Wine is an unimportant diversion in these black days, but for those who live in the wine bubble, growing vines, caring for vineyards and making wine, brings us back to a sense of normality, with the feeling “life must go on.” The longevity of some wineries in their relationship with the land, producing some of Israel’s finest products, is a reassuring sign of continuity. Not for nothing is wine considered Israel’s finest ambassador. Recently Israeli wine has celebrated some important anniversaries. Domaine du Castel celebrated 30 years, Golan Heights Winery 40 years, Binyamina Winery 70 years, Carmel Winery 140 years and Zion Winery 175 years. Soon Tishbi and Dalton wineries will reach their thirty-year anniversary.
Missing from this list is Tzora Vineyards, one of our most distinguished small wineries, which this very year is celebrating its 30th year anniversary. Theirs is a prominent story in the development of Israeli wine, but maybe somewhat under the radar. Perhaps it is worthwhile to consider their story and their contribution to our wine story. Tzora Vineyards in the 1990s was a leader in the boutique winery boom and here we are in the 2020s, and it is regarded as one of Israel’s very finest small wineries. As wine is a product of people and place, the winery may be described in another way: 15 years of Ronnie James and 15 years of Eran Pick MW.
Ronnie James was a kibbutznik who managed Tzora’s vineyards for the Carmel wine cooperative. He was infatuated with growing vines and certain that he could only fulfill his role as a grower, if he made wine from his precious grapes. Thus, with great determination and after a fair amount of persuasion, he succeeded in founding Tzora Vineyards in 1993. He was the second grower after Yonatan Tishbi to found a winery. Another rookie winemaker, Eli Ben-Zaken of Castel fame, filmed that first harvest, which is amazing footage to view thirty years on.
Ronnie James was folksy, authentic, unspoiled and lovable. He was salt of the earth character; a man of the soil, who became a pioneer. He instinctively believed that his wine should represent a place and his passion was inspiring. We kept our eyes on him and listened to what he had to say. He was totally self-taught. He learnt as he went along by trial and error. Much of his success was because of a finely honed gut instinct. He had an unadulterated love for the vine and wanted to fulfill its potential by making quality wine. It was as simple as that.
My favorite wines of his were ‘Givat Halukim’ (Stone Hill), a chewy red and a bright Sauvignon Blanc which was still amazingly youthful ten years later. However, Tzora wines were domestic treats. They were not heard of abroad. That was until the Ilan Misty Hills 1999 scored 17.5 points on jancisrobinson.com. This is the website of Jancis Robinson MW, today’s leading wine critic and wine writer. The Misty Hills was the equal highest scoring Israeli wine in the tasting. This was an impressive forum to make an international announcement that Tzora was making pretty good wines.
Unfortunately Ronnie passed away well before his time in 2008, after a cruel illness, but not before he had made some pretty crucial decisions. In 2006 he recruited a young winemaker called Eran Pick to work at the winery. He found an investor and by so doing, introduced Nathan Hevrony to the winery. He also closed a distribution agreement with Shaked for the Israel market. Each of these decisions stood the test of time and bore fruit in ways that possibly even James could not imagine.
Eran Pick is the polar opposite of Ronnie James. They come from different ends of the spectrum. Pick is studious, academic, experienced, worldly and up to date as tomorrow. He graduated in Viticulture and Enology from UC Davis with Highest Honors. He had valuable experience in California (Napa and Sonoma), in Australia (Barossa) and in France (Bordeaux.) He comes from almost a completely opposite background to Ronnie James. Yet their views converged and overlapped in the most important place, smack in the middle of the vineyard. They both shared the same absolute, unshakeable belief that to be authentic, wine must have a sense of place. Therefore it has to be an expression of the vineyard and the local terroir. In James’ era this idea was in a way before its time. In Pick’s era, it has become more commonplace.
If you visit a winery, nearly everyone will choose to host you in the visitors’ center. If you are privileged to be hosted by Eran Pick, he will invariably choose to meet you in the Shoresh Vineyard. For him this is the place where the wine is grown and nurtured. To understand the essence of the winery, you have to be in the vineyard. I once asked him “did you ever consider buying fruit from the Galilee or Golan to supplement what you have?” He may have looked at me with disdain, except that is not his way; he gives respect to everyone, but his answer was brief and unequivocal. “What would be the point?” he answered. It was not even an option.
Now, the high elevation Shoresh vineyard, on the hills that rise towards Jerusalem, has joined El Rom (and Kayoumi that was), as one of Israel’s most famous vineyards. It is a patchwork of different plots, with different aspects, and it allows the winery to produce its five wines made from grape varieties, which are each grown in optimum conditions.
