(January 30, 2023 / JNS) “It started as a hobby.”
That’s what most of the winemakers said, ranging from the Ben Ami Winery in the Jordan Valley, which sells 3,500 bottles per year and holds tastings in the owner’s Ma’aleh Ephraim yard, to Amichai Luria from Shiloh, who produces 300,000 bottles that are exported and enjoyed all over the world.
What started as a hobby turned into a passion, a natural one for many who live in the hills of Samaria or Binyamin, where the weather, soil and altitude are just right for growing grapes.
When Vered and Erez Ben-Saadon of the Tura Estate Winery planted their first vineyard in Har Bracha in 1998, they were not hobbyists. They were fresh out of high school and newly married. They acquired their first plot of land, 20 dunams (nearly 5 acres), with the gift money from their wedding. Their parents and relatives helped them to buy a tractor and vine seedlings and they enlisted their friends and relatives to help them plant.
“We saw planting vineyards as our way of settling the land,” Vered explains. “We knew the prophecy said the Jews will come back to their land and produce wine. We were kids. We worked very hard and had very little money. Every year we invested and planted more.”
Per Jewish religious law, the Ben-Saadons waited four years before they began to harvest. They sold their grapes to large wineries. In 2003, they began making wine and called their brand the Tura Estate Winery. It was a family endeavor with most of the work done by hand. They produced 1,200 bottles and were delighted to win a gold medal in Israel’s Eshkol Hazahav (Golden Cluster) competition that first year.
Today the Tura Estate Winery produces 14 varieties of wine and 180,000 bottles per year, employs 24 workers and has won many more awards and medals for its outstanding wines. It maintains a visitor’s center with cheese, bread and dips to enjoy with wine tastings, and hosts events for up to 150 people in summer and 55 in winter.
When asked what advice Vered would give to a newer vintner, she said, “Have patience. Wine is not Coca-Cola. You must wait to harvest it and wait again—at least three years in the vats, one year in the bottle. The owner may not see the first shekel until after seven to 10 years.”
A bold entrepreneur
Lior Nachum, owner of the Gat Shomron Winery in Karnei Shomron and a former electronics engineer in Silicon Wadi, became a home vintner as a hobby. Seven years later he decided to transform his hobby into a business. Nachum is a bold entrepreneur who experimented until he perfected the method of using wild yeast to create his dry red wine.
His Red Diamond wine is a late harvest red, very concentrated and sweet. Then there are three white, dry wines, a Chenin Blanc aged in new French Oak Barrels in small batches, a Rose and a Blanc Noir, a white wine made from strong red grapes.
Nachum uses the champagne method for the whites, gently pressing the entire cluster of grapes, leaves and all to create a unique flavor. Gat’s signature product is its 24K ice dessert wine, which is the only one exported to the United States. The Karnei Shomron winery boasts a reception space for catered events for up to 80 persons in winter and 200 in summer, overlooking the breathtaking hills and olive tree-studded valleys of Samaria. They also offer wine and cheese tastings for visitors. Gat has nine varieties and produces 35,000 bottles of wine per year.
If you prefer your fine wines paired with a day in the sunshine, you might want to visit the Tom Winery in the Pinin Farm at Itamar and picnic among flocks of sheep that help mow the vineyards. This winery offers tours and tastings of its four varieties. It is one of the smaller wineries, producing 6,000 bottles per year.
The Kabir Winery in Elon Moreh is another destination for families looking for a day full of wine and activities. Tastings can be combined with ATV and scooter tours of nearby farms, verdant hills, Mount Kabir, Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim, all on the periphery of Shechem/Nablus. The event space is large enough for 150 persons and there is a dairy restaurant on the premises featuring seasonal fare. Kabir produces 12 varieties and 15,000 bottles per year.
Ariel Ben Shitrit, once a construction worker, left building behind to become a winemaker. He and his brother Elyakim manage the Ben Porat Winery in Yitzhar. They started making wine as a hobby in 2003. Word of mouth drove production and they now plan to jump from 15,000 bottles per year to 30,000, pending a successful grape harvest. They maintain their own vineyards and use all their own grapes.
