerahmiel gave up the distilling business and later opened a wine shop in Petah Tikva. Elhanan and Yehezkel worked as laborers in an orchard for a while, and then in 1933 they opened a wine and liquor store at 54 Hacarmel Street. They called the store Carmei Zvi. An aged, yellowed receipt says: “Trading house for different wines, arak, cognac, liquor and spirits from Rishon Letzion wineries and the colonies of Eretz Israel.” In small print it also says: “Spirits, beer and foreign-made drinks.” A license issued by the government of Palestine recognizes the brothers’ right to sell “intoxicating drinks outside the location.” The most delightful part of the album, though, is devoted to old labels from the bottling store that filled bottles and sold alcohol − the type of store that thrived in those years in the first Hebrew city.

How lovely these old-fashioned and colorful labels are, and how easy life was for bottlers back in a time before detailed rules and standards for protecting regional wine products and prestigious reputations existed. In the basement were barrels of wine and spirits from the Rishon Letzion winery or the Friedman winery from Petah Tikva, and tanks of alcohol from Paca Industries in Bat Yam. A person could fill the bottle with Chablis or Tokaji ‏(aka Tokay‏), or sometimes with Chartreuse liqueur or a fine cognac.

The business grew and developed, and the sixth-generation family members joined in. In the early 1950s, after the founding of the state, the Segal family resumed distilling alcoholic beverages and making wine. The family winery was opened in Ramle, at first under the name Carmei Zion. Later, after the first wines made from grapes grown in the Ashkelon area earned local and international acclaim, the name of the winery and distillery was changed to Ashkelon Wines.

The album also contains menus of meals that were served to VIPs from Israel and abroad, and accompanied by the family’s wines. Just about every Israeli celebrity or pilgrim to the young state in that era, from Golda Meir to Frank Sinatra, was photographed drinking Ashkelon Reserve, Porat Atik or Ben Ami wine.
In addition to the winery and distillery, there was also an import company for wines and alcoholic beverages called Segal Brothers, which was a real pioneer in bringing quality wines and alcoholic drinks to Israel. The Segal brothers were the first to bring to Israel Armagnac, calvados, martini, single malts and fine wines from Europe’s top wine and spirits regions. The offices and showroom remained in Kerem Hateimanim, although in the late 1960s the family bought another property on the other side of the street, at 10 Gedera Street.

“You wind through the alleyways amid the twisted, weary, peeling and uninviting buildings, wade through a swamp of sewage flowing down from the Carmel Market; and then you enter a street named Gedera and are stunned to suddenly see an immaculate shop with a spotless front window, through which you see cupboards that reach up to the ceiling and shelves crammed with bottles of wine and liqueurs, and all manner of things,” wrote Menachem Talmi in his popular Maariv newspaper column. All those gathered here now to raise another toast to the life of Zvi Segal remember frequent visits to the brothers, and the wood-paneled shop suffused with the aroma of alcohol.

“Zvi Segal always sat on the ground floor. Other managers of the family company sat in offices upstairs, but he liked to talk with people, keep up a relationship with the people on the street and pour drinks at the counter for customers and traders,” recalls Avi Feldstein, the main winemaker at Segal Winery, and considered to be the last of the Segals who is still active in the winery, even though he wasn’t actually born into the family.

“Most people who reach the management level look for the familiar, but he always looked for the more surprising and adventurous way,” Feldstein recalls of Segal. “New things intrigued him. He had that rare ability to make people bring out the best in themselves, to feel passionate about what they were doing. ‘Your generation doesn’t know how to want,’ he used to say to me, and his desire got things moving. He had charisma and vitality. When ‘the Lion’ − as he was called − opened his mouth to roar, all of Gedera Street shook.

