Orange-hued Wine, Made by a Man Who Dared to Defy Israel's Chief Rabbinate

Jacob Oryah, a religious vintner, challenged the notion that wine touched by a secular person cannot be kosher – and was promptly punished for it. But he persevered to make what has been described as Israel's tastiest and most thought-provoking wine.

The Tel Aviv wine bar is packed. A bearded man wearing a knitted kippa sits at the end of the bar, drinking a glass of wine. The menu, written on a chalkboard set up high, lists items like pork terrine, octopus salad and jumbo shrimp. But the words floating over his head and the aroma of bacon sizzling on the grill don’t faze this regular customer, who won’t ever sample any of the non-kosher food.

He smiles warmly at anyone who speaks to him, but at times it seems that behind his glasses, there is a sadness in his eyes.

The last few months haven’t been easy for winemaker Jacob Oryah. In fact, the last few years have been quite difficult for the quiet, easygoing workaholic. He has experienced some major upheavals in his professional life, as well as great sorrow in his personal life. In November 2015, he was supposed to celebrate a modest launch of his wines – not the first to bear his special imprint, but the first to bear his name. That had to be postponed due to his wife’s illness; she passed away just a few days later. The launch was eventually held at the end of January, in the presence of a handful of wine journalists.

Alpha Omega 2014 is the name of the orange wine – a rare sight on the Israeli wine scene – that was at the center of the launch. “This was the only wine that we have a commercial quantity of,” Oryah told the attendees, who also got to sample several more wines of which there were tiny quantities. “How many bottles of Alpha Omega are there?” asked one of the writers. “Oh, Jacob, Jacob,” one of them nodded affectionately, upon hearing the answer (“almost a thousand bottles”) and experiencing the wine’s complex and extraordinary flavor. “I’m not sure the word ‘commercial’ can really apply to you.”

Jacob Oryah, who grew up in an ultra-Orthodox family, was born in the United States in 1967. The family made aliyah in 1973 and settled in Bnei Brak. At 14, Oryah started going to activities of the Bnei Akiva youth movement (“My parents had a very hard time with it”), and at 18 he enrolled in a hesder yeshiva (combining religious studies and military service). “I was the first one in the extended family to go into the army,” he says. At 21, he married a woman to whom he was introduced in an arranged match, and seemingly returned to the path that was expected of him – only to deviate from it again later on.

Jacob Oryah's orange-hued wine.
Dan Peretz

“I worked in construction and studied for an engineering degree. Afterward I devoted several years to religious study, mostly about Kabbalah. I’d always liked wine. Even when I just had to open a bottle of wine for Kiddush, I’d always end up opening two or three different wines for tasting.” He and his first wife had five children together. They eventually divorced, and he later remarried.

“One time we were taking a little trip around Israel, and remembering my fondness for wine, we went into a winery and I bought a guide to Israeli wineries. I saw that the Saslove Winery offered a wine-tasting course, and the Soreq Winery offered a wine-making course. I took my first course at Soreq in 2004. The next year I leased a plot in a vineyard and did all the work there myself.”

In 2006 he and a partner opened the Yasif Winery. “The aim wasn’t to create wine from scratch, but to be a négociant – someone who buys wine from winemakers and blends or ages it to create a new wine under his own name. It was a mistake from the start, because, unlike in France, there is no tradition like that here. No one wanted to sell the good stuff, I didn’t want to buy the bad stuff, and it’s very hard to have to rely on the average stuff and try to consistently maintain quantity and quality.”

Specialist in whites

Within a year, the partners began making their own wine, under the guidance of winemaker Itay Lahat, on Moshav Bnei Atarot. “Itay taught me how to make white wine. Before that I only knew how to make red wine. And I immediately also began making orange wine – white wine made from different varieties of white grapes, but unlike the traditional production method of white grapes, we fermented the grapes with their skins. It always bothered me that the peels were thrown out in the process of making white wine. With red wine, so much emphasis is put on the flavor and aroma that comes from the skin, so why with white wine should we only be talking about grape juice? I started to ferment white grapes with their peels and thought I was the only one in the world doing it. My knowledge of wine wasn’t that extensive, so I didn’t know there’s actually a genre of making wine in this way, which originated in the ancient wines of Georgia.”

In 2008, the partners moved the winery (and themselves) to Arad (“It’s expensive in the center of the country and space was much cheaper there”). The wines Oryah made quickly gained a reputation among Israeli chefs and wine lovers. “I’m happy to say that there’s a new generation of highly educated winemakers in Israel now, who’ve studied at famous universities overseas and interned at fine wineries,” says sommelier and wine expert Ben Ron. “Oryah isn’t among that group, but education and tradition sometimes give rise to technocracy and adherence to convention. He’s the total opposite of that.”

