Wine Is Enlisted Into the Israeli-Palestinian Hummus Wars

Wine grapes with roots in antiquity are becoming part of an ideological identity struggle: Are these heirloom varieties Israeli or Palestinian?

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Taybeh Winery.
Taybeh Winery.Credit: Dor Kedmi
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered

In October 2015, a short time after the beginning of the Hebrew calendar year, Haaretz wine critic Itay Gleitman conferred upon Recanati’s Marawi 2014 the title of the “Most Important Wine of the Year.” Gleitman admitted that the reason was not its exceptional quality, but its cultural and historical uniqueness: “The Marawi 2014 is the first commercial Israeli wine produced from a local, indigenous variety with roots in antiquity. As such, it will eventually be recorded in the annals of Israeli wine.”

The launch of this old-new wine won broad attention in the international press, including The New York Times. “Have you tasted King David’s wine yet?” asked one headline. The Israeli wine, produced from the Marawi variety of grapes, sourced from a Palestinian vineyard in the Bethlehem area, was noted primarily in the news and political sections, but won legitimacy in the wine section as well.

“This variety originated in Israel and Palestine, but actually was born in England and broke through in the U.S.,” said the anthropologist Dr. Daniel Monterescu in an interview in Tel Aviv. He says that the British wine guru Jancis Robinson “in 2013 awarded the maximum score for white wines to the Jandali-Marawi blend of heirloom varieties of the Palestinian Cremisan winery. In the wake of this success, in 2015 Recanati launched its wine, and then a special edition of the respected journal Wine Spectator was devoted to Israeli and Palestinian wines.

“These wines, whose source has been referred to as ‘the indigenous revolution,’ garnered special attention and high marks. In recent years, as part of an effort to highlight local wines in the competitive global market, the wine world has displayed renewed interest in vintages produced from heirloom varieties. Marawi has apparently been around since long before 2013 – perhaps since the period of the Kingdom of Israel or since the time of Jesus – but in recent years has gone through a metamorphosis.

Wine grapes. A possible answer to the Israeli indigeneity crisis? Credit: Dan Perez

“The grapes, traditionally cultivated widely throughout the West Bank primarily for eating, are being converted through fermentation and bottling into a product that combines history, culture, economics, politics, and science. This process is part of a global phenomenon: the search for uniqueness and authenticity. But it is also a local process, in which two populations – Israeli and Palestinian – are competing for the title of local indigeneity and for the definition of national identity in an area devoid of clear borders.”

Political biography of a grape

Marawi, an ancient local variety, stands at the center of Monterescu’s article “In the footsteps of the holy grail: indigenous wines, science and politics of local identity.” He is a lecturer at the Central European University in Budapest, together with Dr. Ariel Handel from Tel Aviv University. “My family is a family of refugees,” says Monterescu, born in 1971 in Jaffa. “My father’s family arrived in Jaffa in 1951 from Romania and lived out the proletarian immigrant experience in the now demolished Menashiya neighborhood of Jaffa. My mother’s family, from Germany and Switzerland, escaped to France in 1933. My uncle, who stayed in France, became the head of the Haredi rabbinical court in Strasbourg. He was, and still is the signatory on kosher certification for the leading wineries in France and Spain. I studied at the French school in Jaffa, and I was the only Jewish student in the class.” Monterescu’s research deals largely with urbanization and the mixed Jewish-Arab city of his birth, but in recent years he has also addressed questions of food and wine as representative of identity and unresolved border conflicts, as well as personal biography. “In my childhood, I lived among Jews and Arabs. With my Arab friends, I ate Arab food. I remember the tabbouleh that the mother of my 4th grade friend served. At home, I ate international immigrant fare. There, in my childhood experience, when coherent culinary identity was not yet defined, perhaps seeds were sowed.”

Monterescu began his academic studies in Israel and completed his doctorate at the University of Chicago. In 2009, he enrolled in a year-long basic wine course at The Grape Man, a study center in Tel Aviv. When his academic career and that of his wife led the family to Florence, he continued his wine studies for a diploma as a sommelier (wine steward) as well as through enthusiastic private research into traditional Italian wine regions. Today he is pursuing a diploma in wine studies through the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) in Austria. Among his other activities, he publishes articles on the trans-border cuisine of immigrants and refugees and on wine produced in border and conflict zones. His article on indigenous Israel-Palestinian wine, is an interesting addition to the research by Israeli academics in the field of culture and food published in recent years.

Falafel and hummus are perhaps the two most prominent foods that have become symbols of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Monterescu and Handel are adding grapes and their products to the mix.

An ancient grape vine. Some varieties may go back thousands of years.Credit: Dan Perez

“The wines made from local heirloom varieties provide a possible answer to the Israeli indigeneity crisis, and to the question ‘who was here first?’” says Monterescu. “We are a nation without a terroir that finally found its terroir,” he says, using the French term for the factors that affect a crop, including unique environment, farming practices, and specific growth habitat, which produce its character.

