The story of Israel’s wine industry is in many ways a reflection of the modern-day rebirth of our nation in its homeland. From early efforts that yielded a very limited range of “sacramental” wines, meant chiefly for local consumption, over the decades Israel has developed into a leader in the field, producing kosher wines that can easily hold their own on the global stage.
Winemaking can be traced back to the early years of Jewish settlement in Eretz Yisrael. Jewish law contains dozens of references to wine production specifically in the Land, and archeologists have discovered ancient wine presses and storage vats throughout the length and the breadth of the country. In addition to householders who produced their own wine, winemaking as an industry peaked during the period of the Second Beis Hamikdash, with varieties produced for both local consumption and for export.
After the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash, there was no significant Jewish settlement in Eretz Yisrael until the 1700s, when the disciples of the Vilna Gaon and the Baal Shem Tov, returned to the Holy Land. However, commercial winemaking didn’t begin until 1848, when the Shor family, recently arrived from Ukraine, opened their Eshkol Winery in Jerusalem. Using grapes purchased in Hebron, they worked out of a cellar in the Muslim Quarter in the Old City to produce their sweet Konditon Wine, sold to members of the community and also exported to Diaspora Jewry in Eastern Europe.
The cellar from where the Shors ran their winery was adjacent to the Kotel, which actually reaches down several stories below street level. The Shors were careful to respect the sanctity of site, and made sure that their wine casks never leaned against the holy stones.
Planting the Seeds
The year 1884 was significant for the future of the Israeli wine industry. It was then that French Jewish philanthropist Baron Edmond de Rothschild undertook to invest in agriculture in the Holy Land. After ascertaining that the soil was suitable for grape growing, Rothschild sponsored vine plantings in many fledgling Jewish settlements, including Rishon Letzion, Zichron Yaakov and Petach Tikva.
Already in 1890, a winery was built in Rishon Letzion, and in 1892 Zichron Yaakov Wine Cellars opened. Three years later, the Carmel Wine Company was founded to market the wines from these two producers, establishing Carmel as the father of modern-day Israeli wine.
Despite those promising beginnings, wine production was halted in the early 1900s due to the political upheavals that rocked the globe, and was revived only in the late 1960s and 70s. Methodical, scientific research was conducted to determine which varieties of grape would best suit Israel’s different climates and soils, which vineyard planting and management techniques would produce the best grapes, and which winemaking techniques would yield the best results.
The first modern winery to emerge was the Golan Heights Winery in 1983. Later in the decade, and increasingly into the 1990s, the number of Israel’s boutique wineries grew exponentially. Today, Israel boasts hundreds of small- and medium-sized boutique wineries across the country, from the Golan in the north all the way down to the Negev.
Land of Milk and Honey – and Wine
The rolling hills of the Shomron have likewise proven to have the perfect climate and terrain for grape growing, and Tura Winery has earned the distinction of being the first to open in this region. Founders Vered and Erez Ben Saadon started with the little money they received as wedding gifts boosted by a passionate love for the land. “We literally started from nothing” Vered recalls. “Erez took courses and went to learn firsthand in a plant nursery while I was studying at the University of Ariel.”
After a few years of selling their produce to other wineries, in 2003 the Ben Saadons decided to start producing their own wines. Their first crop yielded 1,200 bottles of wine, and by the next year, they more than doubled that amount. Encouraged by the enthusiastic response to those early attempts, Vered and Erez entered their first wine into the Eshkol Hazahav competition – and won! Their top-quality wines have gone on to win many more awards, in both local and international competitions.
In the ensuing years, Tura Winery has produced an array of superb red and white wines that have won the highest accolades from connoisseurs the world over. They can be found in selected stores in North America, Europe and even the Far East.
As one of the agricultural pioneers in Israel’s Shomron region, Vered has often spoken out in favor of the Jewish settlement enterprise and against the BDS movement. Recently her own products were targeted after a Canadian court ruled in July that products from Yehuda and Shomron may not be labeled as “Made in Israel,” since Canada does not recognize Israeli sovereignty beyond the pre-’67 borders.
Both Vered and Erez refuse to change a single letter on their labels, even if that means losing business. “This isn’t the first time we’ve faced this type of pressure,” said Vered. “We were negotiating with a Norwegian businessman, but he said that his government demanded that the bottles be labeled ‘Made in Palestine.’ I told him there was no deal.”
The Ben Saadons are meanwhile busily preparing for the Yom Tov season. In addition, they’ve opened a delightful visitor’s center with a tasting room where guests can sample the outstanding wines while partaking of crusty farmer’s bread, Tura’s own olive oil, and a variety of fancy cheeses. This charming corner is one of the few in the world where you can experience the wine and cheese seated among the winery’s fine wooden barrels. On Sukkos, the Ben Saadons invite guests to their lovely sukkah among the vines, for either meat or dairy meals. Arrange your visit in advance at turawinery.com.
“Our enemies want to destroy us, but we continue to grow,” Vered asserts. “We consider our wines to be ambassadors for Israel. Every bottle of Tura wine is infused with our devotion for the land of Israel and its people!”