New Wine, New Bottles

The Ashkar family of Kafr Yasif produces limited editions of fine wines from grapes grown in vineyards in Ikrit, the village from which their families were expelled in 1948.

From the balcony of the three-story house on the slopes of Kafr Yasif, olive groves stretch to the horizon. “On clear days you can see the ships in Haifa Bay,” says Amira Ashkar, setting the table for breakfast. In the past year, stone buildings of one of the new neighborhoods in the expanding village began to appear on the margins of the pastoral landscape. “We’ve been living in this house for 13 years. We moved here from the old center of the village, and until recently we saw only olives and the blue sea,” adds Ashkar.

As we sit on the balcony, she places a wooden tray full of homemade breads and pastries on the table: sourdough bread, pita baked with a homemade za’atar (hyssop) mix, and little apple and almond cream tarts that deserve a place of honor in the window of an elegant Parisian patisserie. The green salad is adorned with pomegranate seeds from the tree in the backyard, and there is new olive oil, produced only two days earlier from the family’s crop. Despite that, its wonderful taste contains not an iota of sharpness.

“The olives of this region, the Western Galilee, produce the best olive oil,” says Ashkar with pride, dismissing with a shrug their Galilean neighbors from Rama, who claim that theirs are the best. “The differences in height and the temperatures are responsible for the difference. Look at the thickness of our olive oil,” she continues enthusiastically, bringing another saucer of liquid gold from the kitchen – the olive oil prepared by the family last year – to prove that the thick texture and rich flavor don’t disappear over time as the oil clarifies.

Nemi Ashkar, Amira’s husband, a high-tech consultant, is meanwhile opening a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon from the family winery. Every one beneath his vine and beneath his olive tree: The Ashkar family is meticulously reviving the regional tradition of independent production for the family’s needs, testimony to the ancient connection between people and land, and between people and their ancestral heritage.

On the bottle’s label, below the name of the winery that bears the family name, is also the name of its source − Ikrit. No matter how beautiful the view from the window of the house they built for themselves in Kafr Yasif; no matter how fine the oil produced from the fruit of the olive trees that grow on the family plot near their present home, Ikrit, 33 kilometers away, a half-hour drive from here, is their ancestral land, their real home and the place for which their hearts long.

“The irony is that only when we die does the State of Israel permit us to return to Ikrit,” says Ashkar. “They allow us to bury the dead in the local cemetery, and on the death certificate, as opposed to our ID cards, the name Ikrit appears as place of residence.” The measured and restrained words conceal great pain and a wound that refuses to be healed. This month is the 65th anniversary of the expulsion from Ikrit, and despite local and international recognition of their right to the land − the residents of Ikrit evacuated voluntarily in light of the promise that they would soon return to their homes − the State of Israel continues to prevent their return and to exhaust the villagers and their descendants in a legal battle whose end is not in sight.

“I’m the second generation of the uprooted,” says Nemi, who was born in 1952, “and we’re still closely tied to the place, to our roots and to the community. My 84-year-old father is lucid and in excellent shape; he’s one of the reasons for our profound connection to the place. We live between here and there, drive to Ikrit as often as possible, and on the first Saturday of every month we meet with the members of the community for a mass in the village church, which, with the exception of the cemetery, is the only building still standing after the destruction of the village in 1953.”

The family harvest festival

The members of the first and second generations transmitted the sense of belonging and the pain of the injustice to the third generation: Amir Ashkar, 19, the youngest son of Amira and Nemi, is one of a group of young people who established an outpost in the Ikrit church, and who, since September 2012, have been maintaining an uninterrupted presence on their ancestral land.

Their daughter Yara, 23, a graduate of the Shenkar School of Engineering and Design, Ramat Gan, and a talented illustrator, is responsible for the lovely black and white illustration on the family’s wine label.

Bottles of foreign wines from vineyards with a reputation and a tradition bear labels with illustrations of fortresses and the surrounding vineyard; on the label of the Ikrit winery, the ancient church is in the center, surrounded by the village houses, agricultural terraces and fields that no longer exist.

