Israeli Life: Vintage Zionism
From the Galilee to the Negev, a boutique wine and cheese trail has emerged, appealing to an increasingly sophisticated Israeli palette.
The Sea Horse Winery on Moshav Giora in the Judean Hills boasts a dry red Zinfandel called Lennon. On the label there’s a line from a John Lennon song: “Life is just what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
Ze’ev Dunie, the stocky, bearded owner of the winery, says this describes the trajectory of his own life. Dunie studied film in California in the 70’s and worked in television in New York until he came to Israel in the late 80’s. A few years later, he made a documentary on winemaking in Israel and got caught up in the art. He began studying with Ronnie James of Kibbutz Tzora, a pioneer in boutique wineries (those that produce less than 100,000 bottles a year).
Dunie bought 1,500 Zinfandel shoots, not knowing where he would plant them. But by planting time he had invested in land and a house in Moshav Giora, tucked away amid the cool green forests below Hadassah Ein Kerem. His boutique wines, bearing names like Camus and Fellini, were originally available only to private clients. Now they are marketed through Hacerem Distributors.
Dunie isn’t the only Israeli who has found a more meaningful life working the land. There are artists, restaurateurs, engineers and biologists who have left fast-track professions for the rural life. Some grow grapes for wines—creating an estimated 150 boutique wineries, 22 in the Judean Hills alone; others tend goats to produce cheese. In this period of globalization, Israelis searching for the intimacy and independence of family businesses have created a wine and cheese trail from the Galilee to the Negev.
This back-to-the-land movement is not only a return to Zionist roots but a reflection of the sophisticated tastes of upper class, affluent Israelis who seek fine wines and cheeses.
“Israelis today live in better houses, have nicer cars; they’ve been to Tuscany and want to enjoy those pleasures here,” says Eli G. Ben Zaken, founder of the prestigious Domaine du Castel winery. Born in Egypt, Ben Zaken lived and studied all over Europe. “Finally, I decided that I needed roots,” he says, “and in 1971 my wife and I bought a red-roofed house in Ramat Raziel in the Judean Hills and raised chickens.” In 1980, aware of a new restaurant trend, Ben Zaken and his wife established the Mama Mia Italian restaurant in Jerusalem. Five years later he started a vineyard in his backyard.
“In biblical times wine was made on these hills,” he points out. A perfectionist, Ben Zaken crops the vines to produce low-yield and high-quality grapes; his grapes are also handpicked. He works with his son, Ariel, and son-in-law, Arnon Geva, using the best bottles and French-oak barrels. Cited in Daniel Rogov’s Guide to Israeli Wines as consistently producing some of the best wines in the country, in 2002 Domaine du Castel produced a kosher version of its Grand Vin. Its 2003 vintages will all be kosher. “There’s a big market in the U.S. for fine kosher wines,” adds Ben Zaken.
The comfortable atmosphere of the Domaine du Castel winery contrasts strongly with the stark Negev hills where Gadi and Lea Nachimov established their Naot goat farm over a year ago. Not far from Highway 40, on the road to Kibbutz Sde Boker and the Ben-Gurion Memorial, are some caravans, scattered goat pens, a state-of-the-art dairy and a small house. Originally from South America, Gadi is also a pioneer in the restaurant business, helping establish the El Gaucho chain of steak houses in Israel.
“But the dream of our life was to raise goats and make goat cheeses,” says Lea, who serves yogurt and cheeses in her small restaurant. The Nachimovs found their opportunity when the Ramat Hanegev Council, hoping to make the Negev a more attractive tourist venue, opened 30 lots for farms and wineries.
“There were 400 applicants for the 30 lots,” she says. “It’s amazing how many Israelis are looking for such challenges. My husband came down and lived in a tent with our older son to set it up, and then I came down with the other children. We didn’t have electricity for eight months. Today we have 170 goats.”
Nachimov sees her dairy experience as a continuation of Israel’s pioneering spirit. “I guess it’s in my background,” she says. “My sister lives in one of the settlements.”
Israeli agriculture has been on the decline in the last few decades, but these ventures have created new markets. Even kibbutz dwellers have become involved. “[Kibbutz] Sde Boker once grew peaches and plums and pistachios, but the prices dropped and it became economically unfeasible,” says American-born Zvi Remak, a kibbutz member.
