When the first vineyards were planted in the Land of Israel by agents of Baron Edmond de Rothschild, no one thought of conducting a thorough investigation to determine the best wine regions in the country. The first vineyards were planted in the 19th century near the areas of settlement in the Shfela (the lowlands between the mountains and the coastal plain), the Carmel and the coastal plain itself. These areas have sandy soil and high humidity, not necessarily ideal for growing grapes.
The revolution in the wine market and the problematic state of the Carmel winery Rothschild established have in recent years led the fourth and fifth generations of vintners to open small boutique wineries in the lovely old stone houses that served the founders' generation as stables and cowsheds.
These wineries, small or medium-sized, are trying to compete with the better climatic conditions of wine-growing areas like the Golan and the Judean hills by growing grape varieties brought from other warm wine districts the world over, like Carignan and Shiraz from the south of France, and exploiting the natural features of the region, such as the hot Mediterranean sun.
The Makura Valley, where the Makura Farm is located, is one big organic farm: 1,400 dunams of vineyards, orchards and wild Mediterranean woodland growing on the ancient mouth of a sub-oceanic volcano. A type of private nature preserve, cut off from the region and from the construction fever that has seized it, in Makura they still treat nature and the cycle of the seasons with reverence.
Guy Rilov's grandfather, who was the grandson of Yoel Moshe Salomon (one of the founders of Petah Tikva), purchased farmlands in the 1950s from an Arab lawyer from Haifa. Now the olive groves, vineyards and orchards of avocado, figs and lychee grow naturally in their seasons, without spraying and chemical fertilizers. The small Italian oil press belonging to Guy and Orna Rilov, which is located at the entrance to the farm, allows them maximum control over the production of organic olive oil, from the growing stages to the pressing. They produce olive oil from Nabali, Kalamata and Leccino olives, but mainly Suri olive oil, which is produced partially from ancient Roman trees. These olives have a delicate, fruity flavor, which leaves absolutely no searing sensation in your throat.
The Olive Press of Makura Farm, 04-9840580, 04-9842321
At the entrance to the valley, enologist Gil Shatzberg of the Amphorae Winery is tasting the juice of the Viognier grape, a sweet, perfumed, peachlike nectar that, over time, will also become a wonderful wine. Shatzberg caresses the dizzying purple mixture filled with Shiraz grapes in the fermentation container and tastes a handful of it. This sensual contact between the palm of the enologist's hand and his creation, is denied anyone who for unavoidable commercial reasons has made his winery kosher. Only observant Jews are permitted to touch kosher wine during its production; even secular Jews are deemed liable to contaminate it. This restriction requires a fleet of representatives from the rabbinate, who serve as a barrier between the enologists and their wine. The Baron and his officials may have disappeared, but no cure has as yet been found for inflated bureaucracies.
This winery blends in with the natural surroundings. The modest, attractive building has been covered with stones gathered in the bed of the wadi, and the entire picture is reminiscent of a pastoral landscape of picturesque wineries in other countries. There is an organic merlot vineyard on the farm, but most of the grapes are Chardonnay, Viognier, Shiraz and Cabarnet Sauvignon. Experimental varieties in the process of acclimatization come from a vineyard near Yiftah.
Shatzberg was born on Kibbutz Tzora, studied enology in California wineries, and is trying to create an Israeli wine. This is a term that is not yet completely defined, but means a wine that will suit the raw material and the local Mediterranean cuisine. There is a constant and fascinating process here of learning and experimentation, as in the case of the Chardonnay that has gone through a number of incarnations and today, because of Israel's hot summer climate, has moved away from traditional Old World production in wooden barrels. The emphasis placed by Shatzberg and his team of enologists and agronomists on selling straight from the winery itself turns the visit into a long, slow experience of patient wine tasting, and a tour of the winery and the barrel room.