“Producing wine for private consumption, like independent production of olive oil, has always been a part of the family and community tradition of the people of Ikrit,” says Nemi.

“In the area of the ancient Christian village,” he continues, “you can find dozens of ancient wine presses that are evidence of the region’s glorious wine tradition − during the Crusader period they produced fine wine here for commercial purposes − but in the past centuries they produced simple wine that each family prepared for itself from local species, which are not necessarily suitable for wine. Due to the proximity to the excellent production centers of Lebanon, arak was not produced in the village, but purchased every Thursday in the local market.”

To illustrate, he brings to the table a bottle of white wine without a label, and pours it into glasses. The wine was prepared by Nemi and his brother Bassam, a doctor and his partner in establishing the winery, from local baladi grapes that continue to grow wild in the ruins of the village and the adjacent area. The sour, almost spoiled taste is nothing like modern wines, but can teach us about the wines drunk by the Christian and Jewish inhabitants of the region before the wine revolution of modern times.

“We’ve always produced wine in the family,” continues Nemi, “but only six years ago did we begin to produce wine from wine grapes, and by the book. During the years when I traveled around the world as a high-tech worker, I was exposed to the modern wine industry − I spent a lot of time in Silicon Valley and the Napa Valley − and I used to take the family on trips to the traditional wine regions of France and Italy. Finally, I also took an enologists’ course in the United States, and 2010 was the first harvest year of the family winery.

“We intend to produce wines on a small scale,” he explains. “At the moment the volume is 6,000 bottles a year, and it’s doubtful whether we’ll grow beyond that. We aspire to create fine wine at reasonable prices.”

The days when the grapes arrive at the family winery, located in the basement of Amira and Nemi’s home – just like the days of the olive harvest and oil production – have become a festive time for the extended family: grandparents, parents, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They all participate in the work, they all sit down at the end to a celebration of good food and wine held under the shade of the vineyard pergola or under the lemon and olive trees in the yard.

Sour, sweet, modest

The family buys the grapes for red wines − Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Merlot − from Jewish vintners in the moshavim Even Menachem and Elkosh, who lease land that used to belong to the Arab village of Ikrit. “They know the history and they know we’re from there. Our relations are businesslike and most of the residents of the region have always shown empathy toward us,” says Nemi. The Sauvignon Blanc grapes from the Ashkar vineyard produce a dry nectar with a balance between the sweetness and sourness of the fruit, totally different from similar Israeli wines. These grapes come from the region of Kfar Shamai near Mount Meron.

This wine is available in the Joz ve Loz restaurant in Tel Aviv. Chef Yotam Ottolenghi, who tasted it there, wanted to import it to his restaurants in London (“We couldn’t accede to his request because he does business on a large scale and we don’t have so much wine,” explains Nemi). Other restaurateurs, such as Daher Zidane of the Alreda restaurant in Nazareth, the owners of the Savida seafood bar in Acre and Duzan in Haifa also fell in love with the Sauvignon Blanc, as well as the red wines, which don’t suffer from the ills typical of local wines, such as an excess of fruitiness and a burdensome sweetness.

One of Israel’s new wine-producing regions, the area of Ikrit is rich in precipitation and full of small plots with varied soil and climate. Wine is the product of the place where it is grown, the terroir, which bears the stamp of the people who produced it. Are the place and the people capable of producing a unique wine? “There’s something modest about their wines that I really liked,” says Maoz Alonim of the Basta restaurant in Tel Aviv, who recently adopted the Ashkar wines in a special week with a menu inspired by Palestinian cuisine. “It begins with the label and with the people themselves, continues with the taste of the wine itself, and is even more admirable in light of the reasonable price.”

Ashkar Winery, Kafr Yasif, visit by advance reservation, 054-5484016. White wine is available at 60 shekels ($16) a bottle; red wine is 75 shekels ($22). For more infomration visit their Facebook page: Ashkar Winery

Dan Peretz
Dan Peretz