Jezreel Valley Wines: Rebranding Israel’s Wine Industry
by Bill St. John
Jacob Ner-David is fond of telling a story about a friend of his who tosses out packages of various brands of candies to members of an audience whom he is addressing on what’s kosher about “kosher.”
“There is no kosher candy,” the speaker says. “There is Hershey’s chocolate that has been certified kosher.” And so on, with other brands of candy.
Ner-David, founder and CEO of Jezreel Valley Winery, in Israel’s north, says of his winery’s wines: “We say that we make excellent Israeli wines in a Mediterranean style that happen to be certified kosher.” Just like those candies or many other foods that both Jew and non-Jew might consume.
To call Jezreel’s wines “excellent” is no idle boast. Its wines grace the lists at a quartet of Michelin-starred restaurants in France—a first for any Israeli winery—and sport ratings (all in the mid- to high-90s) from newsletters by Robert Parker, Wine Enthusiast and James Suckling, to name but three, are rarely bestowed upon other Israeli wines.
The term “kosher,” when in reference to wine, is freighted with so much negative baggage, not just for Ner-David, but for all, again Jew or non-Jew, who both produce or purchase wine that is “certified kosher for Passover.”
Discouraging connotations balloon due to the perceived “restrictions” assumed to govern the production of wine seeking a kosher designation. It’s feared that the wine has the aroma of grape jelly, is teeth-singingly sweet or that it has been “cooked” or “boiled.”
In the case of the wines from Jezreel Valley Winery—and indeed the vast majority of table wine from Israel overall—none of that holds.
Given a larger frame, Ner-David has other restrictions with which to contend.
Israel, he says, “is 20 years or more into a winemaking renaissance, but we have yet to differentiate ourselves” as a winemaking country. “Thirty-five years ago,” he notes, “exports of wine from Israel and New Zealand were about the same volume. Now, New Zealand exports around $2 billion dollars of wine annually, while Israel’s exports are around $50 million (dollars).”
What’s holding Israel back?
The history of wine in Israel, as for all winemaking in the whole of the Middle East (in Lebanon, for example, or Turkey or Jordan or Tunisia) goes back more than 5,000 years, into Biblical times. However, Muslim conquests and the Ottoman Empire squelched wine production in Israel for vast swaths of time since Noah and his vineyards.
It was only in the late 19th century when Baron Edmond de Rothschild, then-owner of Bordeaux’s famous Château Lafite-Rothschild, jump-started Israeli grape growing and winemaking by funding vineyard plantings, winery construction and consultancies from long-standing winemaking countries.
Then, a new age of Israeli winemaking began again in earnest.
Adds Ner-David, “Rothschild planted many hectares of (the wine grape) carignan”—think a medium-bodied red French Côtes du Rhône—“and carignan remains the most-planted grape in Israel.”
“But,” suggests Ner-David, the Rothschild-run renaissance also “shoe-horned French Bordeaux and Burgundian grape varietals into our region,” a landscape that is quite different from both Bordeaux and Burgundy. Ner-David points out that “We in Israel do not have that French or California description of ‘warm days and cool nights.’ We really are a ‘cabernet sauvignon-free’ zone. We are a true Mediterranean climate and terroir.”
Ner-David does consider the ready availability of carignan a blessing, however, because it is one-half of a crossing (with souzão, a Portuguese red grape) that is “the ultimate (wine grape) variety for our terroir and our food, argaman.”
“Argaman is grown in Israel only,” he notes. The name means “crimson” or “deep purple” in Hebrew, and, like many color descriptors in biblical Hebrew, says Ner-David, “describes colors in the tapestries of the Tabernacle.”
Jezreel Valley Winery’s 2019 Argaman is deeply pigmented, to be sure, echoed in the intense teeth-staining robe of the wine, its chalky tannins and persistent notes of black fruits and spice.
“I think that we need to get back to our roots as a good winemaking region,” says Ner-David. “Syrah, carignan, argaman—we’ve come up with these grape varieties that are best for us.”
Ner-David is fond of telling another story about perhaps the most kosher of all wines, that miraculously made by Jesus of Nazareth at the wedding feast of Cana. “We can see Nazareth from our winery,” says Ner-David.
“From a winemaking standpoint,” says Ner-David, that story in the scriptures “teaches us 2,000 years later that they knew about the importance of wine.”
Here Jesus is,” says Ner-David, “with his mother, and she notices that the wedding party has run out of wine.
“Now, she’s a Jewish mother, so she tells her son: ‘Do something.’
Furthermore, Jesus knew from wine. “’What a surprise,’ the wedding hosts tell Jesus,” says Ner-David. “You brought out the better wine later.”
Nice touch, Son.
Wine and Rites or Wine and Religion
יד מַצְמִיחַ חָצִיר, לַבְּהֵמָ
ה, וְעֵשֶׂב, לַעֲבֹדַת הָאָדָם;
לְהוֹצִיא לֶחֶם, מִן-הָאָרֶץ.
טו וְיַיִן, יְשַׂמַּח לְבַב-אֱנוֹשׁ– לְהַצְהִיל פָּנִים מִשָּׁמֶן;
“God causes grass to grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth, and wine to gladden the heart of man.”
– Psalm 104
Who’s “he”? God? A human?
Many theologies would place God in the running, the He who does all. But the psalm seems also to suggest that God is not so selfish that he does not allow the human a small part in his creation, in this case in the making of food from plants and animals or of wine from grapes. We of course do not create things like a god does, out of nothing. We create things after we first are given something to re-create.
I find it inspiring that when they bring forth bread and wine, both Jews and Christians then sanctify these things as holy or offer them back to God in their focal religious rituals, even a reoccurrence both so sacred and so common as Shabbat.
At Passover, the Haggadah teaches that, in diverse ways, God promises freedom for every person and all peoples. It is with cups of wine that Jewish people recall these promises. During the Christian rites of Mass or the Eucharist, priests and ministers raise cups of wine to remember the presence in history, the sacrifice, death and the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Christians drink from these same cups as a sign of their faith in this, their foundational story.
Christian theologians call this sort of ritual a sacrament, that through which the divine breaks into the finite and, in turn, the human responds to the divine via the finite. When Jews and Christians take grapes and wheat and recreate them as their share in divinity, they touch the transcendent in the everyday, they make tangible what is intangible.
But why does God give us the fruit of the vine so that we may “make wine to gladden our hearts”? The answer is very simple.
Wine makes us giddy.
It is not only a symbol of joy or a sign of gladness—it is joy, it is gladness. But, I think, God makes us giddy with wine for a much more important reason.
Wine is a prelude, a presage, a foretaste of the end of days and what many religious folk call “the eschatological banquet,” where mere human giddiness will be supplanted with an eternal gladness and a never-ending joy.