A long line of cars snaked through the narrow, hilly lanes of the West Bank town of Taybeh last Friday. The cool air of this Palestinian Christian community overlooking Jericho filled with cigarette smoke in the smoking corner where young men wearing suits and kaffiyehs were gathered. A large part of Taybeh Golden Hotel was done up in black and white, its walls draped in banners and posters advertising Taybeh VinFest 2017. At the entrance, security guards instructed drivers to park on nearby streets.
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“This is the second festival we’re holding,” said the founder of Taybeh Winery, Nadim Khoury. “We started two years ago, but last year we couldn’t hold the event because of the political situation in the area. This year is calm, so we thought it’s a good time to do it again.”
Khoury regales visitors with the New Testament story of the wedding in Cana in Galilee where Jesus performed his first miracle of changing water into wine. “Wine was a part of this region as far back as Jesus’ day. Many families in Taybeh make their own wine in the summer and drink it in the winter. We thought that we should open the first boutique winery in Palestine,” he said.
The Khoury family controls the largest business in this town of some 2,000, and oversees the Taybeh Brewery, which they founded in 1994, shortly after the Oslo Accords were signed. The business almost shut down during the second intifada, but revived. The cold shoulder it received from traditional Muslim society made way for pride in the Palestinian beer that won international success. Khoury hopes the same thing will happen with the winery, established three years ago.
The rabbi of the settlement of Ofra confirmed the beer as kosher, and it has been warmly greeted by Israelis. But the laws of kashrut, which dictate that kosher wine must be made by Jews, don’t allow for much commerce with their Jewish neighbors. And so the winery turned to the international market. Palestinian companies that want to market abroad sometimes come up against difficulties in the form of export duties and passage through the West Bank crossings. Another problem is that some countries don’t recognize a Palestinian state. “We’ve had to change our labels to market to the United States,” to which the first shipment of wine went out this week, Khoury says. “The Americans told us to change the word ‘Palestine,’ to ‘West Bank,’” he added.
According to Khoury, Palestinian society feels more comfortable with wine culture now that there’s a local brand. “People are glad they have a local product that’s distributed all over the world — to Germany, Japan, Belgium, Britain, Denmark and Italy,” Khoury says, adding: “We have local consumers who spread the culture of drinking responsibly, and of course, lots of tourists.”
A server pours a new wine into our glasses, called Bituni, explaining that the grapes were grown in Bitunia, near Ramallah. Lina, the winery’s head of human resources, who came from Ramallah, says there are a few ancient Palestinian wineries, in monasteries, but Taybeh Winery was the first to bring wine culture to Palestinian society.
Two Japanese tourists stand in front of a stand offering small pizzas. Their eyes running, they pantomime the fierceness of the hot sauce.
The biggest culinary success of the evening is in small bowls hiding among the rows of wine bottles — 5-year-old Pecorino-style cheese, made in Jenin. Mohammad, a musician from Ramallah, says that he was expecting a bigger turnout, something closer to the brewery’s annual Oktoberfest, which draws thousands of people.
“But it’s clear to me that it will take time until a similar audience develops here,” Mohammad says, adding that in more secular Palestinian cities such as Ramallah and Bethlehem, the sale of alcoholic beverages is more common.
The loud jazz music almost drowns out the blend of languages that are spoken, which include a little Arabic and a lot of German and English. A waitress gives us a taste of the brewery’s 2013 Syrah; she was right when she said it’s better than the Bituni.
As the hall began to empty out, the empty wineglasses pile up on the wooden tables and the security guards relax, leaning against the walls. The Khourys are hopeful that they’ve taken another step toward creating a society here that celebrates wine and, of course, buys it.