Adam S. Montefiore
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BETTY, EGG & GLASS STOPPER

This is a story that begins and ends in the founders street of Bat Shlomo, a farming village founded in 1889, on the southern slopes of Mount Carmel.

Like many wine stories in Israel, it starts with a Rothschild. Baron James Jacob de Rothschild was one of five bothers that were sent from the ghetto in Frankfurt to start a bank in the European capitals. He was the youngest and most brilliant of the brothers, and he settled in Paris.

For thirty years he tried to buy Château Lafite, even then a proud symbol of France. He finally succeeded in 1868, but died three months later without even managing to visit. It was a long journey from Paris to Bordeaux in those days.

His three sons took over ownership, one of whom was Edmond. However the matriarch of the château was James’ widow, Baroness Betty Salomon de Rothschild, who resided there and redecorated it and furnished it to her tastes. Ironically she is most known as the subject of the famous portrait painted by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, but she certainly left her mark on Château Lafite.

When Edmond de Rothschild took it upon himself to found an Israeli wine industry which had lain dormant for 2,000 years, he took the trouble to honor his parents, like a good Jewish boy. Zichron Ya’acov, one of the two primary winery farming villages founded in 1882, was named after his father. It means ‘in memory of Jacob.’

He then founded an overflow community, more like a street, which was called Bat Shlomo, literally the daughter of Shlomo. This was in honor of his mother Betty.

Visit the street today and you get a glimpse of pre-state Israel. Fourteen houses including a synagogue, stand there as evidence of those pioneering times. The red roofed founder’s houses, squat, square and made from stone, with a row of handsome cypresses marking the way.

What makes wine more interesting than say, coca cola, is that behind every winery is the fulfilment of a dream or vision of someone. Each wine produced is a celebration of the place where the vineyards grew and person that made it. Each wine has a story.

At the end of this road reeking with nostalgia, is Wadi Milek. There I was able to visit some special young vineyards. These were established by someone who is described as a serial entrepreneur. I am referring to Elie Wurtman, a wine lover inspired by that founders street in Bat Shlomo and the Rothschild wine revival over 120 years ago. He chose as his professional partner Ari Erle, a Californian born, wine grower-Zionist, to plant vineyards and made a connection with the Regavim Agricultural School to ensure their students cared for the precious vines. This resulted in Bat Shlomo Vineyards, a winery which revitalizes the Rothschild vision of vineyards, wine and Jewish labour, in a place where it all started.

Ari Erle is pretty laid back, languid, Californian style. He keeps his passion and dynamism well buttoned up. But he has it in buckets. He studied winemaking in California at UC Davis and then learnt his craft working at a variety of top notch Californian wineries such as Colgin Cellars, Clos du Val and O’Shaughnessy.

He must be an out and out Zionist. Only a Zionist would leave the comforts of California to serve as a lone soldier in the IDF. He also must be pretty confident in his ability. He has planted and managed the vineyard using his heartfelt beliefs from California, ignoring some of the prevailing customs here. Spacing of vines is tighter, there is a lush cover crop between the vines and he uses a cross arm style of trellising. This is someone who knows what he believes in and wants to practice what he preaches.

The vineyard is self-sustainable which he prefers to organic grown vineyards. The innovation continues to the winery. We know that cement tanks are back in vogue. Ten years I would show people around Carmel’s Zichron Ya’acov Cellars and rush past the bulky out of fashion cement tanks explaining they were part of the winemaking history of Carmel. Basically they were installed in the 1920’s because they gave more capacity than the gigantic oak barrels used previously.

A new winemaker and a returning fashion put paid to that. Each tank was painstakingly cleaned, restored and refurbished and they are now much valued. Of course, there is nothing new under the sun in winemaking. Today cement tanks and the large size barrels are back in use even in the most progressive wineries. In winemaking, what goes around, comes around.

Well, Ari Erle also liked cement, but being ultra-modern, innovative and up to date with tomorrow’s trends, he chose to purchase a large concrete egg to assist his winemaking! And if this was not enough, to be creative in the vineyard and winery, he also shows his advanced thinking in the finished bottle. His Sauvignon Blanc is closed with a glass stopper, which pops open. No chance of cork taint here. It is also easy to close and re-use, making this an innovative water or olive oil bottle when the wine is finished.

Ari told me he was a farmer at heart and liked nothing more than the grow something from scratch. However I think he is too restless to devote himself to one project, so he spreads his talents.

