In Israel, Even the Wine Is Political

The latest edition of a celebrated wine guide won’t include wines from the settlements. The right wing has taken notice.

Organic winery in Yitzhar settlement.
Nir Kafri

Who says there’s no politics in wine? It’s been a particularly tense month in Israel’s wine industry as key players find themselves swept into a brouhaha over the settlements, the Knesset and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

The result? For the first time ever, Israel may have not one but four guides to the country’s wine.

The story began with Channel 2 news’ December report on Israel Hayom wine writer Yair Gat and restaurant wine consultant Gal Zohar, whose Hebrew-language book “The New Israeli Wine Guide” is about to enter its third edition. Gat and Zohar are refusing to include wineries from West Bank settlements. Channel 2 uncovered a recorded conversation of Gat explaining this policy to Vered Ben-Saadon, whose Tura winery is in the settlement of Rechelim.

Unsurprisingly, heated arguments erupted online between wine lovers from Israel’s left and right. Some criticized Gat and Zohar for taking a political stance, while others said the book was their personal initiative so they could do whatever they liked.

Some called Gat and Zohar Nazis and accused them of cooperating with the international boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. Gat told me he had received death threats by phone and e-mail.

Soon enough, politicians from right-wing party Habayit Hayehudi jumped on board. Israel’s wine writers were invited to “The first Israeli wine conference” never mind the major industry conventions that have been held for years now. The latest conference was organized early last week by the Land of Israel caucus in the Knesset, notably MKs Yoav Kish and Bezalel Smotrich.

According to the press release, there would be a special Knesset session to counter the boycott of the West Bank wineries; there it would be announced that a new edition of “Israeli Wines – The Complete Wine Guide” would be coming out, in cooperation with Yedioth Books.

But the farce gets better. West Bank vintners showed up at that festive Knesset session, only to be stopped at the door by the Knesset rabbi, who forbade most of the wines from being brought inside.

Thus kosher wines made by Orthodox Jewish vintners from the West Bank were blocked from the Knesset because they did not fall into the category of mevushalim  the wine was not heated or boiled. While kashrut authorities consider this process necessary so that the wine can be handled by non-Jews or nonobservant Jews and still be considered kosher, most good wine does not go through this process.

In any case, the meeting quickly took on shades of political opportunism. Representatives of the caucus spoke, as did Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein. Bennett began by thanking the caucus leaders and Yedioth Books CEO Dubi Eichenwald for their initiative to produce a new version of the wine book.

“The time has come to say that the Land of Israel is ours ... and to extend our sovereignty over the territory under our control,” Bennett said. “Some 2,000 years ago our ancestors were making wine in exactly these places, growing vineyards, and there are many references to this in the Bible. We are renewing this tradition.”

Smotrich added, “Only an idiot would forgo the pleasure of these wines due to crazy boycotts.”

Eichenwald said he was responding to a request by Kish to counter the boycott by producing a new version of the book, last printed in 1997. The publisher would indeed be funding the venture, but the details remained unknown. Which expert would update the guide for the first time in 18 years, writing about all 300 of Israel’s vineyards and their many wines?

And then, one day later, four other personalities in Israel’s wine industry announced that they too would be producing a guide to Israel’s wine industry, “The Comprehensive Guide to Israeli Wines,” in Hebrew and in English no less.

“We are witnessing an upheaval in Israel’s wine industry due to the political conflicts causing a rift in Israeli society,” said former Ynet wine critic Guy Cooper, Ish Anavim wine events owner Haim Gan, wine investment adviser Haim Helfgott and journalist Yair Koren.

Following the death of Haaretz’s longtime wine critic Daniel Rogov in 2011, Israel did not have an updated wine guide until Gat and Zohar launched their initiative in 2014. And now three are apparently on the way. If you count Gili Luben, who has been working on a wine guide since long before the current affair broke out, Israel could have four new guides to the country’s wine.

I’ve written about Gat and Zohar’s wine guide. While a welcome initiative, it has its faults. For starters, it doesn't mention how the authors select wines for inclusion, and it doesn't mention wineries whose wines aren't reviewed.

Meanwhile, it's far from the “Bible for Israel’s wine lovers” that Channel 2 called it  a few hundred copies are in print. It includes only 70 wines. The TV report indulged in populism that politicians seized on for their personal interests. 

So now is the time to put away the cliche well worn over the past few weeks – that wine has no connection to politics. Wine is the fruit of the earth, so closely tied to the land, the root of so many political conflicts. We need to accept that we live in a complicated political situation instead of burying our conflicts in meaningless declarations.

Still, some good may come out of all this  if all these wine guides get more Israelis interested in the local industry. Speaking of which, it would be nice if our politicians took more interest in that industry on days when there’s no political capital to gain.