“[The chef] Eyal Shani became a national agent because he helps ground us in a place through tomatoes and pita bread. Wine is an even better national agent than all sorts of other foods and raw materials, because the historical narrative of the wine industry in Israel rests upon the story of a flourishing wine industry that was repressed by the Muslim conquest, but renewed in the 19th century by Baron Rothschild and the Zionist movement. Zionism was a project of indigeneity, but its indigeneity was acquired. There is an enormous gap and irresolvable tension between our symbolic connection to this place, with its rhetoric of the redemption of the land and making the desert bloom, and our actual experience of a territory achieved through blood, and in which the indigenous Palestinian population remained as witness.”

Romantic, not practical

The grapevine, a mute actor, is positioned as the focus of the article, but there are also human actors, among them Dr. Elyashiv (Shivi) Drori, a biologist and vintner at the Gvaot winery at the Givat Harel West Bank outpost. In his research laboratories at Ariel University, a groundbreaking study of local heirloom varieties is being conducted, involving the collection of wild and heirloom varieties and mapping them genetically. Others include Gil Schatzberg, vintner of Recanati Winery, which is assisted by the studies at Ariel University and who recently planted a Marawi vineyard in the Galilee; Fadi Batarseh, a vintner at the Cremisan Winery near Bethlehem; Canaan Khoury, vintner of the Taybeh Winery, who also produces wine from local heirloom varieties and is the son of the founder of the Taybeh Brewery; and a Palestinian grower who did not want to be identified by name, who provides grapes for Recanati wines.

“Regarding the ideological actors, they are part of a political-national project,” says Monterescu. “Shivi and Prof. Zohar Amar of Bar Ilan University use texts from the Mishnah to prove that Jews drank wine made from the Marawi and Jandali varieties in the Second Century. The High-Tech Nation is replicating the ancient terroir, and indigenous wine is its expression. This project is intended to bridge a gap of 2,000 years of exile and the absence of Jews from the area. Khoury, of Taybeh Winery, also considers the wine he produces as coming from this place, as witness to Palestinian-Christian continuity in the region, and the vexed process that wine and beer go through on their way to export from the Palestinian Authority is part of the product’s brand. Others whom we interviewed relate to the subject as a capitalist solution.” Terroir, argue Monterescu and Handel, is in the end a romantic story.

Nadim and Canaan Khoury of the Taybeh Winery, where wine is produced from local heirloom varieties. Credit: Dor Kedmi

One riveting aspect of the article deals with definition of the elusive concept of terroir. “The classical understanding refers to habitat: type of earth, climate, clearing of the land, and the way in which different varieties of grapes respond to them. In the new and broader understanding of the term, the variety is the extension of the terroir, and it undergoes adaptation and selection that expresses the place genetically. This is a theory shared by nationalists and wine merchants, each for his own reasons, and we seek to oppose the mythologizing of nature and it’s co-option into a political and legal-commercial tool.”

Since the launch of the first indigenous wines by the Palestinian Cremisan Winery and the Israeli Recanati Winery, other wineries in Israel and the Palestinian Authority have joined the effort to produce quality wine from local grapes. But not all share the enthusiasm for the local terroir vision based on historical varieties. Off the record, some of the professionals speak fearfully of ideological experimentation that enlists science for the sake of producing “Jewish wine,” similar to the process unfolding with regard to traditional produce in other fields. These include the search for traditional species of wheat belonging to the Land of Israel, and those who want to identify the species of wheat from which the showbread offering was prepared in the Temple. Most of the vintners speak cautiously, warning that this personal experiment is based on a limited taste of experimental wines, and about the problematic potential to produce complex quality wines.

“These grapes, in recent centuries, were used for eating. At the moment, there is zero proven potential for the production of wine,” says vintner Uri Hetz of the Chateau Golan Winery. “It’s very romantic, and romance is wonderful, but I am a bit skeptical. The potential for the production of quality wine is the more determining consideration in my view, over the conceptual consideration, when I decide on the planting of a new vineyard.”

“This is an interesting and impressive project, but peripheral with regard to the future of Israeli wine,” says Eran Pick, vintner at Tzora Vineyards. “On the eastern coast of the Mediterranean there are hundreds of varieties of local grapes from which wine is produced – in Turkey, Lebanon, and Greece – and no one really cares. These varieties are not characterized by sufficiently dominant components of flavor and aroma to produce quality, complex wine. Must the local identity of the wine be rooted in local varieties? It would be preferable, but this is not the trajectory along which the world proceeds. New Zealand has no local varieties, but wine from New Zealand has a strong and distinctive identity. I think that our local identity in the end will be expressed in wines made from 30 quality varieties known throughout the world.”

Itay Gleitman, who thinks that this is an interesting direction for development and research, also expresses himself cautiously regarding the quality of the wine: “The Recanati wines that were brought to market recently, including wine from the Beituni heirloom variety, demonstrate improvement from harvest to harvest. But the grapes’ potential is not intended to reach a high level of quality – only to make wines that are good for a pleasant drink in the summer when chilled. At the price range of Israeli wines, it’s not clear that they are the best value. The romantic story always overcomes considerations of quality, but I don’t see a big future for these in Israeli wines.”

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