He is the practical winemaking teacher at the Ohalo College in Katzrin. This is a serious program in association with the leading winemaking school in Beaune. In the first year, Erle makes wine with his students in their experimental winery, using fruit from their experimental vineyard at Merom Golan. The second year the students make their own wine, under the teacher’s guidance of course.

He is the consultant winemaker at the innovative start-up Jezreel Valley Winery and has been tapped to be the associate winemaker of the exciting Covenant Israel project. (Watch this space!) Covenant may just be about the most lauded kosher wine in the world when grown in the Napa valley. How it fares here, we are all fascinated to find out.

The restless farmer also dabbles in the commercial side of wine. He has an importer and distributor license in California for The Israeli Wine Company, whose objective is to market lesser distributed quality boutique wines.

As far as learning what Erle’s favorite grape varieties are, you won’t get far if you look at the wines he produces. Bat Shlomo Vineyards uses the classic varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Jezreel Valley makes predominantly Mediterranean style wines using Carignan, Argaman and Syrah. Covenant Israel will be focused on Syrah. Horses for courses. Whatever the variety, Erle’s wines are good, his services are in demand and he is a rising star of Israeli wine.

I mentioned this is a story that begins and ends in Bat Shlomo. This is because Elie Wurtman has purchased one of the founder’s houses which will be restored as a winery and visitors’ center. Herzl said “if you will it, it is no dream.” Well, Elie and Ari’s dream is coming true. Welcome to Zionism of the 21st century, which echoes and recreates the Zionism of the First Aliyah. Who said we are in a period of Post Zionism

BETTY, EGG & GLASS STOPPER
BETTY, EGG & GLASS STOPPER

The wines of Bat Shlomo Vineyards are distinguished by elegant labels, with a silhouette of Baroness Betty on them.

Bat Shlomo Sauvignon Blanc 2013

Aromatic sauvignon blanc, complex nose with piercing acidity that cleanses the palate. A perfect food wine. Best with fish cooked under the grill, mezze or sushi. PRICE: 89 ILS

Bat Shlomo Chardonnay 2013

This is a full bodied oaky, creamy chardonnay. Californian style. This is a wine that needs aerating and it should not be served too cold. Perfect with pasta in a cream sauce or a chicken dish. PRICE: 120 ILS

Bat Shlomo Betty Cuvée Cabernet Sauvignon 2011

A big Bordeaux style wine, with aromas of black berry fruit mingled with oak flavors, a chewy mouth filling flavor and a long finsh. To be drunk with a leg of lamb, entrecote steak or cheddar cheese. PRICE: 160 ILS

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JOURNEY FROM LIQUID RELIGION

Paradoxically, one of Israel’s newest boutique wineries, the 1848 Winery, has the longest history of any winery in Israel.  I will explain. It all started when the Galina family arrived in the Holy Land from White Russia in 1834. The family settled in Safed, and when the patriarch of the family, Rabbi Mordechai Avraham Galina, was made Rosh Yeshiva of Tiferet Yisrael, they moved to Jerusalem.

His son Rabbi Yitzhak Galina realized the family needed to earn a living. They had made wine and alcoholic beverages domestically in their mother country. There, the grapes were probably raisins, but in Palestine, fresh grapes were more plentiful.1848-1

Therefore it seemed logical to start a winery. The only trouble was that the necessary permissions were hard to come by. Fortunately his brother in law, Rabbi Baruch Shor, did have the necessary licence. So the Galina Shor family founded the first recorded winery in the Holy Land in 1848.

It was called Eshkol and was situated in Haggai Street, in the Old City of Jerusalem. The cellar backed on to the Wailing Wall, and a row of wine barrels was strategically placed, so that forgetful workers would not touch it by mistake!

The family changed their name to Shor and began producing wines and spirits. The wines were sweet from indigenous table grape varieties, harvested from Bethlehem and Hebron vineyards. The grapes were brought to Jerusalem by donkeys.

This is where the history and folklore my own family and the Shors coincide.

Forty years before Herzl and Rothschild, my distinguished forbear, Moses Montefiore, outlined his own vision. He thought that Jews in the Holy Land should work instead of just living from donations. He became the first practical Zionist, before the word was even invented, buying land for agriculture and laying the cornerstone of modern Jerusalem, with the foundation of Mishkenot Sha’ananim. He was the first to urge Jews to return to agriculture and to plant vines. The windmill he built was symbolic of his world view: ‘Without flour, there is no Torah’.