Remak works in Davik, the kibbutz masking-tape company, but has become addicted to viniculture. “It’s a creative outlet for me,” he says. Remak spends hours tending his vines; when the grapes are fermenting, he comes every six hours to stir the vats. Producing Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot under the Sde Boker Winery label, he hopes that the hot dry days and the cold desert nights will create a lucrative product.
The Galilee also has well-known dairies. Among them are Barkanit in Kfar Yehezkel near Gilboa; Calil Ba’galil near Nazareth; and Tzon-El, a kosher dairy run by Tal Ellis in the village of Tzippori.
The best known of the group, the rabbinically supervised Ein Camonim family dairy and restaurant near Carmiel, is cited by Rogov as producing some of the best goat cheeses in Israel. It was created in 1979 by the flamboyant agronomist Amiram Ovrutzki, who named the dairy after Efraim Kishon’s first story, “Ein Camonu” (There Are None Like Us).
“When I first brought the cheeses to stores in Tel Aviv and Ramat Gan, they wrinkled their noses at the smell,” Ovrutzki says. “Today, they are sold as gourmet products all over the country.” Ein Camonim specialties are Spanish in Wine, a hard cheese flavored by wine, and Tel Hagalil, which is wrapped in bay leaves.
A community has developed among the new cheese makers and vintners. Nachimov learned cheese making from Dalya and Haim Himmelfarb, who own a goat farm, dairy and restaurant called Har Haruach in Yaar Ha’hamisha in the Judean Hills above Abu Gosh. Dalya, a vivacious woman with long curly hair, studied at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, where she met her husband, who was studying pottery. “Fifteen years ago, we came to the JNF with the idea of starting a goat farm, using part of the forest for pastureland,” she relates. “The JNF…felt that pastureland prevents the spread of fires, but it took an actual fire to overcome government bureaucracies and receive a permit.”
The Himmelfarbs were taught and encouraged by Shai Zeltser, a recluse biochemist who settled in the Judean Hills 30 years ago and established a goat farm. He is internationally recognized for his cheese-making know-how.
Har Haruach has become one of the “in” places for weekend getaways. The Himmelfarbs specialize in white cheeses with herbs, a Tomme type and Camembert. They serve cheeses and vegetarian meals on Fridays and Saturdays and have wine and cheese evenings on Thursday nights in the summer. Dalya also leads drawing classes in the pastureland among the goats. Although they do not have rabbinical supervision (they are open on Shabbat), they are strictly vegetarian, as are the other Negev dairies.
Dalya feels the back-to-nature movement has evolved naturally. “We’ve come to the stage of developing a local secular culture connected to the land,” she declares. “It incorporates Jewish religious holidays, but it’s a search for another, perhaps more pagan kind of spirituality.” She objects to the idea that this echoes early Zionist thinking, since the new enterprises are not ideologically motivated as were the early settlements.
Not so the Ivry Dairy at Moshav Azaryahu in Emek Ayalon. David Ivry, C.E.O. of this family business, describes his dairy’s evolution: “My parents and grandparents came from Iraq in the 50’s, settled on the moshav and established a dairy farm, but agriculture deteriorated and my parents sought supplementary means of support.
“Someone suggested they make cheese. The only cheese they knew was the Iraqi, which was white and salty with big holes. My parents decided to sell it in Iraqi neighborhoods in the city, and people were enthusiastic. Then my father began producing cheese to fit the Georgian taste…. All this was originally done in the basement, but as the dairy developed they moved into a building and bought machinery.
“My grandfather used to put white cheese in hot water with scallions and herbs,” recalls Ivry, who offers guests this delicious combination.
Ivry learned about cheese making in many other countries, and today the dairy also boasts Italian-type mozzarella and Greek haloumi. He is proud of the large vats and specialized machinery needed for the different temperatures and bacteria.
Ivry would like to eventually expand the business further, but in the meantime he is proud that decisions are made together with his family and that the dairy workers are moshavniks. On Fridays, friends from the moshav gather in the restaurant to taste the ethnic cheeses their parents ate in the diaspora.
“The situation reminds me of California in the 70’s,” says Josh Hexter, an amateur vintner, “when everyone was starting wineries but not all of them thrived. We’ll have to see what happens here.”