Amphorae Winery, Makura Farm in Kerem Maharal, www.amphorae-v.com, 04-9840702
Meir Dizengoff, who tried to realize the dream of his patron Rothschild, once walked through the doors of a factory that manufactured glass bottles, which were to contain the Jewish wines of the Carmel Mizrachi winery. He succeeded in producing elegant etched bottles, but unfortunately, and opposed to market requirements, from opaque glass only. The poor quality of the glass led to the import of overly expensive raw materials from Europe, the workers were felled by malaria, and another alcohol-related Zionist enterprise evaporated. What remained was a beautiful building with three gables rising heavenward that was neglected and abandoned for many years. Today it contains a collection of antiques from the archaelogical digs of the ancient port city of Dor, and other artefacts that fell from shipwrecked boats into the sea.
A visit to this museum requires a bit of imagination. Due to lack of funds, the exciting finds do not yet have a suitable exhibition space. But it is not difficult, when one sees the rifles, bayonets and cannons that were found thrown into the sea, to imagine the flight of Napoleon's tired, desperate army after the defeat in Acre; or, at the sight of the crushed shells discovered on the site, to imagine the Phoenicians kneeling over pools of snails and producing blue and purple dyes from them.
The Mizgaga Museum, Kibbutz Nahsholim, www.mizgaga.com, 04-6395920
Baron Rothschild invested five million francs in the construction of the subterranean cellars of the Carmel Mizrachi wineries. For the sake of comparison, the acclaimed French winery Chateau Lafitte, which was purchased by his father, cost only four million francs. The first harvest of the Zikhron Yaakov vintners' association failed because the settlers were unable to control the temperature during fermentation. For the second harvest, the Baron sent one of the cooling machines, but even the blocks of ice were unable to rescue the second crop. The third harvest was also lost, in spite of a complex system of water pipes for cooling, and then it was decided to build the beautiful underground cellars, in which one can still see the evolution of the fermentation containers, from cement to metal.
The Baron's dreams did not stop at financial assistance to the settlers. He dreamt of Palestinian wines deserving of prizes and respect, and insisted, on the advice of experts from Bordeaux, on planting varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, which did not necessarily suit the climate and the soil conditions.
At a certain point, the Carmel Mizrachi winery abandoned the Baron's pretenses and concentrated on mass production of cheap kosher wine. Today they are trying to overturn that decision, to focus on quality, and to emphasize the series of regional wines and wines produced by careful boutique methods.
When we were children, the state school system sponsored visits to the Baron's wineries, in the belief that "wine is not an exciting gastronomic experience, but another link in the story of conquering the land." This managed to turn our introduction to one of the first and most fascinating wineries in the country into an event about as exciting as a Talmud lesson. Anyone who manages to jump over the hurdle of collective memory will discover that in terms of understanding the development of the Israeli wine industry, including the revolution of recent years, there is no substitute for a return to this huge building - whose construction caused a great deal of concern to the Turkish sultan. He suspected the settlers of building a fortress for security purposes.
Carmel Wineries, 2 Hayain Street, Zikhron Yaakov, www.carmelwines.co.il
Devora and Mordechai Shapira used to go out to the fields equipped with skins of wine. In the opinion of the Romanian founders of Zikhron Yaakov, as in that of their distant forefathers in the Land of Israel thousands of years earlier, water was used mainly for washing. When you drank, you drank wine, even if it was diluted somewhat with water. The Romanians in any case have always sanctified the spritz (wine with carbonated water).
Beneath their pictures, which hang on the wall, Moti Shapira - a fourth generation descendant of that same couple and of the first vintners of Zikhron Yaakov - and his wife, are working to prepare an intimate meal for guests who are coming to sip the wines of the family's boutique winery, and to dine. There is no written menu, and the simple dishes are decided on in consultation with the guests: a soup of root vegetables and sweet potatoes, a stew of slow-cooked lamb, roast beef, sea fish in a salt sarcophagus and tarte tatin for dessert.
