As Vineyards Sprout In The Hills...A Restaurateur Has A New Passion

These rocky hills west of Jerusalem are rich in Biblical lore. Samson lived here, and one of the most famous battles of all time, featuring two guys named David and Goliath, was fought on the hilltop of Azeka.

The Harei Yehuda, or Judean Mountains, were also a major source of wine in Biblical times. Situated 400 to 700 meters above sea level, the hills are ideally suited for the growing of grapes. "The topographic and climatic conditions are similar to some of the best wine-growing regions in the world, like Tuscany and Provence," claims Rony James, vintner and manager of Tzora Wines, in kibbutz Tzora. And now, over a thousand years after winemaking declined under the Moslims, wineries are coming back. A half-dozen have sprouted in the past six years, and the regional government last year hatched a plan to create a Napa Valley-style "wine trail" to encourage production as well as tourism. The plan calls for setting up more wineries, restaurants, and inns.

The main reason it has taken vintners so long to rediscover Harei Yehuda is that Israelis, unlike the Italians and French, don't drink much wine. Average per capita quaffing is a mere 5.5 liters, less than tenth the level in Italy.

Wine production was reintroduced to Palestine in the 1880s by Baron Edmond de Rothschild. The early settlers mostly made sweet wines used for the kiddush, the traditional blessing over the wine. In fact, until the mid-'80s over half of the wine sold in Israel was sweet. But with standards of living rising fast, Israelis have begun to develop a taste for quality dry wines. The Golan Heights Winery was set up in the late '80s on land occupied by Israel in the 1967 war. Its success led James and others in Harei Yehuda to look at reviving the industry here.

After decades of growing grapes and selling them to the country's largest winery, Carmel Mizrahi, kibbutz Tzora decided in 1992 to produce its own wines. A run-down grain silo next to the kibbutz dairy was converted into a winery. For the kibbutz' several hundred inhabitants, the calculation was simple. "Our return on a ton of quality cabernet sauvignon grapes is $1,000, while the wine produced from the same grapes gives us a tenfold increase in revenue," says James.

SPLENDOR. In 1994 the first bottles of Tzora Sauvignon Blanc were sold, and a year later the winery began selling its Cabernet Sauvignon. Tzora Wines now produces 45,000 bottles annually, fetching a range of $8 to $12 a bottle. About 60% of the sales are at the kibbutz store. There is already talk of increasing production to 150,000 bottles and starting to export.

Tzora's success has led to wineries opening up at the nearby settlements of Tal Shahar, Givat Yeshayahu, and kibbutz Nahshon. And just to the east of Tzora, a Jerusalem-based group of investors is planting 40 hectares of grapes. They're planning to build a winery for high-quality varietals with a capacity of 1 million bottles a year. Once the winery is up and running in 2001, the region should be well on the way to regaining its Biblical splendor--at least when it comes to the fruit of the vine.

Ramat Raziel is located on a winding country road 20 kilometers west of Jerusalem. On a clear day, the hilltop vantage point offers breath-taking views of Jerusalem to the east and the Mediterranean Sea to the west. At the end of the village is Domain du Castel winery. The pink building would be right at home in Tuscany.

As Vineyards Sprout in the Hills...A Restaurateur Has a New Passion (int'l edition)

The owner, Eli Ben-Zaken, operates a successful Italian restaurant in downtown Jerusalem. The Egyptian-born Ben-Zaken was transplanted to Italy as a child and moved to Israel in 1970. Nowadays, he leaves the running of the restaurant to his wife so he can oversee the winery. The first sales of his Castel Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot wines came in 1995. "Our target is to produce 100,000 bottles in 2003," says the bearded vintner. That would be five times 1998 sales.

The Castel label fetches a tasty $33 a bottle retail. It's sold primarily to high-class restaurants in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem as well as to exclusive wine shops. Ironically, Ben-Zaken doesn't sell it in his own restaurant, since the wine doesn't have the kosher seal of Israel's chief rabbinate. But that doesn't bother him much: He already has a long list of customers who can't get enough of the stuff, and are waiting to snap up every bottle he can make.