Many of the grapes used for Samarian wines come from Har Bracha. The Har Bracha Estate Winery with its Jozef brand is the community’s local champion. The family-run business first planted in 1998 and began selling its wines in 2007. It has 200 dunams (about 49.5 acres) of vineyards, a visitor’s center and a restaurant.
Ancient wines of Israel
The Gvaot Winery, located in Givat Harel in the Binyamin region, recently opened a new visitor center. The winery, operated by agronomist Moshe Weiner and Ariel University molecular biology professor Shivi Drori, who specializes in finding ancient wines and grapes of Israel, produces 16 varieties of wine, selling 90,000 bottles each year.
Drori researched and cultivated varieties of ancient feral grapes such as Hamdani and Bituni, and he blends them into some of the wines Gvaot produces.
Karnei Shomron resident Pinchas Gerber, a social worker and backyard wine hobbyist, said, “Vineyards are a testament to our sovereignty in our land.”
While he only produces about 350 bottles of wine each year, selling them mostly to family members, he understands the passion that makes the Samaria and Binyamin wines so special.
“The process is an incredible hobby,” he said. “From pruning to watching the shoots to testing the sugar and alcohol content—and when the grapes hit that mark, no matter what you are doing, you must harvest them. When you make kiddush [a blessing] on your wine on Friday night and Shabbat, it’s an incredible farm-to-kiddush experience.”
Psagot is the largest winery beyond the Green Line. CEO Yaakov Berg was a young lawyer, fresh out of law school, when he started out.
“The demand was just there,” he remembers. “In 2003, we produced 3,000 bottles.”
Located in the Binyamin region, Psagot today produces 15 varieties and 750,000 bottles per year, hosts field tours, and has a beautifully appointed banquet space large enough for 600 in summer and 450 in winter and a restaurant on the premises.
One of Psagot’s fans is vintner Amichai Luria, a winemaker from the nearby Shiloh Winery.
“Psagot has been doing a lot of good things,” Luria shares. “Their visitor center is beyond amazing. They bring jobs and they bring a good name for Israel, which is what we all aspire to do.”
The Shiloh Winery has experienced rapid expansion over several years. After starting out with 20,000 bottles in 2005, the company expects to produce 300,000 this year. It is building a brand-new visitor’s center at the entrance to Ancient Shiloh and a new winemaking facility, and expects to increase production.
Luria is committed to growing slowly and gradually so as not to compromise the quality and consistency of the wine. He recommends patience when making wine.
“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” he advises. “You can never have a ‘miss’ and there is a lot of pressure to create the very best product.”
He also advised that smaller companies get an importer who knows what he’s doing. And that they go out and “work the market” on their own.
“Go to places selling your wines. Social media and advertising are a bonus, but you must get to know your customers,” Luria says.
Green Line considerations
There was an uproar last Passover when U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris served Psagot wine on her Seder table. Many reporters dubbed it “settlement wine.” A few years earlier, the company named a limited edition wine for then-U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, after he renounced a State Department opinion calling Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria “inconsistent with international law.”
Luria acknowledges that some in Israel and globally boycott Shiloh because he is beyond the Green Line, but he won’t let it slow him down.
“There are people who won’t come near Shiloh wines because of where we are located but there are so many others who want our wine that we can’t meet the demand,” he says. “Working in the vineyards in Shiloh is a fulfillment of prophecies and dreams coming true. It’s an honor to be a part of this amazing time in history.”
Vered Ben-Saadon from Tura is a bit concerned by the divisiveness of the current political scene.
“Over the years our vineyards suffered three bombs, and burned and cut trees,” she recalls. “There are people who have never been to the Shomron because they are afraid. And we have had so many people come to us from Tel Aviv and they have no idea that they are even crossing the Green Line.”
But the Tura winery is not just about the wine, explains Ben-Saadon.
“The Shomron is the heartland of Israel,” she says. “When you drink Tura wines, you are drinking the prophecies of Jeremiah. We hope to grow better and better.”
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