The family wines - Carignan, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, which are harvested and produced by the entire family, flow like water, and there is also apricot liqueur, limoncello and home-distilled grappa.
The next stage in their plans is a bed-and-breakfast: guest rooms in the family backyard. These units will be built behind the old stable, now used as a dining room; the cowshed, which has become a barrel room, and the old hut, which has become a healing and treatment room.
Yekev Smadar, 31 Hameyasdim, Zikhron Yaakov, by prior appointment, 050-7660210
When you see the 11-year-old daughter of Hila Ben Gera and Barak Dahan seriously tasting a goblet of aromatic Chardonnay, you can almost see the process, usually hidden from the eye, in which the tastes and preferences of human society change over the years. We can assume that at the age of 16 the palate of this taster, the sixth generation of Zikhron Yaakov vintners, will already have developed in a manner unfamiliar to us.
Most of the enologists who have established small family boutique wineries in the region studied together in the first enology course at Tel Hai College. Hila Ben Gera, the partner of Barak Dahan, who was born to a family of vintners in Zikhron Yaakov, has a bachelor's degree in agriculture from Rehovot and a master's degree in enology, which she earned in Australia. This background helps in the production of more complex wines, such as whites, which most of the small family boutique wineries prefer not to produce, and interesting red wines that have attracted a great deal of attention and won local prizes.
In spite of the studies in Australia, the family concept when it comes to wine is closer to that of the Old World: Grapes that come only from family vineyards in the region, ageing in French oak barrels and for very long periods. The small family winery, which is situated in a long stone building that once served as a stable and cowshed, presently produces about 8,000 bottles a year.
Somek Winery, 16 Herzl, Zikhron Yaakov, 050-5346490
7.A French-style bistro
Binyamina, Pardes Hannah and Givat Ada, which are slightly to the south, have in recent years become very popular destinations among those who are tired of city life. Guy Ben Asher is one of those seeking quality of life who moved to the nearby rural area. His bistro, which is designed in a modest French style, is one of the best options for a meal in this region, which in spite of its relative proximity to the center of the country and a well-to-do local population, has still not managed to produce many good restaurants.
Although it still does not provide a culinary experience that justifies a special trip from all corners of the country, for anyone touring the region, the weekend brunches and Ben Asher's light Mediterranean menu are a ray of light. Try the salad of green leaves and sirloin carpaccio in truffle oil; calamari seared on the grill with spinach and pickled lemon; shrimps in tequila and lime; good chunks of meat or a portion of sea fish. Tasty food at convenient prices.
Gaia Binyamina, Binyamina Industrial Zone (opposite the train station), 04-6370815
8. Teperberg's pheasant
Legend has it that the Argonauts brought the pheasant from the Caspian Sea when they returned from their journey in search of the Golden Fleece. Since then, its desirable meat has starred at luxurious feasts, alongside seasoned sow teats, stuffed swans, flamingo tongues and ostrich brains. Today one can see pheasants mainly in zoos and children's petting corners. In the yard of the Teperberg farm there is one such pheasant, a particularly regal one, which stands in its favorite place and proudly pecks at its beautiful feathers. The yard of the Teperberg farm, which was established in the early 20th century, is also populated by boa constrictors and pythons, colorful parrots, ibexes, ducks, goats and one lone emu that was plucked from its homeland in Australia and arrived at the Teperbergs, one of whose sons is a veterinarian.
The four brothers, eighth generation in the country and fourth generation of settlers in Givat Ada, perpetuate the memory of their parents, who died young, with a series of products based on olive oil from the family orchards: blends of edible olive oil which this year were produced from Suri; Barnea olives, and hair and body products. Groups and individuals arrive at the lovely yard for a visit that includes information on the history of the agricultural village, tasting of olive oil and a light meal. During Sukkot the yard serves as one of the centers of the festival of local artists and producers, which is held on the intermediate days of the holiday.
Shemen Zayit Etz Hasadeh, Meshek Teperberg, Givat Ada, 04-6288306