Photo Credit: Kobi Richter / TPS

by Zachary Kerman

The 14th Annual Jerusalem Wine Festival begins at the Japanese Art Garden of the Israel Museum this Monday, featuring around 50 local wineries and several more from around the world.

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The festival marks 30 years of steady growth for the Israeli wine industry says Eli Poch, founder of the Jerusalem Wine Club and proprietor of the Kfar Hayayin Kosher Wine store at Kibbutz Kfar Etzion.

“The wine industry — not only in terms of numbers, but in terms of quality — has expanded so dramatically that we’re winning awards at virtually every competition we go to,” Poch told TPS ahead of the festival.

In a way, today’s industry is a resurgence of an ancient one. Wine was a prevalent part of society in the Land of Israel as early as the 8th and 7th centuries BCE, both because wine plays a key role in Jewish religious practice, and the mountain climate in Judea, Samaria and the Golan Heights is ripe for producing grapes. The abundance of wine also addressed another local concern: the lack of potable water.

But the industry died out after the destruction of the Second Temple and the exile of the Jews in the year 70 CE, not to be revived until Baron Edmond Rothschild, the owner of the Chateau Lafite Winery in Bordeaux, France and a committed Zionist, assisted in construction of Israel’s first winery, in Rishon Lezion, in 1889.

Nearly a century later, in 1986, the Golan Heights Winery in Katzrin hired California native Victor Schoenfeld to oversee wine operations. Schoenfeld won the winery’s first Gold Medal in international competition, for his 1986 Cabernet Sauvignon.

“For kosher and non-kosher wines, the Israeli industry benefits from four things: the size of our country, amount of rainfall, a culture of communication between winemakers, and our fast-growing wine regions of Harei Yehuda (Judean mountains) and Samaria,” said Poch.

“For instance, Israel is so small and the different regions have radically different topography, from the burning hot Negev to the cold, snowy Golan Heights. That creates different soil qualities in different regions, which in turn gives the grapes of each region a unique quality and flavor. And the country is so small that within four hours you can get grapes from all the different areas and mix them together. There’s no other country in the world that can make that claim.

“When you combine all four of those things, and they all happen within a 30-year period, you’re pretty much guaranteed success.”

In addition, Israeli winemakers have trained in virtually every other wine producing country in the world, but have managed to retain a unique aspect of local culture: collaboration.

“You’ll never have a French winemaker consult with an Italian winemaker on how to improve his product. [But here], they’re all talking about how to improve the other person’s wine and trading ideas back and forth. If one winery in Israel succeeds, we all succeed,” Poch added.

Currently, there are between 250 to 400 wineries in Israel, with five distinct wine-growing regions: Galilee, the Judean Hills, the Samson region, the Shomron (Samaria) region, and the Negev desert region. Israel growers produce about 40 different wine grapes imported from 18 different countries around the world.

The result of the collaborative spirit will be on display at the Festival, which runs from Monday-Thursday and where Poch will be giving tours. Festival officials say that 96 percent of wines on offer will be Israeli, representing both kosher and non-kosher producers. Around 3,500 patrons are estimated to attend every evening, which will also include live performances every night.

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