“He would come to work every day at six in the morning and look askance at the younger folk who ‘only’ showed up at eight,” Feldstein adds. “And there was also the unforgettable institution of Friday breakfasts with frozen vodka from the freezer, Segal grappa, chopped vegetables, pickled fish from the Levinsky Market, bread and butter. Journalists, artists, writers and restaurateurs he enjoyed being with were invited.”

Others wistfully recall the marvelous grappa the Segal brothers began making in the 1960s. “The Italians were furious,” Benjamin Segal recounted later. “We won the silver medal at a prestigious international competition in America and no one understood how non-Italians could even dare to try to make grappa.” Another friend tells how an advertising guy once called Zvi and asked him for the wording for a newspaper ad. “Drinking is a serious business,” he replied impatiently. “We don’t have time to deal with advertising. As it is, we can hardly meet demand.” And those first words were published in the ad.

Everyone also keeps telling the story of the birth of Segal’s simple red wine: how Zvi insisted that a real wine culture starts from the bottom − and this at a time when most simple local wines were of a quality best not discussed − and how, in order to demonstrate to a designer what he had in mind, he took a piece of paper, wrote the name of the wine on it and instantly created the label so familiar to every Israeli.

“The Segal winery may not have been earthshaking in terms of creating rare fine wines on an international level,” says wine expert Yair Haidu, “but Zvi Segal had instincts and intuitions that were ahead of their time. The Israeli wine and spirits industry owes him a debt of gratitude for the changes and revolutions he brought and which today are taken for granted − from noting the vintage on the wine label to having wine labels drawn by famous artists; to the revolutionary concept of having a good-quality simple Segal table wine at a price affordable to all ‏(Golan Heights Winery’s Mount Hermon wine is still the only competition here‏); to importing all kinds of spirits and wines that people in Israel could only dream about before then. Some of these processes were adopted from existing models abroad, but no one in Israel did it before he did.”

The third toast

“You’ll laugh,” 87-year-old Benjamin Segal told me at the end of March, a mischievous twinkle in his eye, “but my favorite drink is arak.” On the tombstone of Zvi, his elder brother, the family had these words inscribed: “A modest man and lover of people,” and the lovely phrase could also apply just as well to Benjamin, who was born in Tel Aviv in 1926 and died suddenly two weekends ago. Over the last generation, because of the importing deals, the Segal family members had the opportunity to sample the world’s best wines and elixirs, often in faraway palaces and legendary wine estates, but the Segal brothers always maintained a fondness for life’s simpler side. The spirit is ready to drink a shot of arak in memory of the dead and in honor of the living, though the body is somewhat less enthused.

“We were born a year and three months apart,” Benjamin said then about his brother, “and from the moment I was born until the day he died, we were extremely close. We were born into the family business. He was the eldest and I was his deputy, and we worked together our whole lives and everybody always thought we were twins. What do I miss? I miss walking,” said the deep-voiced and very charming gentleman, who in the last year of his life needed to use a walker after breaking his back.

“I wasn’t at his funeral,” Benjamin noted. “A friend read the eulogy that I wrote in the hospital, and he added that we were inseparable in life, and maybe even in death. The empty place beside his grave is for me and when I am buried we will be together for all eternity.”

The Segal brothers bought a family plot in the old Herzliya cemetery in 1985 after the untimely death of Benjamin’s daughter. Also buried there now are younger brother Yaakov ‏(Kobi‏) − Elhanan’s third son − and Benjamin’s beloved wife ‏(whose maiden name was Golomb‏), who passed away five years ago. The walls of his modest apartment in north Tel Aviv were adorned with black and white photos of family members, living and dead; a family tree, historical documents and correspondence with wine and spirits contacts from all over the world were stored on the computer in his study. But his razor-sharp memory required no prompting from pictures or documents to recall the reception given to Uncle Yehezkel on the day he returned from Damascus by taxi, or about the sophisticated distilling tanks that were built in the 1950s based on traditional family knowledge.