Eran Pick became the rock star of Israeli wine when he became our first Master of Wine. Of course the description does not match his quiet character. However, there are only a few hundred in the world. I can’t overstate the effect this incredible achievement had on the image of Israeli wine. No doubt his new status has helped our image and enable the story of Israeli wine to reach further and wider than ever before. Tzora Vineyards also played a lead role in the formation of the Judean Hills Quartet, a consortium formed to advance the Judean Hills as a quality wine region. The tastings and meetings they have held internationally have been extremely beneficial to the Judean Hills and of course to the wineries themselves but also to Israeli wine as a whole. The model of cooperation and the idea of marketing ‘Brand Israel’ together is something I tried to create 20 years ago with the founding of Handcrafted Wines of Israel. Ronnie James and Tzora Vineyards was an early supporter of that initiative too. Anyway the lesson and example set for other wine regions to emulate and follow is proven and clear. Let’s hope others pick up the baton.
Let us fast forward to 2023. Tzora Vineyards is ranked as Israel’s leading winery in Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book, being awarded the maximum four stars, alongside Domaine du Castel. This is the nearest there is to a Michelin Guide for Wine. Furthermore, Tzora Vineyards has been awarded the highest scores ever received for an Israeli wine in the world’s two most famous wine magazines, Wine Spectator (USA) and Decanter (UK.) If Ronnie James was looking down, as I hope he is, he would be extremely proud that his baby has developed in the way it has. The credit goes to the very modest, quietly spoken, very supportive owner, Nathan Hevrony. He is the owner any winery would dream of. Eran Pick MW joined as a young man out of wine school, but has taken Tzora forward in leaps and bounds. He is also a great advocate for Israeli wine worldwide. Maybe the Tzora Or 2006 dessert wine was a first glimpse of what he was capable of. It scored 92 points in robertparker.com …then a very high score for an Israeli wine. The winery has since gone from strength to strength.
Eran Pick MW who acts as both winemaker and CEO, is supported by three other important people. Dan Sheinman is the assistant or associate winemaker. He is a vineyard specialist with experience in Burgundy and is also a bit of a poet. “Winemaking represents an interaction between inspirations and aspirations” he says. I like that. I think it is quote I will be repeating. Dor James looks after the vineyard. He is Ronnie James’ son and it is beautifully symbolic he is involved and he is a very important cog in the wheel. Finally, Tzora’s wine consultant is one of the great names of wine, Jean Claude Berrouet. For over 40 years he was the Technical Director of Chateau Petrus. You can’t get better than that!
Tzora Vineyards symbolizes some important new paths. For a starter they produce some of the finest white wines in Israel. For me, more than any other winery, they represent the white wine revolution of the last ten years. Their whites are outstanding and I am especially proud that as a country we can make whites of this quality. Secondly the winery represents the identity revolution in Israel. Their wines are blends and they come from a single vineyard. The day will come when people talk about Israeli wines in terms of a wine region, vineyard or individual block or plot, rather than by varietals, which is really how many wines have been identified up to now. Tzora is a symbol of this new search for identity and is leading the way. Their wines are named in the classic quality pyramid of region, vineyard and plot. Hence you have their wines respectively named Judean Hills, Shoresh and Misty Hills, which is named for what is known as the fossil block. The focus is totally on the place. The name Tzora is so low key, you will barely see it, unless you have a good pair of glasses.
My favorite Tzora Vineyards wines are the Judean Hills Red, which is for me one of the best value wines in Israel. It is beautifully balanced and what is more, refreshingly drinkable. This is a quality not always apparent in some of our best wines; the Shoresh Blanc is wonderfully flinty and minerally, characteristics lacking in most Israeli whites. It is a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. Finally the prestige Misty Hills (Cabernet Sauvignon – Syrah) is so elegant…but don’t listen to me. Jancis Robinson MW recently tasted wines made by winemakers who were fellow Masters of Wine. There are only about 100 or so MW- winemakers in the world. After tasting the two wines shown by each winemaker, she named the eight winemakers who impressed her the most with both their wines. One of the eight was our own Eran Pick of Tzora Vineyards! She described the Misty Hills 2020, with terms like “fresh” and “lively” and then wrote: “No-one would guess this is a stereotypically bumptious Israeli wine.” I loved that!
So, the story from Misty Hills 1999 to Misty Hills 2020 is recorded in stone on the website of no less an authority than jancisrobinson.com. Tzora Vineyards has been an important player in the last thirty years and we will be watching closely the future developments. This is not a winery that speaks loudly or draws attention to itself. It does not make marketing noise with unnecessary gimmicks. Everything and everyone operates on minimalistic level, except for the style and quality that shines through. Tzora Vineyards really proves the maxim that less is definitely more. This is an example of the kind of winery that Israelis should be supporting with real pride.
Adam Montefiore is a wine trade veteran and a winery insider turned wine writer, who has advanced Israeli wines for 35 years. He is referred to as the English voice of Israeli wine and is the Wine Writer of the Jerusalem Post www.adammontefiore.com