An Israeli Winery Guide, With Undertones of Occupation

‘Wine Diary’ covers dozens of wineries, blurring the fact that some are in occupied territories. It’s full of good intentions but no political distinctions

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Assaf Winery in the Golan Heights.
Assaf Winery in the Golan Heights.Credit: Shahar Kedem
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered

The “central mountain” – that’s how the West Bank is labeled in a new book called “Wine Journey – An Israeli Adventure,” a guide that tries to map Israel using 179 wineries across the country, reflecting local culture through the stories of people, places and wines.

Wine, as is well-known, is a faithful expression of the environment where the grapes that produced it were grown (called terroir by professionals), a product of the meeting of natural processes and human intervention. In a “silent” map (which speaks no less than the more detailed maps that also appear in this book) with no state borders at the beginning of the guide, the writers delineate six wine-producing regions: the Golan Heights, the Galilee, the coastal plain, Judea, the “central mountain” and the Negev. The more detailed maps at the end or beginning of each section do show state borders and neighboring countries, but the Green Line, the pre-1967 armistice demarcation that separates Israel and the West Bank, or the borders of the Palestinian Authority are not shown.

The central mountain. I repeat this term since it’s so beautiful and poetic – some words ignite one’s imagination, evoking pastoral images. It saddens me to think that this term, used by modern archaeologists to describe the story of the kingdoms of Judea and Israel, will become identified with wines originating in Judea and Samaria in the West Bank, which are occupied territories. My four grandparents, who settled in the Jordan Valley and the Sharon area, were considered part of the “labor settlement.” Today, the term “settlement” is identified with settlers in the West Bank, and I’m worried that the term “central mountain” is the next term we’ll use for whitewashing and removing from public awareness – around the world, but mainly from our own consciousness – the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and what is taking place in the West Bank. The book is bilingual, appealing to English-speaking wine tourists and potential consumers of Israeli wines.

In Israel there is no obligation to note on the wine bottle label which area the grapes come. Anyone who wants to find out the name of the region – a powerful market tool for professionals who see a geographic locale as an inseparable part of a wine’s uniqueness and quality – can only use the region names as defined in a map published by the Israel Wine and Grapes Board in 1977. Everyone in the field agrees that this map is outdated and irrelevant. The areas that are included or excluded do not reflect the contemporary map of vineyards. Some names, such as Shimshon, were intended to appeal to a religious international clientele for whom wines produced in Israel, not necessarily high-quality ones, are most attractive.

The Psagot winery in the West Bank.Credit: AP

Moreover, in other wine-producing countries, marking the region of origin is standard practice, defining not only the boundaries of each region and the number of vineyards within it, but parameters such as the type of grapes and quality of wine. The law in Israel does not yet address these issues, and since 1977, despite the revolution that’s taken place in this industry and the incessant attempts to change the only allowed map, this has not happened. This is also a result of economic interests. Due to its small area, Israel has many wineries that produce wines from grapes grown in different areas. For example, most of the larger wineries, except the ones in the Golan Heights, produce wine partly from grapes grown far from the winery.

But the main obstacle is the political one. In Israel, whose boundaries are not yet defined and recognized in international law, any attempt to draw maps is a volatile and controversial issue. The political aspect has implications for financial considerations, particularly at a time when there are calls to boycott Israeli produce that originates in the West Bank or the Golan Heights.

Itamar Gur.Credit: Ella Barak

Attempts at regulation

In recent years there have been several attempts at offering a new map of wine regions in Israel. Ipevo, a professional organization of Israeli vintners and agronomists, published a map of grape-growing regions in Israel in 2019. According to the Ipevo spokespeople, the map “is for information purposes only, with no legal validity, reflecting the existing situation of vineyards without taking a political stand.” It was published as a “silent” map showing no state boundaries, Green Line or areas under Palestinian Authority control. The West Bank is labeled the “central mountain” area and is divided into four sub-regions (one of them called the Shomron, or Samaria in Hebrew).

David Silverman.Credit: Ella Barak

One of the more interesting attempts to bypass the problems with the current situation, which makes it difficult for Israeli wineries to export their produce to consumers who are used to examining labels and looking for regions, was made by the Mateh Yehuda Regional Council, whose jurisdiction is the area west of Jerusalem. Last year, the council announced that after two years of talks with the Justice Ministry, they had reached an agreement about the protected origin label Yehuda (Judea). The label included two other regional tags, Judean Hills and Judean Slopes. This was similar to the Jaffa oranges label, which received legal validity in the 1960s. This kind of label is based on proving a link between a unique product and the habitat it was grown in, and on the determination that 85 percent of an agricultural product, grapes in this case, come from the region.

This initiative is of particular interest since the regional council, which is faithful to the international standards of defining terroir as a geographic region, wanted to include vineyards beyond the Green Line – mainly those within the Etzion Bloc of settlements south of Jerusalem – in its region. Israel ultimately approved the use of the protected origin label Judea without including areas in the West Bank, but this still doesn’t provide a solution. Israel doesn’t know how to treat a region of origin that includes areas beyond the 1967 border, and so the first wine region to receive an origin label that is protected by law does not include any areas in the territories.