“I focused on making white wines, and in a hot, red wine-loving country, I was one of the first,” Oryah continues. “In 2009, we decided that all the winery’s wines, except for one, would be white. But even with all the recognition and positive reviews we received, we failed when it came to the business and management side. We didn’t know how to sell.” For a brief time, a year and a half and one grape harvest, the Asif Winery collaborated with the Midbar Winery. “They took our wines and put their labels on them. I worked as a winemaker at Midbar, but this connection, how to put it – didn’t meet our mutual expectations. Then I was unemployed for a year and a half, until I received the offer from Psagot Winery.”

Since June 2014, Orayah has been working part-time as the winemaker for Psagot Winery, which is located over the Green Line near Ramallah in the West Bank. Oryah does not eat pork or seafood: “If I know the chef and trust him, I’ll have a vegetarian dish at the restaurant,” he says.

This writer does not drink or taste wines made in West Bank settlements. In the hesitant friendship I developed with Oryah over the past months, through random encounters at Tel Aviv bars and restaurants, this fact was ever-present.

“I come from Haredi society, from a place where everyone boycotted everyone else, and I hated that,” says Oryah. “I was searching for a culture of pluralism, and wine became a bridge for me to other people. I think the tool of an economic boycott of wines made over the Green Line is being improperly used, because it’s not fair to boycott the little guy. It’s the government that decided to build these communities. I have to believe that the discrimination between Jews and Arabs as far as living conditions are concerned isn’t because of racism, but because of security reasons. A while ago, when the Taybeh Brewery was looking for a winemaker, I applied for the job. I’m not sure they took me seriously, and they eventually chose an Italian winemaker, but I was absolutely ready to make non-kosher wine for a Palestinian winery.”

Wine made by Jacob Oryah.
Dan Peretz

Not an apostate

Oryah is a complicated guy. He is careful not to get into the political debate, but he thrust himself right into the midst of the debate over the Jewish laws of kashrut, in regard to wine in particular. In 2010 he wrote an article that appeared in the magazine “Wine and Gourmet,” against the Chief Rabbinate’s stance on the matter.

“I didn’t understand the halakhic basis for the ban on a secular Jew touching the wine, and which affects the whole wine industry, so I did an in-depth study of the halakhot pertaining to wine. I saw that there was a combination of two halakhot – one that’s 2,500 years old and concerned a prohibition against touching wine of non-Jews that was used in idol worship, and another, that’s not clear when it originated, involving desecration of the laws of Shabbat. Anyone who publicly desecrated the Shabbat was considered an apostate and consequently also forbidden to make wine. But someone who was born secular and to whom the halakha did not apply, was considered akin to a ‘captured baby’ [who is totally ignorant of Torah law] and not an apostate, so his touch would not nullify the wine. Modern rabbis didn’t say I was wrong, but they gave elusive answers and essentially said, ‘Who are we to change the halakhot that were set by the Great Sages?’”

It wasn’t long before Oryah was punished for challenging the rabbinate in this way: Despite being a devout Jew himself, it was declared that his touch automatically made wine un-kosher. All the wineries he had worked with over the preceding decade were unable to obtain kashrut certification from the rabbinate, until the ruling was finally overturned, thanks to pressure from the Psagot Winery.

The human component

In addition to his work with a big commercial winery, Oryah began making his own wines on a small scale, bearing his name and seal. The new series are made at the Livne Winery, a very small winery located in Moshav Sde Moshe in the Lachish region. He first met Yoram, a farmer who grows olives and grapes and makes olive oil, when he was a supplier of grapes to the Asif Winery. “Even though the produce doesn’t come from an area normally associated with good wine, Yoram and his grapes are proof that the human component is just as important as the terroir, as the environmental factors,” says Oryah. “When I wanted to plant a vineyard of red grapes, I planted it here.”

Oryah makes his Halomot Be’asfamya blend from Tempranillo, Grenache and Carignan grapes from the Lachish region. The romantic name of this wine, the same as the Jewish sages’ term for Spain, is a tribute to the red Spanish blend popular in the Rioja region. Perhaps it also reflects Oryah’s determination not to compromise, to create wines that are almost unrealistic in this era, in which the popular and accessible reign.

At the modest launch event, other wines created by Oryah in the few years he has been active as a winemaker were also served. The 2009 Emek Hatzayadim (“Hunters Valley”) is another wine that few people will ever get to taste. This Sémillon wine, inspired by an Australian Sémillon and with a wonderful earthy flavor, was originally released under the Midbar Winery label, and only a tiny quantity remains. Oryah bought it all (“The wine was supposed to go out on the market when it was five years old, but they released it when it was just three, and it really only began to reach its prime at age six. It’s just starting to really wake up now. Buying up all the bottles was a way to treat myself”).

The crowning glory is the Alpha Omega (the name refers to the fact that the entire grape is used). “Winemakers of the technocratic school think of orange wine as flawed,” says Ben Ron. “The production process includes fermentation at a high temperature, as if the grapes were of inferior quality; and the complex flavor, which has an aromatic profile close to that of sherry, is not that well-liked generally. But with this wine, too, Oryah has managed to create something special. Right now he’s the winemaker making the tastiest and most interesting and thought-provoking wines that I’ve tasted in Israel.”

Contact: Jacob Oryah 052-593-1100