Coincidentally, the first Shor family harvest coincided exactly with one of Montefiore’s visits to Jerusalem. Dignitaries and community leaders used to present Montefiore with gifts of wine as a sign of welcome. This was much to his liking as he was known to drink a bottle of wine every day…perhaps that is why he lived to nearly 101 years of age! He was even known to buy small casks of wine as souvenirs.

It may be slightly fanciful, but is certainly not impossible to imagine that Montefiore may have come across the Shor family wine. Anyway, the legendary wine critic Daniel Rogov, z”l, (ex-Jerusalem Post), was believed that Rabbi Yitzhak Shor was inspired by Moses Montefiore’s vision. It is interesting to note that the census commissioned by Montefiore in 1849, provided the first actual evidence of the Shor family’s new profession.

The second generation of Shors, included the legendary Rosa Shor, a formidable woman, who in 1871 opened a wine and liquor shop and bar to sell the family wines.

After eighty years in the Old City, the Arab riots of 1929 forced what was by now called A & M Shor Bros Winery, to find a new home in Beit Israel, near Meah Shearim. In 1944 the winery was renamed Yikvei Zion (Zion Winery). The building was on three levels and included a cellar, winery, living quarters and a synagogue. The cellar was to prove an attraction during the 1948 War of Independence when Jerusalem residents joined the family in sheltering there.

By the formation of the State, the family had grown too big for the business and the brothers, Avraham and Moshe, decided to go separate ways. Moshe and his son, Yitzhak, opened a new business in Tel Arza, mainly producing spirits and liqueurs whilst Yikvei Zion, continued to produce wine and grape juice. In 1958 the Tel Arza business split again and Hacormim, another winery branch of the Shor family was formed.

A few years ago I sat with three generations of the Shor family at the Zion Winery and was charmed by the individual characters I met. I sat with Elisha, the sixth generation and chairman, who was still at is desk at over 80 years of age. A great raconteur and story teller! Then I met the current Moshe, the seventh generation and managing director. Quiet, honorable and a real mensch. He was the one to realize the winery could not live only from liquid religion in modern times.

He bought a pneumatic press, small oak barrels, upgraded the selection of vineyards used and employed the services of the reputed wine consultant, Arkadi Papikian. The results were impressive: gold medals and good reviews. Zion Winery started to produce good table wines which were great value, particularly under the Erez label.

I also met Moshe’s nephew, Zvika Shor, the winemaker from a long line of Shor winemakers. I remember his smile, his openness, professionalism, eagerness to learn and his pride in the new quality.

I remember a shy youngster called Yossi Shor was also there. He is the son of Moshe and represents the eighth generation. He was responsible for the marketing rejuvenation of Zion Winery in the last six years or so. However this was not enough for him. He wanted to create a new winery to really compete in the quality wine world. He therefore created the 1848 Winery.

Yossi is bright eyed, with black kippa and white shirt, but with an eye to quality and innovation. He has a foot in both worlds. On one side is the cautious, traditional and conservative family that has been making liquid religion continuously for 166 years. On the other, Yossi has succeeded in reaching out to the modern, feinschmeiker world of quality wine. In a sense he embodies the wine revolution that took place in Brooklyn twenty five years ago, which is now happening in Israel. These days, the ultra-orthodox community, also have their collectors of fine wine, organized tastings and specialist wine stores selling only table wines.

The 1848 wines are high quality in a new world style. Each generation is represented on the label. As with the family itself, the later generations represent the better quality wines.

The 1848 Special Reserve 2009 is oaky, muscular but full of chewy fruit. A high quality wine without doubt. The regular labels represent better value. The 2nd Generation Cabernet Merlot, 2nd Generation Rose, 5th Generation Cabernet Franc and 5th Generation White are my favorites. Certainly they are recommended.

Today there are three wineries owned by the Shor family: Zion, Arza and Hacormim. All are situated in the same street in Mishor Adumim. Zion and Arza are both in the top ten wineries in Israel in terms of size and have made giant strides towards quality. Hacormim is more known for its Conditon brand of Kiddush wine.

It is true the founding of the Israeli wine industry is rightly attributed to Baron Edmond de Rothschild and Carmel Winery on a basis of French expertise. The ‘new world’ quality revolution dates from the founding of the Golan Heights Winery with the help from Californian winemakers. However the roots of Israeli wine go back to this special family dynasty, who found a way to combine industry and commerce, agriculture and wine with faithfulness to their religion.

Now the Shor family has provided us with 1848. A year of turmoil and revolution in Europe. The year of Israel’s first recorded winery. The year of Moses Montefiore’s third visit to Israel. Now, 1848 represents a new dawn of Israel’s oldest wine family.