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Zvi, Yaakov and Benjamin Segal at their office in Kerem Hateimanim. Zvi was the showman.Credit: Segal family album
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Left: Zvi Segal’s son, Arik, shines a light on the cellar of the Templar winery in Sharona, Tel Aviv.Credit: Segal family album
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A childhood photo of Zvi and Benjamin Segal in Tel Aviv.Credit: Segal family album

The last page of Zvi’s album is devoted to an article that came out in 2001, upon the sale of the Segal family business to Barkan Winery, describing how it broke the heart of the man who’d hoped to see his grandchildren and great-grandchildren continue to make wine for generations to come.

The family idyll began to unravel in the mid-1990s, at the time when Zvi and Benjamin passed the management reins to eighth-generation family members. The six cousins, the grandchildren of Elhanan and Yehezkel, were unable to overcome the hurdles of internal conflicts, or to lead the winery. Despite all the growth, it was still a small family company unable to truly compete in the modern world of big companies and corporations. Nor were pioneering vineyards planted in the early 1990s in the Upper Galilee enough to save the winery from lagging behind the rapid pace of the Israeli wine revolution of the past three decades, and the popularity of its simple table wine also confounded the company’s attempts to find a market niche for its finer quality wines.

As with the seven bad years in the Templar winery in the early 20th century, this period is best not talked about. The wound is yet to heal, the cracks that appeared in the family unity have yet to fully mend, and Benjamin, who stayed on for several years as a consultant to the corporation that preserved the name of the family winery but perhaps not the Segal family spirit, had had enough, too.

Instead, they would rather talk about the sparks of renewal in the family dynasty. Someone born into a barrel of wine or brandy has a hard time envisioning his future anywhere else: Arik, Zvi’s son, is entertaining the idea of exploring the world and importing unfamiliar beverages; Uri Baruch, grandson of Zvi and son of Ella, has founded a company that markets Israeli boutique wines.

A final toast and an epilogue

We drink a glass of Irish whiskey − because it’s only thanks to the Segal brothers that the like is drunk in Israel − in memory of Benjamin Segal. On Thursday, April 4, two weeks after his warm and lively conversation with me at his home, Benjamin Segal passed away. His funeral was held the following Sunday and the last of Elhanan Segal’s sons was buried next to his brothers.

All the various branches of the extended Segal family − the familial facial features and body type easily identifiable − gathered once more at the cemetery for a very restrained and sad funeral service.

Avi Feldstein, who within five months had to bury his two senior partners in the local wine and spirits enterprise, was overcome with grief.
Benjamin had been more reserved than his charismatic older brother, though he was a full partner to the innovation and creativity, and his funeral was attended by a few people from the world of food and drink. Too few, in a place that aspires to create a glorious tradition of eating and drinking, and yet still pays too little attention to those who were responsible for the important revolutions in the field.

The Barkan Winery, now profiting the most from the reputation earned by the Segal family of distillers, did not even bother to send a wreath to lay on the grave or the adjacent graves of Benjamin’s brothers.

The few who did show up spoke ruefully yet again, shaking their heads, about what a terrible year it has been, and added to the list of recent tragedies the death of Yaakov Rosenfeld, who was once the chief vintner for the Segal winery in the Galilee but was killed in a car accident on Passover eve.
Modi, Benjamin’s only son, spoke about his father’s prophetic feeling that he would join his ancestors at the same age ‏(87‏) at which his father before him had joined them, and how he wanted to be reunited with his beloved brothers.

Benjamin’s grandson, Nir, spoke tearfully of his longing for a glass of cold white wine, just as his grandfather taught him to drink, that would ease the unbearable pain over his death; and his nephew Ella read words that were written by her brother Arik, who was unable to return from a trip abroad in time to make it to his uncle’s funeral:

“With your wisdom you were a well filled with wine and water. Today a chapter has ended. Rest in peace, Segal brothers.”

Golda Meir drinks a Segal Brothers wine at a state event.Credit: Photos from the Segal family album

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