Roni Saslove.Credit: Ella Barak

This is what saddens me most: The State of Israel itself is not sure that it can legitimize the ongoing process of annexation, but professional initiatives supposedly devoid of political interests, launched by professionals in the wine industry, are using whitewashed terms such as “central mountain,” thereby normalizing, even with underlying good intentions of promoting Israel’s wine industry, what is not normal, something devoid of basic human fraternity.

Most Israeli Jews do not enter the West Bank, supposedly for security reasons, but mainly as an act of repression. What one doesn’t see daily is easier to repress, and can be shoved to the edges of one’s consciousness. Life in the Middle East, especially during a global pandemic and a period of political and economic crises, is hard enough without thinking about human rights and the Other every day. But anyone entering the West Bank, and not only for the purpose of visiting Jewish settlements, cannot ignore the egregious inequality between Jews and Palestinians at every level.

Guy HaranCredit: Ella Barak

This includes travel restrictions and congested highways; the daily wait at the checkpoint to enter Israel to do manual labor, hard and unrewarding work; a lack of freedom of choice and a dearth of opportunities – and all this without mentioning the imperiousness with which some settlers treat the Palestinians, and the clear tendency of the army and state to almost automatically side with Jews in any conflict or dispute. Be the historical and political circumstances that led to this situation what they may – and recognizing Palestinian identity does not deny the existence of an Israeli identity or the necessity for a state – Israel, and I am one of its citizens, is discriminating against, acting cruelly toward or ignoring the existence of millions of people on the basis of their religious and national affiliation.

The book’s four authors – Roni Saslove, Guy Haran, David Silverman and Itamar Gur – emphasize that the book is a professional initiative devoid of commercial interests. I believe them. These are good and honest people who, by their testimony, are connected to and dependent on the area they write about (Saslove is a vintner and vineyard owner who is working to promote Israel’s wine industry though lectures and workshops; Haran represents Israel at conferences and through lectures around the world). The supreme goal of Israel’s wine industry at this point is not to mention the words Judea and Samaria, let alone occupied territories or Palestinians.

What’s amazing is that the mainstream of the local wine industry – and the book was written by people who well represent it, including Adam Montefiore, who edited the text in English, Yair Haidu, who wrote an introduction, and Prof. Amos Hadas, who wrote about the history of local wine – does not see anything wrong with publishing a book these days in which the West Bank is an integral part of the local wine map, appearing under the rubric of “central mountain.” The same chapter includes three Palestinian wineries, Taibeh, Cremisan and Philokalia, but their owners have expressed anger and hurt over the way they have been presented. Every regional chapter ends with a list of restaurants, dairies and other “tasty locations.” In the chapter on Judea and Samaria, the authors recommend that winery tourists also visit an organic farm run by settlers.

They’re all the same

The comprehensive and embracing approach – to the effect that anyone who produces wine is permitted and entitled to appear in the book, even if it’s the West Bank and even if it’s someone like Menachem Livni, a member of the Jewish underground who was convicted of murdering three Palestinian students, sentenced to life imprisonment and released after only six years (thanks to a presidential pardon) to start the winery with the picturesque name La Foret Blanche (which appears on page 206 without any mention of the biographical details) – is wrong, not only in terms of politics.

“Wine Diary,” as its authors declare, is not a wine guide that examines the quality of the wines produced in the wineries. In effect, the wines themselves are barely mentioned in the short texts devoted to each winery. The book is designed for someone who wants to travel around and have a good time drinking wine and meeting the people who produce it.

The vineyard of the Psagot Winery.Credit: Alex Levac

That’s a totally legitimate choice – to write about wineries as tourist sites, rather than issuing a guide that surveys the quality of the wines they produce – but even as a guide for wineries and touring, this is a problematic product that treats all the wineries – large or small, influential or entirely marginal – in an almost identical manner.

The internet has completely changed the landscape of tourist guide books and information for travelers. It’s hard to compete with the ease of finding information on the search engines, and there’s no need to wait for the new edition of a book to be printed to correct a mistake or update details that have changed. The question of the source of authority – even if it at first seemed that crowdsourcing would replace the elitist groups, who were seen as an authoritative source – remains controversial.

Anyone publishing a printed guide to wineries nowadays – and I was pleased enough at the thought of a book that would collect information about the local wine industry, and to participate in its crowdfunding campaign – declares in advance that it has something to say about local production and the developing wine culture. But who needs a printed index where all the wineries appear in a basic way and with meager texts where the words “the fulfillment of a dream” and “warm and friendly hospitality” appear more often than “Cabernet Sauvignon”?

“Wine Journey – An Israeli Adventure,” by Roni Saslove, Guy Haran, David Silverman and Itamar Gur; Edited by Mira Eitan (Hebrew) and Adam Montefiore (English); self-published, 265 pages, 96 shekels

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